South American Trade Bloc Eyes New Deals as EU Talks Drag On

Leaders of South American trade bloc Mercosur pushed for trade deals with Asian and other Western Hemisphere countries during a summit on Monday, as roadblocks remained in talks with the European Union (EU) despite optimism earlier this year.

European officials said earlier this month that talks for a long-delayed trade agreement with the Mercosur bloc of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay were nearing a close.

But Uruguay’s President Tabare Vazquez, who assumed the bloc’s rotating presidency, criticized delays in negotiations.

“We are not prepared to waste time in eternal negotiations,” Vazquez said in a speech. “Nor are we prepared to sign a watered-down version.”

Vazquez reiterated that Uruguay was keen to sign a free-trade deal with China, its top trade partner, even if it had to sign it alone rather than as part of Mercosur. China is the main market for many of the raw materials the bloc produces, but its manufacturing exports also compete with domestic industries.

The last round of EU-Mercosur talks in April ended with limited progress and finger-pointing about who was holding up a deal. Key gaps remain on how far to open each other’s markets to industrial goods and farm products, such as Latin American beef and EU cars and dairy.

The Mercosur countries emphasized in a joint statement on the need to “have the political support from both parties” to reach a deal.

“We should not abandon the idea of this alliance,” Brazilian President Michel Temer told reporters. “Closing the doors now would impede negotiations which recently have had reasonable success.”

Temer also pushed for trade talks with the neighboring Pacific Alliance countries of Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru, which are generally far more open to international trade than their Mercosur counterparts. A meeting between the two blocs is scheduled for next month.

In the joint statement, the bloc described recently launched trade talks with Canada and South Korea as an “assertive response against protectionist tendencies.” Argentine Vice President Gabriela Michetti also called on the bloc to “advance quickly” in talks with Singapore, India and North Africa.

In separate statements, the Mercosur members also condemned violence in Nicaragua, where a wave of anti-government protests have left 170 dead. The bloc also expressed concern about the humanitarian and migrant crisis in Venezuela, which was formerly a Mercosur member but got kicked out last year.


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Laos Announces Another Controversial Dam on the Mekong

The Laos government has announced plans for a fourth major dam on the Mekong mainstream just months after the feasibility of another of its hydroelectric projects was thrown into question by a delayed power deal.

Laos notified the Mekong River Commission (MRC) last week of its intention to build a 770 megawatt dam at Pak Lay in Xayaburi province, where it has already constructed another highly controversial mainstream dam.

The notification follows Thailand’s decision in February to delay signing a power purchase agreement for Laos’ 912 megawatt Pak Beng. Bangkok is said to be reconsidering its energy strategy in light of a reported electricity surplus.

Maureen Harris, Southeast Asia director at International Rivers, an environmental watchdog group, said the government’s notification on the Pak Lay dam is unusual.

“Firstly, the construction on the project in scheduled to start in 2022, which is over three years away. So that’s initiating the process significantly sooner than has been the case for the other projects that have gone through the procedure to date,” Harris said.

“There’s also no developer or power purchaser who has been identified in the notification,” she added.

Impact concerns

Harris suspects there could be some concerns in Laos over the environmental impact of the dams. 

At a major summit in Cambodia in April, MRC representatives presented the findings of a landmark $4.7 million, scientific assessment of planned developments on a river crucial to fish stocks and food supplies across Southeast Asia. 

That study found that if current development plans went ahead, 39 to 40 percent of the entire fish biomass — about $4.3 billion worth — would be wiped out by 2040 in the Lower Mekong Basin, where about 200 million people rely on the river.

Harris suggested the notification looked like a purposeful distraction from unresolved questions over Laos’ existing dams, how to apply the MRC Council Study’s findings and proposed reforms to the prior notification process itself.

The MRC secretariat wrote in an emailed response to VOA that the fact that Laos had engaged in notification and consultation on all its mainstream projects demonstrates it has not disregarded such concerns.

