Sustainable Tree Farming Means Better Lives for Kenyan Farmers

Wood consumption — including logging and the production of charcoal — is a leading cause of forest degradation in Africa. In some of Kenya’s coastal regions, recurring droughts have made the problem even worse.  Now, farmers in those regions are planting trees, putting their once-barren land to use in a venture that enables them to earn a living and conserve the environment at the same time. 

At Be Sulubu Tezo, in Kilifi county, Kenya, Kanze Kahindi Mbogo tends to her tree farm. She thins out the trees whose wood is now strong enough for her to sell for home-building and making fences.  

The money she makes is for her six children. 

A better life

Kahindi says she has been able to educate her children, pay a couple of debts and do lots of other things. She adds she was also able to take one of her sons to college and right now he is a driver.

Before growing trees, putting food on the table was difficult in this land where droughts are common and crops often fail.

With the help of NGOs and entrepreneurs, farmers are learning how agroforestry can make them money and at the same time save the environment. One of those firms is Komaza, a Kenyan firm that is working with 14,000 farmers to plant drought-resistant trees for harvest, reducing the drive to deforest. 

Help with the harvest

“Farmers are able to nurture the seedlings into trees, and then the trees become fully grown trees ready to harvest,” said Allan Ongang’a, a manager at Komaza.  “Once they are ready for harvest we have the operations team from the forestry department that identify trees that are ready for harvest, agree with the farmers on a fair price, the trees are marked and harvested.”

The firm trains farmers on cultivation and selective harvesting.  

But not all farmers have the resources to plant a tree and wait for it to grow, so some farm subsistence crops among the trees.  Researchers say this arrangement counters the effects of climate change. 

Everybody benefits

“Trees end up absorbing carbon dioxide when they making their food and therefore essentially the trees are actually getting to bring carbon from the atmosphere into the tree stem and therefore on land,” explained researcher John Recha with the Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security Program, a private entity in Nairobi.. “That means there is the benefit of reducing greenhouse gas emission through more enhanced agroforestry systems.”

For these Kenyan farmers, environmentalism begins to make sense when it starts to translate into a sustainable income. 

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Malaysian Ex-PM Slapped with New Charge Over 1MDB Scandal

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was charged Wednesday with tampering with the final audit report into a defunct state investment fund, adding to a long list of corruption allegations against him since his ouster in May elections.

Najib was charged along with Arul Kanda Kandasamy, the former head of the 1MDB fund, which is being investigated in the U.S. and other countries for alleged cross-border embezzlement and money laundering.

Najib pleaded not guilty to abusing power to order the modification of the report in February 2016 before it was presented to the Public Accounts Committee, in order to protect himself from disciplinary and legal action. Kandasamy, who was detained overnight by anti-graft officials, pleaded not guilty to abetting Najib.

​The charges came after the auditor-general revealed last month that some details had been removed from the 1MDB report. Kandasamy led 1MDB from 2015 until he was terminated in June. The two men were released on bail, and face up to 20 years in prison if found guilty.

Najib set up 1MDB when he took power in 2009 to promote economic development, but the fund amassed billions in debts. U.S. investigators say Najib’s associates stole and laundered $4.5 billion from the fund, including some that landed in Najib’s bank account. 

Public anger over the scandal led to the defeat of Najib’s long-ruling coalition in May 9 elections and ushered in the first change of power since Malaysia gained independence from Britain in 1957.

The new government reopened the investigations stifled under Najib’s rule. Najib, his wife and several top-ranking former government officials have been charged with multiple counts of corruption, criminal breach of trust and money laundering. 

Najib, 65, has accused the new government of political vengeance.

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Avianca Brasil Airline Declares Bankruptcy

Cash-strapped Avianca Brasil, the country’s fourth-largest airline, on Tuesday sought bankruptcy protection from creditors but reassured passengers that flights will continue.

“Due to resistance from the lessors (of their aircraft) to reaching a friendly settlement, we have filed seeking protection from creditors, to protect clients and passengers,” a company statement said.

Operations are not expected to be affected and “passengers can have complete peace of mind to make reservations and buy tickets, since all sales will be honored and flights will be operating,” it said.

The airline has debts of almost 493 million reais ($127 million) with multiple creditors, the business daily Valor reported.

Avianca Brasil, a brand of Oceanair Linhas Aereas SA (Oceanair), is not part of the group Avianca Holdings S.A, based in Colombia.

But both are parts of a holding company led by the same investor, German Efromovich.

Brazilian media said the carrier is in debt to creditors including state oil giant Petrobras and Sao Paulo’s Guarulhos Airport.

