Friday, December 25, 2009

The Black Pharaohs


An ignored chapter of history tells of a time when kings from deep in Africa conquered ancient Egypt.

By Robert Draper

National Geographic Contributing Writer
Photograph by Kenneth Garrett

In the year 730 B.C., a man by the name of Piye decided the only way to save Egypt from itself was to invade it. Things would get bloody before the salvation came.

“Harness the best steeds of your stable,” he ordered his commanders. The magnificent civilization that had built the great pyramids had lost its way, torn apart by petty warlords. For two decades Piye had ruled over his own kingdom in Nubia, a swath of Africa located mostly in present-day Sudan. But he considered himself the true ruler of Egypt as well, the rightful heir to the spiritual traditions practiced by pharaohs such as Ramses II and Thutmose III. Since Piye had probably never actually visited Lower Egypt, some did not take his boast seriously. Now Piye would witness the subjugation of decadent Egypt firsthand—“I shall let Lower Egypt taste the taste of my fingers,” he would later write.

North on the Nile River his soldiers sailed. At Thebes, the capital of Upper Egypt, they disembarked. Believing there was a proper way to wage holy wars, Piye instructed his soldiers to purify themselves before combat by bathing in the Nile, dressing themselves in fine linen, and sprinkling their bodies with water from the temple at Karnak, a site holy to the ram-headed sun god Amun, whom Piye identified as his own personal deity. Piye himself feasted and offered sacrifices to Amun. Thus sanctified, the commander and his men commenced to do battle with every army in their path.



By the end of a yearlong campaign, every leader in Egypt had capitulated—including the powerful delta warlord Tefnakht, who sent a messenger to tell Piye, “Be gracious! I cannot see your face in the days of shame; I cannot stand before your flame, I dread your grandeur.” In exchange for their lives, the vanquished urged Piye to worship at their temples, pocket their finest jewels, and claim their best horses. He obliged them. And then, with his vassals trembling before him, the newly anointed Lord of the Two Lands did something extraordinary: He loaded up his army and his war booty, and sailed southward to his home in Nubia, never to return to Egypt again.

When Piye died at the end of his 35-year reign in 715 B.C., his subjects honored his wishes by burying him in an Egyptian-style pyramid, with four of his beloved horses nearby. He was the first pharaoh to receive such entombment in more than 500 years. A pity, then, that the great Nubian who accomplished these feats is literally faceless to us. Images of Piye on the elaborate granite slabs, or stelae, memorializing his conquest of Egypt have long since been chiseled away. On a relief in the temple at the Nubian capital of Napata, only Piye’s legs remain. We are left with a single physical detail of the man—namely, that his skin was dark.

Piye was the first of the so-called black pharaohs—a series of Nubian kings who ruled over all of Egypt for three-quarters of a century as that country’s 25th dynasty. Through inscriptions carved on stelae by both the Nubians and their enemies, it is possible to map out these rulers’ vast footprint on the continent. The black pharaohs reunified a tattered Egypt and filled its landscape with glorious monuments, creating an empire that stretched from the southern border at present-day Khartoum all the way north to the Mediterranean Sea. They stood up to the bloodthirsty Assyrians, perhaps saving Jerusalem in the process.

Until recently, theirs was a chapter of history that largely went untold. Only in the past four decades have archaeologists resurrected their story—and come to recognize that the black pharaohs didn’t appear out of nowhere. They sprang from a robust African civilization that had flourished on the southern banks of the Nile for 2,500 years, going back at least as far as the first Egyptian dynasty.

Today Sudan’s pyramids—greater in number than all of Egypt’s—are haunting spectacles in the Nubian Desert. It is possible to wander among them unharassed, even alone, a world away from Sudan’s genocide and refugee crisis in Darfur or the aftermath of civil war in the south. While hundreds of miles north, at Cairo or Luxor, curiosity seekers arrive by the busload to jostle and crane for views of the Egyptian wonders, Sudan’s seldom-visited pyramids at El Kurru, Nuri, and Meroë stand serenely amid an arid landscape that scarcely hints of the thriving culture of ancient Nubia.

Now our understanding of this civilization is once again threatened with obscurity. The Sudanese government is building a hydroelectric dam along the Nile, 600 miles upstream from the Aswan High Dam, which Egypt constructed in the 1960s, consigning much of lower Nubia to the bottom of Lake Nasser (called Lake Nubia in Sudan). By 2009, the massive Merowe Dam should be complete, and a 106-mile-long lake will flood the terrain abutting the Nile’s Fourth Cataract, or rapid, including thousands of unexplored sites. For the past nine years, archaeologists have flocked to the region, furiously digging before another repository of Nubian history goes the way of Atlantis.

The ancient world was devoid of racism. At the time of Piye’s historic conquest, the fact that his skin was dark was irrelevant. Artwork from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome shows a clear awareness of racial features and skin tone, but there is little evidence that darker skin was seen as a sign of inferiority. Only after the European powers colonized Africa in the 19th century did Western scholars pay attention to the color of the Nubians’ skin, to uncharitable effect.

Explorers who arrived at the central stretch of the Nile River excitedly reported the discovery of elegant temples and pyramids—the ruins of an ancient civilization called Kush. Some, like the Italian doctor Giuseppe Ferlini—who lopped off the top of at least one Nubian pyramid, inspiring others to do the same—hoped to find treasure beneath. The Prussian archaeologist Richard Lepsius had more studious intentions, but he ended up doing damage of his own by concluding that the Kushites surely “belonged to the Caucasian race.”

Even famed Harvard Egyptologist George Reisner—whose discoveries between 1916 and 1919 offered the first archaeological evidence of Nubian kings who ruled over Egypt—besmirched his own findings by insisting that black Africans could not possibly have constructed the monuments he was excavating. He believed that Nubia’s leaders, including Piye, were light-skinned Egypto-Libyans who ruled over the primitive Africans. That their moment of greatness was so fleeting, he suggested, must be a consequence of the same leaders intermarrying with the “negroid elements.”

For decades, many historians flip-flopped: Either the Kushite pharaohs were actually “white,” or they were bumblers, their civilization a derivative offshoot of true Egyptian culture. In their 1942 history, When Egypt Ruled the East, highly regarded Egyptologists Keith Seele and George Steindorff summarized the Nubian pharaonic dynasty and Piye’s triumphs in all of three sentences—the last one reading: “But his dominion was not for long."



The neglect of Nubian history reflected not only the bigoted worldview of the times, but also a cult-like fascination with Egypt’s achievements—and a complete ignorance of Africa’s past. “The first time I came to Sudan,” recalls Swiss archaeologist Charles Bonnet, “people said: ‘You’re mad! There’s no history there! It’s all in
Egypt!’ ”

That was a mere 44 years ago. Artifacts uncovered during the archaeological salvage campaigns as the waters rose at Aswan in the 1960s began changing that view. In 2003, Charles Bonnet’s decades of digging near the Nile’s Third Cataract at the abandoned settlement of Kerma gained international recognition with the discovery of seven large stone statues of Nubian pharaohs. Well before then, however, Bonnet’s labors had revealed an older, densely occupied urban center that commanded rich fields and extensive herds, and had long profited from trade in gold, ebony, and ivory. “It was a kingdom completely free of Egypt and original, with its own construction and burial customs,” Bonnet says. This powerful dynasty rose just as Egypt’s Middle Kingdom declined around 1785 B.C. By 1500 B.C. the Nubian empire stretched between the Second and Fifth Cataracts.

Revisiting that golden age in the African desert does little to advance the case of Afrocentric Egyptologists, who argue that all ancient Egyptians, from King Tut to Cleopatra, were black Africans. Nonetheless, the saga of the Nubians proves that a civilization from deep in Africa not only thrived but briefly dominated in ancient times, intermingling and sometimes intermarrying with their Egyptian neighbors to the north. (King Tut’s own grandmother, the 18th-dynasty Queen Tiye, is claimed by some to be of Nubian heritage.)

The Egyptians didn’t like having such a powerful neighbor to the south, especially since they depended on Nubia’s gold mines to bankroll their dominance of western Asia. So the pharaohs of the 18th dynasty (1539-1292 B.C.) sent armies to conquer Nubia and built garrisons along the Nile. They installed Nubian chiefs as administrators and schooled the children of favored Nubians at Thebes. Subjugated, the elite Nubians began to embrace the cultural and spiritual customs of Egypt—venerating Egyptian gods, particularly Amun, using the Egyptian language, adopting Egyptian burial styles and, later, pyramid building. The Nubians were arguably the first people to be struck by “Egyptomania.”



Egyptologists of the latter 19th and early 20th centuries would interpret this as a sign of weakness. But they had it wrong: The Nubians had a gift for reading the geopolitical tea leaves. By the eighth century B.C., Egypt was riven by factions, the north ruled by Libyan chiefs who put on the trappings of pharaonic traditions to gain legitimacy. Once firmly in power, they toned down the theocratic devotion to Amun, and the priests at Karnak feared a godless outcome. Who was in a position to return Egypt to its former state of might and sanctity?

The Egyptian priests looked south and found their answer—a people who, without setting foot inside Egypt, had preserved Egypt’s spiritual traditions. As archaeologist Timothy Kendall of Northeastern University puts it, the Nubians “had become more Catholic than the pope.”

Under Nubian rule, Egypt became Egypt again. When Piye died in 715 B.C., his brother Shabaka solidified the 25th dynasty by taking up residence in the Egyptian capital of Memphis. Like his brother, Shabaka wed himself to the old pharaonic ways, adopting the throne name of the 6th-dynasty ruler Pepi II, just as Piye had claimed the old throne name of Thutmose III. Rather than execute his foes, Shabaka put them to work building dikes to seal off Egyptian villages from Nile floods.

