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‘Progress destroying nature’: Brazil dam fuels fears for river

| By AFP | Carlos Fabal with Joshua Howat Berger in Rio de Janeiro |

Holding a dead fish, Junior Pereira looks grimly at a puddle that used to be part of Brazil’s Xingu river, a mighty Amazon tributary that has been desiccated here by the massive Belo Monte hydroelectric dam.

Pereira, a member of the Pupekuri Indigenous group, chokes up talking about the impact of Belo Monte, the world’s fourth-biggest hydroelectric complex, which locals say is killing one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth and forcing them to abandon their way of life.

“Our culture is fishing, it’s the river. We’ve always lived on what the river provides,” says Pereira, 39, who looks like a man trapped between two worlds, wearing a traditional Indigenous necklace and a red baseball cap.

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He gazes at the once-flooded landscape, which Belo Monte’s water diversion has made a patchwork of puddles dotted with stranded fish.

“We’ve lost our river,” he says.

“Now we have to buy food in the city.”

‘Like a permanent drought’

Stretching nearly 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles), the Xingu ebbs and flows with the rainy season, creating vast “igapos,” or flooded forests, that are crucial to huge numbers of species.

They are also crucial to an estimated 25,000 Indigenous people and others who live along the river.

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Belo Monte diverts a 100-kilometer stretch of the Xingu’s “Volta Grande,” or Big Bend, in the northern county of Altamira to power a hydroelectric dam with a capacity of 11,233 megawatts — 6.2 percent of the total electricity capacity of Latin America’s biggest economy.

Built for an estimated 40 billion reais ($7.5 billion) and inaugurated in 2016, the dam diverts up to 80 percent of the river’s water, which scientists, environmentalists and residents say is disastrous for this unique ecosystem.

“The dam broke the river’s flood pulse. Upstream, it’s like it’s always flooded. Downstream, it’s like a permanent drought,” says Andre Oliveira Sawakuchi, a geoscientist at the University of Sao Paulo.

That is devastating fish and turtle populations whose feeding and reproduction cycles depend on the igapos, he says.

Sitting by the Xingu’s breathtaking Jericoa waterfalls, which the Juruna people consider sacred, Indigenous leader Giliarde Juruna describes the situation as a clash of worldviews.

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“Progress for us is having the forest, the animals, the rivers the way God made them. The progress white people believe in is totally different,” says Juruna, 40.

“They think they’re doing good with this project, but they’re destroying nature and hurting people, including themselves.”

Lula under scrutiny

Proposed in the 1970s, Belo Monte was authorized under ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (2003-2010) — who just won a new term in Brazil’s October elections.

As Lula, 77, prepares to take office again on January 1, the project is drawing fresh scrutiny from those hoping the veteran leftist will fulfill his promise to do a better job protecting the Amazon than outgoing President Jair Bolsonaro, who presided over a surge in deforestation.

Touted as a clean-energy source and engine of economic development, Belo Monte has not exactly lived up to expectations.

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According to the company that operates it, Norte Energia, the dam’s average output this year has been 4,212 megawatts — less than half its capacity.

A recent study meanwhile found its operations tripled the region’s greenhouse gas emissions — mainly methane released by decomposing forest that was killed by the flooding of the dam reservoir.

A new plan

In 2015, researchers from the Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA) conservation group teamed up with the Juruna to document the devastation.

They have devised a new, less-disruptive way for Belo Monte to manage water, the “Piracema” plan — named for the period when fish swim upriver to spawn.

Researchers say the plan is a relatively small tweak to the dam’s current water usage, adapting it to the natural flood cycles. 

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Brazil’s environmental regulator is due to rule soon whether to order Norte Energia to adopt it.

The company declined to comment on the proposal, saying in a statement to AFP that it instead “recognizes the plan established in the plant’s environmental licensing.”

The decision is vital, says biologist Camila Ribas of the federal government’s National Institute for Amazon Research.

“When you completely alter the flood cycle, forests die,” she says.