Avianca Brasil serves domestic and international routes with 60 jets. The company is facing lawsuits for the return of 26 planes and 52 engines, Valor said.

The airline recorded net losses in the first half of the year of 175.6 million reais, up 24.4 percent from the same period last year.

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Dogs Pose with Santa for Christmas Photos

In the United States, Christmas cards with family photos are popular. But more than ever many of those photos include a four-legged member of the family, the pet dog. For the past several years, a gourmet dog bakery and boutique in Arlington, Virginia has hired a professional pet photographer to take dog photos with Santa Claus. VOA’s Deborah Block takes us there to see the cute pups.

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Flynn Argues Against Prison Time in Russia Probe 

Lawyers for Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, asked a judge Tuesday to spare him prison time, saying he had devoted his career to his country and taken responsibility for an “uncharacteristic error in judgment.” 

 

The arguments to the judge echoed those of special counsel Robert Mueller’s office, which last week said that Flynn’s cooperation — including 19 meetings with investigators — was so extensive that he was entitled to avoid prison when he is sentenced next week. 

 

Flynn, who pleaded guilty of lying to the FBI about conversations during the presidential transition period with the then-Russian ambassador to the United States, will become the first White House official punished in the special counsel’s probe into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia during the 2016 presidential election. 

 

In court papers Tuesday, he requested probation and community service for his false statements.  

The filing came as lawyers for former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort said they were still deciding whether to dispute allegations that he lied to investigators and breached his plea agreement. A judge gave Manafort until Jan. 7 to respond to prosecutors’ claims that he misled them about his interactions with an associate who they say has ties to Russian intelligence and with Trump administration officials. 

 

The defendants, their fortunes sliding in opposite directions, represent starkly different paths in Mueller’s investigation — a model cooperator on one end and, prosecutors say, a dishonest and resistant witness on the other. Even as prosecutors recommend no prison time for Flynn, they’ve left open the possibility they may seek additional charges against Manafort, who is already facing years in prison. 

Threats to Trump

 

Given both men’s extensive conversations with prosecutors, and their involvement in key episodes under scrutiny, the pair could pose a threat to Trump, who in addition to Mueller’s investigation is entangled in a separate probe by prosecutors in New York into hush-money payments paid during the campaign to two women who say they had affairs with the president. 

 

Since his guilty plea a year ago, Flynn has stayed largely out of the public eye and refrained from discussing the Russia investigation despite encouragement from his supporters to take an aggressive stance. 

 

Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general, spent three decades in the military, including five years in combat. In a public statement after his plea, Flynn has said he cooperated with prosecutors because it was in “the best interests of my family and our country.” 

 

In Manafort’s case, prosecutors have accused him of repeatedly lying to them even after he agreed to cooperate. They say Manafort lied about his interactions with a longtime associate they say has ties to Russian intelligence, his contacts with Trump administration officials and other matters under investigation by the Justice Department. 

 

Manafort pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in Washington in September and faces sentencing in a separate case in Virginia, where he was convicted of eight felony counts related to his efforts to hide from the Internal Revenue Service millions of dollars he received for Ukrainian political consulting.

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Trump Not Concerned About Impeachment, Defends Payments to Women

President Donald Trump said on Tuesday he was not concerned that he could be impeached and that hush payments made ahead of the 2016 election by his former personal attorney Michael Cohen to two women did not violate campaign finance laws.

“It’s hard to impeach somebody who hasn’t done anything wrong and who’s created the greatest economy in the history of our country,” Trump told Reuters in an Oval Office interview.

“I’m not concerned, no. I think that the people would revolt if that happened,” he said.

Federal prosecutors in New York said last week that Trump directed Cohen to make six-figure payments to two women so they would not discuss their alleged affairs with the candidate ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

They said the payments violated laws that stipulate that campaign contributions, defined as things of value given to a campaign to influence an election, must be disclosed, and limited to $2,700 per person.

Democrats said such a campaign law violation would be an impeachable offense, although senior party leaders in Congress have questioned whether it is a serious enough crime to warrant politically charged impeachment proceedings.

Impeachment requires a simple majority to pass the House of Representatives, where Democrats will take control in January. But removal of the president from office further requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate, where Trump’s fellow Republicans hold sway.

Cohen is scheduled to be sentenced on Wednesday in New York for his role in the payments to the two women — adult film actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal.

Trump has denied having affairs with them.

Earlier this year, Trump acknowledged repaying Cohen for $130,000 paid to Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.

He  previously disputed knowing anything about the payments.

Trump has slammed Cohen for cooperating with prosecutors, alleging that the lawyer is telling lies about him in a bid to get a lighter prison term. He has called for Cohen to get a long sentence and said on Tuesday his ex-lawyer should have known the campaign finance laws.

