Thursday, December 31, 2020

Peru farm workers maintain road block after deaths

Issued on: 31/12/2020 -
Three people died as farm workers and police clash in Viru, northern Peru on December 30, 2020 GIAN MAZCO AFP   WHERE DID THAT GUN COME FROM

Lima (AFP)

Hundreds of agricultural workers in Peru maintained a road block in the north of the country on Thursday in protest at the death of three people in clashes with police.

The workers are demanding an increase in wages.

Authorities said three people, including one minor, were killed in clashes with police on Wednesday.

One of the victims died while being transferred to hospital after being held up by the road block.

The clashes left 28 protesters and 15 police injured while 45 agricultural workers were arrested.

Protesters are blocking a part of the Panamericana road some 500 kilometers to the north of the capital Lima, where they had already been on strike since earlier in the month.

Television images showed police using tear gas and birdshot against demonstrators.

The workers are angry about a bill passed by Congress on Tuesday.

They had been demanding that agricultural-export companies increase their daily wage from $11 to $18 but the bill only proposed an increase to 48 soles, around $13.

In a bid to calm tensions, President Francisco Sagasti vowed to "sanction the police that didn't respect the ban on using firearms" on protesters.

Sagasti also proposed a dialogue to find a solution to the problem after acknowledging that the bill passed by Congress "didn't satisfy any of the parties."

Farm workers successfully forced the repeal of an agrarian law dating back to 2000 that they considered prejudicial through a campaign of road blocks earlier in December, when two young men were killed as police tried to clear demonstrators.

© 2020 AFP

Honduras investigates murder of two Indigenous environmental activists

At least 14 environmental activists were killed in Honduras last year. Police are now investigating two murders in one weekend.

Honduras is one of the deadliest countries for environmental activists

Honduran police are investigating two murders of activist Indigenous leaders, they announced on Wednesday.

On Saturday, masked men shot dead Felix Vasquez in front of his family at his home in Santiago de Puringla, in western Honduras. The 70-year-old environmental activist was a member of the Lenca Indigenous group who had campaigned against hydroelectric projects and land abuses.

And on Sunday, a group of men shot dead Jose Adan Medina after he returned from work in the town of Candelaria, according to Noe Rodriguez, the president of a local Indigenous federation.

Medina was a member of the Tolupan Indigenous community and a prominent figure in disputes with loggers and landowners in the mountainous areas of Francisco Morazan and Yoro.

He had reported having threats made against him. He was shot five times, local police told Reuters news agency.

The National Police said they were probing both murders, but told outlets they would not release more information to avoid interfering with investigations.

The Honduran prosecutor's office said its department on ethnic groups and cultural patrimony was investigating Vasquez's murder. It said searches had been made, but no one had been arrested.

One of most violent countries in the world
Honduras has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. In 2011-2012, there were 86 homicides per 100,000 people. That amounted to 7,172 murders a year in a country of some 9 million people. In 2018, the homicide rate fell to 40 per 100,000 people, according to government statistics. In comparison, in 2015 there were some 5,000 homicides in the EU, where the population is 500 million.
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'Union of terrible interests'

"(Medina) was murdered for fighting in the defense of the land of the Candelaria tribe where landowners and loggers have occupied our lands. He was shot dead by at least four men when he came back from working his land, growing corn and beans," Rodriguez told Reuters.

Rafael Alegria, from farmers organization Via Campesina in Honduras, said Vasquez had been reporting threats since 2017, but that the government never acted.

"There is a union of terrible interests in western Honduras,'' Alegria said. "There is constant persecution of farmers and indigenous communities. They murdered Bertha Caceres in Intibuca and now Felix Vasquez, and others have been threatened."

Caceres was a Lenca environmental activist and winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize who was murdered in her home in March 2016.

Alice H. Shackelford, a United Nations resident coordinator in Honduras, called for justice in a post on Twitter.

"Another human rights defender murdered ... Justice and zero impunity! Quick investigation and identification of the culprits as soon as possible," she wrote.

Honduras is one of the deadliest countries for environmental activists. According to advocacy group Global Witness, 14 land and environmental defenders were killed there last year, compared to four in 2018.

aw/nm (AP, Reuters)
Anti-vaccine sentiment rife in Poland

Many people in Poland are skeptical of coronavirus vaccinations.        A growing number of celebrities and politicians are expressing reservations, too.

When the well-known Polish journalist Hanna Lis recently tweeted about how she suffered an anaphylaxic shock — i.e. severe allergic reaction — social media blew up. While Lis described the experienced as the "worst trauma" of her life, she did not specify what exactly caused the shock. Nevertheless, her tweet sparked a heated debate over the potential side effects of the newly developed coronavirus vaccines. Critics were quick to reference reports from Great Britain and the US about how coronavirus jabs had caused anaphylactic shocks.

While Lis does not oppose vaccinations, she does want to see more light shed on the subject. It is telling, meanwhile, that her tweet struck a chord with so many Poles. Most people feel uneasy about the immunization program and wish more information were available about the scheme. Traditionally, many Poles are skeptical of vaccinations.

The country’s conservative PiS government, meanwhile, has done little to dispel this skepticism. Instead, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has reported on the arrival of vaccines doses in near daily press conferences and urged Poles to get inoculated. He has enthusiastically promised that Poland will soon "return to normal."

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki during a press conference

Yet this optimism is not well received. Hanna Lis took to Twitter to say that "this propaganda, claiming vaccinations are a success, is counterproductive."

Superstition and magic spells

Tomasz Sobierajski, a sociologist and public health expert at Warsaw University, says the government is spreading "exaggerated success propaganda." While he does not identify as an anti-vaxxer, he refuses to treat inoculation skeptics as "crazy." Sobierajski says the government carries responsibly for widespread mistrust against vaccinations as it has failed to properly educate the public. Speaking to Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, Sobierajski said "unlike in western countries, our opinions on vaccinations are based on superstition and magic spells."

He criticizes that barely anyone is explaining to ordinary Poles that the coronavirus vaccine does not manipulate human genes, as many falsely believe. The sociologist is not surprised that surveys show only 4 to 5% of Poles want to get inoculated. He says that whereas many western Europeans opt to get flu jabs, on average only 4% of Poles do so. That is why Sobierajski warns Poland will "effectively endure the despair of this pandemic for a long time to come."

