The World Today for February 29, 2024

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The Ghosts of the Sea

TRINIDAD & TOBAGO

A bag containing $75,000 worth of cocaine recently washed up on the shore at Cove Estate on Tobago, one of the islands that comprise the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean Sea. Police have not yet determined if the bag is linked to the 330-foot-long vessel that recently capsized around 500 feet from the same beach on Feb. 7.

But the find could shed light on the disaster at sea. Mystery initially surrounded the incident, Agence France-Presse reported, because nobody radioed for help at the time of the accident and no traces of the crew have been found.

The environmental impact of the wreck has been outraging local authorities. The vessel was carrying 35,000 barrels of fuel oil that leaked, befouling the island’s waters and beaches at the height of the tourist season, an important industry. Prime Minister Keith Rowley described the accident as a national emergency, according to the Associated Press.

Much of the oil headed west, away from Tobago, before coating around 10 miles of the island’s coastline. Officials in the country, which pumps the most oil in the Caribbean, have experience with spills. As Reuters reported, they have called in salvage experts to help with recovering the barge and cleaning up the mess. The oil slick also spread to Grenada and Venezuela, added the Guardian.

Then Trinidad and Tobago officials announced they had pieced together the events surrounding the accident. The ship was actually a barge named the Gulfstream that a Panamanian tugboat called the Solo Creed had been towing to Guyana in South America via Aruba, the Washington Post wrote. These details did not entirely solve the mystery of who had irresponsibly left the barge tipped over in the water without notifying authorities, if only to trigger an immediate environmental rescue effort.

After seeing his name associated with the boat in a Facebook post, Mohamed Qualander, who runs a business called the Queensway Group in Guyana, issued a statement denying that he owned the barge, noted Caribbean National Weekly, a South Florida-based news service for the Caribbean American community.

Investigative news service Bellingcat found that the barge was hard to track since it is an unpowered vessel that would have no registration number. It might have been connected, however, with so-called “ghost fleets” that transport oil from Iran and Venezuela in violation of Western sanctions. Or the barge might have been old. Tankers last for around 30 years. The Gulfstream may be almost 50 years old.

Meanwhile, the situation that led to the disaster in Trinidad and Tobago is likely to be seen again in the future, analysts say.

That’s because the number of ships that have gone dark to operate in ghost fleets has tripled since 2019, the Financial Times reported. Operating under the radar, these vessels are frequently poorly maintained, Bellingcat says. For example, Reuters reported that more than half of Venezuela’s state-owned fleet of oil tankers are “so run down that they should be immediately repaired or taken out of service.”

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Slowcoach

GREECE

Thousands of Greek workers and students took to the streets of central Athens on Wednesday to commemorate the anniversary of the country’s deadliest train accident, and to demand both justice for the victims and bigger pay rises, Reuters reported.

The strike, organized by Greece’s largest public sector union ADEDY, disrupted rail and transport services across the country.

Ports, hospitals, schools, and other public services were also affected as workers voiced their grievances over systemic issues within the railway sector, and broader concerns about wages and living standards.

The mass demonstration comes a year after a passenger train from Athens to the northern city of Thessaloniki collided with a freight train, killing 57 people.

The accident sparked protests across the country, as many citizens and the victims’ relatives complained about the decades of neglect suffered by the rail sector.

In response, authorities arrested a station master shortly after the crash. Dozens of people have been charged in connection with the incident and the trial is set to begin in June, according to government officials.

While the government has promised to improve the railway system, crash specialists and rail workers noted that the safety systems are still not fully functioning.

Concerns also persist among survivors and victims’ relatives, who are demanding accountability from Greek lawmakers responsible for rail safety when the crash occurred.

Hundreds of thousands of people have signed a petition to strip the parliamentary immunity of those lawmakers, the Associated Press added.

At the same time, protesters highlighted the pressing issue of stagnant wages, particularly in the public sector, where workers have endured austerity measures in the wake of Greece’s debt crisis. Demands are for a 10 percent across-the-board wage increase and more job opportunities.

Greece’s conservative government has increased the minimum monthly salary by 20 percent to $844 since it took office in 2019.

Despite official pledges to further increase it by 2027, disparities persist, with Greek salaries trailing behind the European Union average.

Thank You, (Don’t) Come Again

SRI LANKA

Sri Lanka ordered thousands of Russians and some Ukrainians staying on extended visas and escaping the war between their two countries to leave within two weeks, coinciding with a backlash over alleged racist policies enacted in Russian-run businesses on the island, the Independent reported this week.

Official numbers show that since the war began, around 288,000 Russians and 20,000 Ukrainians have landed in Sri Lanka on a regular 30-day visa. However, it is unclear how many visitors have overstayed. The Sri Lankan government has offered them free extensions, the latest being due to the “non-operation of airlines in the region,” NBC News explained.