“These are incredibly intricate, interlinked systems. If Belo Monte and other hydroelectric projects disrupt them too much, it could spell the end of the Amazon.”

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International

Putin promotes deputy prison chief Amid Navalny’s death, opposition claims

Russian President Vladimir Putin promoted the deputy director of the prison service (FSIN) just three days after the death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in an Arctic prison, according to his associates’ claims today.

“The deputy director of the FSIN, Valery Boyarinov, was promoted to the rank of colonel general of the Interior Services. The decree (…) was signed three days after the death in prison of politician Alexei Navalny,” his team wrote on Telegram.

Supporters of the deceased opposition figure claim that this decision is “a clear reward from Putin for the torture” of Navalny.

“Boyarinov personally coordinated the torture inflicted on Alexei Navalny in prison. The restrictions imposed on Navalny’s accounts so he could not buy food, along with the rest of the torture, were personally ordered by Boyarinov,” the team added.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin, which has consistently denied responsibility for the death of the Russian opposition leader, today described as “unfounded” and “coarse” the accusations of Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, that Putin murdered her husband.

“These are unfounded and gross accusations against the head of state,” said the spokesman for the Russian Presidency, Dmitry Peskov, in his daily telephone press briefing.

Peskov insisted that the accusations against the Russian leader “are not based on anything.”

At the same time, he stated that he did not want to make any further comments for “ethical reasons,” as Navalnaya “became a widow a few days ago.”

In any case, he assured that Putin has not seen the message released by the politician’s widow.

On the other hand, the Kremlin spokesman asserted that Moscow also completely rejects calls for an international investigation into Navalny’s death, “even more so” if they come from the head of the European Union’s diplomacy, Josep Borrell.

Navalny’s widow, who was in Brussels yesterday, stated that she will continue her husband’s fight against the Kremlin, blaming its occupant for his murder.

In a video posted on the late opposition leader’s YouTube channel, the widow of Russia’s number one political opponent denounced that “Putin not only killed the person, but also wanted to kill our hopes, our freedom, our future.”

In Russia, Navalny’s mother demanded on Tuesday that Putin hand over her son’s body “so that I can bury him properly.”

“I am addressing you, Vladimir Putin. The solution to this issue depends solely on you. Let me see my son once and for all!” said Lyudmila Navalnaya in a video posted by Navalny’s team on YouTube.

“It’s the fifth day that I can’t see him, they don’t give me his body, and they don’t even tell me where he is,” she said.

The video was recorded outside the “Polar Bear” prison in the Arctic town of Yarp, where the opposition figure suddenly died last Friday, according to prison authorities.

Navalny’s team published on Telegram the letter addressed to the Presidential Administration and handwritten by Lyudmila Navalnaya, in which she denounces that the Investigative Committee of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District does not allow her access to her son’s body.

The opposition figure’s mother arrived in that inhospitable area of Russia on Saturday, but both prison officials and morgue employees refused to address her requests.

Navalny’s associates accuse the Russian authorities of refusing to hand over the body to “cover up” the crime.

According to his spokesperson, Kira Yarmish, Russian investigators argue that they need to perform a “chemical examination” on the corpse and require at least another 14 days.

The organization that advocates for the rights of detainees assures that more than 60,000 people have already signed a popular petition for the authorities to hand over the body to the family.

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International

Assange seeks appeal as extradition decision nears

The two hearings to decide whether Julian Assange can appeal his case in the UK or be extradited to the United States began on Tuesday at the High Court in London.

Amid great anticipation from the public and press, Judges Victoria Sharp and Adam Johnson commenced the session, which will conclude on Wednesday, by hearing arguments from the defense of the 52-year-old Australian.

Assange was unable to attend the hearing in person, despite the court authorizing it, as he was not feeling well, according to his lawyer, Ed Fitzgerald.

The British prosecution will represent the US Justice Department, which is seeking the founder of WikiLeaks on 18 charges of espionage and computer intrusion for the disclosures made by his platform, which exposed US human rights violations in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011.

