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Environment Gets A Helping Hand From Philanthropists

The Paris climate agreement, adopted by almost 200 nations in 2015, set a goal of limiting warming to "well below" a rise of 2 degrees Celsius.

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Scattered trees dot the once densely forested land, seen from an airplane, in South Sudan. VOA
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Leading philanthropists pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to rescue shrinking tropical forests that suck heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, on the eve of a global climate change summit in San Francisco.

Nine foundations announced the $459 million commitment, to be delivered over the next four years, a day ahead of the Global Climate Action Summit, which is expected to draw about 4,500 delegates from city and regional governments.

“While the world heats up, many of our governments have been slow — slow to act. And so we in philanthropy must step up,” Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, told journalists at an event announcing the pledge.

The commitment roughly doubles the funds the groups currently dedicate to forest protection, said David Kaimowitz, a director at the Ford Foundation, one of the donors.

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The Lonar Lake is an exceptional ‘bowl of biodiversity’ and a wildlife sanctuary. Wikimedia Commons

Charlotte Streck, director of Amsterdam-based think tank Climate Focus, said the size of the commitment makes the groups major players in supporting anti-deforestation programs.

Norway has led donor efforts by pledging up to $500 million a year to help tropical nations protect their forests, Streck said.

But the new money committed by foundations could prove more “flexible and nimble” than money from governments, she said.

“The money that has been pledged by the governments like Norway and Germany, the UK, sits mostly in trust funds with the World Bank and the U.N. and it doesn’t get out so quickly,” she said.

Often “there is $20,000 missing here or $50,000 missing here, just to do one thing or develop one study or work with one person or have one consultation — and that the foundations can do,” Streck said.

Other groups that are part of the new initiative include the MacArthur Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation.

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Climate Change Fuels California Fires. Flickr

Help for indigenous people

Funds will mostly assist indigenous people who are forest dwellers, including by helping them secure titles to land they live on so it cannot be sold to private companies without their agreement, said Walker.

“Companies come to our village, our forests and say: ‘You have to leave because I have the license from the government,'” said Rukka Sombolinggi, who heads the Indonesia-based Indigenous People’s Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN).

The world loses the equivalent of 50 soccer fields’ worth of forest every minute, organizers said.

Yet forests absorb a third of the annual planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions produced — and those emissions need to be slashed substantially more to meet the goals set in the Paris agreement.

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The Mangroves of Sunderbans Forests. Wikimedia

The Paris climate agreement, adopted by almost 200 nations in 2015, set a goal of limiting warming to “well below” a rise of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial times while “pursuing efforts” for the tougher goal of 1.5 degrees C.

Also Read: IWC Shuts Down A Proposal To Create a Sanctuary For South Atlantic Whales

The three-day Global Climate Action Summit was organized by Californian authorities and the United Nations to support the leadership of mayors, governors and other sub-national authorities in curbing climate change. (VOA)

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Pakistan Reacts Sharply To U.S. Religious Freedom Charges

China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are also included in the U.S. list of countries accused

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A Pakistani nun holds a candle during a vigil for victims of a deadly suicide bombing in a park, March 28, 2016, in Lahore. VOA

Pakistan is denouncing a U.S. decision to place it on a list of countries Washington says are the worst offenders of religious freedom.

“Pakistan does not need counsel by any individual country how to protect the rights of its minorities… there are serious questions on the credentials and impartiality of the self proclaimed jury involved in this unwarranted exercise,” the Foreign Ministry said Wednesday in a strongly-worded statement.

The reaction comes a day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced his designation of “countries of particular concern” that allegedly have engaged in or tolerated ”systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.”

Freedom Violations

The countries on the blacklist are exposed to punitive sanctions, but Pompeo waived them for Pakistan, citing U.S. national interests.

Pakistan had until now been on a U.S. watch list for governments that have “engaged in or tolerated” severe violations of religious freedom.

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Pakistani volunteers collect debris from an Ahmadi mosque demolished by an angry mob, in the eastern city of Sialkot. VOA

While rebuking Tuesday’s U.S. pronouncement as “unilateral and politically motivated,” the Pakistani Foreign Ministry noted Pakistan is “a multi-religious and pluralistic society” of more than 200 million people, mostly Muslims.

“Around four percent of our total population comprises citizens belonging to Christian, Hindu, Buddhists and Sikh faiths. Ensuring equal treatment of minorities and their enjoyment of human rights without any discrimination is the cardinal principle of the Constitution of Pakistan,” it said.

Ahmadis most persecuted community

The statement did not mention the Ahmadi sect, which critics say is the most persecuted minority in Pakistan. The constitution bars the community from “posing as Muslims” and from calling their worship places “mosques.”

U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback while defending downgrading of Pakistan reiterated Tuesday the challenges facing the Ahmadi community.

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Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, speaks to reporters at the State Department in Washington. VOA

“The Pakistani government criminalizes the identification of Ahmadis as Muslims, and then also — and this one has really been difficult and troubling for a lot of people — the government often fails to hold accountable perpetrators of killings and violence against members of religious minorities targeted on account of their religious beliefs or affiliations,” said Brownback.

Blasphemy laws

He cited, among other things, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws as a cause for the downgrade of the country’s religious freedom ranking. The laws prescribe the death penalty for those found guilty.

Rights groups have long complained Islamist groups misuse the law to intimidate minorities in the country.

Insulting Islam or its prophet is an extremely sensitive issue in Pakistan where mere allegations have led to mob lynchings. A former provincial governor, a federal minister, judges and lawyers are among those assassinated in Pakistan by extremists merely for calling for reform of the blasphemy laws to prevent their misuse or for hearing cases and defending alleged blasphemers.

Asia Bibi

In a historic judgement this past October, Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who had been on death row for eight years after being convicted of insulting the Prophet Mohammad. The women denied the charges from the outset as an outcome of a local feud and the country’s highest court cited lack of evidence in overturning her conviction by a lower court.

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Radical Islamists rally to condemn a Supreme Court decision that acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, who spent eight years on death row accused of blasphemy, in Karachi, Pakistan. VOA

Bibi and her family have been in hiding since her release. Her lawyer fled Pakistan shortly after the landmark court ruling announced on October 31, saying his life was in danger.

Bibi is awaiting a rehearing of her case by the Supreme Court and is residing in a safe place under government protection, say Pakistani officials.

Pakistan also arrested hundreds of Islamist activists and their leaders last month for staging days of mass violent protests to denounce the court for freeing Bibi.

Also Read: Muslims in Malaysia Rally In Kuala Lumpur To Keep Status

The government has charged the detainees with treason and terrorism and officials have vowed to put them on trial in special courts.

“It’s our hope that they will, the new leadership in Pakistan, will work to improve the situation. There was some encouraging signs seen recently on how they’ve handled some of the recent protesting against the blasphemy laws, and we continue to watch very carefully what’s happening to Asia Bibi,” said Brownback.

China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are also included in the U.S. list of countries accused of committing severe violations of religious freedom. (VOA)