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Every morning, That, a fisherwoman from the floating villages in Ha Long Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin, Vietnam, rows her bamboo boat past the limestone rocks rising from the emerald waters. She takes tourists, who have come to catch a glimpse of the 1,553 sq km of a UNESCO World Heritage site, through the narrower serene islets and caves. Her daily routine concludes at dusk as tourists return to their cruises and she to her village, she said, unaware that her livelihood and home are highly susceptible to the negative impacts of rising water pollution in the Ha Long Bay.

In July, experts discussed environmental pollution in Ha Long at the Quang Ninh People’s Council. Poorly enforced waste management norms and unsustainable practices in the tourism sector were among the major concerns. However, these issues plague the entire country, not just Ha Long. Pollution could cost Vietnam 3.5% of its GDP by 2035, according to the 2018 World Bank report on Vietnam. While identifying water pollution as a key concern, the report noted that only 46% of the households have connections to a drainage system, a third of industrial wastewater and over 87% of municipal waste is untreated.

The increasing number of tourists are a burden on this weak waste management system. In 2018, the tourism boom in Vietnam attracted over 15.49 million people, of which nearly 12 million visited the Quang Ninh province where Ha Long Bay is located. Experts warn that pollution not only threatens the ecologically sensitive geography and livelihoods of those like Ms. That, but climate change may make it impossible for them to return to traditional occupations.

A tipping point

“The pollution impacts (in Ha Long Bay) are clear and are increasingly cited in TripAdvisor comments that praise the majestic landscape but are highly critical of dirty water and trash-strewn beaches,” said Jake Brunner, deputy head, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Southeast Asia. As a critical mass of negative opinion forms, a tipping point is reached at which visitation declines rapidly, with negative impacts on jobs, revenue and the economy, he explained in an email interview.

At Ha Long, the picturesque vistas are no longer perfect. Above the water, there is constant buzz of the motor engines as nearly 500 cruise liners dot the seascape; underneath, nearly all of them quietly discharge untreated wastewater into the Bay. Plastic and garbage are easy to spot. Only 20 boats have on-board waste water treatment systems, and the rest discharge an estimated 500 cubic metre per day of untreated water into the Bay, according to the multi-stakeholder partnership called Halong Bay-Cat Ba Alliance, a project of the Switzerland-based IUCN.

In central Vietnam, a similar saga of pollution plays out in the ancient port town of Hoi An, another popular UNESCO site. The old town, filled with houses and shops on narrow lanes, leads up to the Thu Bon river. As evening falls, tourists lower lit lanterns into the river. Within minutes, the lanterns burn out as acrid fumes rises.

While this stream of colours is Instagram-able, the stench of sewage in the air is unbearable. Hoi An, like Vietnam’s capital Hanoi, has extreme levels of air and water pollution, and a high level of dissatisfaction with regards to garbage disposal in the city, data on the crowd-sourced global database Numbeo shows. The town does not have adequate solid and liquid waste management systems for its population of just over 150,000, let alone for the 5 million tourists who visited in 2017. Households, markets, restaurants and hotels produced approximately 75 tonnes of solid waste per day in 2018, according to the Global Environment Facility.

In 2015, the Japanese government offered an aid of $10.2 million for a modern wastewater treatment facility near Hoi An’s famous 18th century Japanese bridge. After delays in completion of the project, operations hadn’t taken off till late 2018. While such investments are important, it is not enough. “Time is running out,” Mr. Brunner said. “The good news is that science, technology and financing exist to solve these problems. What’s missing so far is decisive government leadership.”

In the first week of August, some messages began to circulate in a WhatsApp group comprising 70 ranchers, land-grabbers and illegal miners in Pará, a State located in the Amazon rainforest. In the messages, the group hatched a plan to start fires in the forest along a highway in the region on August 10. They designated it as the “Day of Fire”. As the fires lit by them began to sweep huge swathes of trees, the group shared another set of messages. These carried instructions on how to blame some NGOs for the blazes which were sending plumes of smoke up to Sao Paulo, some 3,000 km away. In a few days, countless fires — 26,000 as per some estimates — erupted across the Brazilian rainforest.

