News 360° - Briefs

Published: Friday 30 April 2010

imageCustomary land rights
Palm oil firm loses to Kayans

A native community in Malaysia won a 12-year legal battle against the Sarawak state government and palm oil giant ioi Pelita after the state’s apex court recognized their customary land rights. The court ruled that the government had unconstitutionally granted the native land of Kayans to ioi. It declared the leases null and void. Since the company has trespassed the community’s territory, exploited its resources and destroyed paddy fields and the surrounding rainforest, the court ordered ioi to compensate for damages.

The ruling came weeks after the government said it would open large swaths of Sarawak rainforest—home to several indigenous communities—for mining, hydel dams, aluminium smelters and steel plants.

CITES says no to ivory trade

The UN’s wildlife trade organization has rejected Tanzania’s and Zambia’s request to sell ivory, amid concern about the recent rise in elephant poaching in Africa. The countries had asked the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (cites) to allow one-off sales of ivory from government stockpiles; Tanzania had hoped to sell 80.5 tonnes of ivory and Zambia 21 tonnes. At a meeting in Doha, Qatar, a majority of delegates voted against the proposal, saying the countries have failed to control elephant poaching. An expert report released on the eve of the cites conference noted that almost half the ivory in Dodoma’s stockpiles is of unknown origin. cites banned ivory trade in 1989, allowing only two one-off sales in the past. Conservationists believe these sales led to increasing demand for ivory products—illegal or not—causing an uptick in poaching.

Food safety
Denmark bans bisphenol A

Denmark has become the first European country to ban the use of bisphenol A (bpa) in food containers for young children, amid growing scientific evidence that the chemical could inhibit brain development and lead to serious health problems. Though there are uncertainties about the evidence, food minister Henrik Hoegh said, “The uncertainties must benefit consumers.” bpa, used to strengthen plastic, is an endocrine disruptor and linked to breast and prostate cancer. Children under three are at risk even from low doses of bpa. Canada and three US states have forbidden the use of bpa, while France is considering a ban.

Global warming
Oil firms fund scepticism

Oil giants ExxonMobil and Chevron are known for funding climate change scepticism. A report by Greenpeace claims a little-known US oil company, Koch Industries, is another financial kingpin of climate change deniers. The green group alleged that Koch spent US $50 million between 1997 and 2008 on climate change sceptics. In 2008, it outspent Chevron in funding groups that oppose clean energy and climate policy (see graph). Koch, notorious for its environmental record, spent US $5.7 million on political campaigns and US $37 million on lobbying to support fossil fuels, the report said. It lists 35 groups and 21 US legislators who have directly or indirectly received funds from Koch Industries to spread misinformation about climate science. They include Cato Institute, a think-tank that disputes science behind climate change, and grassroots group Americans for Prosperity which is campaigning to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases. Koch has rubbished the report.


Artificial insemination
Turkey bans foreign sperms

A Turkish woman travelling abroad to get pregnant via artificial insemination will face punishment of up to three years in prison under a new law introduced by the government. Artificial insemination is illegal in Turkey, but couples have until now been able to seek sperm donors overseas. The health ministry said the measure is based on a law that forbids concealing the paternity of a child. Officials said the move would help protect the racial purity of the country. Up to 5,000 Turkish couples travel abroad for artificial insemination every year. Doctors and activists said they would challenge the law.

EU encouraged overfishing

The EU handed out billions of euros in subsidies to its fishing industry in the past decade, encouraging overfishing, said non-profit Pew Environment Group. The bloc spends about US $72.4 million in annual subsidies to stabilize fish stocks and strengthen the industry’s competitiveness. Between 2000 and 2006, the European Commission gave US $6.5 billion of subsidies to member countries. Of this, 29 per cent went to measures—like building new vessels and modernizing the existing ones—that fuelled the decline in fish stocks; 17 per cent was dedicated to sustainable fishing. As a result, the overall fishing fleet reduced but the annual catch of the industry grew 2-3 per cent, the study noted. European Commission said many of the concerns in the report have been addressed in the current fisheries programme. About 90 per cent of the fish species in EU waters are overfished.

Oil spill
Court upholds Total liability

imageA French appeals court upheld a ruling that petroleum giant Total SA was criminally responsible for a 1999 oil spill that blackened 400 km of France’s Atlantic coastline and killed thousands of birds and marine animals. Upholding a 2008 lower court decision, the appeals court found the French firm guilty of shipping 30,000 tonnes of crude oil in a 25-year-old rusty tanker, Erika, that broke apart in rough seas and caused the country’s worst-ever maritime pollution. The court had ordered the company to pay a US $505,000 fine.

Land reforms
Activist shot dead

Brazil’s land reform activist, Pedro Alcantara de Souza, was shot dead on March 31 in the Amazon state of Para. De Souza last year led a movement by landless farmers that occupied large estates to press the authorities to expropriate the property and distribute it among the landless. The police say the killing of de Souza was an act of retaliation. Another activist, Dorothy Stang, was also killed in the same region in 2005. Brazil’s agrarian reform laws state unused farmland can be expropriated and distributed among landless farmers. But severe inequality persists—nearly half the arable land in Brazil belongs to just 1 per cent of the population.

imageIntellectual property rights
Genes can’t be patented: court

A US district court overturned patents on two genes linked to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer on the grounds that they are not manmade, but products of nature. The company, Myriad Genetics, in Utah holds patent on the brca1 and brca2 genes. This grants it exclusive right to do diagnostic tests on the genes. Several patients, doctors and advocacy groups took the case to the court arguing the patent stifled medical research and access to medical care. The ruling could have far-reaching effects beyond the patents on the brca genes. About 20 per cent of human genes are patented, including genes linked to Alzheimer’s disease, muscular dystrophy, colon cancer and asthma.

Large hadron collider
Back with a bang

After being out of commission for more than a year, the Large Hadron Collider, Europe’s particle-physics laboratory, set a record on March 30 by smashing two protons in a head-on collision and releasing seven trillion electron-volts of energy—three times the previous record. For the scientists, who aim to find the elusive Higgs-Boson particle to understand the origin of matter, the achievement marked the beginning of a new era in modern physics. lhc operators now aim to collide the protons at a much greater speed to simulate the Big Bang experiment.


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