“One shall recognize Laos’ constructive intent in submission of the project to the prior consultation instead of taking it as inflaming tensions, witnessing a case in the modern time when one state threatens to bomb a dam being built in the upstream area,” the secretariat wrote, invoking a hypothetical situation.

“The submission is to prevent barbarian conflicts that the [sic] mankind experienced in its past,” it wrote.

Te Navuth, secretary general of the Cambodia National Mekong Committee, echoed those sentiments, saying that though all of Laos’ mainstream dams raised serious issues, those concerns are being handled through the established MRC mechanisms.

“The first one was a serious case already. So our concern is a concern overall on fish migrations, on sediment, blocking flow, river regime changing, these more common concerns.

“We could not say yes or no to the projects directly, so we have to talk to each other first using the findings from the council study, from any other sources that we have,” he said.

Nuanlaor Wongpinitwarodom, director of Thailand’s Mekong Management Bureau, said she could not comment until she had seen the Laos government submission while representatives of Vietnam’s National Mekong Committee did not respond to VOA inquires.

The four member countries of the MRC — Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos — will now have six months to review the Laos government proposal for Pak Lay and urge strategies to mitigate its impacts but have no authority to stop it being constructed.

Economically viable?

Conservationists and renewable energy proponents at the April MRC summit heralded the Pak Beng power purchase delay as a “tipping point” in the transition from hydropower to renewables such as solar and wind.

It came after a January report from the International Renewable Energy Agency found the so-called “levelized” price of solar generated electricity had plummeted by 73 percent from 2010 to 2017, predicting the cost would halve again by 2020 to become cheaper than hydropower competitors.

Pak Lay would not come online until 2029, and the projected cost of the dam is thus far not known.

Han Phoumin, a senior energy economist at the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia in Jakarta, said for now, hydro remains a more cost-competitive option, especially given its capacity to provide baseload power and comparative ease of integration into existing infrastructure.

“But if the timeline’s until 2029, I think the development of storage for solar and wind could be viable. In that case, I think it will provide a very important role as baseload power. In that case, I think they could, to some point, beat the hydro,” Phoumin said.

Selling the power generated by Pak Lay would not be a problem, he said, given that energy demand in the region is expected to increase over that time frame by about two to three times while ASEAN grid interconnectivity will continually expand to available markets.

Securing upfront investment first though might be another story.

“The investor must have very strong backup already, perhaps we need to explore because the project cannot go ahead without a strong kind of PPA (power purchasing agreement) or off-taker agreement,” he said.


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Laos Announces Another Controversial Dam on the Mekong

The Laos government has announced plans for a fourth major dam on the Mekong mainstream just months after the feasibility of another of its hydroelectric projects was thrown into question by a delayed power deal.

Laos notified the Mekong River Commission (MRC) last week of its intention to build a 770 megawatt dam at Pak Lay in Xayaburi province, where it has already constructed another highly controversial mainstream dam.

The notification follows Thailand’s decision in February to delay signing a power purchase agreement for Laos’ 912 megawatt Pak Beng. Bangkok is said to be reconsidering its energy strategy in light of a reported electricity surplus.

Maureen Harris, Southeast Asia director at International Rivers, an environmental watchdog group, said the government’s notification on the Pak Lay dam is unusual.

“Firstly, the construction on the project in scheduled to start in 2022, which is over three years away. So that’s initiating the process significantly sooner than has been the case for the other projects that have gone through the procedure to date,” Harris said.

“There’s also no developer or power purchaser who has been identified in the notification,” she added.

Impact concerns

Harris suspects there could be some concerns in Laos over the environmental impact of the dams. 

At a major summit in Cambodia in April, MRC representatives presented the findings of a landmark $4.7 million, scientific assessment of planned developments on a river crucial to fish stocks and food supplies across Southeast Asia. 

That study found that if current development plans went ahead, 39 to 40 percent of the entire fish biomass — about $4.3 billion worth — would be wiped out by 2040 in the Lower Mekong Basin, where about 200 million people rely on the river.

Harris suggested the notification looked like a purposeful distraction from unresolved questions over Laos’ existing dams, how to apply the MRC Council Study’s findings and proposed reforms to the prior notification process itself.

