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Environmental Activists Keep Getting Murdered in Honduras

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A leading Honduran environmental defender who opposed a controversial mining project that he thought would poison his people’s water supply was killed by unknown gunmen in his home this week.

Arnold Joaquin Morazán Erazo defended his community against an open pit mine that began operating in 2012 and allegedly polluted a local river, turning the local tap water brown.

Nearly 150 environmental defenders have been killed in Honduras with near total impunity in the last decade. Fourteen environmentalists were killed in Honduras in 2019, the most killings per capita of any country, according to the annual Global Witness report on threats to environmental defenders.

Other environmental defenders from Morazán’s town of Guapinol have been threatened, detained and targeted by smear campaigns for opposing the mining project, say locals.

“We’re all worried about what happened yesterday,” said Gabriela Sorto, an activist who worked alongside Morazán to protect the community’s local water source. “It shows us the level of risk that we face because we’re not even safe in our own homes.”

Honduras is one of the most violent nations in the region, and corruption in government is rife. The town of Guapinol sits very near the country’s northern coast, some 200 miles from the city of San Pedro Sula. Honduras is a major transit nation for cocaine heading to the United States, and Guapinol sits near valued coastline used by traffickers moving drugs north. Criminal interests can often fuse with those of powerful business and government elites.

The Guapinol case fits into a “pattern of violence, harassment, and intimidation directed towards human rights defenders in Honduras”  and “illustrates the government’s tendency to favor economic interests over human rights,” according to a September 2020 report by the International Human Rights clinic at the University of Virginia.

Earlier this year, five young men were abducted from the town of Triunfo de La Cruz, on the same stretch of coast as Guapinol. Locals there think the kidnapping was orchestrated by the powers behind efforts to seize land occupied by local Garifuna communities.

Guapinol locals have protested the mining project since 2012, when the government granted a mining concession to Inversiones Los Pinares, a company owned by Lenir Pérez and Ana Facussé, a powerful couple linked to alleged human rights abuses.

The community says that the permits granted by the government are invalid because the local people were not properly consulted as required by law. They also say the mining project pollutes the nearby river, which provides water to more than 40,000 people.

Morazán Erazo was one of 32 defenders named in an ongoing case on charges related to a protest in September 2018 outside the mine, including aggravated arson, damages against Inversiones Los Pinares, and participating in an illegal gathering that “threatened national security”. Eight of those activists have been behind bars in pre-trial detention for more than a year.

Lawyers say the charges have no basis, and that there is a lack of evidence and discrepancies for some of them: they claim a deceased resident was charged for crimes allegedly committed after his death.

“[Morazán Erazo] always expressed this fear [of violence] and a distrust of the way that the judicial branch was handling the case,” said Jímenez. “It’s not unknown that the company can exercise its power and influence over authorities.”

There are no current suspects for the murder of Morazán. The Honduran Presidency or Inversiones Pinares did not respond to requests for comment.

“Regardless of the individuals that were responsible for what happened last night, you have to put this in context. The Honduran government has an international obligation to protect these people and prevent this sort of violence,” said Camilo Sánchez, director of the International Human Rights clinic at the University of Virginia.

Honduras has failed to meet these standards time and time again, he added. Crimes against land and human rights defenders have increased since a 2009 coup removed leftist president Manuel Zelaya from office and brought a series of pro-business governments to power.

Morazán’s killing came just days after the announcement that the 32 defenders from Guapinol were nominated for the prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought from the European Parliament, along with Berta Cáceres, the revered Honduran environmentalist murdered in 2016 who was nominated after her death.

Seven men were sentenced in 2019 to 30 to 50 years in prison for the murder of Cáceres, who led the struggle of the indigenous Lenca people against a controversial hydroelectric dam. The convictions were a rare example of justice for crimes against environmental defenders in Honduras. But the alleged intellectual author of her murder, David Castillo, still awaits trial.

For eight years in a row, Latin America has been the deadliest region in the world for environmental defenders and 2020 is on track to be another deadly year.

Inversiones Los Pinares expressed their condolences for Morazán’s death in a statement emailed to VICE News, and called for a peaceful resolution of the dispute between the company and community members. Leaders in Guapinol are now calling for an investigation into the killing.