“Michael Cohen is a lawyer. I assume he would know what he’s doing,” Trump said when asked if he had discussed campaign finance laws with Cohen.

“Number one, it wasn’t a campaign contribution. If it were, it’s only civil, and even if it’s only civil, there was no violation based on what we did. OK?”

Asked about prosecutors’ assertions that a number of people who had worked for him met or had business dealings with Russians before and during his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump said: “The stuff you’re talking about is peanut stuff.”

He then sought to turn the subject to his 2016 Democratic opponent.

“I haven’t heard this, but I can only tell you this: Hillary Clinton — her husband got money, she got money, she paid money, why doesn’t somebody talk about that?” Trump said.

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As Finances Improve, Greece Scraps Pension Cuts


Greece’s parliament on Tuesday voted to scrap plans to cut state pensions, in a motion led by the left-led governing coalition hoping to shore up its flagging support ahead of a general election next year.

Athens agreed two years ago to cut pensions in 2019, in an attempt to placate lenders and get the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to back a third financial bailout the country clinched with its euro zone partners in 2015.

Eventually the bailout, worth up to 86 billion euros, expired in August without IMF assistance, and Athens has said better-than-expected public finances enable it to rescind the planned cutbacks.

The European Commission has approved the government’s decision.

“The time has come for people to be rewarded for their sacrifices,” Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras told lawmakers ahead of the vote, calling the step a “necessary breath for the people of labor … who saw their pensions and their dignity hurt.”

Pensioners, who are in many households the only people with an income due to the highest unemployment rate in the eurozone, have seen earnings shrink by up to 40 percent since Greece toppled into crisis in late 2009.

Tsipras’ term ends in 2019. His Syriza party is trailing the conservative New Democracy by about 10 points in opinion polls.

Since 2010, Greece has signed up to three international bailouts totaling almost 290 billion euros, and will remain heavily indebted for years to come.

The country is monitored by its eurozone partners and the IMF to ensure it does not veer off post-bailout targets aimed at maintaining high budget surpluses in coming years.

New Democracy (ND) accused the government of increasing taxes and handing out benefits from budget revenues to win votes.

“You are wearing the mask of the philanthropist just to tip people from their own savings,” ND leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis told Tsipras in parliament.

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Big Drop Reported in Child Labor in Cambodia Fashion Factories 

While the United Nations says child labor has fallen sharply in Cambodia’s garment factories, many informal subcontractors using children are escaping scrutiny, activists said Tuesday. 

 

Better Factories Cambodia, a U.N. International Labor Organization and World Bank initiative, found just 10 cases of child labor, down from 74 in 2014, in its latest survey of almost 500 licensed garment export factories. 

 

However, campaigners said that children turned away from factory jobs may be working elsewhere, including homes where garments are produced by subcontractors. 

 

“There have been major strides in eliminating child labor” in factories, said William Conklin, Cambodia country director for the Solidarity Center, a U.S.-based nonprofit promoting workers’ rights. 

 

“But what it doesn’t address is the issue in the subcontract area. That is a big, unknown area in Cambodia.” 

 

Cambodia’s garment industry is the largest employer in the country. About 40 percent of its GDP comes from garment exports, and the sector employs more than 800,000 workers. 

 

Cambodian factories supply global brands including Gap, Sweden-based H&M, and sportswear brands Nike, Puma and Adidas. 

 

The ILO report noted that child labor usually involves workers under age 15 who have presented false identity documents to get factory jobs. 

Trapped in bonded labor

 

Tens of thousands of Cambodian families, including children, are trapped in bonded labor, forced to make bricks in return for kiln owners’ settling their debts, British researchers said in October. 

 

Child workers are often from families who have had to migrate because climate change has hit their harvests, said Dy The Hoya, a program officer with the Phnom Penh-based Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights. 

 

“I do not see any change in the informal sector,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

 

Esther Germans, a program manager with ILO, said the organization has no data on subcontractors. 

 

“It is generally assumed that working conditions are worse and one can expect more incidences of child labor since there is less scrutiny,” she said in emailed comments. 

 

Companies are facing growing scrutiny to ensure their operations are slave-free as rising demand for cheap clothing fuels labor exploitation in factories worldwide. 

 

The government, which has come under fire for its human rights record, said in October that it would increase the monthly minimum wage in the textile sector to $182 in January from $170. 

 

H&M, which hosted a summit on fair wages in the fashion industry in the Phnom Penh on Tuesday, said wages in Cambodian factories producing its clothing were 24 percent higher than the minimum.

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