Fitzgerald began his plea by listing the reasons why his client should be allowed to appeal again, arguing that if extradited to the United States, his rights to a fair trial and freedom of expression, among others, would be violated.

“The prosecution is politically motivated. Assange exposed serious wrongdoing. He is being prosecuted for engaging in ordinary journalistic practice, obtaining and publishing classified information, information that is both true and of obvious and significant public interest,” he argued.

At the request of the defense, the two judges will review, between Tuesday and Wednesday, the decision made on June 6, 2023, by a single magistrate, Jonathan Swift, who denied him permission to continue appealing in this country and upheld the extradition order to the US.

After hearing from the parties, the judges could deliver their ruling immediately or postpone it.

If they ultimately authorize him to appeal the aspects of his case that the defense did not address in previous trials, a new trial would commence before the London Court of Appeal.

If, on the other hand, they agree with Swift in denying him permission, the extradition mechanism to the US, overseen by the British Home Office, would be activated.

In the latter case, his lawyers have already stated that they will immediately request urgent interim measures from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) under Article 39 of its regulations to halt the extradition while lodging an appeal with the European court.

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International

U.S. Investigates Alleged Airstrike Killing of Cuban Doctors in Somalia

The United States is investigating whether a US airstrike against Al-Shabab killed two Cuban doctors held by the jihadist group in Somalia last week, as claimed by the terrorist organization.

A spokesperson for the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) confirmed to EFE that “an airstrike against the Al-Shabab network was conducted on February 15 near Jilib, Somalia,” where the doctors were allegedly killed.

“We are aware of reports about an attack that allegedly killed two civilians,” the source admitted, emphasizing that AFRICOM “will continue to assess the results of this operation and provide additional information when available.”

“We do not have more information at this time about these reports, but we take all claims of civilian casualties seriously,” the spokesperson added.

Al-Shabab claimed on Saturday that two Cuban doctors kidnapped by the organization in 2019 died last Thursday in a US Army airstrike in Somalia, although this has not yet been officially confirmed by the authorities in the African country.

“The airstrike, which began at around 00:10 local time (21:10 GMT), targeted a house in Jilib and instantly killed Assel Herrera and Landy Rodríguez, captured on April 12, 2019,” in northern Kenya, the jihadist group said in a statement.

Al-Shabab stated that “American crusaders conducted multiple drone strikes in the city of Jilib (…) killing the two Cuban prisoners.”

The statement also included the alleged photograph of one of the deceased Cuban doctors.

Surgeon Landy Rodríguez Hernández and general medicine specialist Assel Herrera Correa were kidnapped on April 12, 2019, in the Kenyan city of Mandera (northeast), bordering Somalia and a target of jihadist attacks in the past.

That day, the two doctors were traveling, as was their custom, in a convoy to the Mandera hospital protected by armed escorts when they were intercepted after a shootout in which one of the policemen guarding them was killed.

In May 2019, traditional leaders from Kenya and Somalia who traveled to the Somali region of Jubaland, controlled by Al-Shabab, to negotiate on behalf of the doctors, confessed to having seen the doctors providing medical assistance to the local population.

According to the mediators, the kidnappers demanded 1.5 million dollars as a condition for their release, the Kenyan press reported at the time.

Herrera and Rodríguez were part of a contingent of a hundred Cuban professionals who arrived in Kenya in 2018 under a bilateral agreement to improve access to specialized healthcare services in the African country.

The United States has been involved in military operations against Al-Shabab, in cooperation with the Somali Army, since at least 2007.

Somalia has seen an intensification of military offensives against the terrorist group since Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud announced a “total war” against the jihadists in August 2022.

Affiliated with Al-Qaeda since 2012, Al-Shabab often carries out attacks in the capital, Mogadishu, and other parts of the country to overthrow the central government – backed by the international community – and establish a Wahhabi-style Islamic state (ultra-conservative).

The group controls rural areas of central and southern Somalia and also attacks neighboring countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia.

Somalia has been in a state of war and chaos since 1991, when dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown, leaving the country without an effective government and in the hands of Islamist militias and warlords.

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