The MRC secretariat wrote in an emailed response to VOA that the fact that Laos had engaged in notification and consultation on all its mainstream projects demonstrates it has not disregarded such concerns.

“One shall recognize Laos’ constructive intent in submission of the project to the prior consultation instead of taking it as inflaming tensions, witnessing a case in the modern time when one state threatens to bomb a dam being built in the upstream area,” the secretariat wrote, invoking a hypothetical situation.

“The submission is to prevent barbarian conflicts that the [sic] mankind experienced in its past,” it wrote.

Te Navuth, secretary general of the Cambodia National Mekong Committee, echoed those sentiments, saying that though all of Laos’ mainstream dams raised serious issues, those concerns are being handled through the established MRC mechanisms.

“The first one was a serious case already. So our concern is a concern overall on fish migrations, on sediment, blocking flow, river regime changing, these more common concerns.

“We could not say yes or no to the projects directly, so we have to talk to each other first using the findings from the council study, from any other sources that we have,” he said.

Nuanlaor Wongpinitwarodom, director of Thailand’s Mekong Management Bureau, said she could not comment until she had seen the Laos government submission while representatives of Vietnam’s National Mekong Committee did not respond to VOA inquires.

The four member countries of the MRC — Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos — will now have six months to review the Laos government proposal for Pak Lay and urge strategies to mitigate its impacts but have no authority to stop it being constructed.

Economically viable?

Conservationists and renewable energy proponents at the April MRC summit heralded the Pak Beng power purchase delay as a “tipping point” in the transition from hydropower to renewables such as solar and wind.

It came after a January report from the International Renewable Energy Agency found the so-called “levelized” price of solar generated electricity had plummeted by 73 percent from 2010 to 2017, predicting the cost would halve again by 2020 to become cheaper than hydropower competitors.

Pak Lay would not come online until 2029, and the projected cost of the dam is thus far not known.

Han Phoumin, a senior energy economist at the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia in Jakarta, said for now, hydro remains a more cost-competitive option, especially given its capacity to provide baseload power and comparative ease of integration into existing infrastructure.

“But if the timeline’s until 2029, I think the development of storage for solar and wind could be viable. In that case, I think it will provide a very important role as baseload power. In that case, I think they could, to some point, beat the hydro,” Phoumin said.

Selling the power generated by Pak Lay would not be a problem, he said, given that energy demand in the region is expected to increase over that time frame by about two to three times while ASEAN grid interconnectivity will continually expand to available markets.

Securing upfront investment first though might be another story.

“The investor must have very strong backup already, perhaps we need to explore because the project cannot go ahead without a strong kind of PPA (power purchasing agreement) or off-taker agreement,” he said.


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WHO Lists Compulsive Video Gaming As Mental Health Problem

Parents suspicious that their children may be addicted to video games now have support from health authorities. The World Health Organization has listed “gaming disorder” as a new mental health problem on its 11th edition of  International Classification of Diseases, released on Monday. But as VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports, not all psychologists agree that compulsive gaming should be on that list.


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WHO Lists Compulsive Video Gaming As Mental Health Problem

Parents suspicious that their children may be addicted to video games now have support from health authorities. The World Health Organization has listed “gaming disorder” as a new mental health problem on its 11th edition of  International Classification of Diseases, released on Monday. But as VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports, not all psychologists agree that compulsive gaming should be on that list.


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Norway Tests Tiny Electric Plane, Sees Passenger Flights by 2025

Norway tested a two-seater electric plane on Monday and predicted a start to passenger flights by 2025 if new aviation technologies match a green shift that has made Norwegians the world’s top buyers of electric cars.

Transport Minister Ketil Solvik-Olsen and Dag Falk-Petersen, head of state-run Avinor which runs most of Norway’s airports, took a few minutes’ flight around Oslo airport in an Alpha Electro G2 plane, built by Pipistrel in Slovenia.

