Saturday, December 27, 2014

Why halal certification is in turmoil

Kirralie Smith is a permaculture farmer from northern New South Wales and a mother of three. She is also the public face of the virulent campaign to boycott halal food and products.

Halal means permissible for Muslims to eat or use, and Smith's Facebook page "'Boycott Halal in Australia" has 41,000 supporters. She speaks at events organised by "Islam-critical" groups such as the Q Society, which has also been involved in local campaigns to stop mosques being built. Her "Halal Choices" website, she says, gets 80,000 visitors a month. 

'We are Australians. I love my footy, my cricket, my meat pies. Halal pies of course' 

She says her objection is not to Islam itself but the extra cost she thinks is imposed on Australian consumers by companies paying to have products – everything from milk to pies and shampoo – certified halal. 

Halal products are certified as being free from anything that Muslims are not allowed to eat or use (such as pork and alcohol). The products must be made and stored using machines that  are cleansed according to Islamic law. 


Large processing plants will have Muslim staff members who are accredited in some instances to bless the factory. Halal slaughtering of animals in Australia is done after they are stunned.

Smith and her supporters claim halal certification is a scam by Muslim interests to raise money for mosques and therefore for "jihad." They base this assertion on media reports in France, Canada and the United States claiming certification funds had been paid to organisations linked to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet neither Smith nor her unofficial patron, the Q Society, could elaborate on the Australian situation. "To the best of our knowledge no one has yet undertaken similar research," says Q Society's national president Debbie Robinson. 

Mohammed Eris, the treasurer of the Supreme Islamic Council of Halal Meat in Australia, says he is "saddened" to hear regular accusations that Muslim halal certifying bodies funnel money to terrorism. His organisation has the contract with Coles to certify supermarket products. "We are Australians," he says. "I love my footy, my cricket, my meat pies. Halal pies of course."

He says the council has funded youth groups and non-Muslim youth cancer organisations such as the Starlight Children's Foundation Australia which supports children with cancer and their families. "We practise our beliefs but with respect for the others around us." 

The Australian Crime Commission told  recently that no links were found between the "legitimate halal certification industry" and the "financing of terrorist groups".

Still, Smith maintains halal certification is a religious tax and jihad is more subtle than terrorism.

A significant amount of products in Australian stores are halal certified including food from SPC, Sanitarium, Cadburys, Nestle, Kelloggs, Master Foods, Mainland, La Ionica and Kraft. Supermarket chains such as Coles, Woolworths, IGA and Ritchies pay for certification for some products, as do dairy factories and meat processors. 

According to the Q Society, 75 per cent of poultry suppliers, the four major dairy companies, 60 per cent of sheep abattoirs and more than half of Australian cattle abattoirs produce certified goods.

Still, the Australian Food and Grocery Council says halal certification costs are "negligible" and "highly unlikely" to change pricing. 

One of the main things that Smith and the anti-Halal movement objects to is foods or products that are deemed intrinsically halal  – such as white milk, honey and nuts – having halal certification. 

She claims certifiers put undue pressure on companies, blackmailing them with the threat of being branded anti-Islam or racist if they don't comply.

So far, South Australian dairy company Fleurieu has dropped its halal status – due to perceived negative publicity on anti-Halal social media pages – losing a big deal with Emirates Airlines in the process. It paid only $1000 to be certified. The costs of certification vary between $1000 for a small company to $27,000 a month for a large abattoir. 

Prominent brands such as Four 'N Twenty, Kelloggs, Byron Bay Cookies, Cadburys and Pauls have been targeted in online anti-Halal campaigns but have stood firm, all stating that halal certification means they can export their product to Muslim countries.

Yet, behind the headlines, the booming halal certification industry is wracked by upheaval and recriminations both domestically and in export markets, with allegations of bribes paid by Australian certifiers to an Indonesian Halal agency. 

The new Indonesian government has dismantled Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI) – the country's main Islamic body and halal controller –  which approves halal imports, shifting the goalposts significantly in a highly competitive $12 billion export industry. 

The MUI has held a stranglehold on Australian halal exports by being able to dictate which Australian certifiers are favoured. But in one of the former Indonesian government's last acts, a new body – the Halal Product Assurance Organising Agency – was set up. It will be phased in over the next three years.

"The full impact on Australian exports will emerge only once detailed regulations are developed and implemented," an Australian department of agriculture spokesperson said. "The department will continue to work with the relevant halal-approving bodies in Indonesia to support Australian exports."

The bribery allegations were initially aired in Indonesian news magazine Tempo this year. Fairfax Media has established a Melbourne whistleblower wrote to three Australian government departments including the Federal Police in March telling them of corruption allegations between the MUI and Australian halal certifiers trying to firm up the lucrative export market in Indonesia.

The allegations include bribes paid to the MUI. Fairfax Media has seen an MUI contract sent to Australian certifiers requiring them to "contribute in activities for the halal product service in Indonesia".

A Department of Agriculture spokesman said: "The department is unable to comment on any investigation that may currently be underway."

Halal certification in Australia is dominated by four big Islamic groups – one in Melbourne and three in Sydney. They are the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, the unofficial peak body; the Halal Certification Authority Australia, the Supreme Islamic Council of Halal Meat in Australia and the Islamic Co-ordinating Council of Victoria.

There are 21 Islamic groups approved by the federal government to issue halal certificates but many – in regional areas – service only small meat processors. The big four, all classed as not-for-profit enterprises, do the bulk of the work across meat and non-meat products.  

Internationally, the halal market is valued in the trillions with 20 per cent annual growth, fuelled by a rising Muslim middle class in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia and the increasing reach of affluent Muslim travellers.

Big Australian certifiers are heavily regulated by the Australian Quarantine and Export Service (AQIS; a federal government body within the Department of Agriculture) but this covers only export products. Halal certification for domestic products, restaurants and butcher shops is unregulated. This is estimated to be about 10 per cent of the total halal market.

"I can make cheese in my little factory and get a local organisation to certify it halal," says Ahmed Kilani, who runs a Sydney halal consultancy and co-founded the website Muslim Village. 

 "I could set up tomorrow to certify butchers and restaurants. I can charge whatever I want. Who certifies the certifier? It should be written into the law but it isn't."

Mohammed Khan, of certifiers Halal Australia, says he has been pushing the government for tighter domestic halal standards since 2008 with no traction. He says certain certifiers enjoy a state-by-state monopoly at the expense of other hopefuls. 

