The World Today for February 16, 2024

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Seeding Fury


In Italy, a sign on the front of a tractor flying the Italian tricolor in Turin in early February read, “Agriculture is dying!” as Euractiv wrote. To the north, in Germany, around 30,000 farmers and 5,000 tractors descended on Berlin, protesting the end of fuel tax exemptions. In the ex-Soviet republic of Latvia, farmers demonstrated and called for a ban on imports of Russian products.

Meanwhile, Bulgarian farmers went to the capital Sofia decrying “the total failure” of their government to address their needs amid inflation, unstable markets, climate change, and other dynamic conditions. As the Associated Press explained, the farmers wanted “state compensation for high costs and falling incomes.”

Farmers blocked roads near Paris and the road on the Dutch-Belgian border, Reuters added. They complained that the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) had become a “Common Ecological Policy” that made life harder for farmers rather than incentivizing farmers to make and sell more unique European products.

And so it goes, from France to Spain, Poland to Bulgaria – farmers are angry and out in the streets protesting across Europe. In fact, only Austria, Denmark, Finland and Sweden have been spared, to date.

Behind the protests, as varied as the gripes are, there is a consistent trend. Farmers say they simply can no longer conduct business on the slim or non-existent margins they are earning, CNN noted. Too many regulations and too few incentives to produce more, expand, and export more are stifling industries that produce French wines, Italian olive oil, and German bratwurst.

Other factors are at play, too. When Russia invaded Ukraine, Europe temporarily lifted barriers that had been against Ukrainian food imports, the BBC wrote. The measure was supposed to help Ukraine finance its war effort when exports through the Black Sea were blocked. But Ukrainian foodstuffs flooded European markets, suppressing prices and hurting European farmers. That’s why Polish farmers have been out in force.

European leaders, meanwhile, have got the message. The European Commission removed language in a proposal for cutting greenhouse gas emissions through 2040 that referred to agricultural pollution, a major source of greenhouse gases. An initial draft foresaw a 30-percent cut in farm emissions between 2015 and 2040, Politico reported. Language recommending that Europeans eat less meat was also cut from the proposal.

Environmentalists were disappointed, according to the New York Times. To meet its ambitious climate targets, they said, the EU would need to dramatically cut down on chemical pesticides and fertilizers and reduce its livestock industry. Farmers, incidentally, receive millions in European subsidies.

In a market in Paris, Moroccan oranges and Polish mushrooms cost about half as much as the equivalent French produce, the Associated Press noted. “We understand their anger because we value farmers. What are we going to do if they are not here? We won’t eat,” truck driver Jeremy Don, whose livelihood is threatened by the farmers’ blockades outside of Paris, told the news wire.

But even so, he admitted that not everyone can afford it: Households in France like elsewhere in Europe are struggling with inflation, high interest rates and volatile energy prices, which have repeatedly brought tens of thousands of people out on the streets in protest.


Jumping the Gun


Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto declared victory in Indonesia’s presidential election Thursday, after unofficial results showed him leading the race with enough votes to avoid a runoff, a victory that some analysts and voters see as a sign of democratic backsliding in the world’s third-largest democracy, CNN reported.

Results gathered by independent observers and think tanks showed, with more than 90 percent of the votes counted, Prabowo had secured nearly 60 percent of the votes–.

The country’s election commission is expected to announce the official results within the next month, with the new president and vice president taking office in October, according to Reuters.

Still, the former army general told supporters on Thursday that he and his running mate, Gibran Rakabuming Raka – the eldest son of President Joko Widodo – would govern “for all the people of Indonesia.”

However, the frontrunner’s rivals, former governors Anies Baswedan and Ganjar Pranowo, alleged the vote was plagued by “systematic and massive fraud,” but did not provide evidence. They added that it is too early to call the election results.

Prabowo’s victory is significant in Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country and home to the world’s largest Muslim population. The election, billed as the world’s biggest single-day vote, saw more than 200 million eligible voters go to the polls in 38 provinces.

His path to the presidency is marked by a controversial past, including allegations of human rights violations during his military career under the late dictator Suharto – who was his former father-in-law.

The ex-special forces commander has denied the accusations and has since rebranded himself as a supporter of Indonesia’s democracy, and also as a warm and cuddly grandfather.

Widodo, while not explicitly endorsing any candidate, congratulated Prabowo on his victory, signaling a transition in leadership.

First elected in 2014, the outgoing president remains popular and his two terms in office have seen Indonesia experience strong economic growth.

But the Southeast Asian country has also regressed on human rights and corruption indexes during this period. Widodo also came under fire during the campaign for appearing prominently alongside Prabowo and for a court ruling allowing his son to join the main ticket, sparking accusations of political meddling and sidestepping the constitution.

Prabowo has pledged to continue his predecessor’s economic and infrastructure initiatives, but his declaration of victory has led some to express concern over electing a former military hardliner and a return to “dynasty politics.”

Political analyst Zachary Abuza told CNN that Prabowo “has worked really hard to reinvent himself and to whitewash his past.” He noted that having former army officials take the presidency could mark a return to the days of authoritarian rule.

In the Line of Fire


Paraguay’s upper house voted this week to expel one of the few opposition voices in the country’s political scene, sparking protests and concerns about the state of democracy in the South American nation, Reuters reported.

Lawmakers approved the dismissal of Senator Kattya Gonzales from the center-left National Meeting Party for the “misuse of influence” while in office. Senators accused her of administrative misconduct relating to three state officials she supervised.

She will be replaced by her deputy.

The left-leaning lawmaker is one of the few critics of the ruling right-wing Colorado Party that has dominated Paraguay’s politics for more than 70 years. She has called out rampant corruption and been vocal about the tightening grip of organized crime over the country.