Cover: People demonstrate for the liberation of 13 convicted environmentalists of the Guapinol community with a banner depicting Honduran murdered environmental leader Berta Caceres as they arrive for a hearing in Tegucigalpa on February 28, 2019. ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP via Getty Images.

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In SNL’s cold open, the final presidential debate becomes an absurd slugfest over coronavirus

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Saturday Night Live parodied the final presidential debate during its opening sketch on Saturday, depicting President Donald Trump as clueless and callous about the third wave of the coronavirus pandemic, and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden as comically old-fashioned and goofy about everything.

Maya Rudolph, playing moderator and NBC journalist Kristen Welker, began the debate by reminding the participants that she had a mute button — a feature that was added to the actual final debate because of Trump’s relentless interruptions during the first debate in September.

“Tonight we have a mute button, because it was either that or tranquilizer darts — and the president has a very high tolerance for those after his Covid treatment,” Rudolph’s Welker declared.

[embedded content]

As the debate began, Trump, played by Alec Baldwin, immediately downplayed the virus as worthy of the public’s concern.

“Coronavirus — boring, right? We’re doing terrific,” Baldwin said. “We’re rounding the corner, in fact we’ve rounded so many corners we’ve gone all the way around the block that we’re back where we started in March.”

Biden, played by Jim Carrey, retorted, “C’mon man, we’re in the middle of a third wave! Where I come from if a girl gave you a third wave, you were practically married.”

Later on, Baldwin’s Trump promised that a coronavirus vaccine would be distributed by the military in spectacular fashion: “The army will come and shoot it with a cannon into your face.”

He then rambled about his own experience with Covid-19.

“Look, I had it, it was very mean to me, but I beat it, and now the doctors say I can never die,” Baldwin said. “And this virus said to me, ‘Sir, sir, I have to leave your body.’ Now the virus was crying, very sad. It didn’t want to leave my body. And the point is we’re all learning to live with it.”

Dramatizing the actual Biden’s response to Trump saying, “We’re learning to live with it,” on Thursday, Carrey said with a squint, “Learning to live with it? We’re learning to die with it man!”

Overall, Biden’s debate performance was characterized as “a little feisty,” and SNL satirized this by having Rudolph’s Welker halt the proceedings to observe, “Looks like Mr. Biden is so mad he’s Eastwooding it a little bit,” in a reference to actor and director Clint Eastwood.

“That’s right, now I believe the little lady asked you about a plan, why don’t you enlighten us, punk?” Carrey said.

Rudy Giuliani, played by Kate McKinnon, also made a brief appearance during the debate.

“Get ready for this truth bomb!” McKinnon’s Giuliani shouted. “Your son Hunter got $3 million from Moscow and his friend Tony Babdooey has emails right there on the wet laptop from hell! And our eyewitness saw everything and he is blind!”

The statement is a reference to a questionable story published by the New York Post alleging the discovery of inappropriate emails by Hunter Biden on a laptop dropped off at a repair shop. As Vox’s Andrew Prokop recently explained, “questions have been raised about whether that story is accurate and whether all the information allegedly on the laptop is authentic.”

In making his closing statement, Carrey’s Biden presented himself as the safe option by likening himself to a reliable car.

“Look, everybody, you know who he is and you know who I am,” he said. “I’m good old Joe. I’m reliable as a rock. I’ve got a five-star safety rating and I’m ranked best midsize in my class by J.D. Power and Associates. I don’t have a gold toilet seat. I have a soft, spongy one that hisses whenever I park my keister.”

“There’s only two things I do,” he added. “I kick ass and I take trains. And I don’t see any trains in sight. And that ladies in gentlemen, is no malarkey.”

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‘Boycott French products’ launched over Macron’s Islam comments

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Several Arab trade associations have announced the boycott of French products, protesting the recent comments made by President Emmanuel Macron on Islam.

Earlier this month, Macron pledged to fight “Islamist separatism”, which he said was threatening to take control in some Muslim communities around France.

He also described Islam as a religion “in crisis” worldwide and said the government would present a bill in December to strengthen a 1905 law that officially separated church and state in France.

His comments, in addition to his backing of satirical outlets publishing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, has led to a social media campaign calling for the boycott of French products from supermarkets in Arab countries and Turkey.

