Activists urge Nigeria to refuse Shell’s oil selloff plans 

London — Environmental and human rights activists are calling on the Nigerian government to withhold approval of plans by the London-based oil giant Shell to sell off its operations in the Niger Delta, unless the oil giant does more to tackle pollution in the region caused by the industry.

For decades, foreign energy firms have extracted hydrocarbons from the Niger Delta, and Shell is by far the biggest investor. It has earned the companies — and the Nigerian government — billions of dollars. Locals, however, have long complained of massive environmental damage.

“You can’t grow crops. You can’t drink the water. You can’t fish because the fish are dying or they’re dead,” said Florence Kayemba, Nigeria director at the civil society group Stakeholder Democracy Network, based in Port Harcourt in the Niger Delta.

Shell Oil announced in January it is pulling out of its onshore and shallow water operations the region. It intends to sell its Nigerian subsidiary, the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited (SPDC), to Renaissance, a consortium of five mainly local firms. The sale would include existing mining licenses and infrastructure. Shell says it is part of a plan to transition away from fossil fuels.

Civil society groups say Shell must do more to clean up the environment before it leaves. A recent report by a Dutch organization, the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations, or SOMO, warned the divestment plan is a “ticking time bomb.”

“Communities fear that, once Shell exits, they will never see their environment restored or receive compensation for lost livelihoods,” the SOMO report said. “Most people in the Delta depend on farming and fishing, occupations that are impossible when the soil and waterways are deeply contaminated.”

Florence Kayemba of the Stakeholder Democracy Network, which contributed to the SOMO report, told VOA that the Nigerian government must scrutinize the sale more closely.

“We are very concerned about the legacy of pollution being left behind by Shell — not only Shell but also other oil companies that have divested their assets from the Niger Delta,” she said.

“We believe that it’s very important for the federal government to look into these issues, because the oil is not going to flow forever,” Kayemba added. “You will have a post-oil Nigeria. You will have a post-oil Niger Delta. And we need to have an environment that is functional.”

Oil companies like Shell have often blamed theft and sabotage for oil spills, a claim contested by environmental groups. Locals also seek to make money from unlicensed small-scale production known as “artisanal refining,” according to Kayemba.

“What you have is a situation where artisanal oil refining is just reinforcing what has been happening,” she said. “And yet that pollution had already existed. So, by the time you get to disentangle this, it becomes really difficult. Who is to blame who?”

A report commissioned in May 2023 by Bayelsa State, one of the major oil producing regions in the Niger Delta, estimated that it would cost some $12 billion to clean up decades-old oil spills in the state over a 12-year period. It blamed Shell and the Italian oil firm ENI for most of the damage.

Both Shell and ENI dispute the findings.

The SOMO report claims Shell is now selling its operations to domestic companies that may not have the capability to deal with the aging infrastructure and legacy of oil exploration.

“Shell is selling its oil blocks and infrastructure as going concerns to companies that appear, in several cases, to lack the finances and willingness both to deal with the old and damaged infrastructure and to undertake responsible closure and decommissioning when this becomes necessary,” the report said.

“Shell’s exit exposes the communities of the Niger Delta to major ongoing risks to their environment, health, and human rights, long after the oil industry ceases and likely for generations to come,” it added.

In a statement to VOA, Shell said that “Onshore divestments by international energy companies are part of a wider reconfiguration of the Nigerian oil and gas sector in which, after decades of capability building, domestic companies are playing an increasingly important role in helping the country to deliver its aspirations for the sector.”

“As divestments occur, mandatory submissions to the Federal Government allow the regulators to apply scrutiny across a wide range of issues and recommend approval of these divestments, provided they meet all requirements,” the statement said.

Shell added that it will continue to deploy its “technical expertise” under the terms of the sale to the new buyers.

The Nigerian government has indicated it intends to approve Shell’s divestment plans. Heineken Lokpobiri, Nigeria’s petroleum minister, told the World Economic Forum in Davos that the government is committed to “fostering a business-friendly environment” in the sector.

“On the part of the government, once we get the necessary documents, we will not waste time to give the necessary considerations and consent,” Lokpobiri said at Davos January 18, according to Reuters.

The Nigerian Ministry for Petroleum Resources did not respond to VOA requests for comment.

Biden administration announces $6.6 billion to ensure leading-edge microchips are built in US 

WILMINGTON, Del. — The Biden administration pledged on Monday to provide up to $6.6 billion so that a Taiwanese semiconductor giant can expand the facilities it is already building in Arizona and better ensure that the most-advanced microchips are produced domestically for the first time. 

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said the funding for Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. means the company can expand on its existing plans for two facilities in Phoenix and add a third, newly announced production hub. 

