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In boost to China’s southern powerhouse, Xi praises Shenzhen

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Chinese president promises to strengthen property rights and protect entrepreneurs in Shenzhen which neighbours Hong Kong, whose autonomy from the mainland has come under pressure.

Shenzhen will strengthen property rights and its protection of entrepreneurs, China’s President Xi Jinping said on Wednesday in a speech marking the establishment of the country’s first economic zone in the southern city 40 years earlier.

In his speech, Xi praised the city for “achieving miracles” and said it “must carry out development with the courage to break the ground and to strive to be the first”.

A testing ground for the reforms that have spurred China’s high-paced growth over the last 40 years, Xi touted Shenzhen as symbolic of China’s emergence as a global economic power.

Xi’s speech took place in Shenzhen’s Qianhai district, which is positioning itself as a hub for cross-border services for the Greater Bay Area, a region that includes Hong Kong, Macau, and nine cities in China’s Guangdong province, including Shenzhen.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam was in the audience for the speech in neighbouring Shenzhen, whose skyline is visible in parts of the Asian financial centre. She cancelled her annual policy address scheduled for Wednesday to attend the event and now plans to give it late next month or earlier after consulting with officials in Beijing.

Business groups have expressed concern about Hong Kong’s autonomy from the mainland in the wake of sweeping new national security legislation imposed by Xi in June. The law, meant to subdue protests that turned violent last year, came as the city looks to revive an economy battered by unrest and the pandemic.

‘The motherland’

Xi’s speech called for further exchanges between the two territories and Taiwan, as well as overseas Chinese, and to “strengthen their sense of belonging with the motherland.”

The Shenzhen government will get more leeway to pursue reforms and become a “model city for a strong socialist country,” Xi said.

On Sunday, the government published plans to increase foreign investment in the city, encourage foreign talent and reduce red tape in sectors including energy and telecoms.

Xi also alluded to “turbulence” in the global economy from rising protectionism and unilateralism and emphasised that China would pursue a “dual circulation” model that relies more on domestic consumption while attracting foreign investment.

The speech in Shenzhen followed visits to nearby cities Chaozhou and Shantou, where Xi emphasised industrial upgrades and innovation.

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Galapagos sees record rise in penguins, flightless cormorants

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A drop in tourism and weather patterns associated with La Nina are thought to have helped the bird species in the remote archipelago.

The population of Galapagos penguins and flightless cormorants, two species endemic to the remote islands, has seen a record increase, according to study results released on Friday.

The Galapagos penguin is one of the smallest species of penguins in the world, measuring up to 35 centimetres (14 inches) and the cormorants on the islands are the only type to have lost their ability to fly. They have developed diving skills instead.

“The number of cormorants has reached a record number, according to historical data dating back to 1977, while the number of penguins is at the highest since 2006,” said a statement from the Galapagos National Park, which carried out the census.

The population of Galapagos penguins, the only ones living on the earth’s equator, increased from 1,451 in 2019 to 1,940 in 2020, it added.

Flightless cormorant numbers increased from 1,914 to 2,220 over the same period.

The COVID-19 pandemic has kept tourists away from the Galapagos, helping the species that live on the archipelago recoup [File: Rodrigo Buendia/AFP]

The Galapagos Islands lie 1,000 kilometres (625 miles) off the coast of Ecuador and are home to species found nowhere else in the world.

The study was carried out by the park and the Charles Darwin Foundation in September. The main colonies present on the Isabela and Fernandina islands and the Marielas islets which are to the west of the archipelago have been classified as a natural heritage site.

Paulo Proano, Ecuador’s minister of environment and water, said the census results reflect the “good state of health of the population” of the Galapagos’ birds.

The park said the presence of the La Nina climatic phenomenon, which helps to provide more food for the birds, had contributed to the increase in their populations.

Another factor was the coronavirus pandemic, which has reduced disturbances to their nesting areas because of the drop in tourism, the park added.

The islands, which served as a natural laboratory for the English scientist Charles Darwin for his theory of the evolution of species, takes their name from the giant tortoises that live there.

