How Average Indians Revived a Beachside Dump Into a Turtle Hatchery

In spring of 2018, something amazing happened in one of the most polluted beaches in the world: For the first time in decades, an extremely vulnerable turtle species has been spotted on the shores of Mumbai, India.

As The Guardian reported:

At least 80 Olive Ridley turtles have made their way into the Arabian Sea from nests on the southern end of Versova beach in the past week, protected from wild dogs and birds of prey by volunteers who slept overnight in the sand to watch over them.

Versova has undergone what the United Nations has called the “world’s largest beach cleanup project” over the past two years, transformed from a shin-deep dump yard for plastics and rubbish to a virtually pristine piece of coastline.

The man who leads the ongoing cleanup operation, the lawyer Afroz Shah, said he started anticipating the turtle hatchings two months ago when farmers on the southern end of the two-mile (3km) beach reported seeing turtles in the sand.

“The moment we got that news I knew something big was going to happen,” he told the Guardian. Last Thursday, some of his volunteers called to say they had spotted dozens of baby Olive Ridley turtles emerging from their nests.

He called the forest department and then went down to the beach with about 25 others, guarding the area while the tiny creatures hobbled across the sand, “making sure not one hatchling suffered a death”, he said.

In just two years, average Indians were able to reverse ecological devastation and watch a dying species begin to rejuvenate. Imagine volunteering day and night to make sure these little creatures had a fighting chance.

For more than two years, Shah has been leading volunteers in manually picking up rubbish from Versova beach and teaching sustainable waste practices to villagers and people living in slums along the coastline and the creeks leading into it.

About 55,000 people live along the beach and the waterways that feed it in the crowded megacity. Shah said he taught them by example, offering to clean communal toilets and pick up rubbish himself before he ever sought their help.

“For the first six to eight weeks, nobody joined,” he said. “Then two men approached me and said, very politely, ‘Please sir, can we wear your gloves?’ Both of them just came and joined me. That’s when I knew it was going to be a success.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, in the eastern state of Odisha, a record-breaking 428,083 Olive Ridley turtles had nested a month before. This is hardly an isolated incident.

Think about these little-known success stories whenever we hear rhetoric about the developing world not pulling its weight in the fight against climate change or ecological devastation.

And let’s keep these efforts in mind when we begin to lose hope that we are losing this fight. In the grand scheme of things, cleaning up one polluted beach for one single species doesn’t seem like a lot, but it reveals our amazing potential to fix things if we have actually invested the time and will power.

Source: The Guardian

The Saudi Military Officer Who Became a Dogged Human Rights Activist

Meet Yahya Assiri, a Saudi military officer-turned-activist who runs an underground human rights group against one of the most oppressive states in the world.

Courtesy of Middle East Eye

Born in a region of Saudi Arabia that fiercely resisted the al-Saud family and its fundamentalist Wahhabi allies, he grew up in a polarized family environment: his grandmother despised the government and its ultraconservative brand of Islam, while his father, like most in his generation, was more favorable to the royal family because of the wealth and security it provided.

Exposure to these opposing views instilled in Assiri a penchant for asking questions, even while he was climbing the ranks of the military. After failing to fulfill his lifelong dream to be a pilot, he joined the administrative side of the Royal Saudi Air Force, where he often worked on international arms deals (Saudi Arabia is one of the largest importers of military equipment). He regularly heard colleagues complain about their meager salaries and struggles with debt and poverty, which sat uncomfortably with the sheer wealth of the royal family and the claims that it brought prosperity to Arabia.

At 24-years-old he began to ask questions internally about these issues, describing himself as a sensitive person who could not ignore the suffering around him, even as he progressed swiftly through the air force and earned good money. Initially resisting the desire to speak out — knowing full well the risks — he began exploring the internet, finding a series of websites and forums in Arabic where people were debating politics. Thus began a double life in which Assiri worked for the government by day but spoke against it online through a pseudonym by night.

Eventually, his online activities gave way to participating in actual public forums, namely at the home of a prominent Saudi human rights activist, Saud al-Hashimi, who Assiri credited as a pivotal figure in his life. In 2011, Hashimi was arrested and jailed in for 30 years on the false charges of “supporting terrorism”, which galvanized Assiri further. Why didn’t regular Saudis have a voice? Why was the regime so afraid? And why was it so wealthy while average Saudis around him struggled?

As more activists got arrested around him, and the government began asking questions about his online activities, Assiri, who by now had a wife and two kids, made the difficult choice of leaving behind his otherwise prosperous life to seek asylum in the U.K. There he founded his own human rights group in August 2014 to keep the fight going.

Knowing that authorities usually dismiss international human rights groups as foreign agents trying to impose Western values, he cleverly chose the name Al Qst, which is a Quranic term meaning justice.