Shabaka lavished Thebes and the Temple of Luxor with building projects. At Karnak he erected a pink granite statue depicting himself wearing the Kushite crown of the double uraeus—the two cobras signifying his legitimacy as Lord of the Two Lands. Through architecture as well as military might, Shabaka signaled to Egypt that the Nubians were here to stay.

To the east, the Assyrians were fast building their own empire. In 701 B.C., when they marched into Judah in present-day Israel, the Nubians decided to act. At the city of Eltekeh, the two armies met. And although the Assyrian emperor, Sennacherib, would brag lustily that he “inflicted defeat upon them,” a young Nubian prince, perhaps 20, son of the great pharaoh Piye, managed to survive. That the Assyrians, whose tastes ran to wholesale slaughter, failed to kill the prince suggests their victory was anything but total.

In any event, when the Assyrians left town and massed against the gates of Jerusalem, that city’s embattled leader, Hezekiah, hoped his Egyptian allies would come to the rescue. The Assyrians issued a taunting reply, immortalized in the Old Testament’s Book of II Kings: “Thou trustest upon the staff of this bruised reed [of] Egypt, on which if a man lean, it will go into his hand, and pierce it: So is Pharaoh king of Egypt unto all that trust on him.”



Then, according to the Scriptures and other accounts, a miracle occurred: The Assyrian army retreated. Were they struck by a plague? Or, as Henry Aubin’s provocative book, The Rescue of Jerusalem, suggests, was it actually the alarming news that the aforementioned Nubian prince was advancing on Jerusalem? All we know for sure is that Sennacherib abandoned the siege and galloped back in disgrace to his kingdom, where he was murdered 18 years later, apparently by his own sons.

The deliverance of Jerusalem is not just another of ancient history’s sidelights, Aubin asserts, but one of its pivotal events. It allowed Hebrew society and Judaism to strengthen for another crucial century—by which time the Babylonian king Nebuchadrezzar could banish the Hebrew people but not obliterate them or their faith. From Judaism, of course, would spring Christianity and Islam. Jerusalem would come to be recast, in all three major monotheistic religions, as a city of a godly significance.

It has been easy to overlook, amid these towering historical events, the dark-skinned figure at the edge of the landscape—the survivor of Eltekeh, the hard-charging prince later referred to by the Assyrians as “the one accursed by all the great gods”: Piye’s son Taharqa.

So sweeping was Taharqa’s influence on Egypt that even his enemies could not eradicate his imprint. During his rule, to travel down the Nile from Napata to Thebes was to navigate a panorama of architectural wonderment. All over Egypt, he built monuments with busts, statues, and cartouches bearing his image or name, many of which now sit in museums around the world. He is depicted as a supplicant to gods, or in the protective presence of the ram deity Amun, or as a sphinx himself, or in a warrior’s posture. Most statues were defaced by his rivals. His nose is often broken off, to foreclose him returning from the dead. Shattered as well is the uraeus on his forehead, to repudiate his claim as Lord of the Two Lands. But in each remaining image, the serene self-certainty in his eyes remains for all to see.

His father, Piye, had returned the true pharaonic customs to Egypt. His uncle Shabaka had established a Nubian presence in Memphis and Thebes. But their ambitions paled before those of the 31-year-old military commander who received the crown in Memphis in 690 B.C. and presided over the combined empires of Egypt and Nubia for the next 26 years.



Taharqa had ascended at a favorable moment for the 25th dynasty. The delta warlords had been laid low. The Assyrians, after failing to best him at Jerusalem, wanted no part of the Nubian ruler. Egypt was his and his alone. The gods granted him prosperity to go with the peace. During his sixth year on the throne, the Nile swelled from rains, inundating the valleys and yielding a spectacular harvest of grain without sweeping away any villages. As Taharqa would record in four separate stelae, the high waters even exterminated all rats and snakes. Clearly the revered Amun was smiling on his chosen one.

Taharqa did not intend to sit on his profits. He believed in spending his political capital. Thus he launched the most audacious building campaign of any pharaoh since the New Kingdom (around 1500 B.C.), when Egypt had been in a period of expansion. Inevitably the two holy capitals of Thebes and Napata received the bulk of Taharqa’s attention. Standing today amid the hallowed clutter of the Karnak temple complex near Thebes is a lone 62-foot-high column. That pillar had been one of ten, forming a gigantic kiosk that the Nubian pharaoh added to the Temple of Amun. He also constructed a number of chapels around the temple and erected massive statues of himself and of his beloved mother, Abar. Without defacing a single preexisting monument, Taharqa made Thebes his.

He did the same hundreds of miles upriver, in the Nubian city of Napata. Its holy mountain Jebel Barkal—known for its striking rock-face pinnacle that calls to mind a phallic symbol of fertility—had captivated even the Egyptian pharaohs of the New Kingdom, who believed the site to be the birthplace of Amun. Seeking to present himself as heir to the New Kingdom pharaohs, Taharqa erected two temples, set into the base of the mountain, honoring the goddess consorts of Amun. On Jebel Barkal’s pinnacle—partially covered in gold leaf to bedazzle wayfarers—the black pharaoh ordered his name inscribed.

Around the 15th year of his rule, amid the grandiosity of his empire-building, a touch of hubris was perhaps overtaking the Nubian ruler. “Taharqa had a very strong army and was one of the main international powers of this period,” says Charles Bonnet. “I think he thought he was the king of the world. He became a bit of a megalomaniac.”

The timber merchants along the coast of Lebanon had been feeding Taharqa’s architectural appetite with a steady supply of juniper and cedar. When the Assyrian king Esarhaddon sought to clamp down on this trade artery, Taharqa sent troops to the southern Levant to support a revolt against the Assyrian. Esarhaddon quashed the move and retaliated by crossing into Egypt in 674 B.C. But Taharqa’s army beat back its foes.



The victory clearly went to the Nubian’s head. Rebel states along the Mediterranean shared his giddiness and entered into an alliance against Esarhaddon. In 671 B.C. the Assyrians marched with their camels into the Sinai desert to quell the rebellion. Success was instant; now it was Esarhaddon who brimmed with bloodlust. He directed his troops toward the Nile Delta.

Taharqa and his army squared off against the Assyrians. For 15 days they fought pitched battles—“very bloody,” by Esarhaddon’s grudging admission. But the Nubians were pushed back all the way to Memphis. Wounded five times, Taharqa escaped with his life and abandoned Memphis. In typical Assyrian fashion, Esarhaddon slaughtered the villagers and “erected piles of their heads.” Then, as the Assyrian would later write, “His queen, his harem, Ushankhuru his heir, and the rest of his sons and daughters, his property and his goods, his horses, his cattle, his sheep, in countless numbers, I carried off to Assyria. The root of Kush I tore up out of Egypt.” To commemorate Taharqa’s humiliation, Esarhaddon commissioned a stela showing Taharqa’s son, Ushankhuru, kneeling before the Assyrian with a rope tied around his neck.

As it happened, Taharqa outlasted the victor. In 669 B.C. Esarhaddon died en route to Egypt, after learning that the Nubian had managed to retake Memphis. Under a new king, the Assyrians once again assaulted the city, this time with an army swollen with captured rebel troops. Taharqa stood no chance. He fled south to Napata and never saw Egypt again.

A measure of Taharqa’s status in Nubia is that he remained in power after being routed twice from Memphis. How he spent his final years is a mystery—with the exception of one final innovative act. Like his father, Piye, Taharqa chose to be buried in a pyramid. But he eschewed the royal cemetery at El Kurru, where all previous Kushite pharaohs had been laid to rest. Instead, he chose a site at Nuri, on the opposite bank of the Nile. Perhaps, as archaeologist Timothy Kendall has theorized, Taharqa selected the location because, from the vista of Jebel Barkal, his pyramid precisely aligns with the sunrise on ancient Egypt’s New Year’s Day, linking him in perpetuity with the Egyptian concept of rebirth.

Just as likely, the Nubian’s motive will remain obscure, like his people’s history.
Robert Draper is the author of Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush. He recently wrote for National Geographic about 21st-century cowboys. Kenneth Garrett shot the August 2007 National Geographic feature on the Maya civilization.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Medvedev plans drink-driving crackdown


Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has announced a zero tolerance policy on drink-driving - a major cause of death among Russian men.

"I believe that consuming alcohol before driving should be banned," he said, speaking live on Russian TV.

"I will make corresponding amendments to the law."

Heavy drinking and related traffic accidents are seen as one of the main reasons why one in three Russian men dies before retirement age.

In a wide-ranging end-of-year interview, Mr Medvedev said "we are not ready yet for allowing consumption of alcohol - even small, limited amounts of it - before driving."

"We are not very accurate drivers as it is, and after a glass people completely lose their heads. Besides, we do know how people (in Russia) usually drink: a glass at first - that is allowed now, isn't it? - then two, and three, and finally 'okay, let's roll'."

Death row Briton's daughter says he is 'mentally ill'


By BBC Bureau:

The daughter of a British man due to be executed in China for drug smuggling has said her father was "mentally ill" and deserved to be spared.

Leila Horsnell said her father Akmal Shaikh, 53, from London, had always behaved in "extreme" ways.

Mr Shaikh has denied knowledge of the 4kg of heroin found with him in 2007.

Gordon Brown has called for clemency but Mr Shaikh's final appeal was turned down this week and he is due to be executed on 29 December.

His defence team has said Mr Shaikh suffers from bipolar disorder and did not know what he was doing.