“This is … a first example that we are moving fast forward” towards greener aviation, Solvik-Olsen told Reuters. “We do have to make sure it is safe – people won’t fly if they don’t trust it.”

He said plane makers such as Boeing and Airbus were developing electric aircraft and that battery prices were tumbling, making it feasible to reach a government goal of making all domestic flights in Norway electric by 2040.

Asked when passenger flights in electric planes could start, Falk-Petersen, the pilot, said: “My best guess is before 2025 … It should all be electrified by 2040.”

The two said the plane, with a takeoff weight of 570 kg (1255 lb), was cramped and buffeted by winds but far quieter than a conventional plane run on fossil fuels.

Norway tops the world league for per capita sales of electric cars such as Teslas, Nissan Leafs or Volkswagen Golfs, backed by incentives such as big tax breaks, free parking and exemptions from road tolls.

In May 2018, 56 percent of all cars sold in Norway were either pure electric or hybrids against 46 percent in the same month of 2017, according to official statistics.

Norway, a mountainous country of five million people where fjords and remote islands mean many short-hop routes of less than 200 kms, would be ideal for electric planes, Solvik-Olsen said. Also, 98 percent of electricity in Norway is generated from clean hydro power.

Some opposition politicians said the government needed to do far more to meet green commitments in the 200-nation Paris climate agreement.

“This is a start … but we have to make jet fuel a lot more expensive,” said Arild Hermstad, a leader of the Green Party.

The first electric planes flew across the English Channel in July 2015, including an Airbus E-Fan. French aviator Louis Bleriot who was first to fly across the Channel, in 1909, in a fossil-fuel powered plane.

Electric planes so far have big problems of weight, with bulky batteries and limited ranges. Both Falk-Petersen and Solvik-Olsen said they had been on strict diets before the flight.

“My wife is happy about it,” Solvik-Olsen said.


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Norway Tests Tiny Electric Plane, Sees Passenger Flights by 2025

Norway tested a two-seater electric plane on Monday and predicted a start to passenger flights by 2025 if new aviation technologies match a green shift that has made Norwegians the world’s top buyers of electric cars.

Transport Minister Ketil Solvik-Olsen and Dag Falk-Petersen, head of state-run Avinor which runs most of Norway’s airports, took a few minutes’ flight around Oslo airport in an Alpha Electro G2 plane, built by Pipistrel in Slovenia.

“This is … a first example that we are moving fast forward” towards greener aviation, Solvik-Olsen told Reuters. “We do have to make sure it is safe – people won’t fly if they don’t trust it.”

He said plane makers such as Boeing and Airbus were developing electric aircraft and that battery prices were tumbling, making it feasible to reach a government goal of making all domestic flights in Norway electric by 2040.

Asked when passenger flights in electric planes could start, Falk-Petersen, the pilot, said: “My best guess is before 2025 … It should all be electrified by 2040.”

The two said the plane, with a takeoff weight of 570 kg (1255 lb), was cramped and buffeted by winds but far quieter than a conventional plane run on fossil fuels.

Norway tops the world league for per capita sales of electric cars such as Teslas, Nissan Leafs or Volkswagen Golfs, backed by incentives such as big tax breaks, free parking and exemptions from road tolls.

In May 2018, 56 percent of all cars sold in Norway were either pure electric or hybrids against 46 percent in the same month of 2017, according to official statistics.

Norway, a mountainous country of five million people where fjords and remote islands mean many short-hop routes of less than 200 kms, would be ideal for electric planes, Solvik-Olsen said. Also, 98 percent of electricity in Norway is generated from clean hydro power.

Some opposition politicians said the government needed to do far more to meet green commitments in the 200-nation Paris climate agreement.

“This is a start … but we have to make jet fuel a lot more expensive,” said Arild Hermstad, a leader of the Green Party.

The first electric planes flew across the English Channel in July 2015, including an Airbus E-Fan. French aviator Louis Bleriot who was first to fly across the Channel, in 1909, in a fossil-fuel powered plane.

Electric planes so far have big problems of weight, with bulky batteries and limited ranges. Both Falk-Petersen and Solvik-Olsen said they had been on strict diets before the flight.