“I used this name to speak to the people. The name comes from our religion, so no one could say my human rights organisation is an attack on the culture of our people.”

The organisation is voluntarily run, relying on a vast underground activist network to keep tabs on everything going on at home. As of 2015, Assiri has eight groups on the messaging application Telegram — which is popular among activists in repressive countries — covering different topics including women’s rights, poverty, the fate of activists, and specific regional issues. The group also has an active Twitter account with over 45,000 followers (@ALQST_ORG)

Assiri wishes to keep the group exclusively Saudi-run so that it cannot be easily dismissed by the authorities nor skeptics. The ultimate goal is to grow Al Qst into a strong civil society organization, since civil society is very much lacking in the country’s stifling sociopolitical environment.

“I believe Al Qst will become the most important organisation dealing with human rights in Saudi Arabia. This is because we – the Saudis – are the best people to understand the complicated problems facing our country.”

Assiri is a reminder that even in the most blighted places, there is some flicker of hope, and not everyone who lives under an odious government is spoken for by that government (something a lot of Americans who otherwise hate one administration or another ironically forget).

Read more about him in this 2015 article (there was not much else out there that I could find).

Ushering in the New Year With Immense Gratitude

I am immensely grateful to have made it to another year in this world. It seems morbid to frame it that way, but consider that the vast majority of the 108 billion people who have ever existed had short, painful, and miserable lives that often ended in terrifying violence, famine, or disease.

This remains the reality for tens of millions of people around the world, and it’s only by random luck that I was born in just the right time, place, and condition not to be in the same position. I — and most of you reading this — are literally in the top 3-4 percent of all humans who have ever lived, for no discernible reason than random chance. (This doesn’t even include the many people who live in similar prosperity but whose lives are cut short by freak accidents that could just as well happen to anyone.)

Of course, this kind of gratitude should be had every moment of everyday, but given the context, now is as good a time as any to highlight it.

The Groundbreaking Haitian Revolution

Aside from being the first day of the new year, yesterday was also Haitian Independence Day, which marks one of the most important days in human history. It was January 1, 1804 that Haiti—after a decade-long war against one of the most powerful empires in the world—became the only nation in history to emerge from a successful slave revolt; the first majority-black republic in history; the second independent nation and second republic in the Americas, after the United States. It was the largest slave uprising since Spartacus’s unsuccessful revolt against the Roman Republic nearly two thousand years earlier.

Haiti’s unlikely independence, especially against one of the worlds superpowers at the time, rocked the institution of slavery and inspired revolutionaries across the world, who looked to it for both inspiration and military strategy. In fact, Haiti’s achievement was likely a catalyst for independence movements throughout Latin America, which began gaining traction shortly after its independence; Simon Bolivar, the seminal figure in Latin American independence, received refuge, money, and military support from Haiti.

Haiti also produced such prominent military and political figures: Jean-Baptiste Belley, who served as the first black representative in the Western world (specifically France); Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, who fought for Napoleon as the first and highest-ranking black officer in the West; and Toussaint L’Ouverture, an ex-slave turned independence hero viewed by contemporaries as brilliant military strategist, who along with Dumas the highest-ranking black officer in the West. Needless to say, these men undermined the widespread notion of black racial inferiority.

It is also worth noting that Haiti’s success against France, which subsequently lost what was then the world’s richest colony, contributed to its decision to abandon colonialism in North America and recoup its financial losses by selling the Louisiana Territory to the U.S., more than doubling the American republic.

Unfortunately, despite being the only other republic in the whole hemisphere, and sharing a similar revolutionary origin, Haiti was far from a natural American ally: the U.S. still practiced slavery, and naturally did not approve of the example Haiti set for its slaves. Indeed, the Jefferson Administration, which was already pro-French, attempted to assist France in taking back Haiti, and was openly hostile to an independent black republic.

(For this reason, Haiti has the largest military fort in the Western Hemisphere, Citadelle Laferrière, which was intended to defend the country from ever-present invasion by France, the U.S., or any other Western power.)

Given that the international system was by then dominated by Europe, America was far from alone in its contempt and wariness towards Haiti: The country would remain isolated and exploited for much of its history, forced to pay 150 million gold francs in reparations to French slaveholders in order to receive recognition and end its diplomatic and economic isolation. (The debt was not paid until the mid-20th century). The U.S. frequently meddled in its affairs, most notably in its occupation of the country from 1915 to 1934. Centuries of isolation prevented the country from ever finding its bearings, but left it no less proud, resilient, and culturally rich.

Swearing an Oath

In light of the fact that some incoming Muslim congresswomen may be sworn in on a Quran (by Mike Pence no less), it is worth remembering that the U.S. Constitution does not require an oath of office to be sworn on a Bible, or on any religious text for that matter.