They say he was duped by a criminal gang into carrying a suitcase that did not belong to him.

There would be times he would have extravagant ideas. Then there were times when he would be extremely religious
Leila Horsnell

His daughter said he was approached by drug smugglers in Poland and they convinced him they would make him a popstar in China.

"They recorded a song, and he can't sing, and the song itself is very very bizarre, but they convinced him that they're going to take him to the clubs in China and make him a huge popstar," said Ms Horsnell.

"He just believed he could do anything, and he could achieve anything, and if somebody had said to him that he could become a popstar, I believe he genuinely thought that."

'Extravagant ideas'

She told BBC Radio 4's Today programme there were "a lot of different sides" to her "charismatic" and "delusional" father.

"There would be times he would have extravagant ideas, he could open an airline," she added. "Then there were times when he would be extremely religious and wanting us to lead a secluded life."

The Chinese law is actually pretty careful about mental health issues
Professor Christopher Stone

She insisted her father would never do anything criminal willingly and called on the Chinese authorities to take his mental health problems into account.

Mr Shaikh was arrested in September 2007 in Urumqi, north-west China.

The Chinese foreign ministry said the "grave crime" had been handled in accordance with the law.

China's Supreme People's Court denied his final appeal on Monday. He is set to become the first EU national to be executed in China in 50 years.

'Hugely popular'

Chinese death penalty expert Professor Christopher Stone told the BBC the death sentence was "heavily used" in China but the exact figures were a "state secret".

Prof Stone, of Harvard University, said estimates over the past five years reached a height of about 10,000 death sentences a year, but a "genuine reform process" had brought the figures down.

He said death sentences were handed down for various crimes including murder, corruption and drug trafficking.

China does not react well usually to pressure from outside
Jonathan Fenby

The death sentence was "hugely popular" in China and had the support of between 80-95% of the population, he said.

Prof Stone said the authorities would not want to be seen to make an exception for a foreign man but the issue of mental illness was an important consideration in Chinese law.

"The Chinese law is actually pretty careful about mental health issues," he said. "They have special dispensations, special rights, greater right to counsel.

"In this case, the issue of mental illness seems not to have been raised until after the trial was over and the death sentence had been handed down."

'Behave themselves'

Jonathan Fenby, China director at the research service Trusted Sources, said the chances of a reprieve were "small" and there was a "whole pattern at the moment" of China playing "things fairly tough".

"China does not react well usually to pressure from outside," he said. "The Chinese would see this as an interference with their internal affairs, which is the thing they are most resistant to."

Amnesty International counted 1,700 executions last year, he said, but about 6,000 prisoners were actually condemned to death, with many sentences suspended for several years.

"If they are thought to have behaved themselves or ingratiated themselves in various ways with the authorities, the execution is not carried out but that's usually in semi-political cases," he said.

Reprieve, which campaigns for fair trials and promotes human rights, has been working with Mr Shaikh and his legal team.

It has called on the prime minister to "speak directly" to the Chinese president.

A Downing Street spokesman said on Tuesday: "The prime minister and foreign secretary have raised Akmal Shaikh's case with China's leaders on many occasions.

"Yesterday the prime minister wrote to express his dismay that Akmal Shaikh's sentence has been upheld by the Supreme People's Court."

Chinese angered by 'interference' in dissident trial


By BBC Bureau:

China has accused foreign diplomats of meddling in its internal affairs, after some were critical of the trial of prominent Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.

The country's foreign ministry urged those who had expressed concerns about the trial to respect its legal process.

Spokeswoman Jiang Yu said the criticism was a "gross interference" in China's internal affairs.

Dissident Liu Xiaobo is on trial for "inciting subversion of state power". A verdict is expected on Friday.

The EU, US and rights groups say the trial is politically motivated and have called on Beijing to release Mr Liu.

Diplomats from more than a dozen states - including the US, Britain, Canada, Sweden, Australia and New Zealand - denied access to the court to follow the trial, have stood outside since it began on Wednesday.

'Strong dissatisfaction'

"Some officials from some countries' embassies in China released so-called statements, which is a gross interference in China's judicial internal affairs," Ms Jiang said, adding that these violated the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

She expressed China's "strong dissatisfaction" over their actions, adding that China's "judicial sovereignty" should be respected.

Mr Liu, a prominent government critic and veteran of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy protests, could be jailed for 15 years if convicted.

A writer and former university professor, he has been in jail since 2008, after being arrested for writing a document calling for political reform in China.

Known as Charter 08 and released to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it called for greater freedoms and democratic reforms in China, including an end to Communist one-party rule.

The trial has been heavily criticised by right groups, with Human Rights Watch (HRW) describing it as "a travesty of justice".

The charge of "inciting subversion of state power" is a wide-reaching accusation often levelled against political dissidents in China.

The BBC's Micky Bristow, in Beijing, says that dissidents put on trial in China are almost always found guilty, and it looks likely that Mr Liu will be jailed.

If convicted, Mr Liu's name will certainly become more widely known outside China, but few people in the country know who he is, a situation that is unlikely to change with the verdict, he adds.

According to the BBC's Monitoring service, China's state media have ignored Mr Liu's trial and the international protests about it.

US-based Chinese-language websites, however, have covered the story and reported both protests and pro-Liu campaigns inside China.

Japan PM apologises over funding scandal


By BBC Bureau:

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has apologised after two former aides were charged with violating the laws on political funding.

Prosecutors indicted the aides earlier on Thursday for misreporting millions of dollars of donations.

Analysts say the indictments are a big embarrassment for Mr Hatoyama's new government, which took power in August.

The prime minister said he felt "a deep responsibility" for what happened, but added that he would not resign.

Family fortune

Former aide Keiji Katsuba was charged with falsifying reports to make it appear that 360m yen ($3.9m) in donations to the ruling Democratic Party (DPJ) came from individual supporters, when in fact most of the money was given by Mr Hatoyama's family.

The prime minister's former chief accountant Daisuke Haga was also indicted - accused of failing to pay sufficient attention to the false reports - and has been ordered to pay a 300,000 yen fine, according to Jiji Press.

Both men were fired before Mr Hatoyama's election win over the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in August.

There is no suspicion of bribery because of the origin of the funds, and the prime minister himself is not expected to be charged.

He has said he had no idea about the misreporting of donations.

Mr Hatoyama hails from a wealthy family, sometimes dubbed Japan's version of the Kennedys. His mother is the eldest daughter of Bridgestone founder Shojiro Ishibashi and his grandfather was a former prime minister.

The scandal has been on the front pages of Japanese newspapers for days, and soon after the indictments were announced, Mr Hatoyama told a news conference: "I feel deep responsibility."

But he ruled out the possibility of resignation, saying: "I've decided I should not give up on myself nor my job."

A donations scandal forced Ichiro Ozawa, Mr Hatoyama's predecessor as leader of the DPJ, to step down from the post in May.

Amid continuing economic problems, Mr Hatoyama has already seen support for his government fall since the elections that brought him to power.

The DPJ is marking its 100th day in office on Thursday, but correspondents say the news of the indictments will give it little cause for celebration.

Reading while rolling Cuba's famous cigars


By BBC Bureau:

Despite a slump in sales due to the recession, Cuba continues to be the world's largest producer of cigars. Could its success be due to cigar factory readers? BBC correspondent in Havana, Michael Voss, finds out.

The air in H Upmann's cigar factory in Havana's Vedado district is thick with the sweet pungent smell of tobacco.

It's hot and humid. There is no air conditioning because that would dry out the precious leaves.

In the long main galley, row upon row of workers sit side by side on long wooden benches - dozens of men and women all rolling cigar after cigar.

Producing Cuba's famous handmade cigars is a highly skilled but monotonous job which demands concentration.
Cigar factory reader Gricel Valdes-Lombillo
News in the morning, novels in the afternoon

There's no time for chatting to workmates - quotas must be met.

At the front of the room there's a raised platform where a lone figure sits in front of a microphone, reading out loud the official state newspaper Granma.

Instead of canned music, many cigar factories in Cuba still rely on the ancient tradition of employing a reader to help workers pass away the day.

Gricel Valdes-Lombillo, a matronly former school teacher, has been this factory's official reader for the past 20 years.

In the morning she goes through the state-run newspaper Granma cover to cover.

Later in the day she returns to the platform to read a book.

It's a job Gricel Valdes-Lombillo claims she has never tired of.

"I feel useful as a person, giving everyone a bit of knowledge and culture.

"The workers here see me as a councillor, a cultural advisor, and someone who knows about law, psychology and love."

Once the newspaper reading is over workers have a say in what they would like to listen to.

There's a mix of material ranging from classics to modern novels, like the Da Vinci Code, as well as the occasional self-help books and magazines.

On the day I visited the factory Gricel was reading Alexandre Dumas' classic, the Count of Monte Cristo, a long-time favourite here.

The book was an old, well-worn, large print edition which looked as if it had been in the collection since long before the revolution.

Having someone read out loud on the shop floor is a tradition which dates back to the 1860s.

Back then the reader would have been one of the cigar rollers, someone who could read and had a good voice.

Diction and drama

According to Zoe Nocedo Primo, director of Havana's cigar museum, each cigar worker used to give a percentage of his wages to pay the reader.


Cigar factory foreman Rafael Enchemendia
You can roll a cigar while listening and still meet targets and earn a living
Rafael Enchemendia

"In those days they would choose amongst themselves, someone with a good voice and good diction. They looked for rhythm in the voice so he could dramatise the reading."

They weren't always popular with factory owners or the authorities.

For years cigar workers had a reputation for being amongst the better educated and politically active groups.

