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Global Witness: Colombia: the world’s deadliest country for environmentalists in 2020 | USA

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For the second year running, Colombia has topped the list of the most dangerous countries in the world for environmentalists: 65 environmental activists were killed in the South American nation in 2020, a year marked by the coronavirus pandemic. Worldwide, violence against environmental defenders claimed the lives of 227 people last year – the highest number on record – compared to 212 in 2019. After Colombia, Mexico and the Philippines complete the top three on the black list compiled each year by environmental and human rights NGO Global Witness.

Although the Colombian government reached a peace agreement with the former combatants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) almost five years ago, parts of the country are still embroiled in violence. Flanked by two oceans, Colombia is home to half of the Andean moorland on the planet and 30% of its land area is blanketed by rainforest, making it one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. Environmentalists working in Colombia have spoken out against the campaign of violence they are being subjected to and the impunity of those committing crimes against activists, something the government of Colombian President Iván Duque has been powerless to prevent. “There is a link between armed violence and the economic development model, and this has made Colombia the country where the highest number of environmental leaders are killed. There is no possibility of accessing the justice system and when we do it is slow and inefficient,” environmental activist Francia Márquez, who is running in the 2022 presidential elections, told EL PAÍS last February.

In many of the most remote areas, paramilitary and criminal groups have increased their control through violence against rural communities

Global Witness report

The annual Global Witness report reserves especially harsh criticism for Colombia, where the NGO states that attacks against environmentalists and social leaders take place across the entire country and represent “endemic violence” nationwide in spite of the peace agreements signed in 2016. The report attributes the situation to a “lamentable implementation” of the peace process on the part of the government. “In many of the most remote areas, paramilitary and criminal groups have increased their control through violence against rural communities and a lack of state action to protect them. Those seeking to protect their land and environment are increasingly being caught up in the crosshairs of this violence – with those protecting indigenous land particularly at risk,” the report states. As many as 17 murders were carried out within the framework of programs set up to promote a transition among farmers from the cultivation of coca plants to legal crops, one of the points laid out in the peace accords.

Global Witness highlights that Colombian indigenous communities are the worst affected by violence, a situation that has worsened during the coronavirus pandemic. “Official lockdowns led to defenders being targeted in their homes, and government protection measures were cut,” the report states. Colombian independent think-tank Fundación Ideas para la Paz (Ideas for Peace Foundation) had already warned in a report in April 2020 that to the challenges already posed by Covid-19, “we must add the risks generated by threats against National Parks workers in the Amazonía region by dissident factions of the FARC.”

Despite the number of killings of environmental activists – at a rate of more than one per week – Duque’s government has attempted to portray itself to the world as a defender of the natural world. In 2020, Colombia was selected to host World Environment Day, an annual event promoted by the United Nations that was held virtually in September. Duque highlighted his administration’s fight against deforestation and assured delegates that it included “the defense of the environment as a national security issue,” with 22,000 members of the armed forces deployed to that end. However, according to official figures, Colombia lost 171,685 hectares of forest in 2020, 8% more than in 2019. The majority was in the Amazonía region in the south of the country.

Colombia lost 171,685 hectares of forest in 2020, 8% more than in 2019

Mexico was the second deadliest country in the world for environmental activists in 2020 with 30 murders, a 67% rise over 2019. The Global Witness report indicates that almost a third of these attacks were linked to logging and that half of all crimes committed against environmental defenders were directed against indigenous communities. Furthermore, the report underlines that the level of impunity in such cases “remains surprisingly high: as many as 95% of these killings do not give rise to prosecutions.”

Latin America remains the world’s most dangerous continent for environmental activists. Last year there were 20 murders of defenders in Brazil, 17 in Honduras, 13 in Guatemala, 12 in Nicaragua and six in Peru. The Global Witness report states that in Brazil and Peru, almost 75% of all recorded attacks against environmentalists occurred in the Amazon rainforest regions of both countries.

