Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Save the ancient cork forests- put a cork in it

I am just back from a reporting trip looking at the beautiful Montados, the cork forests in Portugal, which produce more than 50% of all the cork consumed worldwide. These forests, which spread over 2.7 million hectares along the Mediterranean Basin in Portugal, Spain, North Africa, France and Italy, are listed amongst the world’s major biodiversity hotspots and support an economy and culture that have grown up around cork farming over thousands of years.

The recent trend of replacing cork wine stoppers with plastic and screw caps, however, is threatening these forests and the animal and people who depend on them to survive.  Synthetic tops now account for close to 30 per cent of the some 17 billion stoppers used every year. If this trend continues, up to three quarters of the Mediterranean's cork forests could be lost within 10 years, estimates the World Wildlife Fund

It is harvest time in the Montado forest of Coruche in the Alentejo. Groups of men from nearby villages are skilfully stripping the thick bark off the cork oak trees with a special axe, performing the same precise, measured gestures as their fathers and grandfathers have done before them.  Women gather the bark strips into large piles, which men load onto tractors. They paint the year of the harvest on the light chocolate tree trunks, so they won’t be touched again for another nine years. The cork oak (Quercus Suber L.) lives up to 250 years and can on average be stripped 16 times during its lifetime, producing enough cork in each harvest to cover 4,000 wine bottles.

The cork forest I visited is a mosaic of cork and other oaks species, pine trees (producing pine nuts), wild olive trees, many different brackens and grassland.  Each one thousand square meter of forest contains about 135 species of plants, many with aromatic, culinary, or medicinal properties. 

The longevity of the cork forests and the diversity of the flora they harbor provide a myriad of niches for many different animals, says Nuno Oliveira, an independent conservation biologist, who guided our visit.  The forests’ open areas, shrubs and tree crowns offer escape, cover, nidification and foraging grounds to 24 species of reptiles and amphibians, 37 mammal species and 100 birds species, some of which are endangered, like the Imperial Eagle and Iberian Lynx.  The forests also host large colonies of insects of all kinds, which provide abundant food for birds nesting in the area and stopping here during migration.

These ancient forests absorb 10 million tones of CO2 every year and act as the last barrier against advancing desertification in North Africa.

Then there are the people: The Mediterranean cork forests not only support some 100,000 cork workers  (harvesting, general forestry and industrial processing), but also sustain a traditional way of life. There, farmers have practiced a low-intensity mix of agriculture and forestry for millennia - on even a small patch of cork land, they can raise a herd of goats, a few cows, goats and some pigs, which forage for acorns and graze beneath the trees. Villagers gather mushrooms, use rockrose bushes for firewood and tap local beehives for honey.

 The Montado is not about top species like lions or elephants, but it is its communities of plants and animals – so rich, so diverse and living in perfect harmony – that make it so unique,” says Rainforest Alliance local representative Rui Simoes. In fact, he adds, the cork forests are one of the best examples of balanced conservation and development anywhere in the world. 

To help protect their endangered cork forests, cork producers in Portugal, Spain and Morocco are working with Rainforest Alliance through its Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, which shows they comply with the highest social and environmental standards of the market.  Cork manufacturers in Portugal have also significantly improved the quality of their corks and launched publicity campaigns to urge consumers and retailers to value the cork in their wine bottles.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Iran - Save Sakineh

Two days ago, an Iranian woman, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, was saved by global protests from being stoned to death.

But she may still be hanged -- and, meanwhile, execution by stoning continues. Right now fifteen more people are on death row awaiting stoning in which victims are buried up to their necks in the ground and then large rocks are thrown at their heads.

The partial reprieve of Sakineh, triggered by the call from her children for international pressure to save her life, has shown that if enough people come together and voice their horror, we may be able to save her life, and perhaps even stop the practice of stoning.

Sakineh was convicted of adultery, like all the other 12 women and one of the men awaiting stoning. But her children and lawyer say she is innocent and that she did not get a fair trial -- they state her confession was forced from her and, speaking only Azerbaijani, she did not understand what was being asked of her in court.

Despite Iran's signing of a UN convention that requires the death penalty only be used for the "most serious crimes" and despite the Iranian Parliament passing a law banning stoning last year, stoning for adultery continues.