“My wife is happy about it,” Solvik-Olsen said.


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Intel Tops List of Tech Companies Fighting Forced Labor

Intel topped a list issued on Monday ranking how well technology companies combat the risk of forced labor in their supply chains, overtaking HP and Apple.

Most of the top 40 global technology companies assessed in the study by KnowTheChain, an online resource for business, had made progress since the last report was published in 2016. But the study found there was still room for improvement.

“The sector needs to advance their efforts further down the supply chain in order to truly protect vulnerable workers,” said Kilian Moote, project director of KnowTheChain, in a statement.

Intel, HP and Apple scored the highest on the list, which looked at factors including purchasing practices, monitoring and auditing processes. China-based BOE Technology Group and Taiwan’s Largan Precision came bottom.

Workers who make the components used by technology companies are often migrants vulnerable to exploitative working conditions, the report said. 

About 25 million people globally were estimated to be trapped in forced labor in 2016, according to the International Labor Organization and rights group Walk Free Foundation.

Laborers in technology companies’ supply chains are sometimes charged high recruitment fees to get jobs, trapped in debt servitude, or deprived of their passports or other documents, the report said.

It highlighted a failure to give workers a voice through grievance mechanisms and tackle exploitative recruiting practices as the main areas of concern across the sector.

In recent years modern slavery has increasingly come under the global spotlight, putting ever greater regulatory and consumer pressure on firms to ensure their supply chains are free of forced labor, child labor and other forms of slavery.

From cosmetics and clothes to shrimp and smartphones, supply chains are often complex with multiple layers across various countries — whether in sourcing the raw materials or creating the final product — making it hard to identify exploitation.

Overall, large technology companies fared better than smaller ones, suggesting a strong link between size and capacity to take action, the report said. Amazon, which ranked 20th, was a notable exception, it said.

“Top-ranking brands … are listening to workers in their supply chains and weeding out unscrupulous recruitment processes,” Phil Bloomer, head of the Business & Human Rights Resource Center, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A spokesman for Amazon said the report drew from old and incomplete information and failed to take into account recently launched anti-slavery commitments and initiatives.

HP said it regularly assessed its supply chain to identify and address any concerns and risks of exploitation.

“We strive to ensure that workers in our supply chain have fair treatment, safe working conditions, and freely chosen employment,” said Annukka Dickens, HP’s director for human rights and supply chain responsibility.

Intel, Apple, BOE Technology and Largan Precision did not immediately respond to requests for comment.


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Intel Tops List of Tech Companies Fighting Forced Labor

Intel topped a list issued on Monday ranking how well technology companies combat the risk of forced labor in their supply chains, overtaking HP and Apple.

Most of the top 40 global technology companies assessed in the study by KnowTheChain, an online resource for business, had made progress since the last report was published in 2016. But the study found there was still room for improvement.

“The sector needs to advance their efforts further down the supply chain in order to truly protect vulnerable workers,” said Kilian Moote, project director of KnowTheChain, in a statement.

Intel, HP and Apple scored the highest on the list, which looked at factors including purchasing practices, monitoring and auditing processes. China-based BOE Technology Group and Taiwan’s Largan Precision came bottom.

Workers who make the components used by technology companies are often migrants vulnerable to exploitative working conditions, the report said. 

About 25 million people globally were estimated to be trapped in forced labor in 2016, according to the International Labor Organization and rights group Walk Free Foundation.

Laborers in technology companies’ supply chains are sometimes charged high recruitment fees to get jobs, trapped in debt servitude, or deprived of their passports or other documents, the report said.

It highlighted a failure to give workers a voice through grievance mechanisms and tackle exploitative recruiting practices as the main areas of concern across the sector.

In recent years modern slavery has increasingly come under the global spotlight, putting ever greater regulatory and consumer pressure on firms to ensure their supply chains are free of forced labor, child labor and other forms of slavery.