Mistrust and conspiracy theories

Not only celebrities but also government figures are joining the ranks of coronavirus vaccination skeptics. "I will not get inoculated," Poland’s deputy minister of state assets, Janusz Kowalski, recently told online platform Wirtualna Polska. "This is matter of liberty and personal choice."

STOP NOP, one of Poland’s anti-vaccination groups, similarly argues that vaccinations are a question of personal choice. Problematically, however, the group also questions whether the coronavirus even exists.

Poland's left-right divide

Only a small fraction of Poles believes in conspiracy theories like these. But overall skepticism towards vaccines remains common, as polls show. A recent survey commissioned by daily Rzeczpospolita and conducted by Warsaw’s Institute for Social Research and Market (IBRIS) found that 47% of respondents want to get vaccinated, while 44% refuse to get a jab, with 9% undecided. Respondents above the age 70 were most in favor of vaccinations (67%), while those between 18 and 29, and those between 30 and 39 were most skeptical (29% and 28%, respectively). Overall, men were found to be more in favor of vaccinations than women (59% and 35%, respectively).

In Poland, 47% of the population wants to get vaccinated, 44% are against it

The survey also showed that 82% of those backing Poland’s Left party and 65% backing the liberal Civic Platform support inoculations. Among those who support the governing PiS party, 56% share this view. Only 5% of those who support Poland’s far-right Confederation Liberty and Independence party, meanwhile, approve of coronavirus vaccinations.

IBRIS head Marcin Duma says it is difficult changing anti-vaxxers’ minds. They are right, after all, in pointing out that the vaccines were developed and approved in record speed. "There is no explanation how this was possible in such a short time," says Duma. He says many skeptics prefer to "wait until others have been vaccinated." This, too, Duma says, is a legitimate point to make.

Strict lockdown

Similar to many European countries, Poland launched its immunization program on December 27. In an initial stage, doctors and other medical staff will get the jab. As there are skeptics among this cohort as well, the government is running ads to encourage medical staff to sign up. So far, 400,000 health care workers have registered.

Poland entered a strict lockdown from December 28 to Jan 17, 2021.

Since the outbreak, about 1.3 million Polish people have contracted the Sars-CoV-2 virus. Over 27,000 have died from health issues related to COVID-19. More than 7,900 new infections were registered on December 29 — a marked drop compared to November, when the 30,000 case threshold was exceed numerous times. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, however, expects the numbers to rise again as families get together and socialize during the holidays.

Authorities imposed a strict lockdown in Poland on December 28 which will last until January 17. All shops, save for supermarkets and drug stores, must remain shut. Most sports facilities, including ski lifts, are also shut. The government is encouraging Poles to remain indoors from 7 pm on New Year's Eve until the next morning at 6 am.
Coronavirus kills 26 in Belgian care home after Santa Claus visit

At least 26 residents of a Belgian care home have died of COVID-19 and dozens more are infected after a volunteer dressed as Father Christmas distributed presents.

The Sinterklaas tradition is popular in the 

Netherlands and Flemish-speaking Belgium

At least 26 residents of a Belgian retirement home have died since a visit by a volunteer dressed as Santa Claus. The volunteer has since tested positive for COVID-19, Belgian media reported on Thursday.

A Flemish health official told AFP news agency that is not certain if it was the visitor who brought the virus to the home in Hemelrijck on December 5.

But the visit by the infected Father Christmas was followed by 26 deaths and 85 residents testing positive, along with 40 staff.

The outbreak was detected a few days after the visit and virologists say those who were infected came from the same source.

Santa did not know he was infected

The white-bearded, red-robed figure of Sinterklaas, the equivalent to the English-speaking world's Santa Claus, traditionally brings gifts to Belgians on December 6.

But this year's festivities were muted. Belgium is one of the countries in Europe that has been affected worst by the coronavirus pandemic.

Retirement homes were vectors of the virus and more than half of the deceased, comprising 11,066 people, were retirement home residents.

A regional health spokesman said there is no suggestion that the volunteer knew he was infected with COVID-19 when he came to the home.

Opinion: Peacekeeping needs a new format

Peace should not be a word to remember only in times of conflict. Until peacemaking becomes a constant process, the spiral of war and conflict will continue, says DW’s Serdar Vardar.

Is it time to for the UN to rethink its strategy for peacekeeping missions?

Let's face it: The United Nations has lost much of its credibility and influence and we cannot let peace and security issues be decided by the five nuclear powers of the UN's Security Council. We must act on the ground level. We must engage people, encourage them to talk to each other. All the time. Something the UN has failed to do.

Why can't we imagine an International Committee of Peace for example? One filled not with diplomats, but with people who dedicate their lives to peace and are chosen by the citizens of each country. Every member state can be responsible for holding elections to choose two (one man, one woman) peace delegates who do not have any political affiliations. People who have proved themselves as respected peacemakers in their countries.
The vicious cycle of frozen conflicts

Such a global and civil organization can transform the gentle tones of peace into a full-scale orchestra. Because real peace is constructed by the people, not brokered strategically as in the recent example of Azerbaijan and Armenia.

DW's Serdar Vardar

In 1993, Armenia had a better equipped and trained army than Azerbaijan and took control of the Nagorno-Karabakh, a region internationally recognized as Azeri territory. After three decades of frozen conflict, an oil-rich Azerbaijan had the means to build a better army and took back control of the region. After six weeks of war that killed thousands and displaced 130,000 people, both sides agreed on aceasefire brokered by Russia.

Far from being a peace deal, this has served only to freeze the conflict until one of the sides renews hostilities. This type of vicious cycle must end.
The 'peace-makers' have their own political agenda

Can we really expect superpowers to build peace in third countries? For instance the Russian government has no interest in achieving real peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Only a frozen conflict enables Russia to act as the "Big Brother” for both countries, and maintain a military presence in the region.

Other big powers are not innocent either. France recently said it would continue selling French arms regardless of a country's human rights record. The same week the US Senate backed the sale of F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates, a country that bombed a refugee center in Libya and is accused of committing war crimes in Yemen.

How can we expect these countries to bring peace when they are the ones selling guns to each side in the first place? If they see a national interest they interfere, if they have little to gain they look elsewhere. Just look at what happened with the Tutsis in Rwanda, the Darfur people in Sudan, or the Bosnians in the middle of Europe.
An International Peace Committee chosen by the people

I think the time has come to end the reliance on the bureaucratic and limited approach of the UN and the Security Council powers.