“These are the chips that underpin all artificial intelligence, and they are the chips that are the necessary components for the technologies that we need to underpin our economy,” Raimondo said on a call with reporters, adding that they were vital to the “21st century military and national security apparatus.” 

The funding is tied to a sweeping 2022 law that President Joe Biden has celebrated and which is designed to revive U.S. semiconductor manufacturing. Known as the CHIPS and Science Act, the $280 billion package is aimed at sharpening the U.S. edge in military technology and manufacturing while minimizing the kinds of supply disruptions that occurred in 2021, after the start of the coronavirus pandemic, when a shortage of chips stalled factory assembly lines and fueled inflation. 

The Biden administration has promised tens of billions of dollars to support construction of U.S. chip foundries and reduce reliance on Asian suppliers, which Washington sees as a security weakness. 

“Semiconductors – those tiny chips smaller than the tip of your finger – power everything from smartphones to cars to satellites and weapons systems,” Biden said in a statement. “TSMC’s renewed commitment to the United States, and its investment in Arizona represent a broader story for semiconductor manufacturing that’s made in America and with the strong support of America’s leading technology firms to build the products we rely on every day.” 

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. produces nearly all of the leading-edge microchips in the world and plans to eventually do so in the U.S. 

It began construction of its first facility in Phoenix in 2021, and started work on a second hub last year, with the company increasing its total investment in both projects to $40 billion. The third facility should be producing microchips by the end of the decade and will see the company’s commitment increase to a total of $65 billion, Raimondo said. 

The investments would put the U.S. on track to produce roughly 20% of the world’s leading-edge chips by 2030, and Raimondo said they should help create 6,000 manufacturing jobs and 20,000 construction jobs, as well as thousands of new positions more indirectly tied to assorted suppliers in chip-related industries tied to Arizona projects. 

The potential incentives announced Monday include $50 million to help train the workforce in Arizona to be better equipped to work in the new facilities. Additionally, approximately $5 billion of proposed loans would be available through the CHIPS and Science Act. 

“TSMC’s commitment to manufacture leading-edge chips in Arizona marks a new chapter for America’s semiconductor industry,” Lael Brainard, director of the White House National Economic Council, told reporters. 

The announcement came as U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is traveling in China. Senior administration officials were asked on the call with reporters if the Biden administration gave China a head’s up on the coming investment, given the delicate geopolitics surrounding Taiwan. The officials said only that their focus in making Monday’s announcement was solely on advancing U.S. manufacturing. 

“We are thrilled by the progress of our Arizona site to date,” C.C. Wei, CEO of TSMC, said in a statement, “And are committed to its long-term success.” 

Yellen says US will not accept Chinese imports decimating new industries 

BEIJING — U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned China on Monday that Washington will not accept new industries being decimated by Chinese imports as she wrapped up four days of meetings to press her case for Beijing to rein in excess industrial capacity. 

Yellen told a media conference that U.S. President Joe Biden would not allow a repeat of the “China shock” of the early 2000s, when a flood of Chinese imports destroyed about 2 million American manufacturing jobs. 

She did not, however, threaten new tariffs or other trade actions should Beijing continue its massive state support for electric vehicles, batteries, solar panels and other green energy goods. 

Yellen used her second trip to China in nine months to complain that China’s overinvestment has built factory capacity far exceeding domestic demand, while fast-growing exports of these products threaten firms in the U.S. and other countries. 

She said a newly created exchange forum to discuss the excess capacity issue would need time to reach solutions. 

Yellen drew parallels to the pain felt in the U.S. steel sector in the past. 

“We’ve seen this story before,” she told reporters. “Over a decade ago, massive PRC government support led to below-cost Chinese steel that flooded the global market and decimated industries across the world and in the United States.” 

Yellen added: “I’ve made it clear that President Biden and I will not accept that reality again.” 

When the global market is flooded with artificially cheap Chinese products, she said, “the viability of American and other foreign firms is put into question.” 

Yellen said her exchanges with Chinese officials had advanced American interests and that U.S. concerns over excess industrial capacity were shared by allies in Europe, Japan, Mexico, the Philippines and other emerging markets. 

Pushback 

China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, said in March the government would take steps to curb industrial overcapacity. 

But Beijing says the recent focus by the United States and Europe on the risks to other economies from China’s excess capacity is misguided. 

Chinese officials say the criticism understates innovation by their companies in key industries and overstates the importance of state support in driving their growth. 

They also say tariffs or other trade curbs will deprive global consumers of green energy alternatives key to meeting global climate goals. 

Trade curbs on Chinese electric vehicles would be disruptive to a growing industry and contravene World Trade Organization rules, the industry and information technology ministry said in a statement carried by state media CCTV and China Daily. 

The ministry added that it was committed to support EV exports and would help “accelerate the overseas development” of the industry including planning for shipping and logistics and support for firms to innovate and meet global standards. 

