Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Portugal’s UN hopes on Syria fade

As the international rhetoric ratchets up over the use of chemical weapons, Portugal may be drawn into possible foreign military intervention in the civil war in Syria, but only on the fringe. 
The US Secretary of State John Kerry issued the strongest signal yet that the United States intends to take military action against the Assad regime by describing the “undeniable” use of “the world's most heinous weapon” as a “moral obscenity” against Syria’s own people.
Iran quickly responded that foreign military intervention would result in conflict engulfing the whole region and indicated its resolve to defend the Assad government. A Shia Muslim country, Iran is Assad’s closest ally and has accused militant Sunni Islamist groups, along with Israel and western powers, of trying to use the conflict to take over the region.
Russia, too, strongly opposes calls for intervention not only from the US, but also such countries as the UK, France, Germany and Turkey.
It is conceivable that the strategically important Lajes Air Base in the Azores could play a support role for aircraft involved in any military action that goes beyond a short, sharp, punitive strike with cruise missiles.  In reality, though, Portugal can do little more than offer moral support and watch from the sidelines, hoping that some sort of solution can ultimately be found within the United Nations Security Council.
Portugal is well aware of the complexities and limited powers of the Security Council having served three terms as a non-permanent member, most recently in 2011-12.
  The then president of the council, Ambassador José Filipe Moraes Cabral, made a statement in New York in which he said, “This human tragedy could have been averted had the Syrian Government not responded to the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people with sheer brutal force, resorting to the use of tanks, helicopter gunships and fighter jets against civilians. Let us be clear: such actions are illegal under international law and totally unacceptable, no matter the circumstances.” He went on to appeal for a political solution saying that “further militarization of the conflict can only lead to additional human suffering and will aggravate the humanitarian crisis even more.”
Following a massacre in Houla in central Syria last year, Portugal ordered the expulsion of Syria’s ambassador to Lisbon, declaring Lamia Chakkour “persona non grata.” It cited the lack of respect shown by Damascus over the UN peace plan led by Secretary General Kofi Annan.
Portugal went on to vote in favour of a UN Security Council draft resolution aimed at halting the continuing violence and the devastating loss of mainly civilian life in Syria. But even with a favourable vote from a majority of the members, the council remained paralysed because of the power of veto by Russia and China.
Portugal’s foreign affairs ministry said in a communiqué, “With each passing day, Syria’s stabilisation becomes harder. Portugal considers it crucial that the UN Security Council takes hold of its responsibility for maintaining international peace and security and takes decisive action in the resolution of the crisis”
Australia - like Portugal, a staunch US ally - takes the rotating chair of the UN Security Council this coming Sunday.  Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said this week: “We assume the presidency of the UN Security Council at a time when the Syria crisis is at its highest. Without doubt Syria is now the world’s greatest political crisis and unfolding humanitarian disaster. What we are confronting as an international community now is a fundamental assault on all international norms by what appears to be the use by this regime of chemical weapons against innocent civilians. This is a crisis of historic proportions.”
Whatever happens next, Portugal is sure to stick with America. When President Obama and President Cavaco Silva last met they spoke of the “deep friendship and long standing alliance” between the two countries and emphasised the importance both attach to the role of the UN in the promotion of “peace, democracy, good governance and human rights.”
Such rhetoric is sounding a bit hollow at the moment. Yet again the talk seems to be more about war than peace.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Mozzies can buzz off, bees must stay

