Archives For cultural preservation

Among Asia’s most discriminated people are the Rohingyas. About 1.33 million of the Muslims of South Asian descent live in Myanmar, where all but 40,000 are stateless. Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law considers Rohingyas illegal Bengali immigrants – despite the fact that many have lived for generations in the western state of Rakhine, which borders Bangladesh.

Fortify Rights, a human rights organization, said recently in a new report, Policies of Persecution , that restrictions placed on Rohingyas by the Burmese government are presented officially as a response to an “illegal immigration” problem and threats to “national security”. Yet Rohingyas as a group live in unimaginable poverty due to deprivation and displacement.

Since 2012, with easing of political restrictions in Burma, there have been several bouts of violence between the Rohingya and the Buddhist ethnic-Rakhine, who claim to feel threatened by the muslim population. Both sides have sustained casualties in the fighting but, according to Fortify rights, several hundred men, women and children have been killed and muslim communities razed.

As a result, tens of thousands of Rohingya now live in crowded camps in Burma, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Thailand, where they haven’t faired much better.  Just to reach their new destination, they risk death at sea in overcrowded and unstable transport arranged by human traffickers who take advantage of their poverty and statelessness, often forcing them into bonded servitude.  Killings and other ill-treatment is also not uncommon, Fortify Rights and others have said.

The most recent example of egregious discrimination against Rohingyas started with the latest census, data collection for which began on March 30th. The census, however – a first since 1983 for the population estimated at 60 million – makes use of a list of 135 recognized nationalities yet excludes Rohingyas. Initially, they were told they could write in their ethnicity but later the government backtracked and said they should self-identify as Bengalis, according to news reports.

This census simply compounds what is already an untenable situation in Burma for the Rohingya population, which suffers Burmese policies that Fortify Rights describes as, “designed to make life so intolerable for Rohingya that they will leave the country.”

Among the restrictions enshrined in state policy that the Rohingya face in Burma are those on movement, Fortify Rights said in its report. They cannot travel within or between townships without authorization and only under exceptional circumstances travel outside the state, according to 12 internal government documents obtained by the rights group. Among other restrictions are those relating to marriage, childbirth, home repairs and construction of houses of worship. There are severe criminal punishments for Rohingyas who  violate restrictions, including often years in jail and fines, according to Fortify Rights.

The report calls for the Myanmar government to abolish its discriminatory policies and accord Rohingya full rights under Burmese law, including the right to protection from violence. The international community should not sit by and watch the persecution of Rohingya ahead of next year’s critical election when the military generals are expected to cede power. All Burmese, regardless of ethnicity, should share in the government’s promised reforms.

 

Yesterday the Shangri-La  took the courageous step of declaring that effective immediately, the group’s 72 hotels and resorts would no longer serve shark fin in any restaurants or at wedding banquets.

The announcement falls under the company’s new sustainable seafood policy, which also includes a decision to phase-out Bluefin tuna and Chilean sea bass in all hotel restaurants within the year.

In a press release, the hotel said that in December 2010 the company initiated the process of becoming shark fin free with the removal of shark fin products from its restaurant menus. “The new policy is a continuation of Shangri-La’s journey towards environmental support,” the release said

This follows the Peninsula Hotel’s decision in November last year to stop serving the soup in its restaurants and at wedding banquets as of January 1st this year.

The hotels should be applauded for their actions, which were not easy in a city that sees 50 percent of the global shark fin trade and where consumption of the soup at special events has been second-nature. Here, shark fin soup is seen as a symbol of wealth and  prestige and consumed most often at weddings and corporate banquets.

Yet as the consumption of the soup has increased in recent years with greater affluence in Asia, shark populations have dwindled.  In some species. populations have declined by as much as 90 percent. As many as 73 million sharks are caught annually, with millions of these believed caught for their fins alone.

Shark flesh is not a  high-value meat, while dried fins can be sold for as much as $300 a pound. A bowl of the soup in Hong Kong can fetch as much as $100. Thus is some cases, shark are finned at sea  with the bodies thrown back to drown in a practice that is both wasteful and cruel.