Gonzales has not commented on the dismissal, but the move prompted small demonstrations outside the legislative building in the capital Asuncion. Protesters said her expulsion signaled a step back toward Paraguay’s dictatorship past.

The Colorado party has a majority in both houses of parliament, holds the presidency and governs 15 of the 17 state governments following last year’s elections.

During the 2023 elections, Gonzales was the fourth biggest vote-getter, garnering public support for directly addressing lawmakers suspected of wrongdoing.

Over the weekend, she began a hunger strike in protest against President Santiago Peña’s initiative to change the constitution to allow for his reelection.

The current constitution limits the president to a single five-year term.

All Aboard


Sierra Leone’s government is introducing buses to the country’s busy capital of Freetown, in an effort to provide residents with a public transport system and address the transport crisis, Africanews reported.

Freetown has up to now mainly relied on an informal network of road transport, which consists of mini-buses, shared taxis and motorcycle taxis. Residents have long complained that the current system is chaotic and unreliable, and results in numerous gridlocks during rush hour.

Now, the city has acquired 50 buses under the Sierra Leone Integrated and Resilient Urban Mobility project, a partnership between the country’s Ministry of Transport, the World Bank and the international consultancy group Integrated Transport Planning (ITP).

Currently, 42 buses have been deployed into the city, with the project also introducing formalized business models, ticketing systems, as well as regulatory bodies to improve reliability and efficiency in the new transport system, according to ITP.

Still, Alpha Amadu Bah, president of the drivers and transport workers’ union, noted that Freetown will need more buses to be able to truly serve residents.

Meanwhile, the transport ministry is looking into other options to reduce the transportation crisis, including changes to fares paid by commuters.

Sierra Leone, one of the world’s poorest countries, is still recovering from a devasting civil war (1991–2002), the Ebola crisis (2014-2016), and the Covid pandemic.


This week, the US Senate passed a $95 billion military aid package for its allies, including Ukraine and Israel, in a 70-29 vote. Kyiv said the funding was crucial as the war with Russia enters its third year. The aid package must still be approved by the House of Representatives, Reuters explained. Meanwhile, the aid package vote comes as analysts believe the war in Ukraine is starting to exhaust Kyiv’s allies. With drained arsenals and a European reaction to the war the New York Times described as “slow,” walking the talk may not be an easy task.

Meanwhile, the Estonian Intelligence Service warned on Tuesday that Russia is preparing for a military confrontation with the West within the next 10 years. They drew this conclusion after noticing that Moscow had plans to double the number of forces placed along the border with Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia – all NATO members. The Kremlin responded by placing Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and two other Baltic ministers on its wanted list, Al Jazeera reported.

Kallas joined a list that includes Meta Platforms spokesperson Andy Stone, whom a court in Moscow on Monday ordered in absentia to arrest on terrorism-related charges. Since the war began, Russia has banned Meta’s Facebook and Instagram. Even so, it has used social media to carry a manipulation campaign in the West, French authorities noted on Monday. Paris revealed a network of “at least 193 websites” used by Moscow to “spread Russian disinformation” as the European Union prepares for June’s European elections, the Associated Press reported.

Meanwhile, the US rejected a ceasefire proposal by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian sources told Reuters on Tuesday. Putin had offered to freeze the war at the current lines and preserve Ukrainian territory under Russian control. Though the US denied any backroom talks with Russia that did not involve Ukraine, the sources added that Moscow used intermediaries to communicate the proposal to Washington, such as Arab partners in the Middle East. The same day, Ukraine’s spy agency said Russia was buying Starlink satellite terminals, already used by Kyiv, from these very “Arab countries.”

In the absence of a ceasefire, Putin remained determined to “fight on.” And so he did. On Wednesday, Russia launched missile attacks in east Ukraine’s Donetsk region. Ukrainian authorities reported that three civilians, including one child, were killed. Following the airstrikes, Kyiv said they had sunk a Russian ship, the Caesar Kunikov, off the coast of Russian-occupied Crimea. On Thursday, Ukrainian strikes on the Russian city of Belgorod, 19 miles from the border, killed five people, the BBC reported.


A Complicated Pox

Scientists have long thought that Christopher Columbus and the Spanish conquistadors brought syphilis back from the New World to Europe in the late 1400s, Insider reported.

The continent experienced a huge outbreak of the sexually transmitted disease that killed up to five million people during this period – which also aligned with the return of sailors who accompanied Columbus from South America.

However, new analysis of ancient bacterial DNA has provided new clues about the origins of syphilis and the complex history of its spread.

In their paper, lead researcher Verena Schünemann and her team studied 2,000-year-old bones found in Brazil that carried lesions typically associated with the STD.

But their genetic probe showed that some of the lesions were not caused by the same microbe that causes syphilis, but by a closely related cousin.

The researchers explained that this microbe – part of the Treponema family – causes a different disease called Bejel, which is not spread through sexual contact and is still around today, mostly in Asia and Japan.

The findings also showed that the Treponema family is potentially much older than previously thought, which means that syphilis, Bejel, and other related diseases were present in Europe, India, and the Americas before Columbus’s expeditions.

“Of course, we cannot prove it wrong,” said Schünemann. “But it seems that there’s a much more complex story developing than these hypotheses are capturing currently.”

Meanwhile, the authors added that studying the bacteria’s genetic history could assist modern healthcare and in developing new treatment strategies.

Syphilis and related diseases remain prevalent and are becoming more resistant to antibiotics.

By studying how these microbes exchanged genetic information with humans over millennia, scientists hope to anticipate and combat antibiotic resistance effectively, said Schünemann.

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