A civic International Committee of Peace can empower local peace initiatives and would not muddy the peace process with hidden strategic agendas. The only aim would be to develop consistent peace-keeping initiatives even in times of peace.

I know there are counter-arguments of why such a concept may be dismissed as pie in the sky, but we must try and come up with new ideas and frameworks. Ones that provide opportunities to civil peace-makers from all around the world. Because one thing is clear: peace is too important to leave to self-serving, opportunist political powers.

Record shows US sold ambassador’s home in Israel for $67M

December 29, 2020

In this Sept. 9, 2020 file photo, a U. S. flag flies at the official residence of the U.S. ambassador to Israel in the central Israeli city of Herzliya. An official record shows that the United States sold the ambassador’s residence in Israel for more than $67 million in July. The State Department confirmed the sale in September but refused to identify the buyer or disclose the sale price of the sprawling beachfront compound in the upscale Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)

JERUSALEM (AP) — The United States sold the ambassador’s residence in Israel for more than $67 million in July, according to an official Israeli record of the sale that shines new light on a transaction that has been shrouded in secrecy.

The State Department confirmed the sale in September but refused to identify the buyer or disclose the sale price of the sprawling beachfront compound in the upscale Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya. On Tuesday, it said the sale had been “open and transparent.”

The Israeli business newspaper Globes has identified the buyer as the U.S. casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a strong supporter of both President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A representative of Adelson said the billionaire had no comment.

At more than $67 million, it appears to be the most expensive single residence ever sold in Israel. Congressional aides told The Associated Press in September that lawmakers in the House and Senate were looking into whether the sale of the residence complied with regulations.

The sale helped to cement Trump’s controversial decision to relocate the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to contested Jerusalem in 2018 and to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. By selling the residence, it would make it harder for future presidents to reverse the decision to move the embassy. President-elect Joe Biden has criticized the decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem but says he will not reverse it.

Israel seized east Jerusalem in the 1967 war and later annexed it in a move not recognized internationally. The Palestinians want east Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state. Nearly all countries maintain their embassies in Tel Aviv because of the dispute over east Jerusalem.

Records posted by Israel’s tax authority on Monday show that the sale of the official residence was concluded on July 31, several weeks before the State Department acknowledged it. They list the sale price as 230,353,536 Israeli shekels. That’s $67,592,000 according to that day’s official exchange rate.

In Israel, the sale price listed by the tax authority almost always matches the actual sale price, but in exceptional cases — for example, when a property is gifted to someone — the two may differ.

On Aug. 31, a month after the sale, the U.S. Embassy said in a statement that “it made sense” to sell the residency and said it expected the sale “to move ahead in the coming months.”

In a statement released Tuesday, the State Department said the sale process was “open and transparent and included professional appraisals and advice to maximize value.”

“The buyer was selected solely on the basis that they submitted the highest offer,” it added, without saying how many bids were made or identifying any of the potential buyers.

The State Department had earlier said it would continue to lease the property until spring 2021, without specifying how much it would pay in rent. But on Tuesday it said there was “no provision for a leaseback with rent payment.” It said closing would take place in the coming months, after the completion of “administrative and procedural tasks.”

The Israeli real-estate office that brokered the deal referred all questions to the U.S. Embassy.

Russian monk charged with inciting suicidal acts in sermons

December 29, 2020

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In this handout photo released by Basmanny Court via Moscow News Agency, Father Sergiy, a Russian monk who has defied the Russian Orthodox Church's leadership, stands in a cage prior to a court session in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020. Father Sergiy, who has castigated the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church leadership and denied the coronavirus existence, was detained Tuesday Dec. 29, 2020, by police at a monastery in the Urals and flown to Moscow where he will face criminal charges. (Basmanny Court, Moscow News Agency photo via AP)

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian riot police stormed into a monastery Tuesday to detain a rebel monk who has castigated the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church leadership and denied the existence of the coronavirus.

In the overnight showdown, police clashed with the priest’s supporters at the Sredneuralsk monastery outside Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains.

The monk, Father Sergiy, was quickly flown to Moscow, where a court approved his arrest. Authorities charged him with inciting suicidal actions through sermons in which he urged believers to “die for Russia.” He denied the accusations.

Russia’s top investigative agency, the Investigative Committee, said Father Sergiy also faces other criminal charges related to his allegedly arbitrary action to take control of the monastery.

When the virus arrived in Russia early this year, the 65-year-old monk denied its existence and denounced government efforts to stem the pandemic as “Satan’s electronic camp.” He has described the vaccines being developed against COVID-19 as part of a global plot to control the masses via chips.

The monk, who has urged followers to disobey the government’s lockdown measures, had holed up at the monastery near Yekaterinburg he founded years ago. Dozens of burly volunteers, including veterans of the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine, helped enforce his rules, while the prioress and several nuns left.

The monk chastised Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “traitor to the Motherland” who was serving a Satanic “world government.” He also denounced the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, and other top clerics as “heretics” who must be “thrown out.”

The Russian Orthodox Church stripped Father Sergiy of his abbot’s rank for breaking monastic rules in July, but he rejected the ruling and ignored police investigators’ summons. Facing stiff resistance by hundreds of his supporters, church officials and local authorities appeared reluctant to evict him for months.

Hundreds of his supporters continued rallying at the monastery hours after he was taken away. Some wept.

FILE In this photo taken on Wednesday, June 17, 2020, Father Sergiy, a Russian monk who has defied the Russian Orthodox Church's leadership speaks to journalists in Russian Ural's Sredneuralsk, Russia. Father Sergiy, who has castigated the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church leadership and denied the coronavirus existence, was detained Tuesday Dec. 29, 2020, by police at a monastery in the Urals and flown to Moscow where he will face criminal charges. (AP Photo/Vladimir Podoksyonov, File)

Father Sergiy, who was born as Nikolai Romanov, served as a police officer during Soviet times. After leaving the ranks of law enforcement, he was convicted of murder, robbery and assault and sentenced to 13 years in prison, He joined a church school after his release and later became a monk.

The charismatic priest quickly became known for his efforts to open new churches and monasteries in the Urals. In his fiery sermons, he denounced alleged plots of the “world government” and glorified Russia’s last czar, Nicholas II, who was killed by the Bolsheviks along with his entire family in Yekaterinburg in 1918.

Father Sergiy has been the most visible and outspoken of a few ultra-conservative clerics who have challenged the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church. Observers have said the monk’s rebellious actions and now his detention undermine the authority of Patriarch Kirill.