English version by Rob Train.

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Too hot to handle: can our bodies withstand global heating?

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Extreme heat can kill or cause long-term health problems – but for many unendurable temperatures are the new normal

The impact of extreme heat on the human body is not unlike what happens when a car overheats. Failure starts in one or two systems, and eventually it takes over the whole engine until the car stops.

That’s according to Mike McGeehin, environmental health epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “When the body can no longer cool itself it immediately impacts the circulatory system. The heart, the kidneys, and the body become more and more heated and eventually our cognitive abilities begin to desert us – and that’s when people begin fainting, eventually going into a coma and dying.”

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Polish TV sabotages Tusk press briefing

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Polish opposition leader Donald Tusk clashed with Polish propaganda outlet TVP in Warsaw Tuesday. A TVP reporter asked him why Tusk’s party wanted Poland to leave the EU. “This is beyond imagination … I won’t answer such absurdities,” Tusk, whose Civic Platform party is pro-EU, said, before a prickly exchange ensued. TVP also muted MEPs who said Poland should face EU rule-of-law sanctions in its coverage of a Strasbourg debate.

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Odyssey Marine Exploration: Spanish court shelves case against US treasure hunters that looted ‘Mercedes’ frigate | USA

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The history of the Spanish frigate Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes includes two grievances and one victory. The first of the former was when the British Navy sunk it and its 275 crew members on October 5, 1804, off Portugal’s Algarve coast. The second offense came in May 2007, when the US treasure-hunting company Odyssey Marine Exploration scooped up its cargo of 500,000 silver and gold coins from the shipwreck at the bottom of the sea.

Triumph came when the US justice system confirmed that the treasure belonged to Spain, in a ruling released in February 2012. But there was one more affront to come: a Spanish court has just definitively shelved a case into alleged crimes committed by the US treasure hunters as they were removing the coins. After a tortuous 14-year investigation, a courtroom in Cádiz has been left with no option but to let the probe die, albeit admitting its “bafflement” and “anger” over what it considers “unusual proceedings.”

At the same time as the legal process began in Florida to determine who was the rightful owner of the rescued treasure, Odyssey or Spain, a court in La Línea de la Concepción, in the southwestern Spanish province of Cádiz, began investigating whether the then-CEO of Odyssey Marine Exploration, Greg Stemm, and his team had committed any criminal offenses when they removed the haul from the shipwreck. Among the potential crimes were damaging an archeological site and smuggling.

Odyssey workers hoisting a cannon from the 'HMS Victory' shipwreck in 2009.
Odyssey workers hoisting a cannon from the ‘HMS Victory’ shipwreck in 2009.

The fact that the 500,000 pieces of silver and gold were returned to Spain in February 2012 – nearly 17 tons of material, which are now held in the ARQUA underwater archeology museum in Cartagena – is proof that the legal battle in the United States ended well for Spain. But the latest decision in the Spanish case, to which EL PAÍS has had access, leaves no doubt that the investigation into potential crimes has definitively been shipwrecked.

The three judges who were responsible for the case found that the shelving, which cannot be appealed, is based principally on the fact that the potential offenses have now exceeded the statute of limitations in Spain for trial. And the slow process of the probe, according to the judges’ writ, was due to the failure of the US justice system to respond to the letters rogatory sent in 2013, and that were needed if Stemm and the rest of the suspects were to be questioned by investigators.

“In terms of the lawsuit over the coins, the United States was on Spain’s side,” explains Ángel Núñez, a public prosecutor who specializes in cultural heritage and who was in charge of the case until 2009. “But it is true that when it comes to targeting one of their own nationals, they are not so willing to collaborate. And given that these were US citizens who are not at the disposal of the Spanish courts…”

The Spanish court probe into Odyssey had already entered into a tailspin before this latest ruling. In December 2016, another judge in La Línea dismissed the case. The private prosecution, which was brought by the company Nerea Arqueología Subacuática, appealed the decision but it was rejected. In a new attempt to not let the legal process die, archeologist Javier Noriega, one of the heads of this small company based in Málaga, took the case to the High Court of Cádiz province, in La Línea, the one that has definitively shelved the proceedings.