State news agency Xinhua quoted Li as saying the U.S. should “refrain from turning economic and trade issues into political or security issues” and view the topic of production capacity from a “market-oriented and global perspective.” 

Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao voiced more pointed objections during a roundtable meeting with Chinese EV makers in Paris, saying U.S. and European assertions of Chinese excess EV capacity were groundless. 

Rather than subsidies, China’s electric vehicle companies rely on continuous technological innovation, perfect production and supply chain systems and full market competition, Wang said on his trip to discuss a European Union anti-subsidy inquiry. 

Yellen said a possible short-term solution was for China to take steps to bolster consumer demand with support for households and retirement, and shift its growth model away from supply-side investments. 

Yellen spoke about the issue at length with Premier Li Qiang and also met Finance Minister Lan Foan on Sunday. She met People’s Bank of China (PBOC) governor Pan Gongsheng and former vice premier Liu He on Monday. 

In a CNBC interview after the meetings, Yellen said she was “not thinking so much” about trade curbs on China, as much as shifts in its macroeconomic environment. But she reiterated she would notrule out tariffs. 

 

Cambodians face mounting pain from microfinance debt

KEAN SVAY, KANDAL PROVINCE, Cambodia — Five years ago, Lun Sam Ath took out a $12,000 loan to build a new wooden house and repay a previous loan that she had used to buy a motorbike.

The 45-year-old mother of five owed $200 a month to Amret, one of the country’s largest microfinance institutions (MFI), which she figured she could repay with help from her older daughter’s earnings from a garment factory job. But then her husband contracted hepatitis, and treatment was costly.

After her husband died, Lun Sam Ath, who made about $180 a month in a garment factory, fell behind on payments. So, she decided to sell their house — along with a 10-by-20-meter plot of land. But with Cambodia experiencing a post-COVID real estate slump, it remains unsold.

The MFI credit officers seeking repayment started pressuring Lun Sam Ath.

“They would come to my home with several people, three to five motorbikes, and also bring the village chief with them,” she said during a recent interview with VOA Khmer.

She couldn’t handle the stress and shame. Last June she abandoned her home and rented a room for $40 a month, living with her three younger children, ages 9 to 14.

In February, she moved to the capital, Phnom Penh, where she sells face masks on the street. She screens phone calls “since I am afraid the bank agents will call me” she said. “They [the MFI] can take my land and sell it now to pay off the loan.”

Lun Sam Ath’s loan was one of nearly 2 million outstanding microfinance loans in Cambodia as of the end of 2023, according to the Cambodia Microfinance Association (CMA). Cambodia’s population is about 16.5 million, and researchers say the ratio of microfinance loans per person is the world’s highest.

The MFI sector was once hailed as a key tool for lifting Cambodians out of poverty by injecting capital into small businesses or farms unsuitable for traditional loans. Instead, thousands of Cambodians found themselves in a debt trap, taking out increasingly burdensome loans to pay back other loans, and taking increasingly extreme measures to escape the cycle of indebtedness. Substantial research conducted in Cambodia and in other developing nations found that while microloans helped many, especially women, the small loans have also made lives, like Lun Sam Ath’s, worse.

Advocates say the MFIs in Cambodia frequently fail to clearly explain the risks of these loans to borrowers, who are often financially illiterate and use their land as collateral.

Two local rights groups, Licadho and Equitable Cambodia, released a report, Debt Threats: A Quantitative Study of Microloan Borrowers in Cambodia, based on a survey of 717 households in Kampong Speu province, which is about 50 kilometers from Phnom Penh.

“Widespread over-indebtedness has led to significant numbers of serious human rights abuses,” the study said.

It found 6.1% of households had sold land to repay a debt, while about 3% of households had a child drop out of school specifically due to a loan, often to start working to help repayment.

The study, released in August, also found a spike in people increasing their borrowing to repay other loans. In 2012, 3.45% of loans went to repaying existing loans, which increased to 34.8% of loans in 2022.

Am Sam Ath, operations director at Licadho, called for urgent intervention from MFIs and the government to protect borrowers. But he said loan officers employed by MFIs were often perpetuating the problem.

Rather than approving loans for income-generating activities, these institutions were issuing loans for house repairs, medical expenses or repaying other loans.

And Cambodia is seeing increasing reports of credit officers resorting to intimidation or other unscrupulous tactics to compel borrowers to repay their debt, Am Sam Ath told VOA Khmer in January.

That month, the CMA released a study touting the “transformative impact” of microfinance loans.

Kaing Tongngy, a spokesperson for the association, said there were more than 2 million borrowers across the country, “so it is unavoidable that some clients were unable to pay.”