Article VI, Clause 3, which covers oaths of office, states that while elected officials in both state and federal governments, as well executive and judicial officers throughout the country, are bound “by oath or affirmation” to support the Constitution, “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

Of course, we have already had Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim representatives and officials, both in Congress and throughout various other state and federal offices, swear on their respective religious texts (Fun fact: In 2007, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the first Muslim congressperson, was sworn in on a Quran formerly owned and cherished by Thomas Jefferson.)

But many other officials, both religious and secular, have sworn on nonreligious texts, or nothing at all. John Quincy Adams and Franklin Pierce swore on a book of law; Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in on a Roman Catholic missal; and Teddy Roosevelt, who had to take the oath in a hurry after William McKinley’s assassination, did without anything, since there was no Bible on hand.

Moreover, many Christians are forbidden by their teachings to swear on anything; both Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon, who as Quakers could technically not swear on anything, could have “affirmed” rather than “sworn” during their oaths, though it appears they did not do so.

The Groundbreaking But Largely Forgotten Apollo 8 Mission

On this day in 1969, the U.S. launched Apollo 8, the second manned spaceflight mission in the Apollo space program and the first crewed launch of the Saturn V rocket. Astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders became the first humans to travel beyond low Earth orbit, see all of Earth, orbit another celestial body, see the far side of the Moon, witness and photograph an “Earthrise” (first photo), escape the gravity of another celestial body (the Moon), and reenter Earth’s gravitational well. Apollo 8 was also the first human spaceflight from the Kennedy Space Center, located adjacent to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Originally planned as a test of the Apollo Lunar Module, since the module was not yet ready for its first flight, the mission profile was abruptly changed in August 1968 to a more ambitious flight to be flown in December. Thus, the crew led by Jim McDivitt crew, who were training Apollo Lunar Module, instead became the crew for Apollo 9, while Borman and his men were moved to the Apollo 8 mission. This meant the new Apollo 8 crew had two to three months’ less training and preparation than originally planned, not to mention having to take up translunar navigation training. The crew themselves believed there was only a 50% chance of the mission succeeding.

Fortunately, things went off without a hitch: after almost three days, Apollo 8 reached the Moon. The crew orbited the Moon ten times in 20 hours, during which they made a Christmas Eve television broadcast in which they read the first ten verses from the Book of Genesis—at the time the most watched TV program ever. (In fact, it is estimated that one out of four people alive at the time saw it either live or shortly after.) Even the Chairman of the Soviet Interkosmos program was quoted describing the flight as an “outstanding achievement of American space sciences and technology”.

Although largely forgotten today, Apollo 8 was seen as the joyful culmination of a tumultuous year, rife with political assassinations, instability, and other tragedies worldwide. For a moment, humanity received a well needed morale boost. the success of the mission paved the way for Apollo 11 to fulfill America’s goal of landing a man on the Moon before the end of the 1960s. The Apollo 8 astronauts returned to Earth on December 27, 1968, when their spacecraft splashed down in the northern Pacific Ocean. They were later named TIME’s “Men of the Year” for 1968.

The iconic Earthrise photo has been credited as one of the inspirations of the first Earth Day in 1970; it was selected as the first of Life magazine’s 100 Photographs That Changed the World.

Photos courtesy of Wikimedia.

Ghana’s Public Health Milestone

Here’s the sort of progress that rarely makes the news: Ghana, a country of about 30 million best known for being the first African colony to achieve independence, has now earned another distinction–eliminating one of the nastiest infectious diseases in the world. As The Telegraph reports:

Trachoma, the leading infectious cause of blindness in the world, is spread by flies and human touch, and is linked to poverty and lack of access to clean water and sanitation. It starts as a bacterial infection and, if left untreated, causes the eyelashes to scratch the surface of the eye, causing great pain and, potentially, irreversible blindness.

In 2000, about 2.8 million people in Ghana were estimated to be at risk of the disease but the World Health Organization (WHO) has now officially recognised that the country has eliminated it.

The WHO director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, hailed the country’s achievement: “Although there’s more work to do elsewhere, the validation of elimination in Ghana allows another previously heavily-endemic country to celebrate significant success.”

Ghana eliminated the disease through a partnership between its ministry of health, the WHO, pharmaceutical companies, and charities. Around 3.3 million doses of an antibiotic effective against trachoma were donated by Pfizer, one of the world’s larges pharmaceutical companies; another 6,000 had surgery to treat more advanced stages of the disease. (Amazing what civil society can accomplish when it comes together.)

Thanks to these efforts,Ghana now joins six other countries where trachoma is endemic — Oman, Morocco, Mexico, Cambodia, Laos, and Nepal — that have eliminated the disease.