This brazen crime, exposed by the Globo Rural magazine on August 25,was committed for two objectives: grabbing of forest land and areas reserved for indigenous tribes; and to show their defiance to the Brazilian Environmental Institute (IBAMA), which monitors the forests and fines those who violate environmental laws.

With the far-right President, Jair Bolsonaro, repeatedly talking of clipping the wings of IBAMA, the agency seems helpless.

“These fires are not accidental or natural. They have been deliberately set to carry out all kinds of illegal activities. But we have been reduced to a toothless tiger by our government,” said a senior IBAMA official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official has a reason to sound frustrated. It has been now revealed that a federal prosecutor in Pará came to know about the fire plot and alerted IBAMA authorities. But they failed to act because of the lack of police personnel at their disposal. The agency’s request for the National Force troops went ignored. “The message from the government was clear. They were not interested in tackling these acts of organised crime,” rued the IBAMA official.

The Amazon, 60% of whose 5.5 million sq km of area lies in Brazil, has been the target of criminals since 1980s. But successive Brazilian governments have tried to control these crimes with varied degrees of success. In 2018, an Amazon Task force carried out six operations that resulted in the prosecution of many criminals and identified 3,000 hectares of deforested land.

The situation changed drastically when Mr. Bolsonaro, who jokingly calls himself “Captain Chainsaw”, assumed the presidency in January. With his attacks on IBAMA as a “fining industry” and promises to open the “protected lands to industry”, the rainforest has come under an unprecedented assault. The satellite data for 2019 shows an 84% spike in forest fires as compared to 2018. According to a report, an elite group of environmental crime fighters, known as IBAMA Rambos, who shut down 200 illegal timber and mining sites between 2014 and 2018, have been sitting idle this year. With Brazil’s Environment Minister Ricardo Salles, too, often demonising IBAMA, the number of fines imposed by the agency has dropped by 42%.

‘Too little, too late’

Earlier this month, the Bolsonaro government woke up to the crisis only after tens of thousands of Brazilians took to the streets to protest against the plundering of Amazon, and several European governments slammed him for doing nothing to check the fires.

Starting August 24, two weeks after the “Day of Fire”, Brazilian Air Force’s C-130s started dropping water on the raging fires, as 43,000 troops were dispatched to the northern region which is covered in a haze. After the Globo Rural exposed the fire plot, the Federal Prosecutor’s Office also ordered a probe into the crime. “There is a suspicion of orchestrated action and an activity that has been planned for a long time to achieve this result [forest fires],” said Attorney-General Raquel Dodge, who put together a team to investigate the Amazon crimes.

But all these steps could be too little and half-hearted. Last Sunday, as the “Day of Fire” plot was exposed, President Bolsonaro’s supporters, including the Environment Minister, unleashed a Twitter storm, blaming NGOs for the Amazon crimes. Amid this troll attack, the fires are still raging in the Amazon and a pall of smoke is now moving towards Buenos Aires.

After about an hour’s drive along a spanking new highway, southwest from Lanzhou, the capital of China’s Gansu province, the landscape changes suddenly. For several miles along the green countryside, the minarets and gleaming domes of mosques burst into view. The area is part of the Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture — an abode of Hui Muslims, whose Islamic faith appears well integrated with the Han Chinese mainstream.

The Hui Muslims, a total of around 10.5 million in the entire country, form a significant minority in China. They slightly outnumber the Uyghur Muslims, who have been in the media limelight on account of their sporadic run-ins with the state in the far western region of Xinjiang. Among the thousands of Chinese Muslims who head for the Haj annual pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, the majority are of Hui lineage.

The Chinese authorities appear to have a soft corner for the Hui community, which is often cited as a model for peaceful cultural integration. Hui Islam traces its origin to the 7th century when, during the Tang dynasty, Arab and Central Asian traders immigrated and seeded Islam along the Silk Road.

Over time, local philosophers sprouted, successfully blending Islam with the native tradition of Confucianism and Taoism. In the 18th century, Hui scholar Liu Zhi wrote Han Kitab. This was a strikingly imaginative work representing a fusion of Confucianism with Islam. In tune with the popular imagination, Liu projected the Prophet Mohammed as a sage in the Confucian tradition. The Sharia law was perceived as an extension of Confucian rituals. In the end, Liu believed that the blend of Confucianism and lslam along certain select lines would produce a society of social harmony and virtue.