In contrast, the big export certifiers are audited by the Australian government and also by Islamic governing bodies in countries that receive the products. 

"These are mainstream organisations. They are not start ups," says Ahmed Kilani. Just "one local scandal," he says – misuse of funds or non-halal products being certified – could have a major economic impact.

"If a product is exported to say Indonesia or Saudi Arabia then the governments of those countries have whole departments full of scholars and food scientists looking closely at what happens. They are not going to give a backyarder permission to certify."

Under Islamic law, the money the certifiers earn is supposed to cover costs and if there is any left it goes to the Muslim community organisations that the certifying company is aligned with – mosques, schools and welfare groups. 

Those who control the certification rights can also fund imams and bring preachers to Australia. Sydney-based Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC) set up an Islamic school in Tarneit in Melbourne's west and an Islamic centre on Christmas Island for Malaysian Muslims, says chief executive officer Amjad Mahboob.

"The international halal market is huge," Mahboob says, "and Australia being a primary producer of food items means we are relied upon so it's very important the credibility of what we do is protected at all times."

Yet that credibility has sometimes been brittle. In 2003, a court case involving Shafiq Khan, an influential figure around Sydney's Supreme Islamic Council of Halal Meat in Australia, saw former supporters swear he had diverted without approval more than $1 million to charities, including his own Al-Faisal College, at the expense of constituent charities. Former Prime Minister John Howard opened the college in 2000. Mr Khan negotiated a settlement and agreed to return the money to the council.

In 2009, the Victorian Supreme Court found the Islamic Co-ordinating Council of Victoria (ICCV) had defamed a competitor in the lucrative halal trade, and ordered damages be paid.

Then in 2012 a Sydney Islamic school aligned to the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils was ordered to pay back $9m in NSW government funding after it was found money had been allegedly diverted to the federation the peak body for halal certification in Australia. "It is a matter that is before the court," said Mahboob. "We are disputing the [NSW] minister's findings."

This year, in a Federal Court trademark case it was revealed two Sydney kebab shops got free fake certificates from a wholesaler, which if they'd opted to buy them elsewhere would have cost $5000 each. 

In Melbourne and Sydney, the certifying industry has begun to move away from predominantly Middle Eastern interests  towards businesspeople from Turkey and the Balkans.

An investigator familiar with the industry said it was a "highly competitive"  and "very incestuous" market. "It is riven with factions," he said. 

Credibility can also be an issue to those seeking a boycott on halal products can also face. Theirs is a campaign that has been hijacked to an extent by extreme right-wing groups such as Restore Australia, the Australian Defence League and the Patriots' Defence League.

Last year, a Queensland woman was charged with food tampering after stickers stating that halal food funds terrorism were attached to coffee in a supermarket. The woman charged bought the stickers from former One Nation candidate Mike Holt -- who has raised funds for a contentious campaign to stop a mosque being built in Bendigo. 

Kirralie Smith, meanwhile, says she is being courted by all kinds of small political parties to stand for Parliament. 

"All of the minor parties have asked me to represent them. 'You have to be our senator,' they say, 'you have to be our candidate'. The Christian parties, the right wing parties. I really like [right-wing Christian Democratic Party politician in Sydney] Fred Nile, I think he is great. He would love me to join his party."

Early in 2015, Q Society will present a petition to federal parliament demanding the Corporations Act 2001 be changed to mean only Muslims bear the cost of halal certification on everyday products.

When pressed on the lack of evidence that Australian consumers are being ripped off by halal cartels – and that money raised funds nefarious activities – Smith says her  "primary focus" is lack of choices for consumers and she is "happy to be wrong" in her claims.

"I understand it is complex. I felt deceived that companies pay halal certification fees and there was no way as a consumer and an ordinary mum that I knew."

Sydney Morning Herald

How International Human Rights Day Is Celebrated in Vietnam

How International Human Rights Day Is Celebrated in Vietnam

The government of Vietnam appears to have adopted an alarming new tactic against

Which is worse, being thrown in jail or getting beaten up? This is a question activists in Vietnam were pondering on International Human Rights Day this month.

The government of Vietnam has been sending people to prison for dissent for more than half a century. Lately, the government has tried to persuade other governments and diplomats that it is becoming more tolerant, pointing to what it claims are decreasing arrests of critics.

It is very difficult in a one-party state with a state-controlled media to know how many people are arrested for political reasons, particularly in rural and distant parts of the country, but there is no doubt that the number of detentions remains alarming.

It’s not as if we are witnessing a “Hanoi Spring.” In 2014, at least 29 activists and bloggers were sentenced to many years in prison for national security-related crimes such as abusing the rights to freedom and democracy to infringe upon the interests of the state (Criminal Code article 258) or undermining national unity policy (article 87). This year, more than a dozen critics, including the prominent bloggers Nguyen Huu Vinh and Nguyen Quang Lap, were arrested pending investigation.

It may be a coincidence, but at the same time that the government has claimed it is decreasing political arrests, an alarming trend has developed. Thugs, who appear to be government agents in civilian clothes, have begun attacking dissidents with complete impunity, often in public. Most recently, on December 9, Nguyen Hoang Vi, a blogger, was walking home in Ho Chi Minh City when a group of men and women blocked her way, grabbed her hair and showered her with punches. Dozens of people, including members of government security forces stationed outside Vi’s house, watched without intervening. When a taxi driver attempted to take Vi to the hospital, the security forces intervened and forced him to take her home instead.

This incident, a day before International Human Rights Day, is a sad illustration of the state of human rights in Vietnam. Vi and her fellow bloggers are an increasingly influential force in Vietnam’s social and political life, using the Internet to publish information and opinions not allowed in the country’s heavily censored traditional media. But they are under near-constant physical, political and legal assault.

This was not the first time Vi was beaten by thugs for exercising her right to speak her mind. Security forces assaulted and locked her and another blogger, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, inside Vi’s house to stop them from attending a gathering to celebrate International Human Rights Day last year. Other activists who came to support them were beaten. During an effort to hold a human rights picnic and to distribute copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at a park in Ho Chi Minh City, in May 2013 Vi and her fellow activists were detained and their personal belongings confiscated. When Vi tried to retrieve her belongings the next day, Vi, her mother and sister were beaten in front of the police station.