Sakineh's lawyer says the Iranian government "is afraid of Iranian public reaction and international attention" to the stoning cases. And after Turkey and Britain's Foreign Ministers spoke out against Sakineh's sentence, it was suspended.

Sakineh's brave children are leading the international campaign to save their mother and stop stoning.  Massive international condemnation now could finally stop this barbaric punishment. Avaaz, the global online advocacy community,  is calling people across the world to join in and sign their petition to save Sakineh and end stoning. Sign the petition here.

For more information, read: "Iranians still facing death by stoning despite 'reprieve' " in The Guardian and the AFP report

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

No independence for women of the Congo


This entry is again on the Congo as the nation has just celebrated 50 years of independence from Belgium (my own country!) and I am trying to imagine the future of a state where 1200 women, men and children are dying every day because of the conflict and humanitarian crisis, which rage in the eastern provinces.

The scale of violence in DRC is well documented. More than 5.4 million have died since the conflict began in 1998. The death toll is equivalent to an Asian Tsunami every six months or so and a September 11th every 2.5 days. And yet, the world is still largely ignoring it.

Women have been specifically targeted: in the first 9 months of 2009 alone, there were 7,500 reported cases of rape in eastern DRC. Girls as young as two and women as old as 80 have been victims of rape and sexual violence (Human Rights Watch). In the eastern province of South Kivu, one woman is being raped every two hours. (OCHA, 2010)

 But despite this backdrop of war, poverty and sexual violence, women in DRC are holding families together and rebuilding their communities, according to a new report by Women for Women International, an international charity working with women in areas of conflict around the world. “Their resilience and strength shines through,” says Christine Karumba, WfWI Programme Director for the DRC. “One woman can change anything. Many women can change everything.”

 “DRC 2010 Stronger Women, Stronger Nations”, based on interviews with 1800 women and 200 men in rural and urban areas in the eastern provinces,  shows that:

Out of every 100 women in DRC:

40 have lost their home
80 do not own a mattresses
40 never attended school
50 eat only one meal a day
80 earn US $1 or less per day
80 are from villages that have been attacked
80 think their current village will be attacked
50 have spouses who left because of war
50 are afraid to work outside of their home
80 are unhappy with their lives today
70 think about hurting themselves
75 have lost family members due to the war
80 have lost family due to illness. 
Yet, 93% are working and continue to support their families
And 63 believe there can be peace in the DRC

The WfWI report founds that:

1.      Health and emotional well-being are severely degraded by violence. The war is taking its toll on family structures.  The constant atmosphere of violence and insecurity and the breakdown of the family due to war is leading to a near mental health epidemic in the eastern province of Kivu.  

2.      Health and wealth go hand in hand. Almost all (93%) of women are working. Despite the number of women working, 95% are living in absolute poverty, and women in our sample are well below accepted average income levels.

3.      Women with higher income levels have better physical health and well-being. They save more money to support their families and eat more meals per day. They are respected by their families and communities, think less about hurting themselves, and know where to seek help and information.

4.      The war burdens women with increased responsibilitiesOnly 2.4% of women reported that their husbands remain at home. This separation inflicted by the war leaves women to shoulder enormous burdens as they take over tasks formerly carried out by men in addition to those for which they are traditionally responsible. Lack of security makes these tasks even harder.

5.      Men suffer along with women. Men have been affected by sexual violence at a higher level than previously understood, with similar emotional effects as women. Male abuse victims suffer from extremely high rates of unemployment.

6.      Group participation offers enormous recovery benefits.
Overall 80% of women surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that being part of a group helps them make friends, express themselves, increase their incomes, and be part of their community.

Women for Women International is calling on the international community, the UK government and the UN to work with the Congolese government to:

• Improve the security situation
• Address mental health  
• Invest in women
•Involve men in solutions for women
• Channel local momentum for peace

 Since 2004, WfWI has provided support to 31,195 women in the DRC. 11,811 women are currently in the DRC programme.  The year-long programme offers women rights awareness and life-skills training,  development of vocational and business skills and opportunities for micro-finance and help in identifying potential markets for self employment.

Watch WfWI video on women in the Congo and their work there (as seen on 60 minutes).