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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Ukraine ‘Corruption Park’ Shows Ill-Gotten Gains

A pop-up “Corruption Park” has opened in Ukraine to highlight the scale of the problem with interactive exhibits and displays of ill-gotten gains including a $46,000 crystal falcon.

One of the first things visitors see in the EU-funded show is a tent shaped like the gold loaf of bread found in the house of ex-president Viktor Yanukovych after he fled Ukraine in 2014.

Elsewhere, they can inspect a $300,000, limited-edition BMW seized from a corrupt official, and a copy of a 8-million-euro chandelier that, the display says, could have paid for a family’s electricity bill for 64,000 years.

In another tent, visitors lie back in a four-poster bed and watch a multimedia film of the imagined nightmares of a guilty government functionary.

The EU Anti-Corruption Initiative, which staged the show in Kiev’s botanical gardens, said it was meant to show the scale of corruption in Ukraine, and what it costs governments and citizens.

Ukraine’s Western-backed government has accused Yanukovych and his pro-Russian administration of widespread abuses and excesses.

But activists have also accused the current authorities of failing to crack down on graft, which is estimated to cost the country about 2 percent of its economic growth, according to the International Monetary Fund.

“For the kids, it’s a good example and revealing about the scale it all happens at,” Kyiv resident Lyuba said, as she queued with her children to don goggles and join a virtual reality anti-corruption investigation.

‘Corruption has taken so much’

The chandelier appears in a mock-up of an official’s room, decked out with the fruits of his corruption.

Other exhibits explain different schemes used for illegal enrichment.

“Corruption concerns everyone. This is one of the main ideas and goals of the project – to explain the direct relation between top level corruption and ordinary Ukrainians,” said Volodymyr Solohub, spokesman for the EU Anti-Corruption Initiative, which paid for the 140,000 euro ($162,000) park.

“A lot of people just come out disappointed that corruption has taken so much from the country,” he said.

One tent called ‘The Fight’ explains what the current authorities have done to combat graft, including the establishment of anti-corruption agencies.

Depicting the various government bodies as pieces in a puzzle, the exhibit illustrates that there is one missing piece: an independent court dedicated to prosecuting corruption cases, whose creation has been repeatedly pushed back.

Earlier in June, parliament voted to establish the court, but activists have said the law contains an amendment that would undermine the court’s effectiveness and Ukraine’s commitments to external backers such as the International Monetary Fund.

 


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WHO Classifies Gaming as a Mental, Addictive Disorder

For the first time, the World Health Organization is adding Gaming disorder to the section on Mental and Addictive Disorders in its new International Classification of Diseases. The ICD provides data on the causes of thousands of diseases, injuries and deaths across the globe and information on prevention and treatment.

The International Classification of Diseases was last revised 28 years ago.

Changes, which have occurred since then are reflected in this edition. Gaming disorder has been added to the section on mental and addictive disorders because demand for services to tackle this condition has been growing.

Gaming disorders usually are linked to a system of rewards or incentives, such as accumulating points in competition with others or winning money. These games are commonly played on electronic and video devices.

WHO officials say statistics, mainly from East and South Asian countries, show only a very small two to three percent of people are addicted to Gaming.

Director of WHO’s Department for Mental Health and Substance Abuse, Shekhar Saxena, describes some of the warning signs of addictive Gaming behavior.

“Be careful if the person you are with, a child or another person is using Gaming in an excessive manner… If it is consuming too much time and if it is interfering with the expected functions of the person, whether it is studies, whether it is socialization, whether it is work, then you need to be cautious and perhaps seek help,” said Saxena.

In the previous WHO classification, gender identity disorders, such as transsexualism were listed under mental and behavioral conditions. Saxena says this now has been moved to the chapter on disorders of sexual behavior along with some other conditions.

“The people with gender identity disorder should be not categorized as a mental disorder because in many cases, in many countries it can be stigmatizing, and it can actually decrease their chances of seeking help because of legal provisions in many countries,” said Saxena.

A new chapter also has been added on traditional medicine. Although traditional medicine is used by millions of people worldwide, it never before has been classified by WHO in this system.

 

 

 

 


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Audi CEO Arrested in Emissions Scandal Probe

German authorities have arrested the chief executive of Volkswagen’s Audi division, Rupert Stadler.

He was arrested Monday as part of an investigation about cars Audi sold in Europe that are believed to have been equipped with software that turned emissions controls off during regular driving.

Last week, Munich prosecutors raided Stadler’s home on suspicion of fraud and improprieties of documents.

Volkswagen Audi said “the presumption of innocence remains in place for Mr. Stadler.”

Volkswagen has pleaded guilty to emissions test cheating in the United States.

CEO Martin Winterkorn was charged in the United States, but he will unlikely face those charges since Germany does not extradite its nationals to countries outside the European Union.


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Food Truck Serves up Tacos to Unite Latinos And Muslims

Nothing brings people together more naturally and more easily than food. This was the idea behind a project called #TacoTrucksAtEveryMosque. But the food truck owners who initiated the project don’t want to only serve delicious food – their goal is to unite Latinos and Muslims — and fight the stereotypes and offensive rhetoric that often surround them. Genia Dulot has the story from Los Angeles.