The use of thugs to attack human rights activists and bloggers has increased at an alarming rate. In February, anonymous thugs beat father-son bloggers Huynh Ngoc Tuan and Huynh Trong Hieu in Quang Nam province. Two months earlier, Huynh Ngoc Tuan had suffered broken bones in another assault while he was campaigning for the rights of former political prisoners. In May, assailants broke the activist Tran Thi Thuy Nga’s arm and leg. In November, thugs assaulted and injured Truong Minh Duc, a former political prisoner and blogger. Even the French Consul in Ho Chi Minh City was roughed up recently when he went to the scene of a standoff between activists and unidentified thugs.

The list goes on and on.

No one was charged in any of these cases. Most attacks have occurred during daylight hours in front of others. Uniformed police officers don’t intervene, most likely because they believe the attackers are state agents. Trying to stop the attacks, seemingly the only professional and ethical decision for a police officer, is just too risky, and could potentially cost them their jobs or worse.

The authorities also use proxies in social media to attack and defame bloggers and activists. But harassment, intimidation and assaults do not seem to deter the vibrant blogger community in Vietnam, though they are certainly bringing misery to individual activists. On December 10, Nguyen Hoang Vi uploaded a new Facebook profile picture of herself carrying a sign that says, “I support Human Rights because we cannot allow them to take away our Self-Respect.”

While the European Union and Japan want to increase trade links and the U.S. wants closer ties as a counterweight to China’s regional influence, these countries should remember that the best and most stable partners are governments that create a safe space for free speech, not those that beat and imprison people who express their own views.

Brad Adams is the Asia director at Human Rights Watch

Friday, December 26, 2014

To our Balinese Family and Friends “Selamat Hari Raya Kuningan”

To our Balinese Family and Friends
“Selamat Hari Raya Kuningan”

This special day falls 10 days after Galungan and prayers, offerings are given for the ancestral spirits return to Heaven.

We hope you all enjoy today.

Galungan is a Balinese holiday celebrating the victory of dharma over adharma.[1] It marks the time when the ancestral spirits visit the Earth. The last day of the celebration is Kuningan, when they return. The date is calculated according to the 210-day Balinese calendar.

Galungan marks the beginning of the most important recurring religious ceremonies. The spirits of deceased relatives who have died and been cremated return to visit their former homes, and the current inhabitants have a responsibility to be hospitable through prayers and offerings. The most obvious sign of the celebrations are the penjor - bamboo poles with offerings suspended at the end. These are installed by the side of roads. A number of days around the Kuningan day have special names, and are marked by the organization of particular activities

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christianity? Revolutionary? Let me count the ways. Christianity should have been the revolution which replaced tribal vengeance with radical love.

Christianity? Revolutionary? Let me count the ways

Christianity should have been the revolution which replaced tribal vengeance with radical love.

"Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over…every living thing that moveth upon the earth." That was some brief to give a band of murdering primates, not long from the trees.

Even if we see this "subdue the earth" injunction as a self-generated permission slip – humanity imitating teacher's blue-black ink – here's no denying the outcome. We've had ourselves dominion. Have we ever.

Historically, it was Christianity's equalising fire that impelled us from primitive tribal loyalties toward an idea, at least, of universal franchise.  

Humans now weigh an immense 350 million tonnes of global wet biomass. The only other species that comes close is the Antarctic krill, but they're stuck on rung two of the food chain and we, naturally, are on top. Dominion is what we do.

Yet here we are, on Boxing Day, placidly digesting the heroic gluttony by which we celebrate the birth of the revolution that should, by now, have overthrown the "subdue" regime.


Christianity should have been that revolution. It is on any reading, a socialist, feminist, greenie polemic; the exact opposite of dominion. The child came to earth trailing radical love, openness and equity. Yet for two thousand years we deployed these wands as clubs to perpetuate dominion. That's gotta be interesting. Right?

Exodus, now showing, is not a good film. Ridley Scott turns Moses' grand narrative into another soulless computer generated imagery epic with no sense of sacredness and God as a surly mountain-child with nice vowels and bad clothes. But Exodus does show why the Old Testament world of vengeful mayhem was one you'd want to vacate. It shows why revolution was necessary.   

Jesus' bid to replace tribal vengeance with radical love was an absolute overturning of the apple cart. Even if you don't buy the theology, you should applaud this rampageous inversion since it's this, if we can get our heads around it, that could unlock the future – not just of the church, but of the planet.

Christianity? Revolutionary? Let me count the ways.

Begin with earth. Christianity is rooted in ancient paganisms, but that's not all. The idea of universal love, nestled in Mary's cradle, is not just about personal relationships. It's also about loving nature, discerning the sacred reality of place. This, argues philosopher Roger Scruton, is humanity's deepest intimation of what it truly means to be on earth.

Scruton coins the term "the face of the earth" to convey nature as subject, not just exploitable object. Our failure to recognise this, he says, dooms us perpetually to "deface" nature, producing "an ever-expanding heartlessness."

Melbourne theologian David Tacey writes similarly of the need to reinvest, through the soles of our feet, in an earth-based spirituality. He also notes how deeply subversive this "tread lightly, treat others" approach is of regulation consumer life.

Which brings us to socialism. The last shall be first, the meek exalted, the hungry fed, the rich turned away. This is the most iterative theme in scripture that re-echoed, almost verbatim, through 20th century hippiedom. As Bob Dylan crooned to a generation, "the first ones now will later be last, for the times they are a-changin'."

Historically, it was Christianity's equalising fire that impelled us from primitive tribal loyalties toward an idea, at least, of universal franchise. Without that idea, the incredible second-millennium tide, from Renaissance humanism to Enlightenment thought, the abolition of slavery and the birth of modern democracy could not have happened.

In this feminism, like gay equality, is implicit. But the role of the female in Christianity goes much deeper than Maryology and women priests since it, at its core, is an ancient fertility cult, the cult of the mother.

An unwed Jewish peasant girl, being mysteriously pregnant, can expect to be ostracised, stoned, possibly killed. It is situation catastrophic. Yet she decides to have the child.

The story can be told as the boy-child's, which is the story we have. Or it can be told as the girl's, a story in which Mary, turning metaphysics into physics, remakes history.

There are two critical choices in Christian theology. Both pivot on elective personal submission, the win-by-losing paradox that manifests in the cross. One is Jesus' choice of death. The other is Mary's choice of life. The two are indivisible, and both pin their ultimate trust in the springing of new life from pain and fear.

Yet of these two stories, one is endlessly retold and elaborated. The other is a footnote, a side chapel, an -ology. Mary's voice appears in the lovely (but impersonal) Magnificat, and that's about it. Let's face it. Mary, as told, is boring.

