With land to spare, churches turn to farming

As Baltimore was convulsed by protests in 2015 over the death of a young black man in police custody, thousands of demonstrators forced shops and schools in some neighborhoods to close–creating sudden food deserts, particularly for many people without a vehicle.

“People didn’t have access to food,” said Darriel Harris, a Baptist preacher, noting that many in the impoverished community where the protests hit hardest ate hand to mouth, relying on convenience stores or school lunches. In response, Mr. Harris and two others quickly began to organize, drawing on contacts who had access to farms in nearby states and bringing supplies into affected neighborhoods to distribute via a local church.

Now across the United States, more than 200 faith groups are members of an emerging Christian Food Movement, which promotes more sustainable food systems by growing their own crops, bringing idle land into use, and feeding the poor and hungry. Harris says about nine churches in Baltimore are growing their own food–some selling it at reduced rates, and others giving it away to their congregations.

Many Christian denominations around the world have massive landholdings which can be put to productive use. Kenya’s Catholic Church, for example, made 3,000 acres (1,214 hectares) of land available to commercial farming in 2015 to fight hunger.

“These are people who are interested in activating their land portfolio for good…. For many of these groups, the answer is food charity, and that’s been a longstanding tradition within the church,” Ms. Von Tscharner Fleming said.

[Reuters]

Florence was another 1000-year-event, the new normal?

Over a massive region of southeast North Carolina and northeast South Carolina, Florence produced an extraordinary rainstorm that statistically has a 1-in-100 chance of occurring each year. Over substantial areas, the deluge had a 0.1 percent chance of happening, what is known as a 1,000-year event.

But these exceptional rainfall events keep happening and appear to be part of a trend toward more extreme tropical rainmakers, probably connected to climate change.

Since August 2017, two other hurricanes besides Florence have set rainfall records for tropical weather systems in four US states:
– First came Harvey, which dumped an unheard-of five feet of rain in Texas last August. No storm in recorded history had produced so much water in the United States.
-Then came Lane in August, which bombarded the Big Island with more than 50 inches, becoming Hawaii’s rainiest tropical storm.
Florence’s rainfall in North Carolina was the most for any tropical weather system north of Florida along the East Coast on record, and fourth most for any state.

Records like these may only be the beginning as Earth continues to warm. Recently published research has shown hurricanes are slowing down, taking in more water and growing bigger.

[Washington Post]

A year after deadly Maria, Puerto Rico still struggles with aftermath

Even before the Category-4 storm hit, Puerto Rico was financially bankrupt with $120 billion in debt and pension liabilities it cannot pay. A year after Maria, the island is far from prepared for the next big storm, with an ever-fragile power grid, damaged infrastructure and the same crippling debt.

The storm knocked out power and communications to virtually all of Puerto Rico’s 3.2 million residents, while destroying the homes of thousands. Last month, the U.S. Commonwealth’s government sharply raised the official estimate of Maria’s death toll to almost 3,000 after an independent study. The exact death toll figure remains unknown, and the governor has admitted his administration failed to properly record storm-related deaths.

More than 200,000 people left the island after the storm, mostly to the U.S. mainland, according to government data.

There are still some 45,000 homes with so-called “blue roofs,” or tarps installed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The San Juan mayor has noted that the island has seen only a fraction of almost $50 billion in recovery funds Congress approved for Puerto Rico, including $20 billion in HUD funds.

“Most of the people that have requested help from FEMA … have not received enough assistance to be able to take care of their problems,” Mayor Cruz said, adding that “a lot of people that don’t have a title deed and they really are not eligible to receive any type of support or help.”

[Reuters]

How Bangladesh digitized education aid for 10 million families

March 1, 2017, was a milestone in the story of financial inclusion in Bangladesh. On that day, 10 million low-income mothers received their first digital payment from Mayer Hashi (Mother Smile), a long-standing government-run program that offers financial aid to the parents of primary school students.

There are many good reasons for countries to digitize government-to-person (G2P) payments. Digital transactions are more transparent and traceable than cash-based ones, and also faster. But there are just as many challenges. In some countries, too few recipients may be enrolled in a mobile money service to support a switch to digital delivery. In others, a lack of mobile money agents may make it too difficult for recipients to convert digital payments into cash, rendering the payments useless. The government departments involved in a payments program may also be unwilling or lack the skills to support a transition away from cash.

In Bangladesh, several leaders in government and the private sector spearheaded Mayer Hashi’s digitization initiative, which likely gained cooperation from some who may have otherwise not supported the effort. This approach may be applicable in other countries.

Rolling out digital payments also required the support of mobile money agents and teachers. The program needed 400,000 primary school teachers to identify low-income mothers who qualified for financial assistance, help program applicants fill out know-your-customer forms and open linked bank accounts and assist with disbursement paperwork. These teachers mailed hard copies of recipient lists to SureCash, which digitized the data and sent them back to the teachers for verification. This process reduced the error rate to 5 percent. SureCash rewarded teachers with a small fee for each record correctly entered into the database of eligible recipients.