In their ruling, the judges add that they share “with the appellant his surprise, confusion and even anger for the, shall we call it, unusual proceedings with this case, at least since the year 2013.” The magistrates do not go so far as to specify what prompted them to feel this way.

Spanish Civil Guard officers watching the "Ocean Alert," a vessel owned by Odyssey Marine Explorations, near Gibraltar in 2007.
Spanish Civil Guard officers watching the “Ocean Alert,” a vessel owned by Odyssey Marine Explorations, near Gibraltar in 2007.ANTON MERES (REUTERS)

Archeologist Javier Noriega believes that he knows all too well what they are referring to. He and his colleagues decided to take up the case – represented by the attorney José María Lancho – as a “professional and moral obligation.” They have since seen how “all of these years can be summed up by the end: exceeding the statute of limitations.” “They avoided entering into the substance of what happened to Spain’s cultural heritage,” the expert complains.

These unusual proceedings in the investigation which the judges mention and that Noriega suffered first-hand were reported on in the Spanish press. In March 2012, a former legal representative for Odyssey, with no authority, entered the courtroom when the judge was absent and persuaded court workers to photocopy the entire findings of the legal investigation so far, as was reported by the Spanish daily Abc at the time. According to Abc, such an action would have allowed Odyssey to prepare a defense against the findings of Civil Guard investigators and decide whether or not to actually take part in the trial.

The actions of the representative were very serious, taking into account that the probe was counting on a protected witness: a diver who had been threatened for having denounced Odyssey, given that he had knowledge of some of its activities in Spanish waters.

Now Noriega, 46, is gloomy about the end of a process that has occupied a significant part of his career. “As people who love our profession, it’s frustrating,” he explains. “It ends up being a defeat for all of us, for culture and for society. And if as well as that, the person responsible has gone unpunished, because of the statute of limitations, that’s very sad.”

Despite the legal setback, the archeologist argues that the court probe contains “evidence of all kinds, archeological, from witnesses, technical, juridical, and a ton of resounding questions that deal with what supposedly happened with an overwhelming truthfulness.”

The expert believes that an opportunity has been missed by Europe to convey “a clear message to the thieves who have spent years destroying the history of those shipwrecks from the modern era all over the world.”

Odyssey Marine Exploration never had any interest in the Spanish frigate beyond the cargo of silver and gold that it was carrying. That was made clear by the destruction caused by the company in the archeological area where the remains of the 275 people killed in the attack in 1804 lay. “When an archeological site is plundered, it is destroyed forever,” states Noriega.

After the site was looted, ARQUA led a scientific excavation that was carried out in three campaigns – from 2015 to 2017 – in which the remains of the shipwreck were documented and the items that the treasure hunters left behind were removed. These included cannon, cutlery and other everyday objects from life on board. The expedition also achieved the challenge of descending 1,130 meters underwater, the maximum depth achieved until that point during a subaquatic arqueological mission by a European country.

While the damage done to a historical site such as the Mercedes shipwreck will not result in a trial or convictions, Núñez believes that the consequences of the process “were positive, from a legal and global point of view.” Noriega goes even further: “Spain and its coasts are, today, possibly the best protected and safest in the world with regard to the protection of cultural heritage against looting.”

Since the Odyssey case, the classification of offenses against historical heritage in Spain has improved, new archeological maps have been created, there is better coordination between administrations, and there is greater social awareness about this kind of offense. It was precisely these weaknesses that the treasure-hunting company Odyssey made use of to make off with the coins. In fact, the activity has presumably lost its appeal not just in Spain but also elsewhere, given that the American company has since abandoned its treasure-hunting activities and is now focusing on underground mining.



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