The core Christian message has been betrayed; traduced by a church that has always conceived itself principally as a power structure, with all the conniving, nastiness and deceit that suggests. This betrayal is not simply flawed humans doing their best. It's a 180 opposition to the true Christian message. It allows the pretence that some of us are less flawed than others to replace the liberating truth that we are all cripples.

I think that was Jesus' point. I don't even care whether the story is "true" in the meagre, historical sense. Its power lies in the larger truth that recognising our common frailty anchors human happiness and, probably, survival.

Christianity could lead us to survival but only, it seems to me, if it can radically change this devotion to rigid and exploitative power within its instrument, the church. That seems hugely improbable.

When churches change they generally dumb-down the surface, shedding history while the power structures beneath become increasingly entrenched. This is why most people see church as somewhere between the dull and the downright evil.

So the revolution is incomplete. But if, rather than losing history, we could rediscover the true Christianity of those early centuries – centuries before the Old Testament reasserted its stranglehold dominion, centuries when women were priests –we might yet learn to love the earth and every living thing that moveth upon it.


Sydney Morning Herald columnist, author, architecture critic and essayist


Elizabeth Farrelly

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas story's message of hope despite human misery

In the classic Chaim Potok novel, My Name is Asher Lev, the young Asher, future painter and Hasidic Jew, asks his mother whether Jesus – whom he has seen in painting after painting of the crucifixion – was the Messiah, as the goyim believe.

"No", his mother replies. "He was not the Messiah. The Messiah has not yet come, Asher. Look how much suffering there is in the world. Would there be so much suffering if the Messiah had really come?"

Her question lingers. Each year we retell the Christmas story, more than 2000 years old, against a backdrop of human misery and human atrocities. The catalogue this year – massacres, race riots, epidemics, even a hostage crisis in our own backyard – seems, if anything, worse than usual.

Yet the carols we continue to sing and hear at this time of year make their staggering claims cheerfully, unabashedly. "Joy to the world! the Lord is come … No more let sins and sorrows grow … He comes to make his blessings flow". "It came upon the midnight clear … Peace on the earth, goodwill to men". "O little town of Bethlehem … The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight".


It looks like a retreat from harsher realities; a heart-warming story about a baby born in a manger, a quaint fantasy of visiting kings, angels, and shepherds. But if we go back to the accounts of Jesus' birth found in the gospels rather than on Christmas cards, that sharp distinction between the squalor and cruelty of the world we know and the serene spectacle of baby Jesus disappears. This is a story of poverty, desperation, and genocide; it takes place against the same backdrop of human misery and human atrocities as Christmas 2014.

And yet: peace on earth, goodwill to men. How can anyone continue to make that claim for the Christian Messiah? Has anything really changed? In fact, does anything ever change? Those at the front lines of human suffering, from aid workers to diplomats to nurses, must often feel like they're playing a game of whack-a-mole: no problem ever stays fixed.

In most cases we work for local, partial ends, and rightly. But we do it relatively blindly, subject to our limited knowledge and to the law of unintended consequences. The Christmas story is where the local collides, dramatically, with the big picture; where the overall trajectory shimmers and begins to come into focus.

Theodore Parker, a 19th-century American reformer, talked about his glimpses of this historical curve as he campaigned for the abolition of slavery:

"I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice."

The Christmas story, if true, is the guarantee of this hope. It suggests that God works not by coercion; not by legislative decree (contrary to his reputation, perhaps). His method for change is not top-down: the incarnation could be called the most grassroots movement of all time. The God who takes on human form – whose plan for large-scale change in the world involves the slow growth of a child in a backwater of the Roman Empire, the command to an oppressed people to turn the other cheek, and a publicity campaign carried out by fishermen and similarly unqualified individuals – is no bully. Even peace and goodwill can't be imposed from the outside.

The promise of Christmas ("good news of great joy for all the people", as the angels declared to a bunch of terrified shepherds) is that God is in it for the long haul – the long haul of individual transformation, of oh-so-incremental cultural transformation, and only ultimately, still to come, of wholesale restoration of this dirty, broken world.

In his famous "Where Do We Go From Here?" speech in 1967, Martin Luther King Jr paraphrased Theodore Parker as he looked forward to an end to racial hatred and distrust. "The arc of the moral universe is long", he said, "but it bends toward justice". Events in Ferguson, Missouri (or Ohio, or New York) half a century on show that his words still require a leap of faith. The radical way of both Jesus in a manger, and Martin Luther King in 1960s segregated America, hints that when it comes to power, less may be more. When it comes to change, what you see may not be all you get.

MLK's speech, less than a year before his assassination, claimed that hope for true change comes from outside ourselves – in 2014 as much as 1967, or in the days of the Roman Empire:

"… let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows."

Once more this Christmas, Christians will celebrate the birth of their Messiah. In defiance of recent events, they will continue to place their hopes for justice and peace in this child who grew up to suffer too, believing that his coming signalled the beginning of the end for human misery and human atrocities. The arc of the moral universe looks especially long, and especially crooked right now. But the strangely muted act of divine intervention recounted in the Christmas story promises that there is such an arc, that suffering will not last forever.

That is good news of great joy, for all people.

Natasha Moore is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Give a Thought During Christmas for Who Will Speak Up for the Persecuted

Indonesia’s claim to practicing religious tolerance seems to grow increasingly tenuous every passing year as complaints about intolerance continue to mount.

This year, the National Commission for Human Rights, or Komnas HAM, received 67 reports of cases of religious intolerance, nearly double the 39 reports that it received in 2013.

Attacks on churches and minority houses of worship accounted for most of the reports, in which, by all accounts, there have been no arrests or indictments.

That such serious offenses go unpunished — and are often aided by the police, who either back the hard-liners mounting the attacks or do little to prevent them — is a travesty in a nation that continues to impose draconian blasphemy charges for the slightest affronts to Islam.

One of the most egregious cases to date is that of the GKI Yasmin congregation in Bogor, which has been locked out of its church since 2008, despite two Supreme Court rulings ordering the municipal authorities to allow the congregation back into the church to worship. The new Bogor mayor, Bima Arya Sugiarto, pledged to resolve the matter when he came into office in April, but has since backed down, refusing even to acknowledge the existence of the congregation.

If the congregation has to mark yet another Christmas on the sidewalk outside its sealed-off church, their prayers interrupted by heckling from Islamic hard-liners, it will be one more black mark on Indonesia’s claim to being a bastion of tolerance and pluralism.