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US to base Coast Guard ships in western Pacific to tackle China

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The United States will deploy Coast Guard patrol ships in the western Pacific to counter what it described as “destabilizing and malign” activities in the region by China, the country’s top security adviser said on Friday.

The US Coast Guard was “strategically homeporting significantly enhanced Fast Response Cutters … in the western Pacific,” White House National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said in a statement.

Describing the US as a Pacific power, the statement added that China’s “illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, and harassment of vessels operating in the exclusive economic zones of other countries in the Indo-Pacific threatens our sovereignty, as well as the sovereignty of our Pacific neighbors and endangers regional stability”.

It said US efforts, including by the Coast Guard, were “critical to countering these destabilizing and malign actions.”

The Coast Guard did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the statement, which came just ahead of a planned visit to Asia by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (left) and Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne pose prior to their bilateral meeting in Tokyo on October 6, 2020 ahead of the four Indo-Pacific nations’ foreign ministers meeting. – (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / POOL / AFP)

Pompeo led a meeting of the so-called Quad in Tokyo this month. Washington hopes the grouping of the US, Japan, India and Australia can act as a bulwark against China’s growing assertiveness and extensive maritime claims in the region, including to nearly all of the South China Sea.

On Sunday, Pompeo will begin a five-day tour of India – where he will be accompanied by US Defense Secretary Mark Esper – and then he will continue on to Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Indonesia. Maritime security and a “free and open Indo-Pacific” will be high on the agenda, the State Department said.

Incursions

In July, Esper condemned a “catalogue of bad behaviour” in the South China Sea over the previous months, accusing the Chinese military of having sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat, harassing Malaysian oil and gas vessels and escorting Chinese fishing fleets into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.

O’Brien added that the Coast Guard, which is under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), was also studying whether to permanently station several of its patrol ships in the area of American Samoa in the South Pacific.

Last month, Indonesia protested after Chinese coastguard ships travelled into its exclusive economic zone, which is situated between its own territorial waters and international waters and where the state claims exclusive rights to develop natural resources.

China claims almost the whole of the South China Sea as its own. Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and the Philippines also claim the parts of the sea nearest to their shores.

The US Navy regularly conducts what it calls “freedom of navigation” operations in the disputed sea – angering China, which has developed military outposts on islands and islets.

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An island built from coral: How Indonesia’s Bajau made a home

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Bungin Island, Sumbawa, Indonesia – Scattered across many of the islands and coastal communities in Southeast Asia, the Bajau, numbering about one million people, are the world’s largest remaining group of sea nomads. But their culture is under threat.

In the Sulu Sea between Borneo and the Philippines, where the Bajau have roamed the ocean for 1,000 years, insurrection by the Abu Sayyaf armed group has led to an increased military presence and curfews restricting movements on both sides of the border.

On the islands of southern Thailand, where the group are known as Moken, they live in stilt shanties that cling like barnacles to coastlines that are rapidly being consumed by buildings built for tourists.

In Indonesia and peninsula Malaysia, many Bajau have given up ocean-based life by marrying people from local communities and seeking jobs in the cities.

But one Bajau community on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa has preserved its unique way of life by building their own islet out of coral, allowing it to evolve separately from the mainland.

With 3,500 residents on just 8.5 hectares (21 acres) of land, Bungin Island also stands out as the most densely populated of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands.

No crime

When the first Bajau arrived in Sumbawa from the southern Philippines 200 years ago, Bungin Island was just a sandbank on the north coast. In the Bajo language, Bungin means “a mound of white sand”.

Traditionally, the Bajau harvested coral to make foundations for their homes, expanding what was once a sandbank [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

They built their spartan stilt houses on the sand, but as their numbers grew, they enlarged the island by harvesting coral to build foundations for houses on low-lying sections of the surrounding reef. With the help of relatives and friends, it typically takes a week to build a 70-square metre (172-square acre) plot and structure.

“We have a good life here and we have enough money because all the time, every day and night, we are looking for fish,” said Surat, a Bungin Island elder, who like many Indonesians goes by only one name.