In another sign of internal tensions within the church, an ecclesiastical panel ruled Tuesday to defrock a liberal-leaning theologian, Protodeacon Andrei Kurayev, who has been active in expressing his views online. Kurayev lamented the verdict as a punishment for sharing opinions that sometimes differed from official stance of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Each year, 1,000 Pakistani girls forcibly converted to Islam

December 28, 2020

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Police officers escort Arzoo Raja, background center, after her appearance in Sindh High Court, in Karachi, Pakistan, on Nov. 3, 2020. Raja was 13 when she disappeared from her home in central Karachi. The Christian girl’s parents reported her missing and pleaded with police to find her. Two days later, officers reported back that she had been converted to Islam and was married to their 40-year-old Muslim neighbor. (AP Photo/Fareed Khan)

KARACHI, Pakistan (AP) — Neha loved the hymns that filled her church with music. But she lost the chance to sing them last year when, at the age of 14, she was forcibly converted from Christianity to Islam and married to a 45-year-old man with children twice her age.

She tells her story in a voice so low it occasionally fades away. She all but disappears as she wraps a blue scarf tightly around her face and head. Neha’s husband is in jail now facing charges of rape for the underage marriage, but she is in hiding, afraid after security guards confiscated a pistol from his brother in court.

“He brought the gun to shoot me,” said Neha, whose last name The Associated Press is not using for her safety.

Neha is one of nearly 1,000 girls from religious minorities who are forced to convert to Islam in Pakistan each year, largely to pave the way for marriages that are under the legal age and non-consensual. Human rights activists say the practice has accelerated during lockdowns against the coronavirus, when girls are out of school and more visible, bride traffickers are more active on the Internet and families are more in debt.

The U.S. State Department this month declared Pakistan “a country of particular concern” for violations of religious freedoms — a designation the Pakistani government rejects. The declaration was based in part on an appraisal by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom that underage girls in the minority Hindu, Christian, and Sikh communities were “kidnapped for forced conversion to Islam… forcibly married and subjected to rape.”

While most of the converted girls are impoverished Hindus from southern Sindh province, two new cases involving Christians, including Neha’s, have roiled the country in recent months.

The girls generally are kidnapped by complicit acquaintances and relatives or men looking for brides. Sometimes they are taken by powerful landlords as payment for outstanding debts by their farmhand parents, and police often look the other way. Once converted, the girls are quickly married off, often to older men or to their abductors, according to the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

Forced conversions thrive unchecked on a money-making web that involves Islamic clerics who solemnize the marriages, magistrates who legalize the unions and corrupt local police who aid the culprits by refusing to investigate or sabotaging investigations, say child protection activists.

Christians demonstrate against child marriage and forced conversion, in Karachi, Pakistan, on Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020. Nearly 1,000 non-Muslim girls are forced to convert to Islam in Pakistan each year, largely to pave the way for marriages that are under the legal age and non-consensual. (AP Photo/Fareed Khan)

One activist, Jibran Nasir, called the network a “mafia” that preys on non-Muslim girls because they are the most vulnerable and the easiest targets “for older men with pedophilia urges.”

The goal is to secure virginal brides rather than to seek new converts to Islam. Minorities make up just 3.6 percent of Pakistan’s 220 million people and often are the target of discrimination. Those who report forced conversions, for example, can be targeted with charges of blasphemy.

In the feudal Kashmore region of southern Sindh province, 13-year-old Sonia Kumari was kidnapped, and a day later police told her parents she had converted from Hinduism to Islam. Her mother pleaded for her return in a video widely viewed on the internet: “For the sake of God, the Quran, whatever you believe, please return my daughter, she was forcibly taken from our home.”

But a Hindu activist, who didn’t want to be identified for fear of repercussions from powerful landlords, said she received a letter that the family was forced to write. The letter claimed the 13-year-old had willingly converted and wed a 36-year-old who was already married with two children.

The parents have given up.

Arzoo Raja was 13 when she disappeared from her home in central Karachi. The Christian girl’s parents reported her missing and pleaded with police to find her. Two days later, officers reported back that she had been converted to Islam and was married to their 40-year-old Muslim neighbor.

In Sindh province, the age of consent for marriage is 18 years old. Arzoo’s marriage certificate said she was 19.

The cleric who performed Arzoo’s marriage, Qasi Ahmed Mufti Jaan Raheemi, was later implicated in at least three other underage marriages. Despite facing an outstanding arrest warrant for solemnizing Arzoo’s marriage, he continued his practice in his ramshackle office above a wholesale rice market in downtown Karachi.

When an Associated Press reporter arrived at his office, Raheemi fled down a side stair, according to a fellow cleric, Mullah Kaifat Ullah, one of a half-dozen clerics who also performs marriages in the complex. He said another cleric is already in jail for marrying children.

While Ullah said he only marries girls 18 and above, he argued that “under Islamic law a girl’s wedding at the age of 14 or 15 is fine.”

Arzoo’s mother, Rita Raja, said police ignored the family’s appeals until one day she was videotaped outside the court sobbing and pleading for her daughter to be returned. The video went viral, creating a social media storm in Pakistan and prompting the authorities to step in.

“For 10 days, the parents were languishing between the police station and government authorities and different political parties,” Nasir, the activist, said. “They were not being given any time… until it went viral. That is the real unfortunate thing over here.”

Authorities have stepped in and arrested Arzoo’s husband, but her mother said her daughter still refuses to come home. Raja said she is afraid of her husband’s family.

Neha, 15, who was married as a child, pauses during an interview in Karachi, Pakistan, on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020. Neha said she was tricked into marriage by a favorite aunt. Instead of going to a hospital to visit a relative, she was taken to the home of her aunt’s in-laws and told she would marry her aunt’s 45-year-old brother-in-law. “I told her I can’t, I am too young and I don’t want to. He is old,” Neha said. “She slapped me and locked me up in a room.” (AP Photo/Fareed Khan)

The girl who loved hymns, Neha, said she was tricked into the marriage by a favorite aunt, who told Neha to accompany her to the hospital to see her sick son. Her aunt, Sandas Baloch, had converted to Islam years before and lived with her husband in the same apartment building as Neha’s family.

“All Mama asked when we left was ’when will you be back?’” remembered Neha.

Instead of going to the hospital, she was taken to the home of her aunt’s in-laws and told she would marry her aunt’s 45-year-old brother-in-law.

“I told her I can’t, I am too young and I don’t want to. He is old,” Neha said. “She slapped me and locked me up in a room.”