But the congregation can at least take comfort in knowing that it is not the first group to have been denied a place to rest on Christmas.

For shame, Indonesia, for shame. And a very merry Christmas to all.


Russia, China mock divide and rule

The Roman Empire did it. The British Empire copied it in style. The Empire of Chaos has always done it. They all do it. Divide et impera. Divide and rule - or divide and conquer. It's nasty, brutish and effective. Not forever though, like diamonds, because empires do crumble.

A room with a view to the Pantheon may be a celebration of Venus - but also a glimpse on the works of Mars. I had been in Rome essentially for a symposium - Global WARning - organized by a very committed, talented group led by a former member of European Parliament, Giulietto Chiesa. Three days later, as the run on the rouble was unleashed, Chiesa was arrested and expelled from Estonia as persona non grata, yet another graphic illustration of the anti-Russia hysteria gripping the Baltic nations and the Orwellian grip NATO has on Europe's weak links. [1] Dissent is simply not allowed.

At the symposium, held in a divinely frescoed former 15th century Dominican refectory now part of the Italian parliament's library, Sergey Glazyev, on the phone from Moscow, gave a stark reading of Cold War 2.0. There's no real "government" in Kiev; the US ambassador is in charge. An anti-Russia doctrine has been hatched in Washington to foment war in Europe - and European politicians are its collaborators. Washington wants a war in Europe because it is losing the competition with China.

Glazyev addressed the sanctions dementia: Russia is trying simultaneously to reorganize the politics of the International Monetary Fund, fight capital flight and minimize the effect of banks closing credit lines for many businessmen. Yet the end result of sanctions, he says, is that Europe will be the ultimate losers economically; bureaucracy in Europe has lost economic focus as American geopoliticians have taken over.

Only three days before the run on the rouble, I asked Rosneft's Mikhail Leontyev (Press-Secretary - Director of the Information and Advertisement Department) about the growing rumors of the Russian government getting ready to apply currency controls. At the time, no one knew an attack on rouble would be so swift, and conceived as a checkmate to destroy the Russian economy. After sublime espressos at the Tazza d'Oro, right by the Pantheon, Leontyev told me that currency controls were indeed a possibility. But not yet.

What he did emphasize was this was outright financial war, helped by a fifth column in the Russian establishment. The only equal component in this asymmetrical war was nuclear forces. And yet Russia would not surrender. Leontyev characterized Europe not as a historical subject but as an object: "The European project is an American project." And "democracy" had become fiction.

The run on the rouble came and went like a devastating economic hurricane. Yet you don't threat a checkmate against a skilled chess player unless your firepower is stronger than Jupiter's lightning bolt. Moscow survived. Gazprom heeded the request of President Vladimir Putin and will sell its US dollar reserves on the domestic market. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier went on the record against the EU further "turning the screw" as in more counterproductive sanctions against Moscow. And at his annual press conference, Putin emphasized how Russia would weather the storm. Yet I was especially intrigued by what he did not say. [2]

As Mars took over, in a frenetic acceleration of history, I retreated to my Pantheon room trying to channel Seneca; from euthymia - interior serenity - to that state of imperturbability the Stoics defined as aponia. Still, it's hard to cultivate euthymia when Cold War 2.0 rages.

Show me your imperturbable missile
Russia could always deploy an economic "nuclear" option, declaring a moratorium on its foreign debt. Then, if Western banks seized Russian assets, Moscow could seize every Western investment in Russia. In any event, the Pentagon and NATO's aim of a shooting war in the European theater would not happen; unless Washington was foolish enough to start it.

Still, that remains a serious possibility, with the Empire of Chaos accusing Russia of violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) even as it prepares to force Europe in 2015 to accept the deployment of US nuclear cruise missiles.

Russia could outmaneuver Western financial markets by cutting them off from its wealth of oil and natural gas. The markets would inevitably collapse - uncontrolled chaos for the Empire of Chaos (or "controlled chaos", in Putin's own words). Imagine the crumbling of the quadrillion-plus of derivatives. It would take years for the "West" to replace Russian oil and natural gas, but the EU's economy would be instantly devastated.

Just this lightning-bolt Western attack on the rouble - and oil prices - using the crushing power of Wall Street firms had already shaken European banks exposed to Russia to the core; their credit default swaps soared. Imagine those banks collapsing in a Lehman Brothers-style house of cards if Russia decided to default - thus unleashing a chain reaction. Think about a non-nuclear MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) - in fact warless. Still, Russia is self-sufficient in all kinds of energy, mineral wealth and agriculture. Europe isn't. This could become the lethal result of war by sanctions.

Essentially, the Empire of Chaos is bluffing, using Europe as pawns. The Empire of Chaos is as lousy at chess as it is at history. What it excels in is in upping the ante to force Russia to back down. Russia won't back down.

Darkness dawns at the break of chaos
Paraphrasing Bob Dylan in When I Paint My Masterpiece, I left Rome and landed in Beijing. Today's Marco Polos travel Air China; in 10 years, they will be zooming up in reverse, taking high-speed rail from Shanghai to Berlin. [3]

From a room in imperial Rome to a room in a peaceful hutong - a lateral reminiscence of imperial China. In Rome, the barbarians swarm inside the gates, softly pillaging the crumbs of such a rich heritage, and that includes the local Mafia. In Beijing, the barbarians are kept under strict surveillance; of course there's a Panopticon element to it, essential to assure internal social peace. The leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) - ever since the earth-shattering reforms by the Little Helmsman Deng Xiaoping - is perfectly conscious that its Mandate of Heaven is directly conditioned by the perfect fine-tuning of nationalism and what we could term "neoliberalism with Chinese characteristics".

In a different vein of the "soft beds of the East" seducing Marcus Aurelius, the silky splendors of chic Beijing offer a glimpse of an extremely self-assured emerging power. After all, Europe is nothing but a catalogue of multiple sclerosis and Japan is under its sixth recession in 20 years.

To top it off, in 2014 President Xi Jinping has deployed unprecedented diplomatic/geostrategic frenzy - ultimately tied to the long-term project of slowly but surely keeping on erasing US supremacy in Asia and rearranging the global chessboard. What Xi said in Shanghai in May encapsulates the project; "It's time for Asians to manage the affairs of Asia." At the APEC meeting in November, he doubled down, promoting an "Asia-Pacific dream".