Hashtags such as the #BoycottFrenchProducts in English and the Arabic #ExceptGodsMessenger trended across countries including Kuwait, Qatar, Palestine, Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

In Kuwait, the chairman and members of the board of directors of the Al-Naeem Cooperative Society decided to boycott all French products and to remove them from supermarket shelves.

The Dahiyat al-Thuhr association took the same step, saying: “Based on the position of French President Emmanuel Macron and his support for the offensive cartoons against our beloved prophet, we decided to remove all French products from the market and branches until further notice.”

In Qatar, the Wajbah Dairy company announced a boycott of French products and pledged to provide alternatives, according to their Twitter account.

Al Meera Consumer Goods Company, a Qatari joint stock company, announced on Twitter: “We have immediately withdrawn French products from our shelves until further notice.”

“We affirm that as a national company, we work according to a vision consistent with our true religion, our established customs and traditions, and in a way that serves our country and our faith and meets the aspirations of our customers.”

Qatar University also joined the campaign. Its administration has postponed a French Cultural Week event indefinitely, citing the “deliberate abuse of Islam and its symbols”.

In a statement on Twitter, the university said any prejudice against Islamic belief, sanctities and symbols is “totally unacceptable, as these offences harm universal human values ​​and the highest moral principles that contemporary societies highly regard”.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) described Macron’s statements as “irresponsible”, and said they are aimed at spreading a culture of hatred among peoples.

“At a time when efforts must be directed towards promoting culture, tolerance and dialogue between cultures and religions, such rejected statements and calls for publishing insulting images of the Prophet (Muhammad) – may blessings and peace be upon him – are published,” said the council’s secretary-general, Nayef al-Hajraf.

Al-Hajraf called on world leaders, thinkers and opinion leaders to reject hate speech and contempt of religions and their symbols, and to respect the feelings of Muslims, instead of falling captive to Islamophobia.

In a statement, Kuwait’s foreign ministry warned against the support of abuses and discriminatory policies that link Islam to terrorism, saying it “represents a falsification of reality, insults the teachings of Islam, and offends the feelings of Muslims around the world”.

On Friday, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) condemned what it said was France’s continued attack against Muslims by insulting religious symbols.

The secretariat of the Jeddah-based organisation said in a statement it is surprised at the official political rhetoric issued by some French officials that offend French-Islamic relations and fuels feelings of hatred for political party gains.

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How bookstores are weathering the pandemic

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The pandemic arrived early for Emily Powell, owner of Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. The state had one of the first confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the US in February. As she watched more cases pop up across the country, “I felt an increasing sense of panic and crisis,” she said. On March 15, she abruptly closed her stores in the middle of the day. She immediately shrank her staff from 500 to 60 who were “just helping us turn the lights off and put out-of-office messages on the website.” Almost overnight, she shifted her business entirely to online orders.

She’s since been able to bring back around 150 employees, and thanks to a flood of online sales, a Paycheck Protection Program loan from the federal Small Business Administration, and partial reopenings of her stores, she’s made it this far.

Still, Powell’s and other independent bookstores across the country face an uncertain and undoubtedly difficult future: Government assistance has dried up, foot traffic is still low, and the virus is again threatening to bring everything to a screeching halt. Independent bookstore owners dug deep into their wells of creativity and passion and found ways to transform their businesses to cope with Covid-19. But even so, according to the American Booksellers Association (ABA), 35 member bookstores have closed during the pandemic, with roughly one store closing each week. Twenty percent of independent bookstores across the country are in danger of closing, the ABA says.

Between mid-April and June, the Book Industry Charitable Foundation (BINC) distributed $2.7 million to store owners in need. “That equals the distribution that we had had in the previous eight years,” said executive director Pamela French. The individual grants it gives out have increased 443 percent over last year. The level of need has subsided somewhat since the peak of the pandemic, but it’s remained consistently elevated, even with many stores now open.

A number of bookstores shut their doors voluntarily before any government lockdowns were imposed. “We were one of the first places in our town to close down,” said Suedee Hall-Elkins, manager of Dickson Street Bookshop in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Her store’s aisles are very narrow, so they felt the need to close “for morally responsible reasons.”