For a while the practice spread to cigar factories in Florida, as well as Mexico and Spain.

Today, though, the tradition only survives in Cuba, with an estimated 250 "lectores" or cigar readers employed at factories across the island.

Rafael Enchemendia is a long-time cigar roller who has risen to become one of the shopfloor foremen.

He says it helps everyone concentrate on what they are doing.

"You can roll a cigar while listening and still meet targets and earn a living.

"It's very good because you are learning something while working, being educated in some way about what's happening in the world and in Cuba."

It has also broadened the horizons of many of the workers.

Novel inspiration

"It's entertaining and instructive."

Another cigar roller, Yarima, explained between finishing one cigar and reaching for the tobacco leaves to make the next one.

She added that she had never read a book at home before starting work here.

Cigar roller Yarima
Yarima said she had never read a book at home before starting at the factory

Tradition has it that some of Cuba's best known cigar brands were named after the workers' favourite books.

The H Upmann factory, for example, produces two well known international brands - Montecristos named after Dumas' book and Romeo y Julieta, after Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

This factory was first opened in the 1840s.

It is now officially called the Jose Marti Cigar factory although the name H Upmann is still on the factory wall above the main gate.

It was nationalised after the revolution and the former owners left the country, setting up a rival H Upmann brand produced for the American market in the Dominican Republic.

The Cuban-made Petit Upmann cigar was reputedly the favourite cigar of US President John F Kennedy.

Legend has it that the night before he signed the trade embargo he sent his press secretary Pierre Salinger out to buy every box he could find in Washington, some 1,200 cigars in total.

Despite the embargo, Cuba remains the world's top-selling producer of premium hand-rolled cigars.

Some put it down to the quality of the tobacco grown here, others to the skill of the workforce.

Could it be that another secret to success is the soothing and concentrating power of the cigar reader?

Bolivian president to deepen social revolution


By James Painter
BBC Latin America analyst

President Evo Morales seems set to push ahead with the implementation of a new constitution to place indigenous peoples at the heart of Bolivia's government and society after his victory in Sunday's presidential election.

A poor result for the opposition suggests an easier passage for social reforms and a lessening of demands for secession by departments traditionally opposed to Mr Morales, according to analysts.

Preliminary results say that Mr Morales, an Aymara Indian and Bolivia's first indigenous president, won at least 61% of the vote, easily defeating his conservative opponents.

That is a higher percentage than he won in 2005 when he was elected for his first mandate.


It helped MAS that the opposition was divided and had lacklustre candidates
John Crabtree
Oxford University

If his victory is confirmed, it would also be the first time in Bolivia since 1964 that an incumbent president has won a second term - an unusual event in a country often synonymous with military coups and political instability.

The key electoral battleground was for seats in the new Plurinational Legislative Assembly. In the previous Senate, the opposition had a small majority which allowed them to block new legislation.

Under the new constitution which was ratified in a referendum last year, the method of electing senators has changed.

Exit polls suggest that Mr Morales's party, the Movement to Socialism (MAS), has won at least 24 seats in the new 36-seat senate, which would give him a two-thirds majority.

However, it is unclear if the MAS has won enough seats in the new Chamber of Deputies to win a similar majority and ensure an easy passage for the 100-plus laws necessary to fully implement a new constitution.

Final official results will be known later this week.

Breakaway regions

The preliminary results suggest that the MAS has increased its vote in the wealthier eastern departments, where the opposition to President Morales has traditionally been based.

Morales supporters at a rally in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, 2 Dec
Morales made gains even in the opposition bastion of Santa Cruz state

In the Santa Cruz department for example, exit polls suggest that Mr Morales' party increased its vote to 40% from 33% in 2005.

In Tarija, Beni and Pando, MAS also improved its vote significantly.

According to Oxford Analytica, a research organisation, the degree of support in these areas "means that the prospect of secession is ever more remote".

In 2007 and 2008 there was considerable speculation that Santa Cruz and other departments might break away from the highland, more indigenous, departments where support for Mr Morales is overwhelming.

John Crabtree of Oxford University says the improved performance of the MAS was due in part to the priority the party gave to Santa Cruz in its campaigning.

"Another element was the lessening of the climate of fear amongst the migrant population there," Mr Crabtree says. "It also helped MAS that the opposition was divided and had lacklustre candidates."

Likely changes

President Morales is expected to make the implementation of the new constitution his main legislative priority at the start of his second term.

Map

Amongst the most important changes envisaged are:

* More indigenous rights and more indigenous participation in politics
* A reworking of the judiciary, whereby indigenous systems of justice will enjoy the same status as the official existing system; judges will be elected, and no longer appointed by congress
* Power decentralised into four levels of autonomy - departmental, regional, municipal and indigenous

The key to Mr Morales' success has been his appeal to the 65% of the population who define themselves as indigenous and who see him as "one of theirs".

They have also been the recipients of increased social spending boosted by high international prices for hydrocarbons, and more taxes on foreign oil and gas companies.

Cash payments have been made to poor families to encourage school attendance.

Extra pension payments have been to the elderly, and pre-natal and post-natal care bas been extended to mothers without health protection.

Two women in El Alto, Bolivia, 25 Nov
Morales has vowed to deepen reforms focused on Indian power

Some estimates suggest that the payments reached a quarter of Bolivia's 10 million people this year.

According to recent analysis by the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), government revenue has increased by almost 20% of GDP since 2004.

The Morales government has spent massively in recent months to counteract the effect of the global recession.

CEPR says that from a fiscal surplus of 5% of GDP in early 2008 (worth several billion dollars), recent government spending meant this became a fiscal deficit in 2009.

The Bolivian economy is set to grow this year by between 2.5% and 3.5%, one of the highest anywhere in the Americas.

The IMF's director of Western hemisphere countries, Nicolas Eyzaguirre, has praised the Morales government for what he called its "very responsible" macroeconomic policies.

More state intervention?

Morales supporters say that the greater state control of the oil and gas sectors helped to boost government income.

His critics say that state intervention may work well for redistributing income, but not for encouraging investment, technical and managerial expertise and the eradication of corruption.

Government ministers say they want to attract foreign investment into new areas like the development of Bolivia's large deposits of lithium and iron ore.

"We want partners, not patrons" is the oft-repeated slogan.

"One priority for the coming years is industrialisation," says Mr Crabtree, "by which the government means adding value to raw materials by processing them."

Analysts say one key test will be whether the queue of foreign companies interested in developing Bolivia's huge reserves of lithium will turn into a concrete deal between a private company and the state.

Lithium is seen as critical for developing a new generation of battery-driven cars.

Bolivians learn Chinese to boost their trade options


By Candace Piette
BBC News, La Paz

Norma Ramos has a bathroom and kitchenware stall in a busy commercial sector of La Paz, Bolivia's main city.

But she is no ordinary trader: she travels regularly to China to buy products to sell back home.

Proud of her new expertise, she has already made more than seven trips.

And, anxious to avoid the tyranny of translators and the expense of middlemen, she has taken Chinese lessons which, she says, have given her a great commercial advantage.

"I can now say - sell me this at the right price, and I want this kind of quantity, and I will return, and I will be able to speak more of your language next time," says Ms Ramos.

"And they have shown more interest and say they will give it to me cheaper next time."

Closer ties

A graduate from a language school in La Paz where class sizes for Chinese are growing each year, Norma Ramos believes the future will see ever closer ties with China.

Bolivian salt flats
Bolivia hopes it can meet China's appetite for lithium

"I think it would be great if we could cement our relations with China. We've seen how Peru has developed after it signed a free trade agreement with China," she says.

As ordinary Bolivians acknowledge the growing economic importance of China, China itself is noticeably increasing its programme of co-operation with Bolivia.

China has said it will construct Bolivia's first satellite, as well as build a fast electric trainline for the country. It is also collaborating on mining and energy projects.

But one of China's biggest interests is in Bolivia's rich natural resources, specifically its lithium deposits in the Uyuni desert, high in the Andes.

Technological thirst

Fifty per cent of the world's lithium is found in Bolivia.

Lithium - the lightest metal - is used in mobile phones and increasingly in the batteries of the new generation of environmentally friendly electric cars starting to come off the production lines.

Although China has its own deposits, it makes the batteries and has its own electric car industry, and will in the future need more lithium, analysts say.

But China has competitors in Bolivia. The push towards electric car development around the world has become a mad dash to lock in lithium mining deals with Bolivia.

Japan, France and Korea have been busy courting Bolivian President Evo Morales.

Mr Morales and his officials are talking to France's Bollore Group, South Korea's LG Group and Japan's Sumitomo and Mitsubishi.

Bollore has been asked to join the government's scientific commission on lithium.

Chinese language lesson
Lessons in Chinese are proving popular

The courtship of Bolivia by the rest of the world is particularly delicate because of Mr Morales's leftist ideology.

A former trade union leader of Aymaran Indian descent, Mr Morales has said he wants to unshackle Bolivia from dependence on foreigners.

Three years ago he nationalised the oil and gas industry, worrying foreign investors.

Mr Morales is insistent that profits and jobs from the country's rich mineral and natural resources should go to Bolivians and not foreign companies.

Guillermo Roelants, head of the government's lithium pilot project, says lithium is going to be key to Bolivia's future development.

"This resource is so big that it is of major importance to Bolivia, not only for this government, but for Bolivian history and Bolivian consciousness, the development of a project owned by Bolivia, developed by Bolivia and controlled by Bolivia," Mr Roelants said.

But there are concerns that Bolivia does not have the expertise to go it alone.

Open arms

Analyst Horst Grebe Lopez, who is a former mining minister, believes that the Bolivian government may be misguided in its plans.

