Plan Colombia Seeks Panama Connection
PANAMA CITY — Officially, both the Panamanian and US governments deny any Panama connection with Plan Colombia, or any significant US military presence in the country. But an ad in the US government’s Commerce Business Daily April 4 edition, unearthed by Panama News Online (www.thepanamanews.com), indicates otherwise. The Pentagon is apparently looking for a civilian contractor to operate from Panama, flying military forces and supplies in and out of Colombia.
The ad was a procurement offer for air transportation services. Small cargo and passenger planes are needed, it said, to "operate multiple missions simultaneously, seven days per week, 24 hours per day. Contractor will have a minimum of 24 hours notice prior to a requested mission. Operations will be based in Panama with a majority of missions staged from Soto Cano, Honduras or Columbia. There will be approximately 1,800 hours of airlift flights per year."
Reading between the lines, this suggests the US Southern Command wants to conduct troop and supply missions into remote Colombian airstrips, using privately contracted aircraft based in Panama.
Officially, the era of US military bases in Panama is over. President Moscoso also claims the country has nothing to do with Plan Colombia — and won’t during her administration. But it’s unlikely that the US Air Force is contracting for planes without her knowing something about it.
The planes must be able to transport 3,000 pounds of food, parts, and equipment, and carry up to 19 passengers, plus 3,000 pounds of baggage. If you want to know more, the Air Force contracting officer is John Sheahan, (618) 229-1180; fax, (618) 256-2804; or e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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FTAA Stumbles in Quebec City
HIGHGATE SPRINGS — Lady Liberty joined demonstrators at the US-Canadian border in Vermont on April 21 during the international mobilization to stop the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). In Quebec City, more than 70,000 people took to the streets, some tearing down parts of the security fence erected to keep them away from heads of state. The tear gas was so thick that the air conditioning at the summit was shut down. Thousands more protested in dozens of cities across the Americas, closing borders in some places for several hours.
Despite press reports that a deal was "signed," the meeting actually resulted in little progress, instead underlining divisions. In short, plans to reach agreement on hemispheric trade and investment rules have been stalled.
Although US media blocked most news about the protests — and rarely examined the FTAA itself — the verdict of several media outlets in Canada was that the protesters scored a victory. One columnist decried the police state tactics on display as "an assault on all our freedoms." Even those attending a People’s Summit held prior to the street action were targets. In some cases, delegates were interrogated, handcuffed, held for hours, or even deported.
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East Timor May Hit the Jackpot
MELBOURNE — Oil and gas deposits beneath the sea could transform East Timor into a self-sufficient country. But whether the former Indonesian-occupied province will benefit seems to depend on negotiations between Australia and the UN Transitional Administration.
In 1989, Australia signed a contentious treaty with Indonesia giving the two countries an equal share of revenue from oil and gas production in a section of seabed called the Timor Gap — even though it lies closer to East Timor’s shores. East Timor now claims 90 percent of the resources there, citing international maritime law that draws ocean boundaries midway between opposing coasts.
Estimates suggest that one of the biggest oil fields, Bayu-Undan, will produce $38 million a year by 2004. East Timor’s current annual budget is $23 million. Over the next two decades, total revenue from the fields could reach $4.6 billion. Although recent talks ended without agreement, Australia’s resources minister has provided assurances that his government is committed to giving East Timor a fairer share.
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Powell Brokering Azeri Oil Deal
WASHINGTON — The US is very keen on resolving the decade-long conflict over a mountainous Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan. So keen, in fact, that US Secretary of State Colin Powell personally opened up talks in April between leaders of both countries.
They met in Key West. In the past, negotiations have been held in Moscow, European cities, or villages along their border. After the sit-down, the two presidents dashed to Washington for separate sessions with George W. Bush.
Why the US interest? Mainly, it’s Azerbaijan’s oil and gas, plus more than one million prosperous, influential ethnic Armenians in the US — which makes them second in strength only to the pro-Israeli lobby. Armenia has the military edge, but a resumption of war would damage the confidence of US oil companies investing in export pipelines in the region.
Leaving little to chance, Washington is promising large financial packages to the two adversaries if the combatants bury the hatchet. Armenia is in especially tough shape. With three of its four rail links unused due to closed frontiers with Azerbaijan and Turkey, the economy has been in a nose-dive for too long.
After the April meetings, both leaders voiced a commitment to "mutual compromise." They’ll follow up in Geneva this June.
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Much to Mourn on Water Day
JOHANNESBURG — The UN thought "Water and Health" would be a fine theme for World Water Day, proclaimed for March 21. But the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) says it should have been a day to mourn for the millions who are sick and dying because they don’t have access to that essential resource.
More than five million people, most of them children, die every year from illnesses caused by drinking poor quality water. A new study traces much of the blame to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), whose privatization and "full cost recovery" policies are imposed as conditions for loans. Last year, 12 countries received IMF loans on the condition that they privatize water services. Eight were in sub-Saharan Africa.
In South Africa and across the continent, water is becoming a commodity only the rich can afford. As a result, many people resort to unsafe sources, and cholera infections are approaching 70,000.