Closing off browsing meant a seismic shift in bookstore business models. Kris Kleindienst’s shelves at Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Missouri, were fully stocked with newly released books in March. “All of a sudden, they just became décor,” she said.

Still, owners pivoted as quickly as they could. “These independent bookstore owners are just tenacious,” French said. Owners suddenly found themselves arranging curbside pickups, shipping thousands of online orders, and staging completely virtual events.

Many factors boosted sales just when stores needed them. Customers flooded online ordering systems, many in the hope of helping their local stores, others simply desperate for something to read during lockdown. Amazon started prioritizing essential goods over things like books, giving an edge to independent stores. Annie Philbrick’s online orders at Bank Square Books in Mystic, Connecticut, and Savoy Bookshop & Café in Westerly, Rhode Island, are about 10 times what they were each year for the past five. Michael Fusco-Straub, co-owner of Books Are Magic in Brooklyn, New York, sold 50,000 books during his city’s lockdown.

Then the Black Lives Matter protests over the death of George Floyd took off, prompting another deluge of purchases as readers were eager to get their hands on books about race and racism. “The summer was mostly fulfilling … anti-racism orders,” Kleindienst said.

The switch to online and curbside ordering saved bookstores from ruin. But it wasn’t easy, nor was it enjoyable. “It started to feel like a fulfillment warehouse for widgets,” said Steven Salardino, manager of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, California. “It really took a toll on us psychologically.” What kept him going, he said, was getting notes in online orders saying thank you.

Philbrick took it upon herself to pick up books from her two stores and drive them to customers’ homes. “I was a UPS driver for a month or so,” she said. She would hang bags of books on their doors, ring the bell, and walk back to her car. She even drove an hour and a half out of town to bring books to a couple who would leave her snack bags in thanks. “That was a pleasure,” she said.

In many ways, online ordering is the antithesis of what independent bookstores are. “We are a community space that thrived with that in-person, face-to-face conversation about ideas and literature,” said Hilary Gustafson, owner of Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her store typically stages 300 events a year, and the in-store ones pack 50 people “elbow to elbow,” she said. Now, she’s been entirely focused on online orders, which requires “10 times as much work for a sale of one book.”

Stores like Gustafson’s quickly moved their programming — author events, book clubs, classes — to online platforms. But it’s a difficult and often money-losing way to do them. Stores typically make money from free events when people buy books, often getting them autographed. Online, it’s different. “Sales are down even though audience levels are, in some cases, up,” Graham said. Readers also now have a vast array of stores’ events to choose from because they’re all online. “The competition has just become fierce,” Philbrick said.

Despite the many hurdles small-business owners faced in getting PPP loans, all of the stores I spoke to were able to secure loans, and the money was vital. “The thing that got us this far and avoided bankruptcy was the PPP money,” said Bradley Graham, co-owner of Politics and Prose in Washington, DC. Even so, it was gone within a couple of months.

Other money came from unexpected places. Philbrick got $5,000 from Spanx, which was offering grants to women-owned businesses. That, she said, was a turning point of sorts, when she realized that not only would she have a cushion to get through, but “we’re all in this together trying to figure this out.”

Some customers even gave their local bookstores donations in the hope of keeping them alive. Gustafson’s store launched a GoFundMe, which was a “lifeline,” she said. She raised more there than she got in PPP money.

But at this point, most of the money has dried up. “Given the current level of economic activity, it’s not realistic to think that bookstores or other retail businesses can, on their own, make a go of it,” Graham said with a heavy sigh. “More federal assistance is needed so long as the pandemic persists.”

Some stores are doing as well as they would otherwise expect thanks to loyal customers and a thirst for books as people stay closer to home. But those factors aren’t making the numbers work for everyone.

Vroman’s, which bills itself as the oldest and largest independent bookstore in Southern California, has warned that without a significant increase in sales, its 126-year tenure will come to a close. Powell’s has exhausted its PPP loan and isn’t making enough in sales to support the business. Politics & Prose is still not breaking even, and the store will need to make enough in the next few months to have a cushion headed into 2021. “It’s not a sustainable position to continue to operate in the red,” Graham said. Laughing, he added, “You don’t need a degree in anything to understand that fact.”