"We don't have the technical know-how to work with lithium. You need hundreds of technicians and engineers and professionals. If we plan this right we will have the capacity to get to a certain level. But after that you need investment that currently Bolivia doesn't have. "

Bolivian President Evo Morales
China is not the only country courting President Evo Morales

With its attractive, cheap products for export, and its growing portfolio of development projects within the country, China may be winning over the Bolivian government on one level, but is it winning on the question of lithium?

Although the Chinese media have made frequent visits to report on the lithium project, Bolivia has yet to receive a formal approach from China, Mr Roelants says.

But, he adds, this could change, and if it did, China would be greeted with open arms. "We would welcome them onto our scientific committee," he said.

The Bolivian government is playing hard to get. It has the upper hand with its vast deposits of a precious resource.

It believes it can afford to take a slow approach, building a home-grown industry of lithium extraction and battery production with a partner of its choice.

Peru's gold rush sparks fears of ecological disaster


By BBC Bureau:

The high price of gold has drawn thousands of miners to a region of south-east Peru, but deforestation and the high levels of mercury used in mining has led to fears of an imminent ecological disaster, as Dan Collyns reports.

t is only from the air that you can see the full extent of the destruction.

The forests seems almost endless until it is abruptly interrupted by the raw colours of sand and earth; rivers torn open and thousands of hectares denuded and pocked with dead, stagnant pools of water.

Alluvial gold mining in Peru's southern Amazon rainforest has spread, driven by the high price of gold, now more than $1,100 (£680) per ounce, or $36 a gram.

Close to 200 sq kms (77 sq miles) of jungle have been lost in the evocatively named Madre de Dios (Mother of God) region.

"To know what we are losing, this area of Peru - the western Amazon - is the world's enclave of biological diversity," says biologist Ernesto Raez, who heads the Environmental Sustainability Centre in Lima's Cayetano Heredia University.

"Counted in terms of richness of species, this is the place where world records have been obtained for butterflies, birds, amphibians; you name it."

Over the years, more than 1,500 jungle mining concessions have been granted by the energy and mines ministry, although most did not get final approval.

But the informal sector has grown out of control, and now almost a quarter of the gold produced in the world's sixth largest producer is illegal.

The vast majority of it comes from Madre de Dios, where local non-government organisations believe there could be up to 30,000 miners.

Wild West-style

Peru's environment minister, Antonio Brack, says enough is enough.

"If I, as the environment minister, allow the miners to do what they want, within 20 years Madre de Dios will be an ecological disaster the like of which mankind has never seen," he says.


Delto Uno Mayor Pedro Donayre
I'm in favour of mining but it does need to be legitimised
Pedro Donayre
Delto Uno Mayor

Mr Brack is calling for 80% of Madre de Dios to be closed to miners, illegal or not, and a ban on river dredgers and other heavy machinery used in mining.

But he must tread carefully with the thousands of miners who will fight to protect their livelihoods.

"No one wants a bloodbath," he says. "Despite the fact that the miners are illegal we are engaged in dialogue with them but that doesn't mean that the state will allow itself to be pressured by mafias."

Delta Uno is one of the Wild West-style towns that have grown out of the Amazon gold rush. Swelled with poor migrants from Andean regions, it bustles with commerce and gold traders dot every corner paying $30 a gram.

But there is a dark side to the boom. While young men ride around on shiny motorbikes, many young women and under-age girls lurk in garish bars. Many of them are victims of people-trafficking mafias who use them to entice miners flush with cash.

"Like it or not the economy of our region is based on mining," says the mayor, Pedro Donayre, a former miner, who no longer wants his town to be on the margins of the law.

"I'm in favour of mining but it does need to be legitimised. The state needs to come here and educate the miners how to extract the gold safely without polluting and help us change rather than demonising what we do."

'Good for health'

For every gram of gold extracted, up to three times more mercury is needed. The toxic metal is used to bind with the gold particles, forming an amalgam which makes them easier to extract.

It is cheap and efficient; so cheap that much of the mercury is left in the rivers and lagoons, poisoning the flora and fauna and in turn passing into the food chain.

25 grammes of gold
This gold is the result of 24-hours of heavy work by some 10 people

Peru's environment ministry estimates there could be up to 40 tonnes of mercury dumped each year.

Many of the miners appear to be cavalier in their use of mercury and its effect on their own health.

One of the older men, nicknamed Viejo Gallinazo, or Old Buzzard, swears by it.

"It's cured my heart problems," he says. "It doesn't pollute, on the contrary, it's actually good for the health."

He lives in a makeshift camp on the edge of a football pitch-sized crater full of dead tree trunks and muddy water.

Day and night, diesel-powered generators whir, powering hoses and suction pumps which suck up the earth, spewing mud down carpet-covered ramps that trap the gold particles.


MADRE DE DIOS
Map
Illegal mining for more than 30 years
190 sq km deforested by illegal mining
150sq km hectares with pending mining exploration claims
1,200 sq km hectares of forest felled for cattle and agriculture

The workers churn up tonnes of earth in 24-hour shifts, pausing at dawn to wash out the carpets and extract the gold using the mercury.

The heavy work produces around 20 to 25 grams of gold - a small profit for the workers - but it is part of a black market in illegal Peruvian gold worth around $500m, according to experts.

The environment ministry estimates around 50 tankers of petrol and diesel reach the mining zone every day, providing fuel for hundreds of bulldozers and heavy diggers.

Practically, halting the mining, at least in the short term, is impossible. Poverty and lack of opportunity in the highlands continue to force people like Paulino Chavez to seek work in the jungle.

"I earn a pittance but it's more than I can get in my village," says the father-of-seven, who earns around $8-a-day. "I know we're killing the jungle, this land will never be the same."

There are other factors at work. Climate change in the Andes is already affecting small farming communities, forcing them to adapt or move elsewhere.

The near completion of the Inter-Oceanic Highway, which cuts a swathe straight through this once inaccessible part of the Peruvian Amazon, will lead to migration on an unprecedented scale.

The road, which will link Pacific ports in southern Peru to the Atlantic coast in Brazil, could well become the greatest factor in the environmental degradation of this once pristine pocket of biodiversity.


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Peru aims for zero deforestation
07 Dec 08 | Americas
Peru sets up environment ministry
14 May 08 | Americas

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The risks of women drug mules in Brazil


The number of foreign women detained for drug trafficking in Brazil in the past three years has soared. The BBC's Gary Duffy examines the increase and speaks to two British women who are currently in jail awaiting sentencing for smuggling cocaine.

In a small room in Sao Paulo's main international airport, police officers rip open four books found in the suitcase of a Dutch passenger arrested while trying to board a flight to Europe.

Carefully concealed inside what appear to be academic texts, and wrapped in a variety of coverings, is 4kg of cocaine.

Brazil sits between other South American nations where the drug is widely produced, such as Colombia and Bolivia, and profitable markets for the drug dealers in Europe and South Africa.

Not surprisingly the country's airports receive a lot of unwelcome passengers.

Police at Guarulhos airport in Sao Paulo say several months ago they successfully disrupted a gang that was using cargo planes to smuggle drugs out the country.

There were more than 60 arrests, and the authorities say it seems to have forced drug traffickers to focus on alternatives such as using drug couriers.


There is no such thing as easy money, no such thing
Sasha Brooks

In the past three years, the number of foreign women detained for drug trafficking has risen 253%.

This is starkly evident in Sao Paulo's Carandiru jail where, as well as the Brazilian inmates, there are more than 400 women from more than 60 countries.

Many risked their freedom for sums of money ranging from $3,000 to $13,000 (£2,000 to £8,000) - certainly less than what the drug traffickers controlling them can make.

'Just a nightmare'

Among the newest prisoners are Sasha Brooks and Kimberley Anderson, both 20 and from Nottingham in England. They have been friends for 15 years.

They were caught this year at Guarulhos airport with 5kg of cocaine. Sasha says they were foolish to get involved.

Police uncover cocaine hidden in luggage of Dutch passenger at Guarulhos airport
Located near cocaine-producing nations, Brazil is a popular transit route

"I was in debt, I needed money," she told BBC News, although for her own safety she is vague about how exactly she got involved.

"I just come across some guys that happened to do this kind of thing, and was kind of persuaded and told everything would be alright, and you just agree to do it."

Instead of solving her financial problems, she now faces the challenge of everyday life in a prison in the heart of Sao Paulo.

"People can take advantage because I don't know how to speak Portuguese fluently," she says.

"So that is very harsh - when you have problems in a prison - you can't back yourself up. Having four people in a cell, two of which sleep on a floor - it's just a nightmare."

Kimberley says they want others who may be thinking of doing the same thing to know what the consequences can be.

"No amount of money in the world can replace, give you back your freedom, your family, love. Because here, you don't have love - you understand?" Kimberley says.

"You don't have freedom, you don't have anything. To do this is not easy. Any amount of money, no matter what money you get told you'd be given to do this - don't! It is not worth it - no amount of money can give you back what you lose."

Sasha quietly agrees: "There is no such thing as easy money, no such thing."

Lethal consequences

Mario Menin, the police chief at the airport where the two were arrested, says most of those who are caught are simply being exploited.

"Usually the people carrying the drugs are less well off," he says.


Ana Dis
At that moment I was so desperate about the money, and to do something for my life
Ana Dinis

"They have money problems, and the drug dealers use these people, and promise them a big advantage or reward, and get these people to take the drugs out of the country."

Some of the women in jail here have taken bigger risks.

Traffickers have been known to persuade couriers to swallow drugs in capsules in order to evade airport security, with potentially lethal consequences.