Bloom, the HK Shark Foundation, WWF and other conservation groups have been working hard in Hong Kong over the past few years to educate consumers and the trade about the ramifications of declining shark populations for our oceans.

The work has included research to understand both the cultural attitudes toward consumption of shark fin soup and the trade in shark products;  educating the hotels on biodiversity issues related to sharks and learning about the challenges of ceasing sales of shark products; encouraging consumers to consider shark fin free weddings; encouraging companies to sign a pledge not to serve shark fin soup at banquets.

Despite a swell action from local and national governments worldwide to ban consumption of shark fin products, the Hong Kong government (consistent with its course of rarely acting in public or conservation interest) has refused to consider any such action – even a ban on serving at official banquets.

In reality, the assumption is that because of the cost, little shark fin soup is actually served at official banquets in Hong Kong and indeed government officials have alluded to this.

Certainly, however, with the growing awareness around threats faced by our oceans, the sense of inevitability of action as shark populations decline, the government must now be feeling the heat.

Last week the HK Marine Products Association was certainly feeling the heat. The trade group placed half-page ads in leading Chinese publications titled (in English translation) “Is eating Shark Fin Guilty?” and arguing  that

  • Shark fin is simply a by-product of the shark fishing industry
  • CITES bans trade in only four species therefore fishing should be allowed in others
  • Any conservation of a species should be based on scientific evidence not emotion
  • States  the MPA uses resources sustainably and contributes to conservation

Clearly, shark fins, for reasons stated above are not by-products of any shark fishing industry and clearly conservation of a species should be based in scientific fact, which exists and is documented: sharks are in significant decline.We would welcome any communication from the MPA related to their sustainable practices and conservation work.

The CITES issue mentioned in the ads is an interesting one and is raised frequently by the MPA, as well as both the HK and Beijing governments, which hide behind the treaty. The main point here is that CITES is not effective in protecting shark species globally and should not be used, counter-intuitively, as a a justification to fish endangered

CITES was drafted as a result of a resolution adopted in 1963 at an IUCN (The World Conservation Union) meeting and entered into force in 1975 as an international agreement. Today, it has 175 signatories.

Its aim: to ensure that the international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. The CITES mechanism to achieve this is by placing trade restrictions on species at risk. The Convention is, therefore, undoubtedly an important wildlife conservation agreement.

Yet CITES only includes three species of shark, despite that according to IUCN 143 species are threatened with extinction, either now or in the near future.

So why should a conservation agreement exclude threatened species? The answer lies in the fact that for a species to be bought under CITES trade restrictions, the signatories must vote.

In 2010, for example, six shark species were proposed for inclusion in CITES. Countries with vested interests in the shark trade, such as Japan, bargained with fellow signatories to ensure that highly lucrative species, albeit critically endangered, were not included in the Convention’s regulatory appendices. Science and sustainability clearly gave way to commercial interests.

In Hong Kong, CITES remains the only mechanism for regulating the shark fin trade and to make matters worse its implementation is unclear.

The Agricultural, Fishery and Conservation Department (AFCD) of the Hong Kong government is responsible for monitoring the trade in endangered plant and animal species.

Currently, visual identification is a commonly used to identify imported plants or animal species. While this may be appropriate for many species, it is extremely difficult, in practice, to determine the shark species from a fin without the carcass, and even more difficult if the fin has been bleached or processed. It is understood that AFCD do not carry out any DNA analysis.

Thus, CITES clearly is not an effective mechanism to monitor the shark fin trade in Hong Kong.

Scientific research based on DNA testing shows that in 2006 approximately 40% of the auctioned fin weight in the Hong Kong market came from 14 shark species listed on the IUCN Redlist of Threatened species.

So bravo to the Shangri-La and the Peninsula hotels for taking action, the 112 companies in Hong Kong that have signed the WWF pledge not to sell or buy shark fin as part of their corporate activities.