Meanwhile, frenzy is the norm. Apart from the two monster, US$725 billion gas deals - Power of Siberia and Altai pipeline - and a recent New Silk Road-related offensive in Eastern Europe, [4] virtually no one in the West remembers that in September Chinese Prime Minister Li Keiqiang signed no fewer than 38 trade deals with the Russians, including a swap deal and a fiscal deal, which imply total economic interplay.

A case can be made that the geopolitical shift towards Russia-China integration is arguably the greatest strategic maneuver of the last 100 years. Xi's ultimate master plan is unambiguous: a Russia-China-Germany trade/commerce alliance. German business/industry wants it badly, although German politicians still haven't got the message. Xi - and Putin - are building a new economic reality on the Eurasian ground, crammed with crucial political, economic and strategic ramifications.

Of course, this will be an extremely rocky road. It has not leaked to Western corporate media yet, but independent-minded academics in Europe (yes, they do exist, almost like a secret society) are increasingly alarmed there is no alternative model to the chaotic, entropic hardcore neoliberalism/casino capitalism racket promoted by the Masters of the Universe.

Even if Eurasian integration prevails in the long run, and Wall Street becomes a sort of local stock exchange, the Chinese and the emerging multipolar world still seem to be locked into the existing neoliberal model.

And yet, as much as Lao Tzu, already an octogenarian, gave the young Confucius an intellectual slap on the face, the "West" could do with a wake-up call. Divide et impera? It's not working. And it's bound to fail miserably.

As it stands, what we do know is that 2015 will be a hair-raising year in myriad aspects. Because from Europe to Asia, from the ruins of the Roman empire to the re-emerging Middle Kingdom, we all still remain under the sign of a fearful, dangerous, rampantly irrational Empire of Chaos.

Pepe Escobar's latest book, just out, is Empire of Chaos

The world has largely accepted the concept “peak oil” – in which oil production peaks, then goes into an irreversible decline. Now it is being asked to contemplate that the world is also rapidly approaching “peak youth.”

That is the point at which there will be more young people than ever before in the history of the planet, and as a proportion of the population will reach a maximum before starting to drop.

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) reckons there are already 1.8 billion people aged 10-24 in the world. In its annual report it presents them as a great force for accelerated development and a better quality of life, but only if the demographic changes going on can be harnessed for good. 

The pattern followed by populations over the past century or more is now well understood. First, medical advances improve child survival; the numbers of children and young people rise, and working adults struggle to raise an increased number of dependents. Then people start having fewer children. Meanwhile, the first generation of the baby bulge reaches adulthood and joins the workforce, and suddenly there are more adults to support fewer dependants; families have the chance to get richer, and so does the whole society.

Europe made this transition long ago. Southeast Asia followed, and more recently China. All saw a dramatic increase in prosperity, the so-called “demographic dividend.” Now Africa is going through the same transition. The UNFPA report says only six countries remain where the population is still “youthening” rather than ageing, five of those six in sub-Saharan Africa. Even there the trend is expected to reverse after 2020. (Israel, a special case, is the sixth one).

“The demographic dividend is not a given; you have to seize it”

“Never before have there been so many young people,” said UNFPA's Director Babatunde Osotimehin. “Never again is there likely to be such potential for economic and social change.” But he adds a warning. “Demographic transition will happen, but the dividend is not a given. You need to seize it, and you need to understand that this is the time to seize it.”

To make the most of this potential workforce, you need your young people to be healthy, well- educated and gainfully employed. The first response of governments facing the demographic shift tends to focus on job creation. But the report's editor, Richard Kollodge, would like to see a shift of emphasis from worrying about unemployment, to enabling young people to find their own ways to contribute. 

“We've got to get people thinking in those terms,” he said. “We've got this big youth population, and are we doing the right things to allow them to fulfil their potential? Instead of seeing them as a liability, we have to see them as an asset; instead of seeing problems, we have to see possibilities. But none of this will happen automatically.”

For UNFPA, with its main work in the field of sexual and reproductive health, this means putting more effort into helping girls and young women in particular to fulfil their potential, freeing them from the health problems brought by female genital mutilation and too-early childbearing, and giving them the power of choice about education and work, about when and who to marry, and about when and how often to bear children. 

Its vision is of a healthy, well-educated and self-confident workforce, where young women as well as young men will be able to create their own employment and produce economic value, even where formal sector jobs are not available.

At the Institute of Development Studies near Brighton in the UK, Pauline Oosterhoff is concerned that making young women economically productive is going to be a much wider project, with investments needed in infrastructure like water supply and more social support; dependency ratios are not just about GDP, they are about child care and elder care, and like other domestic chores, the burden is borne by women and girls. 

“A young woman is not going to be able to work for profit if she is doing a lot of unpaid work,” she says. “If you see what a day looks like now for a girl in developing countries, you will see that achieving an economic dividend is going to take a lot of investment.”

“And let's not forget,” added her colleague Deeta Chopra, “that the trend will eventually be reversed when this working age population gets old, and then again there will be more dependency. I'm surprised that in policies to empower women and girls, care-giving doesn't figure. There's no discussion of child care, no discussion of elder care, so the demographic dividend risks being defeated by the invisibility of the care economy.”

Trade liberalization changes playing field

Other demographers doubt whether it can ever be possible for the youth bulge in Africa to produce the kind of growth spurt seen in countries like South Korea and Thailand. Deborah Potts of Kings College London is one of them. 

“The significant factor in almost every case was state intervention,” Potts said, “but in a globalized world, with major constraints on what kind of development path you can go down, it is actually impossible for African countries to follow the path that South Korea did.

“South Korea basically poured money into heavy industries like shipbuilding, undercutting its rivals in a way that would not be allowed today. Under World Trade Organization rules it would be completely illegal. Trade liberalization has completely changed the playing field. Nigeria, for instance, has lost hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs to Chinese competition, and there is no suggestion that these jobs are coming back. All these young people in Nigeria have to be doing something more productive than they are doing now in order to produce a demographic dividend. It's not informal sector jobs which kicked off the economies or Thailand, Vietnam or China.”

The dilemma for policymakers in Africa is that the population shift is happening right now, and even the optimists say the need to make decisions is urgent.  

“It's during the lag between falling mortality and falling fertility that you have to start making the investment if you are going to see the benefit,” Kollodge said. Eventually a very young population will become a very old population, and you have to plan for that too. Unless steps are taken right now, then the opportunity for a demographic dividend will be squandered. The window of opportunity won't remain open for very long.”