The CMA impact study, conducted by development research agency M-CRIL, found that 31% of the 3,200 microfinance borrowers surveyed experienced substantial economic benefit and life improvements, while 36% reported some improvement over the past five years.

And while nearly 6% of borrowers had reported selling some land over the past five years, 20% reported purchases of some land, according to the CMA report.

Licadho’s Am Sam Ath said the CMA study “focused mostly on positive work of MFIs, but little on negatives.” He and other like-minded advocates want to see “solutions and improvements in the sector.”

The growth of MFIs has been staggering. Starting with about 50,000 clients and a total loan portfolio of more than $3 million in 1995, the microfinance sector provided loans to 2.1 million households with a portfolio of $9.4 billion by the end of 2022, according to the CMA. That accounts for more than 30% of Cambodia’s estimated GDP of $29.96 billion.

MFIs often tout the relatively high repayment rates as proof of the industry’s health. The National Bank of Cambodia in 2022 reported a sectorwide non-performing loan rate of just 2.5%. But researchers from Cambodia and Singapore said an obsession with “portfolio quality” was masking the true cost to individual borrowers.

“These indicators hide how people are juggling debt from informal lenders to repay their loans. Consequently, claims about the social impact of microfinance are based on a flawed understanding of household borrowing practices,” said their report, released last year with a grant from the National University of Singapore.

“Lenders not only fail to measure the impact of their services, but they also have a conflict of interest in reporting on the abuses that their services have caused. So long as repayment rates are considered an indicator of success, then the risks associated with juggling debt are likely to increase,” it added.

According to a report by the National Bank of Cambodia, its officials have imposed fines or taken other administrative actions against MFIs that fail to follow existing regulations.

Cambodia’s microfinance industry is being investigated by the International Finance Corporation’s (IFC) watchdog’s Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO), because of the reports of forced land sales and other human rights violations from advocacy organizations.

CAO is reviewing six of Cambodia’s top IFC-funded microfinance institutions including Amret, which issued Lun Sam Ath’s loan. It declined to comment on her case in an email to VOA on March 16.

Unexpected strawberry crop spins Burkina’s ‘red gold’

Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso — In the suburbs of Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou, lucrative strawberry farming is supplanting traditional crops like cabbage and lettuce and has become a top export to neighboring countries.

Prized as “red gold” in the Sahel, strawberry crops brought in some $3.3 million from 2019 to 2020, according to agricultural support program PAPEA.

In their January to April season, strawberries “take the place of other crops,” Yiwendenda Tiemtore, a farmer in the working-class Boulmiougou district on the city outskirts, told AFP.

Tiemtore has been busy harvesting the red fruit since dawn, before temperatures rise to 40 degrees Celsius.

He harvests about 25 to 30 kilograms of Burkina’s popular strawberry varieties, “selva” and “camarosa,” every three days, watering his plots from wells.

Cultivating strawberries, which thrive on ample sunlight and water, might come as a surprise in this semi-arid West African country.

But Burkina Faso leads the region’s strawberry production, growing about 2,000 tons a year.

Despite being prized by local customers, more than half is exported to neighboring countries.

“We receive orders from abroad, particularly from Ivory Coast, Niger and Ghana,” said market gardener Madi Compaore, who specializes in strawberries and trains local growers.

“Demand is constantly rising and the prices are good.”

In season, strawberries tend to be sold at a higher price than other fruit and vegetables, fetching $5 per kilogram.

Production has remained strong despite insecurity in the country, including from jihadi violence and the repercussions of two coups in 2022.

As well as in Ouagadougou, strawberry production is prominent in Bobo-Dioulasso — Burkina’s second city — even though “the sector’s not very well organized” there, Compaore said.

Since the 1970s

“You might think it’s an oddity to grow strawberries in a Sahelian country like Burkina Faso, but it’s been a fixture since the 1970s,” Compaore added.

The practice began when a French expatriate introduced a few plants to his garden in the country. Now more and more people are growing them.

“It’s our red gold. It’s one of the most profitable crops for both growers and sellers,” he explained.

Seller Jacqueline Taonsa has no hesitation in swapping from apples and bananas to strawberries in season.

“With the heat, it’s hard to keep strawberries fresh for long,” said Taonsa, who cycles around Ouagadougou neighborhoods balancing a salad bowl on her head.

“So, we take quantities that can be sold quickly during the day,” she explained. That usually amounts to about 5 or 6 kilograms.

Adissa Tiemtore used to be a full-time fruit and vegetable seller.

She has mainly switched to selling woven loincloths now but takes up her strawberry business again in season because of the lucrative margins, as high as “200-300%.”

“I start strawberry selling again when they’re in season to make a bit of money and satisfy my former customers, who continue to ask for them,” she said.

“We go round the different growers depending on what day they’re harvesting. That way we get enough to sell every day during the three fruit-producing months,” she said.