Going shark free is a groundswell here and abroad that we certainly hope will continue in time to save the apex predators and our oceans.

I’m still surprised when other conservation funders or even NGOs ask us why we work to protect sharks, indicating that this is a “single-species” issue among a platform of ADMCF initiatives that generally is much broader in tone.

I’m surprised when we have to point out that there are at least 440 species of sharks and that as apex predators they are critical to the health of our oceans. This is in no way a single-species issue and ultimately is integrally connected to the health of our commercial fisheries.

The initiatives against consumption of shark fin soup we support have much more to do with protecting our oceans, which are in significant decline. At least a third of shark species are threatened with extinction and some species have dropped in numbers by as much as 90 percent in recent years.

Sharks cannot easily recover from overfishing because they reproduce slowly, taking years to mature and producing few offspring. If we continue to fish shark at current rates, they simply won’t be part of our ocean life in the not too distant future, with potentially disastrous consequences for us all.

For 400 million years sharks (despite their negative image largely, thanks to Jaws) have helped to maintain and regulate the balance of our marine ecosystems. We don’t know exactly what our oceans would look like without sharks but we do know there would be significantly less biodiversity. Studies have shown that regions where there are more apex predators have more biodiversity, while areas without them show clear absences.

Still, every year perhaps as many as 73 millions sharks are caught – tens of millions of these for their fins alone. Although many sharks are landed and brought to shore with their fins attached, in order to save space on fishing boats, in many instances sharks are finned at sea and the body is discarded into the oceans, meaning the sharks drown. Any food value in the large body is wasted.

And Based on FAO statistics, global shark catches are likely to be underestimated by an astonishing three to four-fold.

Hong Kong plays an important role, with 50 percent of the shark fin trade passing through the city – much of it re-exported legally or illegally to China and the rest consumed locally, mostly at wedding or corporate banquets in soup.

Shark finning is an issue that ADMCF has been working with local conservation groups to highlight and advocate against in Hong Kong. Over the past five years we have supported  research, appeals to the hospitality industry and rest of the corporate sector  to stop serving and consuming shark fin soup.

With local organizations we have worked to build awareness among the general public about the biodiversity consequences of decimating our shark populations. Legislators have been approached to push the Hong Kong government to consider at least ceasing the consumption of shark fin soup at government banquets – something that in reality should be easy since the dish is expensive!

Ultimately, of course, we would all like the Hong Kong government to follow the world trend and consider a ban on the shark fin trade in Hong Kong.

Earlier this year, Bloom released important research on local attitudes to shark consumption that was publicized widely in local Chinese and international media. This research fundamentally changed the debate– from shark fin as an untouchable cultural issue to a global concern characterised by changing local attitudes.

And in an encouraging recent decision, the Hong Kong & Shanghai Hotels announced a ban on shark fin at all outlets including its Peninsula hotels as of Jan. 1. This was a major shift and key step in engaging Hong Kong’s leading hotels on a collective ban. Conservation International and Bloom Hong Kong are organizing a meeting of top Hong Kong hotel executives in January  2012 to discuss what initial steps they might take toward removing shark fin from restaurant menus.

Meanwhile, WWF and the HK Shark Foundation have managed to sign up more than 110 companies and industry groups in Hong Kong to a pledge not to serve shark fin soup or consume other shark products in the course of official business. Many others have privately committed to follow the ban but have asked not to named publicly.

Indeed, the number of shark conservation organisations in Hong Kong pressuring the government, the corporate community and the trade is at an all-time high. Social and mainstream media shows that public sentiment is shifting and the momentum against consumption of shark fin is continuing to build both here and abroad.

Increasingly people do understand the importance of sharks to our marine ecosystems. There is little doubt in most minds that protecting sharks is not a single-species issues.