In Ghana, forcing the poor to pay "market rate tariffs" for water means most Ghanains can no longer afford it. Only 36 percent of rural folks have access to safe water, and a mere 11 percent has adequate sanitation. In poor areas of Accra, the capital, families pay almost half the daily wage for 10 buckets of water.
In Angola, an agreement allows regular prices hikes. In Benin, Tanzania, Guinea-Bissau, Niger, and Rwanda, privatization must be completed by year’s end if those countries are to qualify for loans. In Sao Tome and Principe, government subsidy of water has been cut off in the run up to privatization.
Resistance to water commercialization is also growing in New Zealand. Activists in Auckland brought their objections to the City Council on World Water Day. Outraged that families have been disconnected from high-priced water, they want to restore water as a public service. For more, go to www.cosatu.org.za/samwu/20mar2001.htm.
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Monsanto Pays Off for PCB Exposure
MONTGOMERY — A settlement has been reached in a toxic exposure lawsuit between Monsanto’s chemical spin-off Solutia, and 1500 plaintiffs in Alabama. In late April, federal court Judge Inge Johnson approved a $42.8 million payoff that concludes six years of litigation.
The plaintiffs were members of the Sweet Valley/Cobb Town Environmental Task Force who lived on or near the fence line of a chemical company called Monsanto at the time. The area affected is largely Black and low-income White. Residents formed the group because they felt that the contamination was a massive environmental injustice.
"No amount of money can repair the damage caused by exposure of generations to toxic chemicals," noted task force leader Cassandra Roberts, "but we are happy to get some compensation." The group claimed that residents suffered emotional distress, fear, and mental anxiety, and will have to undergo periodic medical tests. They were exposed to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a mixture of chemicals used as insulating fluids for electrical systems.
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The Neutron Key to Mine Removal
VIENNA — The International Atomic Energy Agency is about to conduct the first field trials of a device that employs neutrons to sniff out mines. If the tests, likely to be held in the Balkans, prove successful, this could help to safely clear an estimated 100 million land mines buried in 70 countries, many going back to World War II.
Land mines kill or maim 24,000 people a year — 80 percent of them civilians — mostly children, women, and peasants. Although 111 governments ratified a UN treaty banning mines, about 2000 are still placed for every one cleared.
The process of de-mining is dangerous and slow. But emerging technologies could provide safer, speedier solutions. The most advanced approach is based on neutrons, particles that form part of the nucleus of all atoms except hydrogen.
When an isolated neutron is absorbed by an atom’s nucleus it creates a reaction, which produces radiation streams called gamma rays. They give out a telltale signature that sensitive instruments can detect. Since each element has a distinct signature, observers can pinpoint whether, for example, there is nitrogen-14 — something found in most land mines — in the substance being probed.
The most advanced technique, Pulsed Fast-Thermal Neutron Analysis, produces neutrons, releases them in microsecond bursts, and analyses the gamma rays that emanate. The technology has been used for decades, but is new to land mine detection.
The instrument being tested is called the PELAN (Pulsed Elemental Analysis with Neutrons), developed by physics professor George Vourvopoulos. A firm called Numat manufactures PELAN devices that also detect the content of moisture, sulfur, and ash, among other things. Vourvopoulos’s group has also developed versions for the US military, primarily for detecting explosives and chemical weapons verification.
"We know the technique can detect small amounts of explosives," says Vourvopoulos. "We have enough data to say it will work for all mines. But we need more data and tests to know how specifically to adapt it for buried anti-personnel mines."
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Peruvian Growers Loathe Manhattan
LIMA — Violence has enveloped a once quiet Peruvian agricultural region since Manhattan Minerals Corp. launched plans to construct an open-pit mine. The site is Tambogrande, a town sitting on deposits worth an estimated $1.3 billion.
The Vancouver-based Manhattan, which owns the area’s mining concessions, wants to relocate residents. But the company faces tough resistance from those reluctant to leave. The hostilities intensified in March, when a charismatic opponent of the project was shot dead while driving to his mango plantation.
In late 1999, an unknown group set fire to company machines. Manhattan officials blamed the Tambogrande Defense Front, a coalition of mango growers and citizens. This February, a two-day strike organized by the Defense Front and attended by about 5000 locals turned nasty. About 150 protesters stormed Manhattan’s compound, sacking offices, trucks, and machinery, and wounding more than 30 police officers.
Geography is at the root of the conflict. Tambogrande holds court over Peru’s mango- and lime-producing capital. Production is valued at $110 million a year, and more than 75 percent of the region’s 70,000 people earn their living from agriculture. The proposed mine will provide no more than 500 jobs.
The company could also face a legal challenge. Peruvian law forbids mining within 50 kilometers of the border with Ecuador. The project apparently violates that rule. Tambogrande’s main deposit holds an estimated one million ounces of gold and 64 million tons of rock rich in copper, zinc, and silver. Although the full cost of extraction isn’t known, this deposit alone is worth more than $1.3 billion. The company is exploring at least two more concessions in the area.