Vanuatu: Pacific island nations slam ‘free trade’

Meeting on July 29 in Porto Vila, Vanuatu, in the South Pacific, European Union negotiators told representatives of 14 Pacific island nations, home to 8 million people, that unless they accept “free trade” agreements by the end of the year, almost half of the $104 million targeted by the EU for developmental aid will be “reprogrammed.”

Four days later, James Bule, spokesperson for the island nations, protested against linking free trade agreements and developmental aid, stating, “If the outcome is not in our favor, then we will stop negotiations.”

The EU approach, say anti-poverty activists, is a way of forcing small nations to obtain goods and services from former colonial powers. The problem is most acute for Caribbean and African nations, where European aid often amounts to half of their national budgets.

British economist Mareike Meyn told the Financial Times that the Pacific island nations, with more trading partner alternatives, are better positioned to resist European pressure.

Israel: U.S. arms corps. are big winners

In late July, the Bush administration announced that military assistance to Israel would be upped to $30 billion over the next 10 years, all for U.S. weapons purchases. While upholding Israel’s regional military advantage, Washington also earmarked $20 billion in U.S. weapons for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states and $13 billion in military hardware for Egypt.

The highest quality and most lethal weapons are prioritized for Israel. Israel, too, will get the best defensive weapons for countering U.S. weapons bought by Arab nations. Ostensibly the arms sales, intended to “bolster the forces of moderation,” according to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, are aimed at countering Iran.

Autocratic regimes will be strengthened and peace processes subverted, say critics, who see U.S. weapons used possibly by both sides in future wars. Academician Natalie J. Goldring told Inter Press Service that “the only ‘winners’ from this deal are U.S. weapons contractors. For the U.S. defense industry, this is Christmas in July.”

South Africa: Falling HIV rates, or flawed data?

HIV prevalence in pregnant women has declined from 30.2 percent in 2005 to 29.1 percent today, the result of a “continued focus on prevention,” according to Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, South Africa’s health minister.

Kenya’s National AIDS Control Council has also reported a drop in the country’s HIV infection rate.

Accurate data, however, are hard to come by, according to an Aug. 5 report in Nairobi’s Nation newspaper.

While prevalence figures derived from testing at prenatal clinics turned out to have been exaggerated, the current reliance upon household surveys by the UN’s AIDS agency may underestimate the problem, specialists say.

South African epidemiologist John Hargrove says the actual situation is “sufficiently murky that no one really knows what’s going on,” and believes “vested interests” are helping to keep the picture cloudy.

Indonesia: Corporate bio-fuel firms grab land

Singapore-based Wilmar Company, possibly the world’s largest palm oil producer, came under strong criticism in a report issued in July by Friends of the Earth-Netherlands and Sawit Watch, an Oxfam-supported Indonesian nongovernmental organization.

In its quest for more land, Wilmar, they charge, has illegally destroyed rainforests in the West Kalimantan region of Borneo, spurned environmental impact studies and grabbed land outside its allotment.

More than 400 rural communities in Indonesia, defending their “customary land rights,” have protested this and similar land grabs by corporate palm oil companies. With the aid of district governors, over 8 million acres have in West Kalimantan alone have been seized already.

World prices for palm oil have risen sharply as demand accelerates in China, India and Europe, where the European Union has mandated an eventual 10 percent inclusion of bio-fuels in transport fuels. The BBC report indicates that for many small farmers, the sudden appearance of Wilmar’s bulldozers means their lives are about to be turned upside down.

Bolivia: Socialist government propels agrarian reform

Bolivian President Evo Morales went to Ucureña in Cochabamba province Aug. 2 to introduce an agrarian reform program designated as “Communitarian Implementation of the Agrarian Reform Law.” It will transfer land to peasants, create financing mechanisms and block the accumulation of idle land for speculative purposes.

Morales also announced the distribution of 1.6 million acres of land to 5,166 farming groups, and said that henceforth Aug. 2, formerly The “Day of the Indian,” would be known as the “Day of the Agrarian Revolution.”

On Aug. 2, 1936, Bolivia’ first agricultural cooperative was established in Ucureña. Morales was there last year to distribute tractors and land titles. His government has distributed 13 million acres of land in the past 18 months, according to

Government spokesman Alex Contreras indicated that 14 families still own 7.5 million acres of land, while a recent UN report claims that 100 families own 62.5 million acres.

World Notes are compiled by W.T. Whitney Jr. (atwhit