 

Sunday's Freezemob in TST, Hong Kong

This blog was written by the director of ADMCF’s environment program, Sophie Le Clue

At the end of April, this blog highlighted research by HK Bloom Association into cultural attitudes to shark fin, which showed that Hong Kong is clearly ready for change when it comes to taking shark fin off food menus, despite the cultural sensitivity.  During May the research went on to receive global media coverage being reported from the New York Times to Louisiana’s Bayou Buzz in the US, to the Telegram in Australia and the Bangkok Post in Thailand (to name a few)– not to mention widespread coverage across blogs and websites.

In an even earlier blog we illustrated that momentum against sharkfin in HK was building , and what’s clear now is that these efforts are intensifying across the world.

Just last week:

  • Washington became the first State in the United States to prohibit the sale, purchase, trade, and preparation of shark fins.  Similar legislation which is generating much controversy also looks imminent in California and Oregon.
  • In Malaysia, the State Cabinet agreed with the Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Masidi Manjun on the immediate need to include sharks in Sabah waters in the protected species list –it’s hoped this will be in force by year end.
  • Sabah’s top hotels are already preparing for this leading conservation move and last week were reported to already be taking shark fin off menus – Hong Kong please take note… particularly in light of the Ritz Carlton’s recent  announcement that its brand new Hong Kong hotel indeed intends to serve dish – suffice to say Hong Kong’s very active and effective shark conservation organisations (see previous blog – Hong Kong Campaign Against Shark Fin Soup gathers Strength ) are building momentum against this move by the Ritz.
  • There were rumblings that Canada is also gearing up to enter the discussion.  Brantford, a seemingly sleepy city in Ontario, will be debating this week on enacting a bylaw to prohibit the sale and consumption of all shark fin products (finning is already banned in Canada, but not the trade).
  • Back to the US and Chinese basket ball superstar Yao Ming flew to Shanghai to receive WildAid’s International Ambassador award, in recognition of his public stand against shark fin in China.

 All of these actions follow an unprecedented move in China, when in March, deputy to the National People’s Congress, Ding Liguo, proposed to ban the trade in shark fin – citing the unsustainability of the practice as well as its brutal nature. There are also indications that the public display of eating shark fin by China’s elites as a sign of wealth is beginning to irk those higher up.

And of course Hong Kongers also need a mention.  Just yesterday at precisely 12.45am an eerie silence pervaded the “Avenue of Stars’ (a popular tourist destination on the harbor front) as 350 odd people ‘froze’ for five minutes in protest against the shark fin trade and consumption.  This second ‘Freezemob’ organized by the Hong Kong Shark Foundation (HKSF) witnessed a near doubling of numbers from the first such event last year.

 As tourists meandered in and out of 350 frozen statues curiously eyeing a variety of shark paraphernalia, behind them hundreds of fishing trawlers silently sailed into the harbour in protest against Hong Kong’s landmark trawling ban announced last week – a curious juxtaposition.

Perhaps Hong Kong will get it right and lead the way after all.

Photo by Alex Hofford 

Recent research has shown that the vast majority of people surveyed in Hong Kong would be happy without consuming shark fin soup at a wedding, even though it has become the status symbol of choice for couples getting married here.

This shows attitudes toward the dish may finally be changing. Much of the debate around the consumption of shark fin has centered around cultural attitudes, with some in the trade trying to define the discussion as an East versus West issue when really it is simply a matter of protecting our already depleted oceans.

The reality is that tens of millions of sharks are killed each year to satisfy our appetite for the tasteless delicacy and as a consequence their populations worldwide are at high risk of extinction. Sharks are integral to the health of our oceans.

By contrast, consumption of the soup began with the Song dynasty (960-1279) when the expense meant this was the privilege only of the wealthy and this continued to be the case until the 1970s. Then, new wealth in Asia made shark fin accessible to more people and its consumption became associated with status – an important feature of any wedding and significant business banquet.  At the same time, more destructive fishing practices designed to dramatically escalate the catch helped make expanded consumption of shark fin possible.

Clearly, this is now a lucrative trade estimated at US$1 billion, with prices still high for the fins, which are often removed from the shark at sea. Frequently, the shark body, considered of lesser value, is thrown back into the sea where the shark is left to drown without its fins. An estimated 50 percent of the trade passes through Hong Kong, which also is where a significant portion of the consumption also occurs.