The end of April spells the end of the bonanza. “We go back to our other activities, and we wait for next season,” Tiemtore said. 

US, China discuss economic issues on Yellen’s China tour

TAIPEI, TAIWAN — The United States and China have agreed to hold talks and create two economic groups focused on a wide range of issues — including addressing American complaints about China’s economic model, growth in domestic and global economies and efforts against money laundering — according to a statement released Saturday by the U.S. Treasury Department.

The agreement comes on the second day of an official visit to China by U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, during which she has urged Chinese leaders to change their domestic manufacturing policies.

The two sides are set to hold “intensive exchanges” on cultivating more balanced economic growth and combating money laundering.

Yellen said the efforts would establish a structure for Beijing and Washington to exchange views and address Chinese industrial overcapacity, its ability to supply more product than is demanded.

“I think the Chinese realize how concerned we are about the implications of their industrial strategy for the United States, for the potential to flood our markets with exports that make it difficult for American firms to compete,” she told journalists after the announcement Saturday.

Yellen was en route to Beijing after beginning her five-day visit in the southern city of Guangzhou, which is a key manufacturing and export center for China.

While the issue of China’s industrial overcapacity will not be resolved instantly, Yellen said Chinese officials understand it’s an “important issue” for Americans, adding that her exchanges with Chinese Vice Premier He Lifeng will facilitate a discussion around macroeconomic imbalances and their connection to overcapacity.

China’s state-run Xinhua news agency reported Chinese officials “comprehensively responded” to the issue of industrial overcapacity raised by the Americans. “Both sides agreed to continue to maintain communication,” an official readout said.

The announcement came a day after Yellen urged Beijing to reform its trade practices and create “a healthy economic relationship” with the U.S. It also follows Chinese state media’s warning that Washington may consider rolling out more protectionist policies to shield U.S. companies.”

Some analysts say the announcement reflects Yellen’s effort to push forward on collaboration in areas the U.S. and China agreed on during U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s San Francisco summit last November.

“When Xi met Biden in November, they agreed to set up working groups, so Yellen is continuing to push that forward with the meeting,” Dexter Roberts, director of China affairs at the University of Montana’s Mansfield Center, told VOA by phone.

While he called the announcement a positive development, Roberts said he does not think Beijing and Washington will reach agreement on contentious trade issues during Yellen’s trip.

“There could be temporary things like China easing off on subsidizing electric vehicles a bit, but it’s unclear how either side is going to change what’s happening in a way that allows the tension over trade to lessen,” he said.

Beijing’s displeasure

While Washington highlighted threats posed by China’s industrial overcapacity, Beijing focused on its concerns about U.S. export controls on Chinese companies during the meeting between Yellen and He.

“The Chinese side expressed serious concerns over Washington’s restrictive economic and trade measures against China,” read the Chinese readout published by Xinhua.

Some experts say the United States and China could make progress on U.S. export restrictions on Chinese companies.

“Some U.S. businesses are calling for the government to remove some of the export restrictions, especially for chips [integrated circuits],” Victor Shih, director of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California in San Diego, told VOA by phone.

Since China is either already making, or is on the cusp of making, some of the computer chips on the sanctions list, Shih said he thinks restricting U.S. companies from selling some of the chips to China will only hurt American interests. “It’s really not hurting China that much,” he said.

In addition to U.S. controls on exports to Chinese entities, Shih said the other big topic Chinese officials are likely to raise in meetings with Yellen is potential tariffs Washington may impose on Chinese products.

“Since China is the largest exporter in the world, it’s not in its interest for there to be a lot of tariffs around the world, especially for major importers like the U.S.,” he said, adding that talking to Washington about lowering tariffs and not enacting new ones will be an important agenda item for Beijing.

While she has not explicitly promised to impose new sanctions on Chinese products, Yellen said she would not rule out the possibility of adopting more measures to safeguard the American supply chain for electric vehicles, batteries or solar panels from heavily subsidized Chinese green energy products.

During a phone call Tuesday with Biden, Xi warned that if the United States is “adamant on containing China’s high-tech development and depriving China of its legitimate right to development, China is not going to sit back and watch.”

Bilateral communication

Despite persistent differences over contentious trade issues, Yellen and He underscored the importance for China and the U.S. to “properly respond to key concerns of the other side” to build a more cooperative economic relationship.

“It also remains crucial for the two largest economies to seek progress on global challenges like climate change and debt distress in emerging markets in developing countries, and to closely communicate on issues of concern such as overcapacity and national security-related economic actions,” Yellen said Friday.

Based on Yellen and He’s comments and signals from the Biden-Xi call Tuesday, some analysts say the U.S. and China will continue to put guard rails around the bilateral relationship to prevent it from further deteriorating.