Neha told of being taken before two men, one who was to be her husband and the other who recorded her marriage. They said she was 19. She said she was too frightened to speak because her aunt threatened to harm her two-year-old brother if she refused to marry.

She learned of her conversion only when she was told to sign the marriage certificate with her new name — Fatima.

For a week she was locked in one room. Her new husband came to her on the first night. Tears stained her blue scarf as she remembered it:

“I screamed and cried all night. I have images in my mind I can’t scratch out,” said Neha. “I hate him.”

His elder daughter brought her food each day, and Neha begged for help to escape. Although the woman was frightened of her father, she relented a week after the marriage, bringing the underage bride a burqa — the all-covering garment worn by some Muslim women — and 500 rupees (about $3). Neha fled.

But when she arrived home, Neha found her family had turned against her.

“I went home and I cried to my Mama about my aunt, what she said and the threats. But she didn’t want me anymore,” said Neha.

Her parents feared what her new husband might do to them, Neha said. Further, the prospects of marriage for a girl in conservative Pakistan who has been raped or married before are slim, and human rights activists say they often are seen as a burden.

Neha’s family, including her aunt, all refused to talk to the AP. Her husband’s lawyer, Mohammad Saleem, insisted that she married and converted voluntarily.

Neha found protection at a Christian church in Karachi, living on the compound with the pastor’s family, who say the girl still wakes screaming in the night. She hopes to go back to school one day but is still distraught.

“At the beginning my nightmares were every night, but now it is just sometimes when I remember and inside I am shaking,” she said. “Before I wanted to be a lawyer, but now I don’t know what I will do. Even my mama doesn’t want me now.”

Egypt court sentences ex-student to 3 years in #MeToo case

December 29, 2020

 In this June 14, 2014 file photo, Egyptian women shout slogans and hold banners during a protest against sexual assaults, in Cairo, Egypt. On Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020, an Egyptian court convicted a former student at an elite university on sexual misconduct charges and sentenced him to three years in prison, the first conviction in a case that has fueled the #MeToo movement in the Arab world’s most populous country. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil, File)

CAIRO (AP) — An Egyptian court Tuesday convicted a former student at an elite university of sexual misconduct charges and sentenced him to three years in prison, the first conviction in a case that has fueled the #MeToo movement in the Arab world’s most populous country.

The Cairo Economic Court convicted Ahmed Bassam Zaki, a former student at American University in Cairo, of blackmailing and sexually harassing two women.

Zaki is being tried separately in criminal court on charges of rape and attempted rape of three other women who were minors at the time of the alleged crimes, according to the court documents. In addition, he faces drug possession charges.

Tuesday’s verdict can be appealed to a higher court.

The former student was arrested in July after allegations against him surfaced on social media, resulting in a firestorm of criticism. The #MeToo movement aims to hold accountable those involved in sexual misconduct and those who cover it up.

Several attempts at the time by The Associated Press to contact Zaki’s family and his lawyer were unsuccessful.

According to accusations posted on social media, Zaki would mine the pool of mutual friends on Facebook, online groups or school clubs, for females to target.

He would start with flattery, then pressure the women and girls to share intimate photos that he later used to blackmail them with if they did not have sex with him, according to the accusations. In some instances he threatened to send compromising pictures to family members.

Zaki hails from a wealthy family and studied at the American International School, one of Egypt’s most expensive private high schools, and the American University in Cairo. AUC officials said he left the university in 2018.

Zaki’s case, activists say, shows that misogyny cuts across Egypt’s stark class lines. Many in Egypt have previously portrayed sexual harassment as a problem of poor urban youth.

Sexual assault and harassment are deep-seated problems in Egypt, where victims must also fight the undercurrent of a conservative culture that typically ties female chastity to a family’s reputation. In courts, the burden of proof lies heavily on the victims of such crimes.

The allegations against the former student were collected by the Instagram account @assaultpolice. Since then, the account has played a crucial role in revealing an alleged gang rape that shook Egyptian society in recent weeks.

Allegations of sexual misconduct have also emerged against several rights activists and prominent journalists, but those allegations have not made their way to courts.
Saving the world with Christmas cookies?

by Austrian Science Fund (FWF)
DECEMBER 29, 2020
Global growth is achieved at the expense of human beings and nature. It exacerbates inequalities between rich and poor countries. Credit: UNDP/GCP

Despite all warnings, people continue to ruthlessly exploit land resources around the world, planting monocultures and setting up large-scale infrastructure. Social ecologist Anke Schaffartzik analyses the political and economic interests that precede these developments and their impact on society. The snapshots of global material and energy flows, but also the power gradient of which they are a symptom, reveal that thoughtful consumption in Austria alone stands little chances against oil palm plantations in Indonesia.

Every year, Austrians produce and buy tons of Christmas cookies. Depending on the individual budget and mind-set, more and more people opt for the product on the shelf that claims to be "palm-oil free." For today, many people know: Palm oil plantations are being operated on a large scale in countries such as Indonesia, crowding out orangutans living in the tropical rainforests. Anke Schaffartzik, Hertha Firnberg Fellow of the Austrian Science Fund FWF, can well understand that people want to improve the world. Unfortunately, unequal participation in the economy, unequal access to resources and to political co-determination already have an impact on land use even before the consumers can choose a suitable cookie brand in Austria.

In the context of her project at the Institute of Social Ecology in the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences in Vienna, Schaffartzik analyses worldwide material and energy flows in order to explore the dual nature of inequality: "Inequality as cause and effect of non-sustainable development is easy to observe wherever nature is being exploited to make commercial use of land and resources," she explains. "Some countries ensure high consumption and economic growth while preserving their resource base or having long since exhausted it. But others are using up more and more land for the export of raw materials or energy sources, thereby making socio-ecologically sustainable development impossible."

Who decides on land use?

After the first year of her research, Schaffartzik understands that global inequality cannot be quantified exclusively in terms of money. It is informed a great deal by how processes are designed, and the imbalance is already apparent in terms of access to land and decision-making processes. The global data analysis along a time series from 1960 to 2010 suggests to Schaffartzik that the "valorisation" of land is a key process in this growing and deepening use of resources: what counts is the desired economic development, not the needs and voices of the local population. The above-mentioned cultivation of oil palms in Indonesia is one case in point. Before the plantations could be exploited on a large scale, the land first had to be re-zoned accordingly. Palm oil can be used for cooking, as a lubricant and animal feed, for biodiesel or highly processed foods such as Christmas cookies and chocolate. Nowadays, almost the entire volume of crude palm oil is exported from Indonesia, but the processing that generates added value takes place elsewhere.