So the Bloom survey forces us to reconsider the assumption that people in Hong Kong believe eating shark fin soup at a wedding is non-negotiable in a city that is traditionally more focused on status than sustainability. The survey showed that may be changing.

In reality, 70 percent of people surveyed said that they had consumed shark fin at least once in the past twelve months and 90 percent of these at a wedding banquet. Tradition rather than taste was the main reason people said they eat shark fin and 87 percent of the time it is consumed as part of a set menu rather than chosen as an a la carte offering. Of the people surveyed, 43 percent had thought about a replacement dish, indicating that perhaps they were thinking about the sustainability issues around consuming shark fin.

The Bloom survey was conducted by the University of Hong Kong Social Sciences Research Centre. Bloom, WWF and the Hong Kong Shark Foundation are working effectively in Hong Kong to build awareness around the environmental issues associated with shark fin products and decrease their consumption.


ADMCF recently spent time in Patna, in India’s Bihar state where we were looking at how we might work effectively with the Musahar community, which ranks at the bottom of the dalit or untouchable caste.

We found that there is apparently relatively little concrete information about or assistance given to the Musahar, whose name translates quite literally as the “rat-eaters.” Estimates of their numbers in Bihar and other states range from 2 million to as high as 5 million.

The Musahar fall so far down the well of the Indian caste system that by all accounts its people live in modern India much as they did 2,000 years ago. In an initiative that was perhaps telling about the regard in which the community is held, in 2008 the Indian government acted to help the Musahar by allowing the commercialization of rat meat.

A brief portrait of their situation gleaned from what is available online and through conversations in Bihar: In the villages around Patna in Bihar state, India, child marriage at 13 or 14 is still common, although illegal in India.

In the rural areas, Musahar are primarily bonded agricultural labourers, but often go without work for as much as eight months in a year.  Children work alongside their parents in the fields or as rag pickers, earning as little as 25 to 30 rupees daily.

The Musahar literacy rate is 3 percent, but falls below 1 percent for the women. Yet it is cast discrimination rather than parents that keep Musahari children away from schools. That said, the schools to which they have access apparently offer so little in the way of education that perception among the community is that schooling doesn’t offer them anything. And it is certainly true that even if they do manage an education certificate, discrimination means few manage to find jobs anyway.

By some estimates, as many as 85 percent of some villages of Musahars suffer from malnutrition and with access to health centres scant, diseases such as malaria and kala-azar, the most severe form of Leishmaniasis, are prevalent.

Besides eating rats, the Musahars are known for producing a good and cheap alcohol so not surprisingly alcoholism is rampant among the community, particularly the men.

Government development programs provide very little support to the Musahars. They are not recipients of housing schemes because generally they do not possess title deeds for their land. They are also the lowest number of recipients of loans from revolving funds within government schemes.  Thus the social support system bypasses them, as do private donations since so little is known about them.

The Dalit community in Bihar as a whole suffers frequent and often unpunished human rights violations. In the ten years before 2003, for example, 4243 cases of Dalit atrocities were registered in police stations, including 694 cases of murder, 1049 of rape, 1658 of severe injury and 842 cases of insult and abuse.

Into this picture walked Sudha Varghese 26 years ago, a nun who wanted to give voice to India’s dalits. The Musahars were the least advantaged of the dalits she could find and she moved into their community to truly understand their needs and way of thinking.

her organization, Nari Gunjan, was born to give voice to the Musahar women in particular. The organization now runs 72  primary education centres and a residential hostel/school for girls. Nari Gunjan promotes social, political, and economic empowerment for the women and girls. Beyond education, some of the centers provide vocational training and assist with micro-credit for Musahar women.

