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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SEE ALSO
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."