Cheap and diverse

In the 1980s, palm oil production began to take off in Indonesia, a vast nation of many islands. This not only encroached on the rain forests, but also crowded out other crops and areas used for subsistence farming. "The progressive land grabbing that we are witnessing was initially based on political decisions: There was a wish to see the resources being used in a way that yields money and political control over remote islands," Anke Schaffartzik notes. Hence, political decisions about land use had to be taken before various big corporations could buy palm oil cheaply as a basis for goods of higher value and before local land was exposed to land grabbing. The "valorisation" of land that previously contributed nothing to the national GDP is the first step in the process. "Countries increasingly look to agricultural goods for economic growth and they consider that to be more important than the food supply for their own population," explains Anke Schaffartzik. In this context, one can observe that commodities that use up a lot of land for their cultivation or extraction are not generating more money than those that require little land. Today, the local population work either on the plantations or in nickel mining, and meanwhile cooking oil has to be imported.

For her further research, Anke Schaffartzik is cooperating with various institutes in Europe. Together with Julia Steinberger from the University of Lausanne she is working on the relationship between infrastructure, its social status and how infrastructure decisions are being taken. At the Universidad Rovira y Virgili in Spain, she is collaborating on a case study of the construction boom during the Spanish economic crisis, and the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona maintains a global atlas of environmental conflicts that provides a tangible picture of the processes leading up to a critical decision.

Approaches to improving the world

Hence, it is not enough, unfortunately, to read the small print and spend a little more money on palm-oil free biscuits. There are always many factors at local level that cannot be influenced downstream by ecologically minded consumers. Once the path to unsustainable development has been taken, there is hardly a way to retrace it. While consumer responsibility is something that people call for, they actually have very little influence.

The focus should therefore be on political processes and decisions that lead to social and ecological inequality and thus promote destructive land use. This is the case not only in Southeast Asia and Latin America, but also on our own doorstep. Where do we see the privatisation of land that was previously subject to shared use? Where is land being re-zoned to build infrastructure? What changes in legislation will affect who gets to decide on land? Who are the beneficiaries? These are important questions. Whose needs are served by the third runway at Vienna Airport, one may wonder, when the actual priority is an expansion of the railway network? Projects such as urban gardening or the sharing economy gain importance if they are understood as a counter-movement to these processes.

Explore further
Palm oil certification brings mixed outcomes to neighboring communities
More information: Brototi Roy et al. Talk renewables, walk coal: The paradox of India's energy transition, Ecological Economics (2020). 
DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2020.106871

Anke Schaffartzik et al. Ökologisch ungleicher Tausch: Wachstum auf Kosten von Mensch und Natur, PROKLA. Zeitschrift für kritische Sozialwissenschaft (2020). DOI: 10.32387/prokla.v50i198.1854

Anke Schaffartzik et al. Global appropriation of resources causes high international material inequality—Growth is not the solution, Ecological Economics (2019). DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2019.05.008

Arnim Scheidel et al. A socio-metabolic perspective on environmental justice and degrowth movements, Ecological Economics (2019). DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2019.02.023
Provided by Austrian Science Fund (FWF)


US bans palm oil imports from Malaysian company over abuses

The ban on Sime Darby is another blow to an industry that has faced mounting allegations of labour and human rights abuses.

A worker collects palm oil fruit inside a palm oil factory in Sepang, outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on June 18, 2014. (Reuters)

The United States has banned imports from a Malaysian palm oil giant whose products are found in numerous household goods over concerns that its workers face a litany of abuses.

The move against Sime Darby Plantation, one of the world's biggest producers, marks the second time the US has blocked shipments from a palm oil company in the Southeast Asian nation in recent months.

Palm oil is a common ingredient in items ranging from processed foods to cosmetics, with Malaysia and neighbouring Indonesia producing 85 percent of the world's supply.

But activists have long claimed that low-paid workers on plantations face abuse, and also blame the industry for driving destruction of rainforests to make way for plantations.

Workers facing abuse

Announcing the ban late on Wednesday, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said there was evidence Sime Darby workers face abuses including sexual and physical violence, withholding of wages and restrictions on movement.

The CBP said it issued a 'withhold release order' on Sime Darby, which will allow it to detain shipments based on suspicion of forced labour involvement under longstanding US laws aimed at combating human trafficking, child labour and other human rights abuses.

The CBP said the order was based on a months-long investigation that reasonably indicated the presence of the International Labour Organization's forced labour indicators at Sime Darby plantations.

"We do believe that there are some issues that are systemic across all of Sime Darby's plantations," Ana Hinojosa, executive director of CBP's Trade Remedy Law Enforcement Directorate, said on a call with reporters.

READ MORE: True face of beauty brands: Women palm oil workers raped and abused

Malaysian companies on radar

Sime Darby is the third Malaysian company to be slapped with a US ban this year over forced labour allegations after FGV Holdings, another Malaysian palm oil producer, and Top Glove, the world's biggest producer of medical-grade latex gloves.

Malaysia relies on over 337,000 migrant workers from countries like Indonesia, India and Bangladesh to harvest the palm fruit.

The CBP said the United States imported about $410 million worth of crude palm oil from Malaysia in the fiscal year that ended in September 2020, accounting for just over 30 percent of the United States' total palm oil purchases.

Sime Darby says its annual exports to the United States total about $5 million.

The company, which supplies major firms like Nestle and Unilever, runs a network of sprawling plantations, and employs migrant workers from countries including Indonesia and Bangladesh.

Earlier this year, anti-trafficking group Liberty Shared had petitioned the CBP to ban imports from Sime Darby over concerns about labour abuse.

In October, the US banned imports from another Malaysian palm oil producer, FGV Holdings, following a lengthy probe that found indications its workers faced abuse.

Sime Darby did not respond to requests for comment.

It supplies to some of the biggest names in the business, from Cargill to Nestle, Unilever and L'Oreal, according to the companies’ most recently published supplier and palm oil mill lists.

The ban "demonstrates how essential it is for Americans to research the origins of the everyday products that they purchase," said CBP acting commissioner Mark A. Morgan.