Ana Dinis, a young mother from Portugal, refused to swallow the drugs but did conceal 56 capsules within her own body.

"You know - about the risks," says Ana who is 23 and has a six-year-old child. She was sentenced to four years and eight months in jail.

"At that moment I didn't think, at that moment I was thinking about the money. So the risks, it wasn't, like, important to me.

"I knew I could be arrested, even die, because with these things you expect everything. But at that moment I was so desperate about the money, and to do something for my life."

Anxious wait

It is also common to hear stories of drug mules who believe they were deliberately betrayed by the traffickers to allow others carrying larger quantities to get on to flights unimpeded.

A sniffer dog searches for drugs in luggage at Sao PAulo internatinal airport
The search for drugs continues as traffickers seek new routes

The police insist they work mainly with intelligence and detection, but roughly the same version of events was repeated to me by different sources. One young woman from Russia, who asked not to be identified, believes the police knew she was travelling with drugs.

"They knew my description and they were watching me as soon as I entered to the airport. I saw them looking at me and laughing. I saw them all the time looking," she says.

"They were dressed in normal clothes; they were not dressed in police clothes. And then they said, they said also they got a call from somebody."

The woman claimed that she was initially told that she would be carrying valuable stones, and when she realised it would be drugs, she was threatened until she agreed to continue.

After speaking to me, Sasha Brooks and Kimberley Anderson return to the routine of prison work - an area, along with their cells, I was not allowed to see.

These are anxious days for the two English women as they await sentence, as under Brazilian law they could receive between five and 15 years.

If they are lucky, because it is a first offence here and because of their age, it could be less.

Whatever their sentence, it seems unlikely they will be the last to take such a risk.

Comparing US healthcare costs with Europe


By BBC Bureau:

With the passionate debate on US healthcare provision drawing to a close, BBC World Service spoke to people undergoing treatment for three different medical conditions, to compare experiences in the US with those in other countries.


HEART SURGERY IN INDIANA AND ITALY

"One day, back in 1992, I started feeling pain in my lower back, below the kidney and a gurgling feeling. I went to a local community hospital and the doctors examined me and indicated that I was having a heart attack.

"The doctors decided that if I were to survive I would need a heart transplant. I was then put on the top of a list for transplant recipients in the mid-west region. Within a couple of days, fortunately, I was able to get a heart and I had wonderful treatment at all three hospitals.

"After I went home I had some medical treatment and I was given a cocktail of medication to take every day.

"I do have Medicare but I also have a supplemental insurance plan. This supplemental plan covers my drugs. I pay 20% of the cost of each drug I take up until I reach a total expenditure of $1,000. Once this happens the insurance company pays the remainder of the total cost of my drugs for the rest of the year.

"Fortunately I belong to an insurance plan where my wife was employed. One month before I had my cardiac event, this firm transferred their insurance to another carrier. Had they not done that I would not be speaking to you today.

"The initial carrier considered - much as other carriers in 1992 - that heart transplant surgery was experimental and they would not pay for it. However, the second insurance which I was carrying at the time did approve that operation, and paid all the expenses associated with that operation."


An angiogram of the human heart showing an artificial valve inserted (generic image)
Pace-makers cost a lot and I got it free
Georgio, Italy

Georgio, Italy:

"I had a heart valve replaced at a hospital in Paris nearly 30 years ago. Then, in 1998, I had a heart flutter and went to Milan for another heart operation. After the second operation they advised me to put in a pace-maker. And now I feel great.

"The pace-maker will last for about 10 years but the less I make it work, the longer it lasts. Since then I have had check-ups every six months. I work fast, swim and I feel pretty healthy. I had all my operations, even the one in Paris, completely free.

"Pace-makers cost a lot and I got it free as well as the medication to thin my blood and keep my blood pressure down. Because I am a long-term patient I get it all free.

"The only thing I pay for is for my private doctor. I pay him 200 euros every six months for my private check-ups and it was he who got me the operations at the hospital.

"Someone with contacts is useful in Italy. The rest of it is paid for by the state.

"The only difficulty with public health here is that if you need to do something urgently, you might have to wait two or three months. So if someone does not want to wait you need to go through a private doctor to get a public appointment in a hospital which has space.

"I think the public system is fine but when you go to the private hospital you get better surroundings, like the choice of food. But I have lots of friends who have gone through the state system and they have been fine too - the operations are the same.

"Our health insurance is taken automatically from our salaries and free healthcare is available to all. We pay about 8% of our salaries each month to healthcare. But the healthcare is the same for everyone."



BREAST CANCER IN CHICAGO AND THE UK

Angela Walker
Angela Walker from Chicago discovered she had breast cancer at 34

Angela, Chicago, US:

"It started when I was getting ready for work as a pastry cook. While in the shower I found a lump in my armpit, so I called my aunt who is a physician's assistant and she told me to call my doctor.

"But at that time I had only been with my company for two months and so I was on a probationary period. This meant that I had to wait 90 days for my insurance to kick in. It was hellish - I went to work and I was a wreck.

"After I was diagnosed with breast cancer, treatment - and payment - started quickly. I went for a 20/80 insurance option which means that my insurers paid 80% of my bills and I paid 20%. So I was getting bills every week.

"The doctor's office had to ask my insurers for permission for some of the therapies I got. For example, I had to get a MUGA scan which checks to see if your heart is okay to stand the chemotherapy but my insurers had to give me permission to get the test.

"And I wondered why, when I was having all this insurance, why I had to ask permission for a certain test?

"Ultimately I filed chapter seven bankruptcy. The hospital was billed for $193,426 which was the 80%. The mind boggles. It's a lot of money. Can you imagine what that would be for people without the money?"

Cathy Luton
Briton Cathy Luton is in remission after treatment for cancer earlier this year

Cathy, UK:

"It started in 2008 when I noticed a lot of irritation on my breast. The doctors told me three times not to worry, but by February this year I went back and asked them to check. After some tests they found I had an early form of cancer.

"Up to this point this was all free at the point of use under the National Health Service (NHS). I pay money in every month in my salary, as we all do in England, and then hospital visits and doctor's appointments are all covered.

"In May this year my breast was removed - which was very quick. I'm very happy since the operation that this was removed.

"Next year I go back for reconstruction of the nipple. Interestingly enough this could be seen as a cosmetic operation, but this is something I can have under the NHS.

"Goodness knows how much it would cost if it wasn't covered by the NHS.

"I do feel gratitude - some towards myself for making the doctors take me seriously - and now towards the NHS.

"But I do still have issues about the fact that I was initially turned away three times by doctors, only to find I had a disease which could have killed me."


PREGNANCY IN SEATTLE AND GERMANY


Alena Ciecko

[My spouse] is currently uninsured, which is very worrying Alena Ciecko, Seattle

Alena Ciecko, Seattle, US:

"My pregnancy has been relatively easy. I'm tired, but very excited. I've had a lot of choices. I plan to have a natural birth out of hospital at a birth centre with a midwife.

"I also had a choice of what kind of doctors I wanted at the hospital. All these choices are within my insurance plan - I can't just pick anyone out of the phonebook.

"I have full coverage as an employee with Group Health - an insurance provider which provides everything internally.

"If you want to go outside of what they have approved or a doctor who doesn't work at one of their facilities, then you have to pay.

"I had three different ultra sounds. I had an option of doing pre-natal and genetic testing and so took advantage of that because it was covered.

"I didn't have a situation where I needed a doctor or an additional test that wasn't already offered.

"But a big problem is that my insurance does not cover my spouse without an additional monthly payment of over $500 per month - which we can't afford.

"So he is currently uninsured, which is very worrying.

"Once the baby comes, she will be a dependent and I can add her to my plan but that will cost over $150 per month which I will have to pay.

"I think this is because my employer cannot afford to cover extra people and the employer balance what benefits they can offer employees with what they can't.

"It seems that, over time, employers are covering less and less because the cost is so high.

"Under federal law, I'm allowed 12 weeks' unpaid maternity leave. In Washington [State] I'm allowed a little extra - 18 weeks - but more than half of this will be unpaid.

"There is no guaranteed paid time off generally for mothers."

Pia Valerio de la Cruz

Pia Valerio de la Cruz is 30 and lives in Berlin

Pia, Germany:

"Since I found out I was pregnant, I have had a midwife and the care has been excellent. I see my doctor as well as my midwife and I can call her any time if I have problems.

"I like the hospital where I will give birth - I went and checked it myself and friends say it is good too. I pay 50% of the cost for this care and my company pays 50%.

"I don't know what it costs as I don't see any bills. The money comes straight out of my wages. When I go to the doctor, they contact my insurers directly. But there are always some additional optional checks and I pay for these myself. The insurers pay just for the basic checks.

"Since I wanted to make sure the baby was healthy, I did pay for more tests. Six weeks before the baby is due and eight weeks after, I get my full salary, and my company gets some money from the insurers too, but I don't know how much.

"After that I either go back to work or I have the opportunity to stay at home for one year and we get 67% of our salary. But this isn't paid from our insurers but from the government. I will do this.

"They changed this a few years ago to encourage women to have more babies."

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Revenge in Drug War Chills Mexico


By ELISABETH MALKIN

Ensign Melquisedet Angulo Córdova, a special forces sailor killed last week during the government’s most successful raid on a top drug lord in years, received a stirring public tribute in which the secretary of the navy presented his mother with the flag that covered her son’s coffin.

Then, only hours after the grieving family had finished burying him in his hometown the next day, gunmen burst into the family’s house and sprayed the rooms with gunfire, killing his mother and three other relatives, officials said Tuesday.