“The two sides have come to the realization that they will have to live together, perhaps uncomfortably at times,” said Zhiqun Zhu, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at Bucknell University.

While the relationship will remain highly competitive, Zhu said he thinks Beijing and Washington will “stay engaged and seek cooperation in areas of common interest.”

“Maintaining stability is the priority for both Xi and Biden now,” he said.

Yellen is scheduled to have meetings with other senior officials Sunday and Monday in Beijing.

Botswana leads calls on G7 countries to review diamond tracking initiative

GABORONE, BOTSWANA — Africa’s leading diamond producer, Botswana, has written to the Group of Seven leading industrial countries seeking to reverse an initiative requiring all producers to send gems to Belgium for certification. This follows G7 move to prevent the import of diamonds mined in Russia.

Botswana President Mokgweetsi Masisi told diplomats in Gaborone Wednesday the G7 traceability mechanism poses an unfair burden on African diamond producers. 

The G7 is an informal grouping of seven of the world’s advanced economies, including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. They have required since March 1 that all diamonds entering G7 countries be sent through Antwerp, Belgium, to determine their origin.

The controls are meant to prevent Russian diamonds out of global markets amid concerns the revenues will be used to finance Russia’s Ukraine war.

“We cannot agree to an attempt to undermine our quest for development by taking charge and responsibility of our own value addition of our resources,” Masisi said. “Because if you make Belgium, Antwerp the single node for verification, gosh, what impudence. When we mine our diamonds here and we are certain they are mined here and you add another layer of cost, delay and time and risk to direct interaction with customers and clients and you take them still to Antwerp, it’s not acceptable.”

Masisi said African diamond producing countries were not consulted by the G7 before the measures were introduced in March.

“When the G7 made these propositions, that are inimical to our interests and particularly Botswana because we are one of the largest producers at least outside Russia,” he said. “They were essentially regulating our industry completely without our participation. You can’t do this without engaging us, particularly Botswana. They did reach out and send people here. The engagement was pretty patronizing. They had essentially made up their minds.”

Masisi said he is lobbying other leaders to protest the controls.

 

 

Botswana, together with Angola and Namibia, two other African diamond producers, sent a letter protesting G7’s move but there has been no response.

“We wrote a letter, we authored the main letter, we shared it with other producing countries namely Namibia and Angola and we asked them to be co-signatories and with minor amendments we all co-signed and sent it to G7 and we have not gotten a response. Apparently they say they are consulting but the requirements have kicked in and luckily the World Diamond Council has also protested because there has been serious disruption to the flow of diamond trade, and cost implications and delays.”

Masisi said Botswana in particular already has advanced verification and traceability systems. 

The G7 move is seen as undermining the Kimberley Process, an existing commitment to remove conflict diamonds from the global supply chain.

“The African Diamond Producers Association is very right to protect their interests,” said Jaff Bamenjo, coordinator of the Kimberley Process Civil Society Coalition, which acts as an observer of the Kimberly Process. 

“That is legitimate. However, the G7 is also right to protect the values and principles they cherish and defend. The main issue to us, as the Kimberley Process Civil Society Coalition, is how much we accommodate the legitimate concerns of each other. That is the question. But I should say, the G7 in my opinion, from the very onset made a mistake not to consult the African diamond producers right from the initial stages.” 

Belgian-based diamond industry researcher Hans Merket told VOA traceability measures are necessary but that there is also a need to respond to African producers’ concerns. 

“A serious advancement of traceability in the diamond trade is long overdue,” Merket said. “Too many actors have been overtly comfortable in a lack of transparency for many years. I think delays in the implementation of the scheme in the first month were a growing pain and have already been partly resolved after some adaptations. The added costs I think are also manageable given that the scheme only applies to more valuable diamonds of about 1 carat.”

More than 100 diamond businesses recently wrote a letter to the Antwerp World Diamond Centre expressing concerns over delays in customs clearance of diamonds since the G7 introduced the traceability measures.

IMF Confirms Increasing Egypt’s Bailout Loan To $8 Billion

CAIRO — The executive board of the International Monetary Fund confirmed a deal with Egypt to increase its bailout loan from $3 billion to $8 billion, in a move that is meant to shore up the Arab country’s economy, which is hit by a staggering shortage of foreign currency and soaring inflation.

In a statement late Friday, the board said its decision would enable Egypt to immediately receive about $820 million as part of the deal, which was announced earlier this month.

The deal was achieved after Egypt agreed with the IMF on a reform plan that is centered on floating the local currency, reducing public investment and allowing the private sector to become the engine of growth, the statement said.

Egypt has already floated the pound and sharply increased the main interest rate.