Noting that “the flight situation has normalized,” immigration authorities canceled the extension on Feb. 23, giving tourists a two-week grace period to leave the country should they fail to renew their visas formally.

The move comes after an advert for a party in a Russian-run café in the country’s south caused controversy on social media.

Organizers of the “Opening White Party,” scheduled for Feb. 24, had limited entry to guests who could pass a “white” face control. Public outcry forced them to call off the event, apologizing “to everyone whose feelings were hurt” but criticizing “an inflated opinion about racism,” the local Daily Mirror reported.

Nonetheless, the office of Sri Lanka’s President Ranil Wickremesinghe ordered a probe into the immigration controller’s notice, saying that the government had not approved it beforehand. Observers considered it a move to prevent diplomatic rifts with Russia and Ukraine.

Russia has been a key source market for tourists to Sri Lanka since the Covid-19 pandemic, becoming the second-largest national group among tourists in the past three years.

Its nationals enjoyed a visa-on-arrival policy implemented by the Sri Lankan government in 2022 to boost tourism, which represents a significant part of the country’s income. The measure aimed to address the worst economic crisis Sri Lanka has had since breaking free from the United Kingdom in 1948.

Out of Stock

AFRICA

The African Union (AU) this month implemented a 15-year ban on the slaughter of donkeys for their skins, a move that was welcomed by animal rights groups and could impact China’s lucrative market for the traditional medicine derived from the animal’s hides, the South China Morning Post reported.

The decision, ratified by the heads of state during the 37th ordinary session of the AU Assembly in Ethiopia, follows a proposal put forth by the bloc’s specialized technical committee for agriculture, rural development, water, and environment.

The ban aims to protect Africa’s substantial donkey population, which constitutes about two-thirds of the global total. Ethiopia, with nearly 100 million donkeys, stands out as a key player in the donkey industry.

The decision came amid concerns about the cruelty and unsustainable practices associated with the donkey skin trade, as well as the significant role the animals play in African communities.

Observers noted that the ban will have an impact on China’s production of ejiao, a traditional medicine product once known as “medicine for emperors” and marketed for its alleged health benefits.

To make ejiao, collagen is extracted from the donkey’s skin and mixed with ingredients to create bars, pills and liquids.

But the increased demand for ejiao has led to the depletion of China’s donkey population, prompting reliance on imports from countries, such as Africa and South America.

More than five million donkeys are slaughtered annually to make up for Chinese demands – only two million of those are supplied domestically in China, while the rest are imported.

Animal welfare organizations lauded the AU’s decision, emphasizing the need to protect donkeys from exploitation and safeguard the livelihoods of communities that depend on these animals.

The move is also expected to curb illegal practices such as donkey theft and trafficking, they added.

The ban in Africa adds to a growing global trend against the slaughter of donkeys for their skins.

Tanzania and Ivory Coast have already implemented similar measures, while Brazil is advancing legislation to prohibit donkey and horse slaughter.

Companies producing traditional Chinese medicine have come under scrutiny for using animal parts in their products, including those of endangered species.

In October, the Environmental Investigation Agency UK (EIA), a non-governmental organization, released a report saying that more than 70 companies licensed by China’s drug regulator are using body parts of leopards and pangolins – both endangered species, CNN wrote.

The group added that some firms also sell products that contain parts of tigers and rhinos, in contradiction to “China’s own stated position that it does not allow the use of tiger bone and rhino horn in medicine.”

DISCOVERIES

Durability Test

Tool making has come a long way since the early humans thousands of years ago relied on stone axes and weapons for their survival.

Still, Japanese archaeologists wanted to know just how useful these ancient tools were and used precise replicas of these archaic instruments to determine their utility and reliability for our prehistoric ancestors, Cosmos magazine reported.

For their study, a research team created 75 hand-held stone axes and adzes using a stone hammer, anvil and grindstones. They made sure to use minerals found at the time such as semi-nephrite, hornfels and tuff, as well as bound them with strips of wood and fibrous grass.

All the replicas were made with an average length of 3.82 inches, width of 2.24 inches, and thickness of 0.8 inches.

The researchers then tested the tools in 15 activities to study macro fractures and microwear.

They used 53 replicas for 10 activities such as tree-felling, wood-axing, antler-adzing and bone scraping.

Out of these, 26 of them were used until they broke or became dull, while the other 27 were stopped and examined after 500, 1,000, 3,000, and 5,000 strokes.

The team also studied wear and tear from five non-use activities, such as accidental fractures during production or re-sharpening.

Their findings identified nine types of macroscopic fractures resulting from various tool uses, as well as different microscopic features associated with specific materials being worked on.

The study is an example of practical archaeology – where researchers learn about the past by recreating the present.

The authors added that their analysis can help future archaeologists to identify authentic stone artifacts, as well as determine the time when timber use began for early humans.

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