It was a chilling epilogue to the navy-led operation that killed the drug lord, Arturo Beltrán Leyva, and six of his gunmen. And it appeared to be intended as a clear warning to the military forces on the front line of President Felipe Calderón’s war against Mexico’s drug cartels: not only you, but your family is a target as well.

Prosecutors, police chiefs and thousands of others have been killed in the violence gripping Mexico, with whole families sometimes coming under attack during a cartel’s assassination attempt. But going after the family of a sailor who had already been killed is an exceedingly rare form of intimidation, analysts say, and illustrates how little progress the government has made toward one of its most important goals: reclaiming a sense of peace and order for Mexicans caught in the cross-fire.

“There will be more reprisals, both symbolic ones and strategic ones,” said Guillermo Zepeda, a security expert with the Center of Research for Development, in Mexico City. “They will take revenge against not only the top people, but anybody who participates.”

The military and police forces who have been fighting the drug war typically cover their faces with ski masks to protect their identities. But the government generally releases the names of police officers and soldiers who have been killed in the drug war.

Responding to the killings on Tuesday, Mr. Calderón said, “These contemptible events are proof of how unscrupulously organized crime operates, attacking innocent lives, and they can only strengthen us in our determination to banish this singular cancer.”

The gunmen killed Ensign Angulo’s mother, Irma Córdova Palma, and his sister Yolidabey, 22, just after midnight on Tuesday as they slept, said Tabasco State officials. An aunt, Josefa Angulo Flores, 46, died on her way to the hospital and Ensign Angulo’s brother Benito died shortly after he was admitted to the hospital. Another sister, who was not identified, was injured.

Ensign Angulo, 30, was killed Dec. 16 when military forces surrounded an upscale apartment complex in the city of Cuernavaca, an hour’s drive south of Mexico City, and cornered Mr. Beltrán Leyva, who American and Mexican officials say was one of Mexico’s most violent drug lords.

Although Mr. Calderón called the death of Mr. Beltrán Leyva a significant victory in the drug war, federal officials warned almost immediately that it could spawn more violence.

Attorney General Arturo Chávez Chávez told reporters the morning after the raid against Mr. Beltrán Leyva that his subordinates would battle among one another to take his place at the head of the cartel that bears his name.

But what officials did not expect was that among the first victims would be the innocent.

Throughout the three-year-old drug war, Mexican officials have argued that only a tiny percentage of the dead are noncombatants. Indeed, the vast majority of the dead are believed to be members of drug gangs settling scores. Half of the bodies are not even claimed by their families, government officials have said.

But the government has also proved to be powerless to protect many of its own forces in the drug war, much less innocent bystanders. In just one case in July, gunmen suspected of being cartel members killed 12 federal police officers in the western state of Michoacán in retaliation for the arrest of one of their leaders.

The killings on Tuesday underscore how vulnerable civilians are. Many local police forces are corrupted by drug money, officials say, and even when they are not, they are no match for the drug gangs’ firepower.

In one of the most frightening attacks directed at civilians, suspected cartel members threw grenades into a crowd celebrating Independence Day in the president’s hometown in 2008, killing eight people. It seemed to crystallize the fear that the cartels could strike wherever and whenever they wanted, despite the deployment of thousands of troops against them.

Analysts said that new levels of narcoterrorism were possible as the drug gangs tried to spread fear among those fighting them.

“Any objective could be vulnerable,” Mr. Zepeda, the security expert, said. “The state should be expecting it.”

Antonio Betancourt contributed reporting.

Narco Pirates Smuggle Mexican Petrol into Texas


John Ross - The Rag Blog
go to original
November 19, 2009


Hot oil? Petroleum "pipa" with the mark of the Zetas, the infamous drug cartel branching out into petro-piracy. (NarcoGuerra Times)
Union crooks, drug cartels and U.S. corporations are stealing billions of bucks of Mexican petroleum.

Mexico City - In a catchy photo op staged this past August, officials of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security are pictured handing over a four foot-long government check for $2.4 million USD to Mexican finance ministry officials as recompense for shipments of stolen Mexican oil smuggled into Texas right under the noses of U.S. customs enforcement officers and sold to Trammo Petroleum, a Houston transnational with branch offices in China, Brazil, Egypt, France, the U.K., and Switzerland.

Part of the shipment of purloined petroleum was then sold off to a German BASF subsidiary in Port Arthur for $2.4 million. According to the New York Times, the deal was brokered by one Josh Crescenzi, Rio Grande Valley supervisor for Continental Fuels and a bundler for former Texas oilman George Bush during his 2004 election campaign who is now in a federal protected witness program. Trammo CEO Donald Schroeder has pleaded guilty to receiving stolen property and will be sentenced in December.

The Texas case is, in fact, the tip of a sinkhole that involves tens of millions of barrels of stolen Mexican oil worth billions of greenback dollar bills, U.S. customs enforcement, corrupt oil union officials, dozens of mysteriously "disappeared" oil workers, and a dread drug cartel.

Mexican authorities calculate that more than 2,000,000 barrels are stolen from PEMEX, the national petroleum monopoly, each year by workers, company insiders, and organized crime. A 2007 New York Times investigation estimated that a billion dollars worth of Mexican oil was being siphoned from PEMEX annually through fraud, theft, and clandestine "tomas" ("takes") drilled into company pipelines. Thousands of gallons of jet fuel allegedly wound up in the tanks of drug cartel jets carrying cocaine in from Colombia for transshipment to the U.S.

PEMEX numbers (questionable at best) reveal that more than 1.5 million barrels were sucked out of the oil giant's pipelines in the first nine months of 2009 alone. A Mexican government investigation into one network of oil thieves operating in the Burgos sector along the border in Coahuila and neighboring Nuevo Leon states yielded 740,000 pesos in cold, hard cash and evidence of $46,000,000 USD in stolen oil sales, presumably to U.S. buyers.

The modus operandi of the petrol pirates is simplicity itself: "chupaductos" ("duct suckers") are attached to perforated pipelines and the oil pumped into tanker trucks or "pipas" that sometimes bear the PEMEX logo. Pipa drivers are provided with phony documentation from the Mexican Environmental Secretariat (SEMARNAP) attesting that the contents of the loads they are moving are liquid petroleum waste - the documentation is apparently good enough to satisfy the curiosities of U.S. customs inspectors.

Some of the stolen crude is processed at clandestine refineries into gasoline that is sold in both Mexico and the U.S. Gas stations in central Mexico, particularly in Puebla state, are ready customers for the hot oil if a recent article in the daily El Universal is to be believed. Major trucking and bus companies buy the purloined gasoline without any questions asked. A May 16th, 2008 raid by federal police agents at offices in Acolman, Mexico state resulted in the confiscation of documentation for dummy companies created to distribute the product.

PEMEX bulletins reported by El Universal establish that nearly half the stolen petroleum (48%) is sucked from pipelines that supply the country's six major refineries - Mexico, which has limited refining capabilities, sends most of its crude to Texas to be converted into gasoline that is then re-imported for domestic use.

22% of the "tomas" are tapped from two oil ducts feeding the Hector Lara refinery in Cadareyta, a city of 75,000 in central Nuevo Leon. Local papers report that PEMEX has shut down 33 "takes" in the Cadareyta pipeline network so far this year, most recently this past August 30th along the national highway in San Juan, one of dozens of tiny communities that pertain to the municipality. The perforated duct measures 24 inches around which experts say translates to a lot of petroleum.

Who is stealing Cadareyta's oil? One PEMEX investigation suggests the involvement of organized crime, most pertinently the Zetas, a ruthless band of narco traffickers, who began life as the dreaded enforcers for the Gulf Cartel. Noted for their expertise in beheading their rivals, the original Zetas were Mexican Army officials trained in drug war strategies at the Center for Special Forces in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

Bored with protecting the interests of Osiel Cardenas, the Gulf Cartel capo who is now facing 30 years in the U.S. super-maxi penitentiary in Florence, Colorado, the Zetas have gone into business for themselves and are now assigned full-blown cartel status by Mexican drug fighters. More than a dozen Zeta offshoots now operate throughout Mexico and the cartel is diversifying into extortion, kidnapping, pirate goods, and the sale of stolen oil.

With 2000 members, Section 49 of the Sindicato Mexicano de Petroleros de la Revolucion Mexicana (STPRM) which holds the contract for the Cadareyta refinery is notorious for corruption and gangsterism. Up until 2007, the section was controlled by ten brothers named Vega, disciples of STPRM boss Carlos Romero Deschamps. In fact, Hilario Vega, then in his third term as secretary general of Section 49, was considered Romero Deschamps' heir apparent when leadership of the union devolves to northern sections of the STPRM in 2012.

One ex-Cadayreta worker, Tony Cantu, interviewed by the New York Times' Tim Weiner, testified that the Vegas were perfectly capable of killing dissidents to protect their concession - Cantu now lives in Houston. Hermen Macias, a Cadareyta newspaper editor who dared to cross the Vegas, claims he was repeatedly threatened with death before the union bosses began to mysteriously disappear.

The Vega brothers' enterprise began to unravel some 30 months ago when, on May 16th 2007, David Vega, AKA "El Ganso" ("The Goose") left a union meeting in high spirits with three fellow oil workers - the four reportedly had been plotting strike tactics if then-upcoming negotiations with the PEMEX refinery division fell through. But David Vega and his three companions never returned home. One unidentified eyewitness to their forced disappearance or "levanton" ("pick-up" in narco parlance) reported that the petroleros were waylaid by a commando of men dressed in black uniforms with no insignias and bullet-proof vests and carrying automatic weapons with grenades strapped to their belts - an outfit that fits the Zeta dress code - and spirited off in several large black cars.