Unlike the followers of a more rigid interpretation of Islam, Hui Muslims regularly visit Sufi shrines. Incense burning is not rare, and kowtowing, typical of Chinese worshipers across many religions, during visits to Sufi shrines, is routine. A blend of Arabic and Chinese calligraphy at places of worship is also commonplace.

While Chinese authorities may be comfortable with their cosmopolitan traditions, the Hui Muslims are often under internal attack, especially from those who have been exposed to the Wahhabi doctrine during their travels abroad. A Foreign Policy article quoted Imam Ma Jun, who left his hometown of Lanzhou for a five-year study of Sharia law and Arabic at the Islamic University of Madinah, Saudi Arabia. “I was on fire when I came back from Saudi Arabia,” Imam Ma was quoted as saying. “I felt a strong responsibility. Chinese Muslims didn’t have enough belief. They were impure and too shallow.”

Imam Ma is not alone in being attracted to the puritanical form of Islam. In the late 19th century, Imam Ma Wanfu came back from Mecca brimming with the zeal of purifying Chinese Islam. Over time, the Yihewani (or Ikhwan) sect of Islam, gained a foothold in Gansu province.

Unsurprisingly, the common threads of Confucianism and Islam are visible in the mosque architecture in Linxia. From afar, the crescent moon, a symbol of Islam, towers over buildings whose roof corners sharply turned upwards — typical of the Taoist architectural tradition.

Cultural diversity

The Linxia area eventually merges into grasslands of the Tibetan plateau that extend into Gansu province. The countryside becomes seamlessly dotted with Buddhist monasteries as well as cultural nodes, which stand out for their Tankha paintings as well as highland agricultural and medicinal products.

About four hours by road from Lanzhou, the Labrang monastery — built on the intersection of Tibetan and Mongolian cultures — towers over the landscape. Its imposing white walls, capped by gilded roofs, represent a fusion of Tibetan and Indian Vihara architectural styles.

Local and national authorities are leveraging Gansu’s cultural diversity, beautiful scenery and heritage sites by imparting a push to tourism. “From 2010-16, the share of tourism industry in Gansu’s economy grew from 6% to 17%,” said Ahmed Eiweida, a senior World Bank official, last month at the Fourth Silk Road (Dunhuang) International Cultural Expo at Gannan, a Tibetan enclave in Gansu.

Nigeria marked three years since its last case of polio last month — an important step towards being declared free of the crippling disease. The two other polio-endemic nations — Pakistan and Afghanistan — have, however, not shown much progress.

Polio cases in Pakistan have rather increased in recent years. Recently, Prime Minister Imran Khan held a high-level emergency meeting regarding the alarming situation in the country and directed government officials to start awareness and immunisation campaigns. Mr. Khan is also scheduled to lead the polio programme from November.

Babar Bin Atta, the Prime Minister’s Focal Person for Polio, told The Hindu that polio eradication was, in fact, very simple. “If we vaccinate enough children in a given area, then poliovirus has nowhere to hide and disappears from that area. In Pakistan, we have not yet managed to reach this target, but we are determined to do whatever it takes to make this happen.”

This year has proven challenging for Pakistan’s polio eradication programme compared to the previous year due to a significant increase in the number of cases and positive environmental samples. Mr. Atta attributed this to multiple reasons: the rise in refusals by parents and caregivers to immunise their children, growing community fatigue, and the spread of anti-vaccine propaganda on the social media.

Mr. Atta says in addition to these external challenges, inconsistent and sub-optimal vaccination campaign quality in some areas, massive population movements across the borders with Afghanistan and within the country and inadequate delivery of routine immunisation services, have contributed to the currently expanding prevalence of the disease compared to 2018.

Mr. Atta is not wrong. Bill Gates recently wrote a letter to Prime Minister Khan saying he is “concerned with the polio situation in Pakistan”. The letter says: “Large numbers of children in key reservoirs continue to be missed during polio campaigns, in large part due to sub-optimal management and increased community resistance to vaccination — all of which is allowing the virus to build and continue circulating.”