A world without mosquitoes would be a very much better place, but we are told that a world without honeybees would probably be a planet devoid of human habitation.
This is not the view of someone on holiday who has been exposed to too much sun. It is the considered opinion of many research scientists. If it is true, it is as relevant to us in southern Portugal as to everyone else across the globe.
Mosquitoes have been more irritating than usual in certain parts of the Algarve this summer. Infinitely more worrying elsewhere is that mosquitoes are responsible for spreading malaria, a disease that each year infects well over 200 million people and kills a million of them. And then there is potentially deadly yellow fever, dengue, Japanese encephalitis, Rift Valley fever, Chikungunya virus and West Nile virus, all caused by mosquitoes. 
Of the 3,500 or so species of mosquitoes in the world, none of those in mainland Portugal is lethal or even dangerous, although much farther to the south, many people have been infected by the dengue virus over the last 10 months in the Madeira archipelago. 
Malaria was eradicated from Portugal in the 1950s. A resurgence is possible in tandem with global warming, but the likelihood of this anytime soon is considered low. For now at least, mosquitoes on the Portuguese mainland are just a bloody nuisance.
Ecologists generally agree that insect-eating creatures that currently heavily depend on them for food would adapt rather than go hungry in a world without mosquitoes.
It would apparently be a different scenario in a world without honeybees.
The Western honeybee (Apis mellifera) is credited with pollinating a third of the fruit and vegetables grown across Europe and North America. “We can thank them for one in every three mouthfuls of food we eat,” has become a popular way of expressing in the press.
Worryingly, populations of honeybees have collapsed in recent years. Scientists are not sure why. Pesticides, especially a new class of chemicals called nicotinoids, are high on the list of suspects. The European Commission has ordered a two-year ban on the use of nicotinoids.
Bacterial diseases, fungal infections and microscopic mites are also under investigation as possible causes. Portuguese specialists are very concerned too about a predatory species of wasp, Vespa velutina, which arrived in Europe from Asia in 2004 and has been rapidly spreading ever since. It is at the peak of its bee-killing activity at this time of year.
If bees are drastically depleted further, the crops most likely to suffer include those most commercially important in southern Portugal. Almonds are said to be totally dependent on bee pollination and citrus fruits heavily so.
Portugal’s 18,000 beekeepers are watching the situation closely, not least so in the Algarve, the largest honey producing area in the country.
Over ninety percent of Portuguese producers are non-professionals with less than 150 hives. The national daily newspaper Diário de Noticias recently quoted one of them, Gualdino Dias, 74, who is devoting more time to beekeeping now that he has retired. Producing large quantity of honey is laborious, he said, “because beekeeping is like music - it never ends.”
The trouble is, beekeeping may well end if ways are not found to check the current collapse in the bee population. At least that is how it is being generally reported.
Time magazine is running a six-page cover story in its latest edition headlined “A World Without Bees.” It quotes Jeff Pettis, the research leader at the US Department of Agriculture’s Bee Research Laboratory: “The take-home message is that we are very close to the edge. It’s a roll of the dice now.”
But hang on, is this not just another example of over-emotional sensationalism based on incomplete or wonky science?   Maybe. Maybe not.
Albert Einstein is widely quoted as having predicted long before there was any hint of a problem: “If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.”
Actually, there is no documented evidence Einstein ever said this at all.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Camerons stay at Tatler ‘Top 50’ villa

 Now that British Prime Minister David Cameron and his family have returned home, it can be revealed without the risk of fuelling further sartorial excitement  that they chose to spend their summer holiday in the delightfully named and idyllically located Cabana dos Rouxinois (House of the Nightingales), between Monchique and the Algarve highest point, Foia.
They stayed with the English owners and another couple of friends with young children at a place described as “the ultimate family holiday retreat with all modern facilities” and featured in Tatler’s ‘Top 50 villas to rent’.
Sleeping eight in the main house and four children and a nanny in  a cottage, this “English country house set amidst  three hectares of beautiful garden” normally rents for £3,000 per week in July and August, plus £500 for the cottage.
A special feature of the property is the immaculately maintained garden, originally designed and planted 30 years ago by Mr and Mrs Michael Hornby, creators of the famous Pusey Garden of Oxfordshire.
The Camerons’ holiday was six months in the planning, with a local agency, Turifoia, also arranging accommodation in a nearby villa and hotels for members of the prime minister’s personal staff and security personnel.  
David Cameron, his wife Samantha and their three children clearly enjoyed their stay and in some respects were able to behave just like any other holidaying family. They bought their groceries at local supermarkets and ate at modest restaurants without causing too much of a stir.
The ruse of holding an initial photo opportunity in the public market in Aljezur, way over towards the west coast, failed to deflect the media from the Camerons’ real holiday whereabouts, but the family were able to fully relax thanks to CCTV cameras and a largish contingent of Portuguese police. 
How different it might all have been had the prime minister decided to holiday on the Costa del Sol. No sooner was he back in No.10 than he was confronted by escalating tensions with Spain over Gibraltar.
The prime minister's concerns arose after Madrid said it was preparing to impose a €50 fee on the border crossing with the British territory and threatened to close airspace to planes using the Gibraltar airport.
That would certainly mess up a few holidays.