Commercial banks are now trading the U.S. currency at more than 47 pounds, up from about 31 pounds. The measures are meant to combat ballooning inflation and attract foreign investment.

The Egyptian economy has been hit hard by years of government austerity, the coronavirus pandemic, the fallout from Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and, most recently, the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza. The Houthi attacks on shipping routes in the Red Sea have slashed Suez Canal revenues, which is a major source of foreign currency. The attacks forced traffic away from the canal and around the tip of Africa.

“Egypt is facing significant macroeconomic challenges that have become more complex to manage given the spillovers from the recent conflict in Gaza and Israel. The disruptions in the Red Sea are also reducing Suez Canal receipts, which are an important source of foreign exchange inflows and fiscal revenue,” said IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva.

The IMF said such external shocks, combined with delayed reforms, have hurt economic activity. Growth slowed to 3.8% in the fiscal year 2022-23 due to weak confidence and foreign currency shortages and is projected to slow further, to 3%, in the fiscal year 2023-24 before recovering to about 4.5% in 2024-25, the IMF statement said.

The annual inflation rate was 36% in February, but is expected to ease over the medium term, the IMF said.

The currency devaluation and interest rate increase have inflicted further pain on Egyptians already struggling with skyrocketing prices over the past years. Nearly 30% of Egyptians live in poverty, according to official figures.

Finance Minister Mohamed Maait said the confirmation by the IMF executive board “reflects the importance of the correcting measures” taken by the government.

Egypt also this month signed a deal with the European Union that includes a 7.4 billion-euro ($8 billion) aid package for the most populous Arab country over three years.

To quickly inject much-needed funds into Egypt’s staggering economy, the EU intends to fast-track 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) of the package, using an urgent funding procedure that bypasses parliamentary oversight and other safeguards, according to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

West African Project Helps Women Farmers Claim Their Rights, Land

ZIGUINCHOR, Senegal — Mariama Sonko’s voice resounded through the circle of 40 women farmers sitting in the shade of a cashew tree. They scribbled notes, brows furrowed in concentration as her lecture was punctuated by the thud of falling fruit.

This quiet village in Senegal is the headquarters of a 115,000-strong rural women’s rights movement in West Africa, We Are the Solution. Sonko, its president, is training female farmers from cultures where women are often excluded from ownership of the land they work so closely.

Across Senegal, women farmers make up 70% of the agricultural workforce and produce 80% of the crops but have little access to land, education and finance compared to men, the United Nations says.

“We work from dawn until dusk, but with all that we do, what do we get out of it?” Sonko asked.

She believes that when rural women are given land, responsibilities and resources, it has a ripple effect through communities. Her movement is training women farmers who traditionally have no access to education, explaining their rights and financing women-led agricultural projects.

Across West Africa, women usually don’t own land because it is expected that when they marry, they leave the community. But when they move to their husbands’ homes, they are not given land because they are not related by blood.

Sonko grew up watching her mother struggle after her father died, with young children to support.

“If she had land, she could have supported us,” she recalled, her normally booming voice now tender. Instead, Sonko had to marry young, abandon her studies and leave her ancestral home.

After moving to her husband’s town at age 19, Sonko and several other women convinced a landowner to rent to them a small plot of land in return for part of their harvest. They planted fruit trees and started a market garden. Five years later, when the trees were full of papayas and grapefruit, the owner kicked them off.

The experience marked Sonko.

“This made me fight so that women can have the space to thrive and manage their rights,” she said. When she later got a job with a women’s charity funded by Catholic Relief Services, coordinating micro-loans for rural women, that work began.

“Women farmers are invisible,” said Laure Tall, research director at Agricultural and Rural Prospect Initiative, a Senegalese rural think tank. That’s even though women work on farms two to four hours longer than men on an average day.

But when women earn money, they reinvest it in their community, health and children’s education, Tall said. Men spend some on household expenses but can choose to spend the rest how they please. Sonko listed common examples like finding a new wife, drinking and buying fertilizer and pesticides for crops that make money instead of providing food.

With encouragement from her husband, who died in 1997, Sonko chose to invest in other women. Her training center now employs more than 20 people, with support from small philanthropic organizations such as Agroecology Fund and CLIMA Fund.

In a recent week, Sonko and her team trained over 100 women from three countries, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau and Gambia, in agroforestry – growing trees and crops together as a measure of protection from extreme weather – and micro gardening, growing food in tiny spaces when there is little access to land.

One trainee, Binta Diatta, said We Are the Solution bought irrigation equipment, seeds, and fencing — an investment of $4,000 — and helped the women of her town access land for a market garden, one of more than 50 financed by the organization.

When Diatta started to earn money, she said, she spent it on food, clothes and her children’s schooling. Her efforts were noticed.

“Next season, all the men accompanied us to the market garden because they saw it as valuable,” she said, recalling how they came simply to witness it.