Mr. Atta has been working hard to fight the anti-polio propaganda in the country. He got over 800 pages and profiles propagating anti-vaccination campaigns blocked on Facebook. The government has also started a ‘Polio Facts vs Disinformation’ drive, which includes installing signboards in different cities, and launching campaigns on media and social media. However, many anti-vaxxers have fallen prey to the rumours started by some clerics that polio drops cause impotency or infertility.

In 2007, the BBC reported that Maulana Fazlullah, a militant cleric who used to run an FM channel, told his audience that the vaccination drive was “a conspiracy of Jews and Christians to stunt the population growth of Muslims”.

Polio workers say due to such propaganda, some parents only immunise their female children and not the male ones.

Dedicated workers

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Minister Shaukat Yousafzai recently told a TV channel that people who are a hurdle in the anti-polio campaign would be treated as terrorists. Polio workers have been targeted and killed during immunisation drives. Even police officers protecting them have lost their lives. Hina Inayat, a communications officer with the polio eradication programme in Peshawar, says teams take a lot of risks but continue to work with dedication. She says that in order to motivate the junior team members, all senior workers go to high-risk places themselves. Ms. Inayat, herself, went to a house where the male guardian was known to attack people with knives.

She says the real issue was that of the community’s attitude. “When we go to give drops, some parents say: ‘Beemaari se pehle beemaari ke ilaaj ki kya zaroorat hai? (Why are you treating an ailment which isn’t there in the child yet)”. She says that during a recent campaign, some people asked them for dengue spray instead of polio drops. “Dengue se log mar jaatay hain. Polio se toh sirf maazoor hotay hain [People die from dengue. Polio only leads to disability].”

At stake are fabulous palaces, priceless artefacts and artworks

Tudor-style The Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam boasts 176 rooms and 55 fireplaces. AFP

A century after Germany’s monarchy was abolished, some of its blue-blooded descendants are riding back into battle to reclaim what they see as their royal birthright. At stake are fabulous palaces and thousands of priceless artefacts and artworks.

The fight has thrown a new spotlight on Germany’s aristocratic families, who are now usually best known through glossy celebrity gossip magazines, and specifically the House of Hohenzollern. The descendants of the last German emperor and king of Prussia, Kaiser Wilhelm II, have embarked on a struggle to get back properties and treasures that were confiscated by the Soviets in 1945.

The biggest prize up for grabs is the right of residence in Cecilienhof Palace near Berlin, site of the 1945 Potsdam Conference. The Tudor-style mansion, which boasts 176 rooms, six courtyards and 55 fireplaces, was the place where the victorious Allied leaders, US president Harry Truman, British prime minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, decided the shape of a post-war world. The palace and other riches long lost behind the Iron Curtain came back into reach for the Hohenzollern family with the fall of the Berlin Wall three decades ago this October 3.

Family representatives and cultural foundations have held secret negotiations on their compensation and restitution demands since 2013. The talks came to light only in July in a report by news weekly Der Spiegel.

Thousand-year history

The Hohenzollerns, whose history has been linked with Germany’s for almost a millennium, were kings of Prussia from 1701, then ruled the German Empire from 1871 until Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate in 1918 and went into exile after Germany’s defeat in World War I.

At stake for the family are the right to reside at Cecilienhof and other properties, as well as the restitution of thousands of paintings, sculptures, furniture, books and coins. Most of these are now held by the state-run Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation Berlin-Brandenburg, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and the German Historical Museum.

Nazi era role

Many critics have expressed anger that the Hohenzollerns are now trying to get these treasures back, depleting public collections. The Hohenzollern’s lawyer, however, insisted that the “claims are based on law”. The controversy comes as Germany builds a replica of the Berlin Palace, the principal residence of the Hohenzollern kings of Prussia, which was heavily bombed in WWII and then levelled by the communist East German regime in 1950.

At the core of the fight is the question of what role the Hohenzollerns, whose Kaiser Wilhelm II was instrumental in causing the outbreak of World War I, played when the Nazis came to power. Under a 1994 law, people whose property was expropriated by the Soviet Union have a right to claim compensation — but only if they did not “lend considerable support” to the Nazi regime.

In a newspaper in 1932, the crown prince called for people to vote for Adolf Hitler in the presidential election, says historian Stephan Malinowski. The wrangle may go on for years but, as Der Spiegel pointed out, that’s not much “after a century-long dispute and a millennium of family history.”


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