The Bajau are accomplished fishermen and free-divers who can remain underwater for as long as eight minutes on a single breath. Some children have their eardrums pierced to prevent them from bursting from water pressure while diving.

Studies of Bajau who start diving from young have shown their spleens, the organs which store oxygenated red blood cells, are 50 percent bigger than average.

Bungin Island has also developed a strong sense of community. When the heat of the day eases at dusk, people come out onto the tightly packed streets to shop, mingle, eat and pray in the mosque.

The Bajau are renowned for their ability to free dive and are famous for their salted fish [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

Indonesians are renowned for their hospitality but on Bungin Island they really roll out the red carpet, sharing drinks, meals, laughter and conversation with visitors. And apparently, there is no crime on the islet.

“We don’t have locks on our doors,” said Rizky, Surat’s neighbour. “Everyone knows each other so it’s not possible to steal anything here.”

‘The problem with corona’

The nature of the sea gypsies’ lifestyle means they have missed out on many basic services.

Bajau communities in Indonesia are lacking “in the areas of health and education … [and] many Bajau are illiterate,” found the Joshua Project, a research project focused on Indigenous cultures with Christian minorities.

In the mid-1990s, the Indonesian government embarked on several large infrastructure projects to drag Bungin Island into the 21st century.

It built a wide sand causeway linking the island to the mainland and making it easier for islanders to sell their salted fish at mainland markets.

Nearly all the Bajau on Bungin island are Sunni Muslims [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

It also built a large government school on the mainland-end of the causeway and connected the islet to the national power grid. And tackled overcrowding by shipping in thousands of tonnes of sand to reclaim an additional 2.5 hectares (6.1 acres) of land from the seafloor.

The causeway also had an unintended effect – it turned Bungin Island into Sumbawa’s leading attraction for domestic tourists who would come to marvel at the paper-eating goats.

As plants cannot grow on the islet, the domesticated goats that roam the streets search instead for paper, cardboard and cloth. For many children, the highlight of visiting the islet was to feed the goats pages from their exercise books. For adults, it was long lazy lunches at Resto Apung, a floating seafood restaurant and fish farm with breathtaking coast and mountain views.

But when Indonesia temporarily banned domestic travel in April to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, tourism came to an end. With Indonesia’s coronavirus outbreak still surging, it has yet to recover.

“We had many tourists before the problem with corona,” said Surat. “But as we live so close together it is impossible to socially distance. The restaurant and our guesthouse had to close.”

Rubbish dump

The causeway has also brought more worrying problems.

Plastic and other household waste has collected around the shore of Bungin Island [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

Before it was built, islanders ate only seafood, some greens and ric, and used organic materials like coconut shells and palm fronds as bags.

Easy access to the mainland introduced cheap packaged foods, water bottles and plastic bags and no waste management system to deal with it.

The result is that Bungin Island has been turned into a rubbish dump; its shores are carpeted with tonnes of rotting waste – all of which ends up in the delicate marine ecosystem the Bajau depend on to survive.

When asked about the problem, islanders laugh – a typical Indonesian response to awkward questions and social situations.

But a study published by the University of Queensland in July on plastic literacy in remote Indonesian coastal communities found a majority of people in the communities did not see the plastic waste as a threat and believed its only negative effect was to “make the village look dirty”.

The study’s authors suggested a two-pronged solution: the creation of “rubbish banks” – a term used in Indonesia for a recycling facility where plastic can be sold, sorted, shredded and moved down the value chain; and plastic awareness and environmental education.

Goats live on the island subsisting on a diet of paper and cardboard [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

Awareness initiatives have already led to changes of some centuries-old traditions.

In the past, customary law dictated that young people who wanted to marry had to harvest coral to build a home of their own. The 21st-century residents of Bungin have different ideas.

“Now, if you get married, you stay with your parents and slowly, you save up money to buy a house on Bungin,” said Surat. “Most people do it this way because it’s easier than building with coral and doesn’t hurt the reef where the fish live so we can keep on fishing.”

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