Political MoJo

Barrick Gold Pledges to Stop Killing Glaciers

| Tue Dec. 5, 2006 2:38 AM EST

The largest gold-mining company in the world finally posted a report on the Pascua Lama mine today, as promised to shareholder activists.

The mine was the target of a chain email last summer because the gold is under three glaciers that irrigate an arid farming valley of thousands, high in the Andes, spanning the border of Chile and Argentina. At first Barrick Gold Corp. said it would "relocate" the glaciers to get the gold.

As if global warming weren't enough, these poor farmers also had to worry about their glaciers being relocated. Exactly how remains a mystery. But what's worse is the prospect of tailings polluting the melt water that feeds their crops. The byproducts of one plain wedding band are 5.5 pounds of lead, 3 pounds of arsenic, almost 2 ounces of mercury, and 1 ounce of cyanide, out of 20 tons of waste.

In protest last year, hundreds of farmers dumped chunks of ice at the presidential palace in Santiago, to no avail. The Chilean government gave the go-ahead in February, and this week Argentina will too. No surprise, since mining accounts for a third of Chile's $100 billion GDP and 60 percent of its exports.

A few things stand out in the report, for which the authors reviewed and interviewed only Barrick employees, not locals.

  • The mine will draw 39 percent of the water of the Taguas River. "However, withdrawal points are high in the respective basins where stream flows are relatively small."
  • The design can manage one in 100-year storms and geologic events.
  • Barrick did not hold enough formal public hearings to meet World Bank standards, which it was not obligated to follow because it is not using World Bank funding. But an environmental consultant friend of mine at the EPA said the World Bank's "best practice" standards are what multinationals should follow in developing countries.
  • To avoid harming the glaciers, Barrick pledged to refrain from taking one million ounces of gold. That's 5 percent of the estimated $11 billion yield.


By the way, Barrick hates to call them glaciers, preferring "ice sheets." Barrick apparently named the mine Pascua Lama, which translates to Passover lamb or sacrifice. That's a biblical allusion to the lamb's blood that marked the Israelites' doors to spare them from God's worst plague to Egyptians, death of the firstborn.

Speaking of euphemisms, we reported last month on lead-poisoning by the sweetly-named Doe Run Co.

-- April Rabkin

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Supreme Court Update 2: Race in Public Schools

| Mon Dec. 4, 2006 3:12 PM EST

The Supreme Court heard opening arguments today in a case that will determine the fate of diversity programs in public schools. The policies of two school districts, in Seattle and Louisville, are under attack by parent groups who want to end the use of race as a factor in making public school assignments.

Not surprisingly, Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Roberts were the most skeptical of the districts' position in today's hearing, with Kennedy and Scalia favoring food metaphors to get their points across. Scalia said the district was saying, "you can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs," while Kennedy opined that the district was telling its students that "everybody can get a meal," but that only certain people can get "dessert."

But as the Seattle district's attorney Michael Madden argued, "This is not like being denied admission to a state's flagship university." Seattle students are "not being denied admission, they are being redistributed." In fact, the district's use of race in maintaining racial balance has been upheld by several Federal appeals courts, including one decision in the Seattle case written by Regan appointee Alex Kozinski who said the district's assignment plan "carries none of the baggage the Supreme Court has found objectionable."

The court's decision will affect perhaps thousands of school districts around the country who consider race when making school assignments. Given the fact that most neighborhoods remain highly segregated, a decision in favor of the parents (which seems highly likely given the current make up of the court) would mean a gradual re-segregation of public schools (which may already be happening).

For more background on this story read my interview with David Engle, principal of Ballard High in Seattle where this case originated.

-- Amaya Rivera

Supreme Court to Consider "Bong Hits 4 Jesus"

| Mon Dec. 4, 2006 1:44 PM EST

Oh boy. I really can't wait for the transcript of this Supreme Court case. The Supes have agreed to hear a First Amendment case involving an Alaska teen who was suspended for unfurling a banner reading "Bong Hits 4 Jesus." The student says he did it as a prank to try to get on TV, but his principal said he'd violated the school rules by promoting drug use. (I guess promoting religion didn't work in his favor.) An appeals court sided with the kid, declaring that his free-speech rights were violated. But the school—represented by Kenneth Starr—has appealed to the Supreme Court. Serious questions of free expression aside, I think it's safe to say this will be the first time the phrase "bong hits" will be uttered in those hallowed halls (any SCOTUS watchers out there know otherwise?). If ever a Supreme Court hearing deserved its own drinking game, this is it.

John Bolton Will No Longer Hamper Worldwide Diplomacy

| Mon Dec. 4, 2006 12:54 PM EST

John Bolton will resign as U.S. ambassador to the U.N.