Agents were another crucial partner. SureCash raised commissions and offered agents a subsidy for an initial period to ensure agents’ support even during the ramp-up phase.

SureCash had to handle more than 10 million account application forms in just a few months. It imported 45 high-speed scanners capable of processing 60 pages per minute and set up a form processing center staffed by up to 240 people in peak periods. It also upgraded its character recognition software to a custom solution that not only recognized the text in scanned documents, but also color-coded its level of confidence in the scans to flag problematic areas, speeding up human validation.

[Consultative Group to Assist the Poor]

Gang violence and extortion in Central America

Born in the aftermath of civil war and boosted by mass deportations from the U.S., Central American gangs (maras) in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are responsible for brutal acts of violence, chronic abuse of women, and more recently, the forced displacement of children and families.

But it is extortion that forms the maras’ criminal lifeblood and their most widespread racket. By plaguing local businesses for protection payments, they reaffirm control over poor urban enclaves to fund misery wages for members. The maras have helped drive Central American murder rates to highs unmatched in the world: When the gangs called a truce in El Salvador, homicides halved overnight!

The maras are both victims of extreme social inequity and the perpetrators of brutal acts of violence. Many of the murders in El Salvador and Honduras can be ascribed to confrontations with the police, rivalries, score-settling or intimidation carried out by the two outstanding mara organizations: the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13); and the Barrio 18, or Eighteenth Street gang (B-18).

While difficult to know the exact number of mara members today, the U.S. military Southern Command’s estimate of 70,000 in Central America continues to be cited, even though it dates from a decade ago. More recent and specialized studies assert there are 70,000 members in El Salvador alone, while the UN Office on Drugs and Crime provides modest estimates of 22,000 in Guatemala, and 12,000 in Honduras. Though imprecise, these figures underline the magnitude of the challenge posed by the gangs.

Violence meted out by the gangs include killings of transport workers, the criminal control exerted over prison systems and the forced displacement of families from their homes. In Guatemala, an estimated 80 per cent of extortions are commanded from prison. El Salvador’s gang-run extortions have been described as a “system of terror that subjects community dwellers to see, hear and remain silent”.

Extortion is the economic engine and represents the largest share of gang income – with an estimated direct cost to businesses of $756 million a year in El Salvador alone. So extreme is extortion in Honduras that the Chamber of Commerce no longer publishes a registry of its members. It is one of the leading causes of forced displacement in gang-controlled communities through the threat it poses to powerless civilians, especially women and children.

[Excerpts from 2017 report by International Crisis Group]

Despite dangers and intimidation, Guatemalans still seek a better life in US

Despite the Trump administration’s immigration clampdown, newly released data show the number of Central American families and unaccompanied children crossing the Southwest border illegally has risen sharply.

Why? A day’s wage in Guatemala, tending a cornfield or working on a construction crew, is 40 quetzales — equivalent to $5.23. With this income, a family can afford to eat meat maybe once a week. They cannot send their children to school. And there is no savings to buy a motorcycle or small truck to haul their produce to market, much less build a dream house with cement blocks and indoor plumbing.

Alex Cano knows the American dream first-hand. He worked as a roofer in Jacksonville, Fla., making $120 a day, until he was arrested and deported.

A hundred yards away on the main street, Secundino Funes lives in a rough-hewn house with chickens scurrying in and out. He’s 30 years old, with a wife and five kids. He, too, makes 40 quetzales a day tending a corn plot.

Last year, he borrowed 85,000 quetzales, about $11,000 — an astronomical sum for a subsistence farmer — to make the trip north. He paid a smuggler to take him to Florida where his brother said he could get him a farm job. Funes saw it as his only way out of penury. But the Border Patrol caught him, and now he’s in a predicament. “I owe 85,000 quetzales. I have to pay it back. I can’t earn it here,” Funes says. “So I have to go back to the other side again to earn some money to pay my debt.”

Some Guatemalans, like Funes and Cano, flee to the United States to improve their economic status. Others leave in a hurry to escape gang violence and extortion rings which are epidemic in Central America. The challenge of successive U.S. administrations has been how to convince these Central Americans to stay home.

[NPR]

Reflecting back on the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season

The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season will forever be remembered by the people of the Caribbean. During that season, there were 13 named tropical storms, with two of these catastrophic Category 5 hurricanes – Irma and Maria. When Hurricanes Irma and Maria made landfall, they caused havoc and devastation in Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands (BVI), Sint Maarten, the Bahamas, Saint Barthelemy, and the Turks and Caicos Islands, and also impacted the southeastern islands of the Bahamas, St. Kitts and Nevis, and the northern border of Haiti.

Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 hurricane and the most powerful on record, with maximum winds of approximately 185 miles per hour, made a direct hit on the island of Barbuda on September 6. It caused widespread and catastrophic damage throughout its long lifetime, particularly in the northeastern Caribbean and the Florida Keys. It was also the most intense hurricane to strike the continental United States since Katrina in 2005.

Hurricane Maria, also a Category 5 hurricane, is regarded as being the worst natural disaster on record to affect Dominica and Puerto Rico, and the deadliest Atlantic hurricane since Hurricane Jeanne in 2004. At its peak, the hurricane caused catastrophic damage and numerous fatalities across the northeastern Caribbean, compounding recovery efforts in the areas of the Leeward Islands already struck by Hurricane Irma. (Maria was the third consecutive major hurricane to threaten the Leeward Islands in two weeks, after Irma had made landfall in several of the islands two weeks prior and Hurricane Jose passed dangerously close shortly afterward, bringing tropical storm force winds to Barbuda.) As of August 28, 2018, 3,057 people were estimated to have been killed by the hurricane: 2,975 in Puerto Rico, 65 in Dominica, five in the Dominican Republic, four in the contiguous United States, three in Haiti, two in Guadeloupe, and three in the United States Virgin Islands. Total losses from the hurricane are estimated at upwards of $91.61 billion (2017 USD), mostly in Puerto Rico, ranking it as the third-costliest tropical cyclone on record.

[UN Development; Wikipedia]

The world’s strongest storm this year, a Category 5 hurricane

Typhoon Mangkhut is offcially the world’s strongest storm this year, the equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane.

Typhoon Mangkhut made landfall in the Philippines on September 15, threatening more than 4 million people, killing at least 54, bringing gale-force winds and heavy rains, causing flooding and setting off landslides.

It has since carved a destructive and deadly path from the Philippines into mainland China. Fierce winds have already torn off roofs, smashed windows and downed trees in Hong Kong, as authorities warned of the threat of storm surges and flooding from torrential rain.

Global Climate Summit calls for bolder action to meet Paris Climate Goals

On the premise that the nations of the world are not doing enough to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, Governor Jerry Brown, New York City’s former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other dignitaries convened a high-profile international gathering in San Francisco September 12-14 to inspire more ambitious action and showcase successful efforts.

The Global Climate Action Summit brought together more than 4,000 leaders from states, regions, cities, corporations, and civil society from around the world. Organizers sought to strengthen efforts so that global greenhouse gas emissions begin trending down by 2020 with the overall goal of keeping global temperature increases to less than  than 1.5°C if possible and by no more than 2° C as defined by the Paris Agreement.

Speaking at a press conference, New York Mayor Bloomberg said people are taking action on climate change because the same steps that help reduce carbon emissions also make cities better places to live and to work. “[In New York City], we were able to cut carbon emissions by nearly 20 percent in just six years, and the steps we took to get there also made our air cleaner than it had been in a quarter of a century. At the same time, we were able to create a record number of jobs. Now other cities around the world are achieving similar results,” he said.

Largely through the actions of the U.S. cities from both Democratic and Republican states belonging to the C40 cities coalition, Bloomberg said, the United States has reduced emissions more than any other large nation in the past decade.

“In fact, last year,” he added, “U.S. emissions fell to their lowest level in 25 years without any help from Washington. The U.S is already half-way to the commitment we made [to meet our Paris Agreement commitment], and … we will get the rest of the way no matter what happens in Washington.”

[Renewable Energy World]

“A Europe that protects” to add six-fold increase of border guards

“A Europe that protects” was the tagline of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s State of the Union speech this week, in which he announced plans for an additional 10,000 border guards. This is a massive six-fold increase on the current brigade of 1,600 border guards.

But if it means tighter control and policing of Europe’s borders, then let’s not forget Europe’s other responsibility to ‘protect’, enshrined in the 1951 International Refugee Convention to which all European governments are signatories. This commits governments to provide asylum to people fleeing persecution in their own countries. It also commits governments not to forcibly return people to countries where their lives may be in danger, otherwise known as the ‘principle of non-refoulement’.

Here is a case in point. Many Sudanese arriving irregularly in Europe – usually on flimsy boats attempting to cross the Mediterranean – are Darfuris fleeing persecution in their own country. Those living in refugee camps and student activists are particularly targeted, forcing many young Darfuri men to leave. In search of safety and a secure future, most take a well-worn route to Libya. These days, however, ‘work in Libya’ often means bonded labor.

Political instability and/or conflict in countries neighboring Sudan – such as South Sudan and Egypt – means they have few alternatives when seeking sanctuary from their own country.

So what does Juncker’s ‘Europe that protects’ mean for this group?

[Overseas Development Institute]