A number of stores have opened their doors simply to remain as financially solvent as possible. When we spoke, Gustafson was preparing to open with limited hours and days. “Our rent is still due and we still have payables,” she said. “We want to survive, so it’s like, ‘How do we make this work?’”

“We face this tension between the need to welcome in more customers for the holiday shopping season in order to at least get back in the black,” Graham said, “while at the same time being very careful not to create a public health hazard.”

Public health has been at the forefront of the minds of owners who have reopened as fully as possible. All stores have reduced their hours as well as their capacity. Everyone has installed Plexiglas barriers at cash registers and hand sanitizing stations throughout their stores. There’s crowd control not just to limit the number of shoppers but to ensure that masks are worn correctly. Many stores have rearranged their layouts so customers don’t have to squeeze by each other in tight aisles.

Hall-Elkins went even further, installing UV lights and ionizing cleaners in all three of her HVAC units, putting fans around the store, and keeping the door open as much as possible to better ventilate. She replaced her old carpets and installed touchless credit card systems.

Books Are Magic in Brooklyn, New York, in May 2020, before reopening at limited capacity.
ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

Owners have found themselves in entirely new roles, worried not just about their business’s finances but the health of their employees, their customers, and their own families. Hall-Elkins finds herself up late reading medical articles. “I’m in a heightened state of anxiety for sure,” she said. Laughing, she added, “I feel responsible for everybody’s life, and that’s a really weird thing to feel as a manager of a bookstore.”

Some have kept their doors closed. When we spoke in the first week of October, Kleindienst said she was planning to open that weekend by appointment and only after 6 pm. “Our staff really did not feel like they wanted people to be just walking in off the street and wandering around,” she explained. “It just didn’t seem like it was worth risking our lives.” She’s hoping that allowing a very select group of customers back in will be enough to keep the store afloat. But, she added, “I don’t see us opening the doors to walk-in traffic for quite a while.”

The holiday season will be crucial. Nearly every bookstore owner mentioned how important the season is normally — and therefore what it will mean now. Graham said the store typically makes anywhere from a quarter to a third of the whole year’s sales in December alone. “It’s an absolutely critical period.”

To help stores that need to see high sales without big crowds, the American Booksellers Association has begun a campaign urging consumers to shop early called “October Is the New December.” Other things will have to change, too. Normally, Salardino’s store offers gift-wrapping for a fee, and he’d have a long line of people waiting to have books wrapped. That’s not possible now.

One book could make or break the future for many stores: The first volume of President Barack Obama’s memoir will be released November 17. Not only is it destined to be a bestseller — the publisher ordered a first printing of 3 million copies — but it’s pricey, coming in at $45. “I literally think that that book is going to save a lot of stores,” Fusco-Straub said. His store will be ordering a whole pallet.

The future, of course, remains completely uncertain. It’s difficult just to plan ahead. Philbrick noted she’s ordering paperback copies of hardcover books that she struggled to sell during the shutdown, which means the data she typically relies on to predict future sales are almost useless. “As a business person, we’re all used to being able to forecast,” Powell said. But now, “we can’t see beyond a 30-day time horizon.”

Hall-Elkins worries that a virus spike or just cold weather will keep people home from holiday shopping. Then there’s what could happen with the election or the economy. The immediate pandemic-caused contraction appears to be turning into a full-blown recession. “We don’t know how much folks will be able to shop,” Powell noted. “Books aren’t … groceries or rent. How much will people be willing to come out to our stores?”

Few owners were willing to contemplate what another complete shutdown would mean. “I don’t even know what we would do,” Hall-Elkins said. “We would probably be in pretty big trouble.”

Losing an independent bookstore is a huge blow to a community. “These are places where folks can come together to discuss what’s going on in the world, to also have a safe haven and a safe place for exploring new ideas,” French said. Bookstores “provide everything from sanctuary to just meditative spaces.” And they help keep an economy humming, retaining money in the local community and generating jobs and tax revenue.

Still, independent bookstores have been through a lot, including competition from big chains and Amazon. “People have been predicting the end of indie bookstores since the Great Depression,” said Kate Weiss, programs manager at BINC. Even with a pandemic, 30 bookstores have opened this year so far, although that’s still a far cry from the 104 that opened in 2019.

“We’re a stalwart bunch,” Philbrick said. “We’re just going to keep going. We’re not dead.”


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