READ MORE: Malaysia PM stands by Kashmir comments as India calls for palm oil boycott


US bans second Malaysian palm oil giant over forced labor


FILE - In this Nov. 11, 2020, file photo, women from age 6 to 102 in a family that has worked on a palm oil plantation for five generations hold out the palms of their hands in Malaysia. The U.S. said it will ban all shipments of palm oil from one of the world’s biggest producers after finding indicators of forced labor and other abuses on plantations that feed into the supply chains of some of America’s most famous food and cosmetic companies. (AP Photo/File)

The U.S. said it will ban all shipments of palm oil from one of the world’s biggest producers after finding indicators of forced labor and other abuses on plantations that feed into the supply chains of some of America’s most famous food and cosmetic companies.

The order against Malaysian-owned Sime Darby Plantation Berhad and its local subsidiaries, joint ventures and affiliates followed an intensive months-long investigation by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Trade, said Ana Hinojosa, one of the agency’s executive directors.

Hinojosa said the investigation “reasonably indicates” abuses against workers that included physical and sexual violence, restriction of movement, intimidation and threats, debt bondage, withholding of wages and excessive overtime. Some of the problems appeared to be systemic, occurring on numerous plantations, which stretch across wide swaths of the country, she said.

“Importers should know that there are reputational, financial and legal risks associated with importing goods made by forced labor into the United States,” Hinojosa said in a telephone press briefing.

The order was announced just three months after the federal government slapped the same ban on another Malaysian palm oil giant, FGV Holdings Berhad -- the first palm oil company ever targeted by Customs over concerns about forced labor. The U.S. imported $410 million of crude palm oil from Malaysia in fiscal year 2020, representing a third of the total value shipped in.

The bans, triggered by petitions filed by non-profit groups and a law firm, came in the wake of an in-depth investigation by The Associated Press into labor abuses on plantations in Malaysia and neighboring Indonesia, which together produce about 85% of the $65 billion supply of the world’s most consumed vegetable oil. Palm oil can be found in roughly half the products on supermarket shelves and in most cosmetic brands. It’s in paints, plywood, pesticides, animal feed, biofuels and even hand sanitizer.

The AP interviewed more than 130 current and former workers from two dozen palm oil companies, including Sime Darby, for its investigation. Reporters found everything from rape and child labor to trafficking and outright slavery on plantations in both countries.

Earlier this month, 25 Democratic lawmakers from the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee cited AP’s investigation in a letter calling for the government to come down harder on the palm oil industry in Malaysia and Indonesia, asking Customs and Border Protection if it had considered a blanket ban on imports from those countries.

“In our view, these odious labor practices and their pervasive impact across supply chains highlight the need for an aggressive and effective enforcement strategy,” the letter said.

Sime Darby, which did not immediately comment, has palm oil plantations covering nearly 1.5 million acres, making it one of Malaysia’s largest producers. It supplies to some of the biggest names in the business, from Cargill to Nestle, Unilever and L’Óreal, according to the companies’ most recently published supplier and palm oil mill lists.

Hinojosa said the agency’s decision to issue the ban should send an “unambiguous” message to the trade community.

“Consumers have a right to know where the palm oil is coming from and the conditions under which that palm oil is produced and what products that particular palm oil is going into,” she said.

Meanwhile, Duncan Jepson of the anti-trafficking group Liberty Shared, which submitted the petition leading to the Sime Darby ban, filed two additional complaints Wednesday — one to the UK’s Home Office, questioning the company’s disclosure about its protection of human rights under the country’s Modern Slavery Act, and the other to the Malaysian stock exchange, regarding the company’s stated commitments to sustainability. Both complaints questioned the accuracy of Sime Darby’s disclosures in light of the CPB’s findings.

Jepson said the U.S. ban also should be a red flag for Asian and Western financial institutions that have helped support the industry, saying ties to forced labor could have serious consequences for banks and lenders.

The U.S. government’s announcement about Sime Darby marked the 14th time this year Customs has issued an order to detain shipments from an array of sectors following similar investigations into forced labor. They include seafood and cotton, along with human hair pieces believed to have been made by persecuted Uighur Muslims in Chinese labor camps.

Under Wednesday’s order, palm oil products or derivatives traceable to Sime Darby will be detained at U.S. ports. Shipments can be exported if the company is unable to prove that the goods were not produced with forced labor.


Girl Scouts call on cookie bakers to address child labour

The Girl Scouts of the USA said Wednesday that child labour has no place in its iconic cookies and called on the two companies that bake them to act quickly to address any potential abuses linked to the palm oil in their supply chains.
© Provided by The Canadian Press

The comments were sent in the form of a tweet to Associated Press reporters who released an investigation Tuesday linking Girl Scout cookies and the supply chains of other well-known food brands to an estimated tens of thousands of children who often work unpaid for long hours in hazardous conditions to help harvest palm fruits on plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia.

“Child labour has no place in Girl Scout Cookie production,” the Girl Scouts tweeted. “Our investment in the development of our world’s youth must not be facilitated by the under-development of some.”


The Girl Scouts also referred to a not-for-profit global organization it belongs to called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which promotes ethical production, including the treatment of workers, writing: “If certain suppliers are not following ethical practices, we expect our bakers and RSPO to take action quickly to rectify those exceptions.”  

The Girl Scouts had not responded to repeated requests from the AP for comment about the findings ahead of Tuesday’s story, which found many children working in the palm oil industry do not have access to adequate school or healthcare and that some never learn to read or write. The story detailed how others live in fear of being rounded up by police and tossed in detention centres because they were born on plantations to parents who are working illegally, and how girls are vulnerable to sexual abuse.

Reporters traced child labour to the supply chain of one of the Girl Scout cookies’ bakers, Little Brownie Bakers, owned by the Italian confectionary brand Ferrero, which did not comment on the findings. The other baker and its parent company, Canada-based Weston Foods, did not provide any details about its supply chain, citing proprietary reasons. Both said they were committed to sourcing sustainable palm oil.

The Associated Press

 Child labor in palm oil industry tied to Girl Scout cookies

An Associated Press investigation has found that an army of children are toiling on palm oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia. The vegetable oil can be found in the supply chains of popular cereals, snacks and Girl Scout cookies. (Dec. 29)

LONG READ Child labor in palm oil industry tied to Girl Scout cookies (


A child helps her parents work on a palm oil plantation in Sabah, Malaysia, Monday, Dec. 10, 2018. Many children gather loose kernels and clear brush from the trees with machetes. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)

Olivia Chaffin, 14, stands for a portrait with her Girl Scout sash in Jonesborough, Tenn., on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020. Olivia is asking Girl Scouts across the country to band with her and stop selling cookies, saying, "The cookies deceive a lot of people. They think it's sustainable, but it isn't." (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Derailed oil train cars removed north of Bellingham

 (AP) — Crews on Tuesday removed the train cars carrying crude oil that derailed north of Bellingham and near the Canadian border last week.