From cosmetics and clothes to shrimp and smartphones, supply chains are often complex with multiple layers across various countries — whether in sourcing the raw materials or creating the final product — making it hard to identify exploitation.

Overall, large technology companies fared better than smaller ones, suggesting a strong link between size and capacity to take action, the report said. Amazon, which ranked 20th, was a notable exception, it said.

“Top-ranking brands … are listening to workers in their supply chains and weeding out unscrupulous recruitment processes,” Phil Bloomer, head of the Business & Human Rights Resource Center, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A spokesman for Amazon said the report drew from old and incomplete information and failed to take into account recently launched anti-slavery commitments and initiatives.

HP said it regularly assessed its supply chain to identify and address any concerns and risks of exploitation.

“We strive to ensure that workers in our supply chain have fair treatment, safe working conditions, and freely chosen employment,” said Annukka Dickens, HP’s director for human rights and supply chain responsibility.

Intel, Apple, BOE Technology and Largan Precision did not immediately respond to requests for comment.


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Google to Invest $550M in China E-commerce Giant JD.com

Google will invest $550 million in Chinese e-commerce powerhouse JD.com, part of the U.S. internet giant’s efforts to expand its presence in fast-growing Asian markets and battle rivals including Amazon.com.

The two companies described the investment announced on Monday as one piece of a broader partnership that will include the promotion of JD.com products on Google’s shopping service.

This could help JD.com expand beyond its base in China and Southeast Asia and establish a meaningful presence in U.S. and European markets.

JD.com’s U.S.-listed shares rose 1.2 percent to $44.10 on the NASDAQ on Monday.

Company officials said the agreement initially would not involve any major new Google initiatives in China, where the company’s main services are blocked over its refusal to censor search results in line with local laws.

JD.com’s investors include Chinese social media powerhouse Tencent Holdings, the arch-rival of Chinese e-commerce leader Alibaba Group Holding, and Walmart.

The partnership not only lets Google bolster its retail ambitions in China but also allows it to further tighten its relationship with Walmart. Together, the two companies could challenge the dominance of Amazon and Alibaba in key markets around the world, analysts said.

In the past year, Google has been partnered with Walmart on multiple fronts. In August 2017, the two companies joined forces to offer hundreds of thousands of Walmart items on Google’s voice-controlled Google Assistant platform to counter the dominance of Amazon in the voice shopping market.

In March, Reuters reported a new program where Google was teaming up with retailers like Walmart, allowing them to list their products on Google Search, as well as on the Google Express shopping service to better compete with Amazon.

Google is also reportedly pursuing picking up a stake in India’s Flipkart, where Walmart picked up a 77 percent stake for $16 billion.

Google declined to comment on the rumored Flipkart deal.

Stepping Up Investments in ASIA

Google is stepping up its investments across Asia, where a rapidly growing middle class and a lack of infrastructure in retail, finance and other areas have made it a battleground for U.S. and Chinese internet heavyweights. Google recently took a stake in Indonesian ride-hailing firm Go-Jek.

The JD.com investment is being made by the operating unit of Google rather than one of parent company Alphabet’s investment vehicles.

Google will get 27.1 million newly issued JD.com Class A ordinary shares as part of the deal. This will give them less than a 1 percent stake in JD, a spokesman for JD said.

For JD.com, the Google deal shows its determination to build a set of global alliances as it seeks to counter Alibaba, which has been more focused on forging domestic retail tie-ups.

Japan’s SoftBank Group, which is making big internet investments around the globe, is a major investor in Alibaba.

Morningstar analyst Chelsey Tam said the investment will help JD.com expand into developed markets such as the United States and Europe, where it has lesser exposure compared to Google.

“This partnership with Google opens up a broad range of possibilities to offer a superior retail experience to consumers throughout the world,” said Jianwen Liao, JD.com’s chief strategy officer, in a statement.

Company officials said the deal would marry Google’s market reach and strength in analytics with JD.com’s expertise in logistics and inventory management.

The investment may give Google access to more consumer data, which can be used to boost usage of Google Shopping, said Morningstar analyst Ali Mogharabi.


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