Amongst John Bolton's many crimes is his forced ouster of Jose Bustani, the former director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, a U.N. organ with a role in hunting and regulating WMD in Iraq. Before the war, Bustani advocated solving the perceived Iraq WMD problem through means other than violence; in response, the U.S., led by John Bolton, forced a vote to oust Bustani on trumped-up charges, failed, then threatened to cut funding to the OPCW if it did not have its way, forced another vote, and prevailed. (You can read more about Bustani, and get a full sourcing for his story, by searching "Bustani" at the Mother Jones Iraq War Timeline. After losing his job, Bustani reflected on the saga with Mother Jones.) The U.N. would later rule that Bustani was wrongfully dismissed and award him damages.

Looking for something more recent? According to TPM Muckraker, Bolton's last move as U.N. ambassador was to reject a proposal commemorating the 200th anniversary of the end of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

So, yeah, good riddance.

Recently, Foreign Policy put together a list of Bolton's most likely replacements. Included are Jim Leach, Republican congressman from Iowa who just lost a reelection bid, Zalmay Khalilzad, ambassador to Iraq and second-tier architect of the Iraq War, and Lincoln Chafee, poor schmo.

Death Row Warden Back as Abolitionist Priest

| Mon Dec. 4, 2006 12:20 PM EST

For some people, there's nothing like personal involvement in administering capital punishment to make them start opposing it. Dennis O'Neill was a warden at two Florida death row prisons for many years, during which time he helped carry out over a dozen executions. The experience so scarred him that he quit his correctional career, got ordained as an Episcopalian priest, and now preaches against the death penalty - from the pulpit of a church in one of the prison towns where he used to oversee death row. Maybe he'll start a support group with Bill Wiseman, the man who invented lethal injection only to later also become an anti-death penalty priest.

Army Spec. Swift Chooses Court Martial Over Signing Agreement

| Mon Dec. 4, 2006 9:46 AM EST

Army Spec. Suzanne Swift made news in June when she went AWOL and refused a second deployment to Iraq. Swift's refusal came about because she was the victim of sex crimes. According to Swift, the seargent who told her mother, "Don't worry, M'am, we'll take good care of your daughter," went on to make her "his private" by coercing her to have sex with him. Swift says that several of his colleagues pressured her for sex, and refusing them led to increased sexual harrassment.

Swift reported the harrassment and abuse to both her team leader and her equal opportunity representative, but nothing was done other than to transfer one of the perpetrators. After she went AWOL, Swift was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, a diagnosis which the Army disputes. The Army did its own evaluation and concluded that Swift suffers from stress, but not from PTSD.

The Army has offered Swift a deal--that she will receive an honorable discharge if she agrees to serve another nineteen months. According to her mother, Swift was inclined to accept the deal until she learned of a caveat--she would have to sign a statement claiming no sexual harrassment ever took place. Swift has refused to sign this statement and is now prepared to accept a Court Martial. Her case has been placed under special Court Martial rules that will restrict her punishment to no more than twelve months.

Many Americans are familiar with the more dramatic cases involving sexual assault and sex abuse and harrassment in the military--such as the 1991 Navy Tailhook case (referred to by Jesse Ventura as "much ado about nothing"), the 1996 Army Aberdeen case, and the 2003 Air Force Academy case. But the problem is chronic: In 2005, the U.S. Armed Services received 2,374 reports of cases involving sexual assault alone.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Are Americans Disengaging or Just Finding Others Ways to Engage?

| Fri Dec. 1, 2006 7:10 PM EST

Our Washington Bureau points out that American voices of dissent appear to be waning, which sadly to say was quite evident at a San Francisco anti-war rally I covered back in October for the Center for American Progress' Campusprogress.org. There was a sad showing of maybe 1000 people which paled in comparison to the large swarms of people that took to the streets here in SF leading up to the U.S. invasion in March of 2003. There were many grumblings as to why the turn out was so low: many thought ANSWER, the anti-war group who organizes rallies, has alienated large groups of Americans due to their anti-Israel position (in fact UFPJ, another anti-war group who organizes protests now officially refuses to organize with them on a national level); some felt that people would wait to cast their vote against Iraq (which it does appear they did to some extent); and some were angered by thoughts that perhaps the American people are just plain disengaged. Although the decrease in participation at protests does send a strong message, maybe Americans have found other outlets- like blogging and voting (there was a nearly 5% increase from 2002 in people under 30 who voted this year). And although Iraq was not the only issue Americans had on their minds when they headed to the ballots this year, it was a seminal one. Only time will tell if engaged Americans once again will take to the streets en masse, as sectarian violence in Iraq increases even more and decisions by the administration as to how to proceed in Iraq are made.