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Kenya’s President Mandates Lifestyle Audit for Public Servants

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta has intensified his war on graft by announcing that all public servants will undergo a compulsory lifestyle audit to account for their sources of wealth.

This latest announcement follows financial scandals that have rocked the country with revelations that millions of dollars were lost in various government agencies through corrupt deals that involved government officials.

Kenyatta offered himself to be the first leader to undergo the audit that seeks to identify corrupt public officials, saying the lifestyle audits would control the misuse of public funds. He said public servants would be required to explain their sources of wealth with an aim of weeding out those found to have plundered government funds.

“You have to tell us, this is the house you have, this is your salary, how were you able to afford it? This car that you bought, (don’t try to put it under your wife’s name or son’s name, we will still know it is yours), where did you get it? You must explain and I will be the first person to undergo the lifestyle audit,” he said.

Scandals uncovered

In the past month, various corruption scandals involving tenders and suppliers in government agencies have been unearthed. The corruption scandals as revealed have exposed the theft of hundreds of millions of shillings by state officials from several government bodies.

So far, more than 40 government officials, including businesspeople, have been arrested over the recent  scandals.

Kenyatta has continued to express his frustration about the graft, which seems to have spiraled out of control since he came into office in 2013.

“This issue of people stealing what belongs to Kenyans, I swear to God it has to come to an end in Kenya,” Kenyatta said.

Establishing accountability

The president said the lifestyle audit will be key among other measures also put in place by the government to curb the vice.

Earlier in the week, Kenyatta issued an executive order requiring all government entities and publicly owned institutions to publish full details of tenders and awards beginning July 1, 2018.

“For example, if this road is being built, we want to know: Who won the tender for the construction? How much was the tender? Who came in second and third? Why was the first person awarded instead of these two? All these reasons, we need to know. Kenyans need to know so that it is out there, that this company was awarded this tender, belongs to a certain person, these are the directors, these are the shareholders. There will be no more hiding,” he said.

On June 1, Kenyatta ordered that all heads of procurement and accounting units be vetted again. He said the vetting would include subjecting the officers to polygraph tests to determine integrity.

Kenya scored 28 points out of 100 on the 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index reported by Transparency International. The Corruption Index in Kenya averaged 22.62 points from 1996 until 2017.


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World Bank: Remittance Flows Rising After Years of Decline

After two consecutive years of decline, remittances, the money migrant workers send home, increased in 2017 according to figures released by the World Bank. Remittances are a significant financial contribution to the well-being of families of migrant workers and to the sustainable development of their countries of origin. The U.N. recognizes their importance every year on June 16, designated International Day of Family Remittances. VOA’s Cristina Caicedo Smit reports on this vital lifeline.


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Poll: Ticked at Trump, Canadians Say They’ll Avoid US Goods

Seventy percent of Canadians say they will start looking for ways to avoid buying U.S.-made goods in a threat to ratchet up a trade dispute between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump, an Ipsos Poll showed Friday.

The poll also found a majority of Americans and Canadians are united in support of Trudeau and opposition to Trump in their countries’ standoff over the renegotiation of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Amid the spat, Trump pulled out of a joint communique with six other countries last weekend during a Quebec summit meeting of the Group of Seven industrialized democracies and called Trudeau “very dishonest and weak.”

Trump was reacting to Trudeau’s having called U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs insulting to Canada. Trudeau has said little about the matter since a Trump Twitter assault. 

Despite the tensions, 85 percent of Canadians and 72 percent of Americans said they support being in NAFTA, and 44 percent of respondents in both countries said renegotiation of the deal would be a good thing for their country.

While the poll showed support for a boycott of U.S. goods in Canada, pulling it off could be difficult in a country that reveres U.S. popular culture and consumer goods over all others.

Canada is the largest market for U.S. goods.

Trudeau over Trump

The poll showed 72 percent of Canadians and 57 percent of Americans approved of the way Trudeau had handled the situation, while 14 percent of Canadians and 37 percent of Americans approved of Trump’s behavior.

More than eight in 10 Canadians and seven in 10 Americans worry the situation has damaged bilateral relations.

Canada has vowed to retaliate against U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum with tariffs against a range of U.S. goods, a move supported by 79 percent of Canadians, according to the poll.

By contrast, Americans opposed escalating the situation.

Thirty-one percent of Americans said they favored even stronger tariffs, and 61 percent said other elected U.S. officials should denounce Trump’s statements.

Canadian respondents also signaled approval of the united front their politicians have shown, with 88 percent saying they welcomed the support of politicians from other parties for the Liberal government’s decision to push back on tariffs.

While Canadian consumers appeared ready to boycott U.S. goods, 57 percent of Canadians and 52 percent of Americans said Canada should not overreact to Trump’s comments because it was just political posturing.

The Ipsos Poll of 1,001 Canadians and 1,005 Americans — including 368 Democrats, 305 Republicans and 202 independents — was conducted June 13-14. It has a credibility interval of 3.4 percentage points.


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