BNSF employees and contractors loaded the cars onto flatbed trucks for removal from the derailment site in Custer. BNSF spokeswoman Courtney Wallace said all the cars would be removed on Tuesday. She also confirmed Tuesday that ten cars of the tanker train hauling oil derailed on Dec. 22, which was several more than previously reported.

Five cars caught fire, sending a large plume of black smoke into the sky and prompting evacuations. Three cars were punctured and leaked oil.

The cause of the derailment remains under investigation by the FBI and Wallace said she had no new information about the investigation on Tuesday. The derailment happened when the train was moving at about 7 mph, making it a low-speed derailment, she said.

Officials with the Department of Ecology also remain at the site with soil testing and remediation work to start this week, she said. On Sunday, Ecology officials said on Twitter that crews were continuing to remove oil from the site.

1 of 11

Workers use heavy equipment to begin to move one of several train cars which had been hauling crude oil and derailed a week earlier, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020, in Custer, Wash. The cause of the derailment of the oil cars Dec. 22 in Whatcom County is still unknown. A spokesperson for BNSF Railways said three cars ruptured, spilling an unknown amount of crude oil onto the ground. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)BELLINGHAM, Wash.

Workers use heavy equipment to begin to move one of several train cars which had been hauling crude oil and derailed days earlier, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020, in Custer, Wash. The cause of the derailment of the oil cars Dec. 22 in Whatcom County is still unknown. A spokesperson for BNSF Railways said three cars ruptured, spilling an unknown amount of crude oil onto the ground. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

In this photo taken with a drone, workers use heavy equipment prepare to remove the last several of 10 train cars which had been hauling crude oil and derailed a week earlier, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020, in Custer, Wash. The cause of the derailment of the oil cars Dec. 22 in Whatcom County is still unknown. A spokesperson for BNSF Railways said three cars ruptured, spilling an unknown amount of crude oil onto the ground. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

A piece of heavy equipment goes up on a single track while being used to move one of several train cars which had been hauling crude oil and derailed a week earlier, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020, in Custer, Wash. The cause of the derailment of the oil cars Dec. 22 in Whatcom County is still unknown. A spokesperson for BNSF Railways said three cars ruptured, spilling an unknown amount of crude oil onto the ground. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Federal checks salvage otherwise dreadful 2020 for US farms


 In this Aug. 26, 2020 file photo, a farmer discs over a corn field on at a farm north of Woodward, Iowa. The corn was damaged beyond salvage by the recent derecho. Thanks to the government paying nearly 40% of their income, U.S. farmers are expected to end 2020 with higher profit than 2019 and the best net income in seven years, the Department of Agriculture said in its latest farm income forecast. Farmers faced challenges throughout 2020 that included the impact of trade disputes; low prices that drove down cash receipts and weather difficulties. (Bryon Houlgrave/The Des Moines Register via AP File)

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Thanks to the government paying nearly 40% of their income, U.S. farmers are expected to end 2020 with higher profit than 2019 and the best net income in seven years, the Department of Agriculture said in its latest farm income forecast.

Farmers faced challenges throughout 2020 that included the impact of trade dispute s; low prices that drove down cash receipts for corn, cotton, wheat, chicken, cattle and hogs; and weather difficulties such as drought in some areas and an unusual August wind storm stretching from South Dakota to Ohio that centered on Iowa.

Farm cash receipts are forecast to decrease nearly 1% to $366.5 billion, the lowest in more than a decade, measured in real dollars. Direct federal government payments saved farmers’ bottom line: Farmers overall saw a 107% increase in direct payments from 2019, when a third of net income came directly from the government.

The impact of the money varies from one farm to another, depending on whether a farmer owns the land, has significant capital to draw from, has manageable debt and aggressively manages wide commodity price swings.

“The payment to one farm could be a matter of life and death of that farm and for another farm maybe just makes it not quite as bad of a year as it was going to be and everywhere in between,” said Mike Paustian, a farmer who raises hogs and grows soybeans and corn near Walcott in eastern Iowa. “I’ve described it as: If you’re drowning and somebody throws you a life preserver, you’re not going to argue too much about grabbing ahold of it.”

Excluding USDA loans and insurance indemnity payments made by the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation, farmers are expected to receive $46.5 billion from the government, the largest direct-to-farm payment ever. That includes $32.4 billion in assistance through coronavirus pandemic relief food assistance and Paycheck Protection Program payments to farmers. Additional support comes from more traditional revenue loss programs due to low commodity prices, compensation for trade disruptions resulting from tariff battles and conservation programs assistance.

Federal court bankruptcy data indicates 433 U.S. farms filed for reorganization as of Sept. 30, down from 454 during the same period the previous year.

Overall, net farm income in the United States is expected to increase 43% from 2019 to $119.6 billion, the USDA estimated. Farmers will see the highest level of net farm income, a broad measure of profitability, since 2013, the agency said.

One northeast Iowa farmer said without the federal money it would have been difficult to make ends meet this year but it began to feel like the government checks were motivated by politics from a president seeking support for reelection.

“At first it did help, but then we kept getting payments and I don’t know that those were warranted,” said Rick Juchems, 65, who grows corn and soybeans and custom raises hogs. “The markets had already recovered quite a bit and they’re recovering yet more, so it helps some but it’s one of those things that the second one was more than we needed.”

In a late October campaign appearance in Omaha, Nebraska, President Donald Trump said he believed farmers were better off getting government payments than relying solely on their farming receipts.

“In fact, some people say our farmers do better now than when they actually had a farm,” he said.

Many top farm states voted again for Trump in November, including Iowa, Nebraska, Texas and Kansas. Several, however, left Trump to vote for Democrat Joe Biden, including Wisconsin, Michigan and Georgia.

Bill Gordon, who with his father raises soybeans and corn in southwestern Minnesota, hopes for improved free trade agreements and a less confrontational approach under Biden in 2021.

“Volatility definitely causes volatility,” he said. “And so if we can get these free trade agreements set up, that are better, and not as confrontational but still benefit both sides, that just benefits agriculture and rural America.”