Colombia: FARC releases hostages

Consuelo Gonzalez and Clara Rojas, held hostage for six years by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), arrived by helicopter in Venezuela Jan. 10. Their release signified that negotiations are possible to exchange some 45 hostages held by FARC for more than 500 guerrillas captured by Colombia’s armed forces. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, dismissed as mediator last November by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, welcomed the two women in Caracas. The women expressed gratitude to Chavez. Gonzalez said she hoped he would “not let down his guard” in working for prisoner exchange. The two said that their lives henceforth would be dedicated to the liberation of prisoners and to peace in Colombia.

Zambia: Rich mines, poisoned water

More than 1,000 residents of Mufulira in northern Zambia sought medical care in early January after an acid spill by the Mopani Copper Mine contaminated drinking water. As of a week later, there was no indication that penalties would be imposed against the mine’s multinational owners. Mining accounts for 80 percent of Zambia’s foreign exchange, and the government treads cautiously with mine owners, according to Owners pay 0.6 percent in royalties, although the global norm is 3 percent. Last year, the Konkola Copper Mine, Zambia’s largest, poisoned the Kafue River, a water supply for 2 million people. Hundreds became ill, leading to a 10-day suspension of mine operations.

On Jan. 8, 500 copper miners at a Chinese-owned mine in Chambeshi ended a strike for pay and benefits after only one week. The company plans to invest nearly $1 billion and pays no taxes.

Pakistan: Food shortages loom

The United Nations World Food Program reports that millions in Pakistan are suffering from undernutrition, or worse, because of precarious food supplies. Some 21 million of Pakistan’s 56 million urban dwellers are considered “food insecure.” In 94 of the country’s 121 districts, average per capita income has fallen to below $100 per month, while food prices have risen and domestic wheat production is down. Some 39 million rural residents also face food shortages. Peasants have lost land and farm employment. Vast numbers are moving to cities. One expert cited by the UN’s IRIN news agency criticized the government for keeping food imports low and failing to apply planning and research to the crisis.

Mexico: Copper miners attacked

Grupo Minero Mexico owners say a five month-old strike over safety at their Cananea, Sonora, copper mine by 1,300 miners has cost $600 million. On Jan. 11, a labor board declared the strike illegal, despite an earlier denial of the ruling by an appeals court. The company immediately prepared to resume operations at Mexico’s largest copper mine. Within hours some 800 federal troops and police were at the mine to force strikers out of the way so scab workers could enter. Varying reports put the injured at over 20, with five hospitalized and five arrested. A court order the next day allowed workers to stay off work without being fired. A one-day nationwide strike backing the Cananea miners will take place Jan. 16.

Iraq: WHO counts civilian deaths

A survey of almost 11,000 Iraqi households carried out by the World Health Organization and published Jan. 9 in the New England Journal of Medicine estimates that war-related violence killed 151,000 Iraqi civilians between March 2003, when U.S. troops invaded the country, and June 2006. Violent deaths ranged from 128 per day in 2003 to 115 and 124 during each of the next two years. A 2006 study appearing in the British medical journal The Lancet placed the three-year toll at 601,000 deaths. The WHO study has a wide range of errors, its authors acknowledged, due to researchers’ inability to visit certain areas because of security concerns, and the fact that 2 million Iraqis have left the country. The deaths, the report said, are “only one of the many health and human consequences of an ongoing humanitarian crisis.”

Spain: Clinic workers strike over abortion harassment

Personnel at more than 40 clinics providing 90 percent of Spain’s annual 100,000 abortions went on strike Jan. 9 in response to raids by government inspectors last month and harassment by anti-abortion groups. The employees said anti-abortion pressure started with the jailing of a Barcelona gynecologist who allowed Danish filmmakers to film an abortion.

Spain legalized abortion in 1985, but the striking professionals are demanding modernization of restrictive regulations. Abortions are available to women who were raped, are carrying a malformed fetus or are suffering psychological distress. Strikers called for expanded sex education and birth control as a means for preventing abortions. The controversy has embarrassed the Zapatero government as it faces off against church-backed political opponents in upcoming parliamentary elections.

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