This is published with permission from IRIN, a service of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs


Top 10 Environmental Stories of 2014

This year saw lots of news, much of it potentially positive, for the world's tropical forests

1. The Year of Zero Deforestation Pledges:

In 2014, the unimaginable happened: companies representing the majority of palm oil production and trade agreed to stop cutting down rainforests and draining peatlands for new oil palm plantations. After years of intense campaigning by environmentalists and dire warnings from scientists, nearly two dozen major producers, traders, and buyers established zero deforestation policies that include environmental, social, and labor safeguards. And it wasn't just the palm oil sector: following the lead of Wilmar, agribusiness giant Cargill extended the policy across its entire $135 billion commodity supply chain. Meanwhile early adopters of zero deforestation policies, including Indonesia's Golden Agri-Resources (GAR) and Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), continued to make progress on their commitments, with GAR extending the policy to all palm oil it processes and trades, and APP pledging to support conservation and restoration of an area equivalent to its concessions: one million hectares. Still while there was positive progress toward eliminating deforestation from key supply chains, some companies continued to destroy forests. Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (APRIL) came under heavy criticism for continuing to source fiber at the expense of peat forests. The company claimed the deep peat Greenpeace documented it clearing didn't breach its sustainability policy. Rhett Butler

2. China and the U.S. Pledge Joint Action on Global Warming:

In what was widely seen as a possible breakthrough in the battle to coordinate some kind of response to global warming, China and the U.S. announced joint actions this year. On November 12th, the world's two most powerful countries surprised pretty much everyone by announcing that they would work together to tackle the crisis. The U.S. committed to reduce its carbon emissions 26-28 percent by 2025, based on 2005 levels. Meanwhile, China said that its emissions would peak by 2030 (or sooner) and 20 percent of its energy would come from clean sources. While these commitments are no-where near what's needed to avoid catastrophic climate--not even combined with the EU's pledge to cut emission 40 percent by 2030--they signaled that both the U.S. and China were finally on board in the more than 25-year endeavor to deal with climate change on a global scale. The optimism that followed didn't produce much progress at the Climate Summit in Lima months later—though it's impossible to know what would have happened without the commitments—but the real test will be Paris next year and beyond. Jeremy Hance

3. The Ebola Outbreak in West Africa:

It's impossible to measure the impact of an epidemic that has officially killed more than 7,000 (and likely many more unrecorded) and has brought three countries to their knees. The human, social, and community impact is unimaginable—and ongoing. For those who have lost loved ones, the impact will last a lifetime. Yet the impacts—and issues—related to the environment are more opaque. Experts say the most likely cause of the disease was the consumption of bushmeat, very likely a fruit bat. In light of this, the FAO has recommended that people in affected regions avoiding hunting bats. Meanwhile, some conservationists and experts have speculated that there may be a link between deforestation in Western Africa and the rise of Ebola there, i.e. increasing contact between people and animals in degraded forest may have increased the chances of the current outbreak. Past research has also found a possible link between worsening Ebola outbreaks and global warming. Yet, more research on such connections are needed. In the meantime, the destruction of lives and communities should not be forgotten. Jeremy Hance

4. Indigenous Leaders Murdered over Activism:

Remember these names: Edwin Chota Valera, José Isidro Tendetza Antún, Jorge Ríos Pérez, Leoncio Quinticima Melendez, and Francisco Pinedo. Each of these Amazonian indigenous leaders were murdered for their long-standing efforts to protect their forest lands. Now, their names are added to a long, long list of indigenous environmental activists who have been assassinated for speaking out against the destruction of their lands. In many of the world's countries indigenous groups struggle for legal recognition of their land, resulting in conflict with industries such as logging, mining, agriculture, hydroelectric power, and fossil fuels. At the same time, new research is increasingly showing that the best protectors of forests are not governments, but indigenous people. This year, a stunning report found that 908 environmental activists have been murdered for their work since 2002—and the report wasn't even able to include a number of conflict countries due to a paucity of data. It may be that nature's best protectors are being killed off one-by-one. Jeremy Hance

5. Deforestation Drops in Brazil:

After a one-year uptick in deforestation, forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon resumed its downward trend, falling 18 percent for the 12 months ended July 31, 2014. The decline surprised many environmentalists who feared that a controversial revision to the country's Forest Code might spur increased deforestation. Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is now roughly 80 percent below the 2004 peak. A combination of law enforcement, government policies, new protected areas, forest monitoring, pressure from environmental groups, and private sector commitments—including a moratorium on deforestation for soy production, which was unexpectedly renewed for another 18 months in late November—are credited for the decline. Yet there remain concerns that the gains in the Amazon may not hold with Brazil's economy flagging and ambitious plans to expand infrastructure in the region. Furthermore, the drop in deforestation in the Amazon hasn't been matched in Brazil's other ecosystems like the Atlantic forest and the cerrado. And deforestation isn't slowing outside the Brazilian Amazon. Rhett Butler

6. Nicaragua Approves the Gran Canal:

Let's be honest: this came out of no-where and is still little reported. But, according to the Nicaraguan government, work will start on December 24th on one the world's largest industrial projects—and one of the least transparent. Before an Environment Impact Assessment is even released, Nicaragua has approved a $40 billion (at least), 278-kilometer-long canal that will be bigger and deeper than the Panama Canal. The Gran Canal or Interoceanic Canal will cut along the borders of several protected areas, force the removal of hundreds of villages, and plow through the largest freshwater body in Central America: Lake Nicaragua. It will be built not by locals, but by a newly-formed Chinese company headed by a telecommunications billionaire. Some locals say they may take up arms against the project. Concerned scientists warn about massive environmental impacts, displaced peoples, a total lack of transparency, and a project—they fear—will only serve the wealthy and foreigners. But the Nicaraguan government says it will transform the nation's economy overnight; Paul Oquist, an advisor to Nicaragua's president went so far as to dub the canal "a big Christmas present" for the Nicaraguan people. But no one really knows what's under the wrapping paper. Jeremy Hance

7. California, Brazil, and Central America Face Crippling Droughts:

For large swaths of the Americas, 2014 was a year of remarkable drought—followed in some cases by record storms. California suffered its third year in largely extreme drought conditions, with one study finding it was the state's worst drought in at least 1,200 years. Even a massive storm this month across much of California, couldn't unlock most of the state from drought conditions. Drought has proved extreme further south as well. In the Central American countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, drought left millions hungry after crops failed. Massive drought also hit southwestern Brazil, including the country's largest city São Paulo, home to over 20 million people. Some have pointed to deforestation across the Amazon as possibly linked, and likely exacerbating, drought in Brazil. Scientists have been warning for decades that worsening global warming will likely increase the chance of droughts in many parts of the world—and exacerbate them when they hit. Jeremy Hance