Now another challenge has emerged affecting women and men alike: climate change.

In Senegal and the surrounding region, temperatures are rising 50% more than the global average, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the UN Environment Program says rainfall could drop by 38% in the coming decades.

Where Sonko lives, the rainy season has become shorter and less predictable. Saltwater is invading her rice paddies bordering the tidal estuary and mangroves, caused by rising sea levels. In some cases, yield losses are so acute that farmers abandon their rice fields.

But adapting to a heating planet has proven to be a strength for women since they adopt climate innovations much faster than men, said Ena Derenoncourt, an investment specialist for women-led farming projects at agricultural research agency AICCRA.

“They have no choice because they are the most vulnerable and affected by climate change,” Derenoncourt said. “They are the most motivated to find solutions.”

On a recent day, Sonko gathered 30 prominent women rice growers to document hundreds of local rice varieties. She bellowed out the names of rice – some hundreds of years old, named after prominent women farmers, passed from generation to generation – and the women echoed with what they call it in their villages.

This preservation of indigenous rice varieties is not only key to adapting to climate change but also about emphasizing the status of women as the traditional guardians of seeds.

“Seeds are wholly feminine and give value to women in their communities,” Sonko said. “That’s why we’re working on them, to give them more confidence and responsibility in agriculture.”

The knowledge of hundreds of seeds and how they respond to different growing conditions has been vital in giving women a more influential role in communities.

Sonko claimed to have a seed for every condition including too rainy, too dry and even those more resistant to salt for the mangroves.

Last year, she produced 2 tons of rice on her half-hectare plot with none of the synthetic pesticides or fertilizer that are heavily subsidized in Senegal. The yield was more than double that of plots with full use of chemical products in a 2017 U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization project in the same region.

“Our seeds are resilient,” Sonko said, sifting through rice-filled clay pots designed to preserve seeds for decades. “Conventional seeds do not resist climate change and are very demanding. They need fertilizer and pesticides.”

The cultural intimacy between female farmers, their seeds and the land means they are more likely to shun chemicals harming the soil, said Charles Katy, an expert on indigenous wisdom in Senegal who is helping to document Sonko’s rice varieties.

He noted the organic fertilizer that Sonko made from manure, and the biopesticides made from ginger, garlic and chili.

One of Sonko’s trainees, Sounkarou Kébé, recounted her experiments against parasites in her tomato plot. Instead of using manufactured insecticides, she tried using a tree bark traditionally used in Senegal’s Casamance region to treat intestinal problems in humans caused by parasites.

A week later, all the disease was gone, Kébé said.

As dusk approached at the training center, insects hummed in the background and Sonko prepared for another training session. “There’s too much demand,” she said. She is now trying to set up seven other farming centers across southern Senegal.

Glancing back at the circle of women studying in the fading light, she said: “My great fight in the movement is to make humanity understand the importance of women.”

Chinese President Xi Meets With US Executives as Investment Wanes

BEIJING — China’s President Xi Jinping met American business leaders at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Wednesday, as the government tries to woo back foreign investors and international firms seeking reassurance about the impact of new regulations. 

Beijing wants to boost growth of the world’s second-largest economy after foreign direct investment shrank 8% in 2023 amid heightened investor concern over an anti-espionage law, exit bans, and raids on consultancies and due diligence firms. 

Xi’s increasing focus on national security has left many companies uncertain where they might step over the line, even as Chinese leaders make public overtures toward foreign investors. 

“China’s development has gone through all sorts of difficulties and challenges to get to where it is today,” Xi said, according to state media. 

“In the past, [China] did not collapse because of a ‘China collapse theory,’ and it will also not peak now because of a ‘China peak theory,'” he said. 

Stephen Schwarzman, co-founder and CEO of private equity firm Blackstone, Raj Subramaniam, head of American delivery giant FedEx, and Cristiano Amon, the boss of chips manufacturer Qualcomm, were part of the around 20-strong all-male U.S. contingent.  

The audience with Xi — organized by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, the U.S.-China Business Council and the Asia Society think tank — lasted around 90 minutes, according to a person with direct knowledge of the matter. 

The source, who declined to be named as they were not authorized to speak to the media, had no immediate comment on what was discussed. The National Committee on U.S.-China Relations and Asia Society did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the meeting. 

A statement from U.S.-China Business Council said the participants “stressed the importance of rebalancing China’s economy by increasing consumption there and encouraging the government to further address longstanding concerns with cross border data flows, government procurement, intellectual property rights, and improved regulatory transparency and predictability.” 

The U.S. and China are gradually resuming engagements after relations between the two economic superpowers sank to their lowest in years due to clashes over trade policies, the future of democratically ruled Taiwan and territorial claims in the South China Sea.