The morning after the "levanton," Hilario Vega, the long-time Section 49 boss, received a phone call instructing him to rendezvous with the kidnappers in the parking lot of a Cadareyta Wal-Mart mega-store if he wanted to see his brother alive again. According to his son Josue Vega, Hilario complied and was never seen again.

Some news stories suggest that there were over 100 "levantones" in Cadareyta in 2007 - the number is imprecise because many families failed to report the disappearances of their loved ones to the police who did not seem very interested in clearing up the cases anyway - if recent criminal enterprise is any teacher the cops may well have been involved in the crimes themselves. Although an unspecified number of kidnapping victims were eventually allowed to return home, leftist Mexican senator Rosario Ibarra, the founder of the EUREKA Mothers of the Disappeared group, holds a list of 38 refinery workers who remain missing. Ibarra, whose own son, Jesus, a member of the 23rd of September Communist League, was disappeared by government agents in 1976, is a native of nearby Monterrey.

The indifference of local authorities, state and federal prosecutors, Section 49, and the national leadership of the STPRM at the disappearances of 38 oil workers, has been nothing short of sensational. Despite a resolution of the Mexican Senate urged by Ibarra and calling for a thorough investigation, the Federal Prosecutors' Office (PGR) insists it has no new information on the kidnappings and the investigation remains frozen in the cold case file. Even clues supplied by witnesses, such as the license numbers of vehicles used in the "levantones," have evaporated, according to Hilario's son Josue.

The younger Vega complains that, disillusioned by the PGR's lethargy, he contracted a billboard near the Cadareyta airport to display photos of his father and other missing petroleros but the billboard company canceled the contract on the pretext that it constituted "political advertisement." Candidates of Mexico's two most powerful parties, the PRI and the PAN, often advertise on billboards outside the Cadareyta airport.

Two and half years after the mystery "levantones," Hilario Vega's replacement as the interim secretary general of Section 49, Jose Izaguirre, has issued no public statement about his predecessor's disappearance. Izaguirre, who is under federal investigation for selling refinery jobs, makes no bones about his candidacy to become permanent secretary general of the section.

The silence of accomplices extends to STPRM boss of all bosses Romero Deschamps who the surviving Vegas inevitably refer to as "Don Carlos." "Don Carlos and my father were friends for life," affirmed Josue Vega in a recent Internet interview.

Carlos Romero Deschamps succeeded the legendary STPRM czar Joaquin Hernandez Galicia in 1989 after the omni-powerful "La Quina" was arrested and stripped of office on orders from then-president Carlos Salinas in a murderous raid on Hernandez Galicia's stronghold in Ciudad Madero Tamaulipas state - the body of a police agent freshly gunned down in Ciudad Juarez was purportedly flown into Madero so that La Quina could be charged with murder.

Hernandez Galicia had incurred the now-reviled ex-president's wrath by endorsing leftist Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the son of Lazaro Cardenas who nationalized Mexico's oil industry back in the 1930s, from whom Salinas embezzled the 1988 presidential election. La Quina reportedly opposed Salinas's plans to re-privatize PEMEX and also had financed a slim volume - A Killer In Los Pinos (the Mexican White House) - that revealed how Carlos and his black sheep brother Raul shot and killed an Indian servant during a childhood game of Cowboys & Indians.

Carlos Romero Deschamps is a veteran mover and shaker in the ranks of the once-and-future ruling PRI party that after 71 years in power was finally deposed in the 2000 presidential elections by Vicente Fox's rightist PAN party. In a doomed scheme to stymie Fox's bid, the STPRM was used as a pipeline to funnel $110,000,000 USD in illegal contributions from PEMEX operating funds into the campaign coffers of losing PRI candidate Francisco Labastida, the so-called PEMEXgate scandal. Although PEMEX director Rogelio Montemayor was forced to flee Mexico to escape prosecution for the scandal, Romero Deschamps, then a PRI senator, enjoyed immunity that exempted him from prosecution (the "fuero") because he was a member of congress.

The PAN's unexpected triumph in 2000 taught Romero Deschamps which side of the coin the money was posted on and he soon closed ranks with Fox's successor Felipe Calderon in his designs to re-privatize PEMEX. During 45 Senate debates on Calderon's privatization bill, Romero Deschamps was a perpetual no-show despite the key role played by the STPRM in the nationalization process -- a strike by petroleros against the transnational "Seven Sisters" that then controlled Caribbean oil fields resulted in Cardenas's expropriation and nationalization of Mexico's petroleum industry in 1938. PEMEX was created soon after.

Both PEMEX and the STPRM soon fell under the control of the PRI from whose ranks corrupt union leadership emerged. By the oil boom and bust of 1976-82, corruption had become institutionalized and with 90,000 dues-paying members (and another 30,000 contract workers), the union has long been a PRI cash cow.

Like La Quina, Romero Deschamps is not reluctant to send in muscle to silence detractors. As recently as early October, "Don Carlos" dispatched his goons to attack dissident petroleros peacefully protesting outside the STPRM's Mexico City headquarters. Rivals disappear - the suspected fate of the Cadareyta workers is a case in point - and some suffer an overdose of lead.

Despite plunging PEMEX revenues as major offshore oilfields like Cantarell play out, Romero Deschamps and his cronies continue to be handsomely rewarded by the Calderon regime for their "cooperation." For years, investigators have sought to determine the dimensions of the pay-offs with which PEMEX buys the STPRM's allegiances. Recent revelations by the Federal Institute for the Freedom of Information (IFAI) indicate that between 2005 and 2007, management gifted Romero Deschamps and the union's executive board with over a billion pesos - 1,273,588,029 of them to be exact.

In 2007 alone, the oil union boss received 139 million pesos for "expenses." 75 million were issued for two STPRM "fiestas" and 532 million for "travel." Although the destination of these trips was not spelled out, Romero Deschamps, like his predecessor La Quina, seems to spend more time at the craps tables in Las Vegas than he does at STPRM headquarters.

John Ross will present his latest cult classic El Monstruo - Dread and Redemption in Mexico City ("a lusty corrido about a great betrayed city" - Mike Davis) at Modern Times, 888 Valencia Street in San Francisco's La Mision this Wednesday November 18th at 7 p.m. The masses are cordially invited. Ross is scouting venues in the midwest, south, and east coast for his winter-spring 2010 Monster Tour. Write him at johnross(at)igc.org with ideas.

Mystery of Amazon manatee migration solved



The mystery of why Amazonian manatees migrate has been solved.

Only in recent years did scientists find that the secretive aquatic mammal migrates from shallow to deep water.

Now researchers can reveal that the manatees make this perilous journey to avoid being exposed to attack by predators during the low water season.

That means the species maybe at greater risk than previously thought, say scientists, as migration and low water levels make them vulnerable to hunters.

The international team of researchers from Brazil and the UK publish their findings in the Journal of Zoology.

Great escape

The elusive Amazonian manatee (Trichechus inunguis) is a large plant-eating mammal that lives in freshwater.

Due to its peculiar shape it has been described as a cross between a seal and a hippo.

The species is only found in the Amazon River basin from the river mouth to the upper reaches of tributaries of Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, and Peru.

Every year they are probably migrating through narrow channels where they are exposed to hunters
Dr Eduardo Moraes Arraut
National Institute for Space Research, Sao Paulo, Brazil

The researchers studied manatees that live within the Mamiraua and Amana Sustainable Development Reserves in the north west of Brazil.

To obtain their results, the researchers asked local inhabitants about the animals' movements, studied the shapes and depths of the local rivers and lakes and then used radio tracking tags to follow the movements of 10 manatees.

During the high water season, between mid May and the end of June, manatees live in quiet lakes called varzeas that form within river flood plains, the scientists found.

Here the manatees consume 8% of their body weight in aquatic plants each day.

Then during the low water season, between October and November, the animals start to migrate as the water level drops.

They journey to deeper water within long narrow lakes called rias, that are submerged river valleys.

They do this because it becomes too dangerous to remain in shallow water, the scientists say.

If the manatees do not move, they become stranded and exposed to hunters such as caimans, jaguars and humans who stalk the water margins.

Lesser of two evils

Moving to the deeper habitat is not easy, as the large mammals must pass through narrow bottlenecks in the aquatic landscape, where human hunters wait for them.
Researchers put radio collar on a manatee
Researchers Edu and Antonio putting a radio collar on a male manatee

The perilous journey also has another downside; it forces the manatees to fast for several months due to a lack of aquatic plants.

"Amazonian manatees migrate to a habitat that doesn't offer easy living conditions in order to flee from a habitat that becomes inhospitable," says Dr Eduardo Moraes Arraut from the National Institute for Space Research in Sao Paulo, Brazil who undertook the latest study.

By doing so, they choose between the lesser of two evils.

"When you have two options that are not good, you choose the one that is less bad," says Dr Arraut.

Hunters respected

"I was surprised with the difficulty of the conditions the manatee lives in during the low water season," he says.

Manatees are in greater danger than previously thought
Dr Eduardo Moraes Arraut
National Institute for Space Research, Sao Paulo, Brazil

"I was also badly surprised with the fact that they are probably being killed yearly throughout the Amazon during migration."

Even though hunting manatees is illegal they are prized by local people for their meat and the status a kill bestows on the hunter.

"It is very difficult to kill one and hunters are respected people in their communities," explains Dr Arraut.

"Manatees are in greater danger than previously thought because every year they are probably migrating through narrow channels where they are exposed to hunters," he says.

Dr Arraut hopes to track manatees in other regions of the Amazon to find out if this is occurring elsewhere.