8. Africa has Lost a Fifth of its Elephants and Another Record Year for Rhino Poaching:

The poaching crisis continued largely unabated this year in Africa—and afar. A remarkable study this year estimated that Africa lost a fifth of its elephants from 2010-2012, leaving a total of 100,000 elephants dead. Meanwhile, in South Africa, rhino poaching hit another grim record: as of last month 1,020 rhinos were butchered for their horns in South Africa, which houses the bulk of the world's rhinos. There were a few bright spots, however: a number of countries burned their ivory—including China—and rhino horn stockpiles, the U.S. government introduced new measures to help tackle the crisis, and media coverage of the crisis appeared to rise, albeit slightly. The illegal wildlife trade—which impacts far more species than elephants and rhinos—is estimated at $19 billion and has been linked to other illicit activities such as terrorism, drug trade, weapons trafficking, and human trafficking. Jeremy Hance

9. Launch of Global Forest Watch:

In one of the most significant developments for forest monitoring since the launch of Landsat more than 40 years ago, the World Resources Institute (WRI) in February unveiled the Global Forest Watch, an online platform that maps a wealth of forest data. Critically, Global Forest Watch extends a near-real time deforestation alert system worldwide, enabling authorities and environmentalists to potentially take action on large-scale forest clearing as it occurs. A similar system in Brazil has been credited with more than 60 percent of the drop in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon between 2007 and 2011. Global Forest Watch also aggregates data on concessions, fires, and agricultural suitability in an effort to guide future agricultural expansion away from wildlife-rich and carbon-dense forests. The launch of Global Forest Watch led Mongabay to develop a reporting program to tell the stories behind the data. Rhett Butler

10. Oil Price Collapse:

A slumping global economy combined with increased output triggered a sharp decline in oil prices. Benchmark oil prices plunged 50 percent between mid-2014 and the end of the year, crushing marginal forms of energy production, ranging from shale oil and tar sands to renewables like solar. There was speculation that OPEC, which chose not to cut output despite falling prices, is intent on driving some of its competitors out of business, including surging North American drillers. Some wryly noted that OPEC, rather than environmentalists, could ultimately be responsible for killing the controversial Keystone XL pipeline with the low oil price undercutting the project's viability. Rhett Butler


1. Election of Jokowi: For the first time, Indonesians elected a president who is not part of the old order. Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, rose to political prominence on his clean and effective approach to governing as mayor of Solo and the Jakarta. As he entered office, civil society groups had high hopes that Jokowi would expand on outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's environmental commitments. Jokowi didn't disappoint, visiting fire-plagued areas in Riau and announcing a new moratorium on all logging permits and a plan to audit licenses of companies found to be clearing peatlands. In a shakeup, the new president merged the powerful Ministry of Forestry with the weaker Ministry of Environment and appointed a civil servant as its head. Rhett Butler

2. Australia Goes Rogue on the Environment:

So, this will require a list. In 2014, Australia abolished its two-year-old—and already effective—carbon tax, attempted to strip forests of UNESCO World Heritage Status (it failed), planned to dump five million tonnes of dredged sediment into the Great Barrier Reef (cancelled), dropped a host of laws and regulations to protect native wildlife, refused to give any money to the Green Climate Fund (eventually relented), declared a moratorium on any new national parks, mulled banning environmental boycotts, and held a somewhat bizarre, hugely controversial, and largely ineffective shark culling program (they caught few target species, but hundreds of non-target ones) to safeguard beach-goers. With the election of Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, the land down under has taken a massive U-turn on environmental policy—both at home and on the international stage. Do Australians need to ask: what would Steve Irwin do? Jeremy Hance

3. 2014 Will Very Likely be the Warmest on Record:

At this point, it's practically a certainty: 2014 will be the warmest year since detailed record keeping began in the 1880s. What makes this fact really remarkable—after all the world is warming—is that 2014 has not turned out to be an El Nino year. Most past record breakers are El Nino years—where warm ocean waters in the Pacific drive heat and extreme weather worldwide. So how could a non-El Nino year top El Nino ones? Well, for one thing the oceans were remarkably warm over several months of the year, without ever breaking the barrier the El Nino threshold. It turns of global warming, however, this year doesn't change much, actually. The trend over the last few decades has been warming—despite uninformed arguments that claim global warming has stopped (it hasn't). What it could mean, though, is that global temperatures may be set to rise quickly again, after a few years of more moderate warming. Either way, the world continues to heat up because of burning fossil fuels—and global society continues to burn them at record levels. Jeremy Hance

4. Vaquita down to just 97 animals, Sumatran rhino down to less than 100, West African lions down to 250, Malayan tigers down to 250-340, and northern white rhino down to 5:

Maybe the long title says it all, but really the point is that the world's wildlife continues to decline, in some cases precipitously. The fact that even charismatic species with devoted conservation plans—like vaquitas, sumatran rhinos, lions, tigers, and northern white rhinos—are not improving, and in some cases on the verge of vanishing, implies that many lesser-known species that lack wholly targeted conservation efforts could well be worse off. In fact, WWF's Living Report Index this year found that populations of the world's vertebrates have fallen by more than HALF (52 percent) since 1970. Obviously, to avoid ongoing plummeting—and eventually mass extinction—the world must drastically boost conservation efforts. If not, our children will inherit a less rich, lonelier, and more ecologically unstable world. Jeremy Hance

5. Oil spill in the Sundarbans—a sign of things to come?

On December 9th, a tanker collided with another ship on the Shela River in the Sundarbans, the world's largest mangrove forest. The collision released 75,000 gallons (350,000 liters) of oil into the hugely-delicate ecosystem. However, the disaster could have been largely mitigated, if not for government incompetence and ambivalence. The injured tanker wasn't even towed out of their forest until two days after the spill as government agencies squabbled about who was in charge—allowing its total oil load to leak out. For days, clean-up was left to locals, including many children, armed with kitchen utensils and sponges—no protective gear or training. Environmentalists warn that this is just a taste of what's to come for the Sundarbans, home to tigers, rare dolphins, and many other threatened species as well as . Since 2011, Bangladesh drastically opened up the Sundarbans' waterways to increased traffic. And now the country is constructing two large coal plants on the edge of the forest, which critics contend will further increase traffic—including of toxic coal products—and could spell the end of the Sundarbans already pressured ecological integrity. Jeremy Hance