Mayhem in Mexico

| Fri Dec. 1, 2006 7:08 PM EST

Today's transition from outgoing Mexican president Vicente Fox to his hand-picked and rather bureaucratic successor Felipe Calderón gave the lie to the comforting notion that Mexico has a healthy democracy. Calderón had to bust his way into the congressional chamber to be sworn in.

Calderón's leftist opponent, former Mexico City mayor Manuel López Obrador, has refused to accept the results of the July election. López Obrador's supporters had tried to block the entrances to the chamber. When Calderón managed to enter, flanked by body guards, they booed, whistled, shot birds and fought their way through the swearing-in ceremony (see the Washington Post slideshow).

López Obrador held a strong lead in the months before the election, which seemed to come crashing down in the final weeks of campaigning among accusations that he was a megalomaniac who loves to stir up dissent.

So, is he proving his opponents right, or did they set him up before they stole the elections—by a conveniently narrow margin of 240,000 votes among 41 million ballots cast? Hard to say. Mexico hardly has a solid record of legitimate elections—the PRI party lied, cheated and stole its way to the presidency (and pretty much everything else) in Mexico for more than 70 years. Electoral confidence was higher in the 2000 election of Vicente Fox, the first non-PRI candidate to occupy the presidential palace since that party was formed in the crucible of the 1910-1919 Mexican Revolution.

Those who follow Mexican politics will know it doesn't take a conspiracy theorist to suggest that perhaps the PRI made a back-room agreement to pass the torch to Fox's conservative PAN party precisely to prevent the populist leftism López Obrador represents from taking hold in a country whose rich/poor gap makes the U.S. look like Norway.

Trouble Brewing in Lebanon

| Fri Dec. 1, 2006 6:58 PM EST

After a show of force in this summer's conflict with Israel, the Shiite militia Hezbollah is now trying to drive the Western-backed Lebanese government from power. Nearly a quarter of Lebanon's population took to the streets of Beirut earlier today, while the beleaguered prime minister, Fouad Siniora, took shelter behind hundreds of troops and police.

Lebanon has been a mess for a long time. A 15-year civil war with more factions than you can count ended in 1991, leaving the Lebanese government a virtual puppet of Syria. Syria lost its power in the wake of huge protests following the revelation that Syria was involved in the February 2005 assassination of then-prime minister Rafik Hariri. Siniora took office immediately thereafter.

Trouble began brewing for Siniora's government when Hezbollah single-handedly held its own against the Israeli Defense Forces this summer, earning massive popular support. With the assassination of a Christian anti-Syrian politician in late November, the situation in Lebanon started to look eerily like the one that immediately preceded Lebanon's civil war.

The bloodbath in Iraq isn't helping ease tensions between Lebanon's Sunni Muslims, who generally support Siniora's anti-Syrian government, and Shiites, who oppose it.

So perhaps Iraq is a role model after all—not for democracy, but for civil war.

AIDS Can't be Fought with Sunshine and Puppies

| Fri Dec. 1, 2006 6:18 PM EST

According to a story in today's Boston Globe , a number of faith-based organizations used this year's World AIDS Day to lash out at the Global Fund to Fight AIDS (a $6.6 billion organization that supports programs in 136 countries).

Peter L. Brandt, a senior director at Focus on the Family, thinks Congress should cut all spending on the Global Fund's HIV programs, saying that the Fund concentrates too heavily on condoms and discriminates against organizations like his.

They should instead focus on spreading the abstinence message? A lot of good that's done here.

In the Global South, where HIV is spreading fastest, abstinence and marriage are not adequate protection against the deadly virus. To the contrary, it is often the primary site of infection, especially for women. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes, "the stark reality is that what kills young women [in Africa] is often not promiscuity, but marriage. Indeed, just about the deadliest thing a women in southern Africa can do is get married."

Crosscheck that with the following:

-In South Africa, studies suggest that "marital partnerships are mainly responsible for adolescent female [HIV] infection." Studies in Kenya and Zambia show that adolescent girls have an increased risk of HIV infection when they marry significantly older men. (International Center for Research on Women and Population Service)

-In a study of Zambian women, fewer than 25% of the participants believed that a married woman could refuse to have sex with her husband, even if she knew he had been unfaithful or was HIV-positive. Only 11% of participants believed that a woman could ask her husband to use a condom in these circumstances. (United Nation's Fund for Women).

-On Colombia's Atlantic Coast, about half of HIV-positive women are "housewives with a stable partner." (World Health Organization)

Latex anyone?

—Koshlan Mayer-Blackwell