A decade ago, recognizing the need also to represent Musahar women in the courts, Sudha sent herself to law school and returned armed with a new skill set she has used to pursue the prosecution of ten rape cases that without her would have gone unpunished. In each case, she lead a column of Musahar women to the police stations to persuade officers to make the right arrest and in each case she has succeeded in putting the perpetrators behind bars, she says.

Known as the “bicycle nun” Sudha visits the various communities on her bicycle, and her fragile appearance belies a ferocious determination to provide Musahar children with education, self-esteem and purpose, its women with hope. For her courage, India’s national government recently awarded Sister Sudha the country’s highest civilian award, the Padmashri.

During a visit, the difference between children who attend her education centers and those who don’t was immediately apparent. Still, like any organization working in difficult circumstances that has been around for some time, achieving a constant flow of funding, even at the modest scale Nari Gunjan requires, is extremely hard. Some of the education centers have gone unfunded for 10 months although the teachers continue to work and the children appear.

An estimated 50,000 children of refugees from Burma live in the Mae Sot area of Thailand,  80 percent with no access to schools. Among them are children from the Mon, Karen and Shan minority groups fleeing decades of political, economic and military oppression at home.

These migrant populations along the Burmese border are largely forgotten, subject to harassment and have little access to support or education.

Estimates are that with a near absence of economic, educational, health and job options at home, about 2 million Burmese have migrated to Thailand since 1988.

Of these, 150,000 are living in refugee camps, 500,000 are legal migrants and the rest live illegally in Thailand.

Although the camps and borders are officially closed, an estimated 1,000 people cross into Thailand daily and this was evident on a recent visit to Mae Sot, with fighting raging just across the border.

Life for migrant Burmese in Thailand, however, is not much better than at home.  In a report released last year, Human Rights Watch described “an atmosphere circumscribed by fear, violence, abuse, corruption and intimidation for illegal Burmese in Thailand.”

The illegal migrants are kept to just a few low-skill job opportunities.  Most work as day labourers with no rights, no protection. They are commonly exploited and abused by employers, police, immigration and others with little recourse, according to HRW.

Schooling options for their children are also limited. Places for them in local Thai schools  are almost non-existent, although there are some limited Burmese “education centres” as the Thai government prefers to call them.  

In the Mae Sot area, Ashoka fellow Naw Paw Ray has worked hard to get Burmese children into some sort of schooling over the past 11 years. Of the 50,000 locally, she estimates 12,500 attend the  60 education centres, as they are called by the Thai government, gathered under her Burmese Migrant Workers Educational Centre network.

BWMEC works to make sure the curriculum and facilities of the education centres under her umbrella are adequate for learning, providing training, funding, administrative support and school buildings or dormitories where necessary.

A migrant herself, Paw Ray’s story is fairly typical of the migrant Burmese community. She left Burma  in 1986 when her village was destroyed by soldiers and entered a refugee camp in Mae Sot when they were set up by the United Nations a year later.  

In Burma, Paw Ray was a teacher but in Mae Sot she worked in a gas station until she said she could no longer stand to see the discrimination. “I could teach and I wanted to teach. I wanted to do something to help my people,” she said, setting up a first school with just 25 Karen and Burmese students.

Chosen as an Ashoka fellow in 2007, Paw Ray said that in her work she hoped to address the vast educational gap between Thai children and the children of Burmese migrant workers.

Naw Paw’s schools hopefully give migrant children options – preparing them for a prospective return to Burma or integration into Thai society and culture – critical to establishing a pluralistic and tolerant Thai society. The idea is to pave the way for migrant schools, students, and teachers to gain public support and official accreditation in Thailand.

No other organisation in Thailand fields such an array of minority schools or is doing so much to build a long-term solution to the growing number of uneducated migrant children coming to or born in Thailand each year.

Yet like many good organizations, Paw Ray struggles to find adequate funding to support this forgotten community.

And the problem remains, children attending the Burmese elementary schools have only limited access to Thai secondary schools for reasons related to cost, discrimination and availability.  That limits future job opportunities and integration.

So Paw Ray’s challenge remains: what is the best way to provide education to a migrant population that may or may not return home ?