Nevertheless, trachoma still remains a significant global problem: over 200 million people across 41 countries (mostly in Africa) are at risk of infection. Ghana and several other nations have shown the way. Here is hoping more health agencies, pharma companies, and charities take note.

Ancient Links Between Rome and Sri Lanka

It never ceases to amaze me how well connected and globalized the ancients were. We think of globalization as a thoroughly modern phenomenon, yet the seeds of it were planted centuries or even millennia ago, where global connections would have seemed impossible. 

As Science reports:

Visit Mantai, nestled into a bay in northwestern Sri Lanka, and today you’ll see nothing but a solitary Hindu temple overlooking the sea. But 1500 years ago, Mantai was a bustling port where merchants traded their era’s most valuable commodities. Now, a study of ancient plant remains reveals traders from all corners of the world—including the Roman Empire—may have visited or even lived there.

Mantai was a hub on the ancient trade networks that crisscrossed the Indian Ocean and connected the distant corners of Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. The port town flourished between 200 B.C.E. and 850 C.E. During that time, it would have been a nexus for the spice trade, which ferried Indonesian cloves and Indian peppercorns to Middle Eastern and Roman kitchens.

[…]

The team also found remains that could link the port city to the ancient Mediterranean world—processed wheat grains dated to 100 to 200 C.E. and grape seeds dated to 650 to 800 C.E. Neither crop can grow in Sri Lanka’s wet, tropical climate, so they had to be imported, possibly from as far as Arabia or the Roman world. Kingwell-Banham says her team is studying the chemical isotopes absorbed by the plants to determine where they were grown.

But no matter their precise origin, the coexistence of rice and wheat is evidence of Mantai’s “cosmopolitan cuisine,” in which both local and foreign foods were eaten, she says. The discovery of wheat and grapes in Mantai “is entirely new,” and shifts the focus on goods transported from South Asia to the Roman world, to goods that went in the other direction,” Coningham says.


While there is no evidence that Roman merchants or other travelers lived in what is today Sri Lanka, it is certainly not out of the realm of possibility: just a few years ago, remains were unearthed in London that appear to be of Chinese origin — and date back to between the third and fifth centuries C.E., when it was the Roman city of Londonium. 

The First Report on the Holocaust

On this day in 1942, the Polish government-in-exile published the first document informing the world about the Holocaust. 

Titled “The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland,” it was sent to 26 Allied governments (officially known as the United Nations) with the purpose of drawing attention to the Final Solution and thereby discourage Germans from carrying it out.

The most important component in the brochure was a note by Polish Foreign Minister Edward Raczynski authenticating its contents, making it the first official report on the Holocaust and the first time that a country called on other countries to defend *all* Jews persecuted by the Nazis, not just those who were citizens of their country. 

Drawing on extensive reporting by agents of Poland’s underground government, Raczynski discussed the change in execution methods from shootings to gassing, and the increased deportation of Jews from ghettos to locations described as “extermination camps.” He also estimated that up to one third of Poland’s three million Jews had already been killed—which turned out to be an underestimate. 

Much of the information came from a 100-page report by Witold Pilecki, a Polish agent who allowed himself to be captured and sent to a concentration camp so as to ascertain the nature of the Nazi’s campaign. It was the first comprehensive record on a Holocaust death camp, with details about the gas chambers and sterilization experiments. It also states that there were three crematoria in Birkenau able to burn 8000 people daily.

Unfortunately, Poland’s courageous efforts came mostly to nothing. Despite its extensive and detailed information, the document had little effect, largely because people outside German-occupied Europe could not believe Jews were being exterminated on that scale. The concept of genocide, let alone the term, did not exist yet, so no one could comprehend a methodical, systematic, and deliberate elimination of an entire people (though similar campaigns had been undertaken before, and have since been labeled genocides). 

Ultimately, over six million Jews would be killed, along with another five to six million other “undesirables”. Poland would suffer the worst WWII losses proportionally, with nearly one out of four Polish people killed, including nearly all Jews (once the largest and most vibrant Jewish community in the world).

The International Space Station

One of Wikipedia’s latest featured photos: the International Space Station (ISS), taken in 2011 by Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli from a departing Russian Soyuz spacecraft, while the ISS was docked Space Shuttle Endeavor. It is the largest human-made body in low Earth orbit and can often be seen with the naked eye from Earth, making close to sixteen rotations around Earth daily.

First sent into low Earth orbit in 1998, the space station has been continuously inhabited since 2000; though the last component was fitted in 2011, the station continues to be expanded and developed, with more additions planned for next year. The ISS operated jointly by the American, Russian, Japanese, European, and Canadian space agencies, and has been visited by personnel from seventeen nations. Its ownership and use is governed by various treaties and agreements.

The station is divided primarily between the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS) and the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS). It also consists of pressurized modules, external trusses, solar arrays, and a microgravity and space environment research lab where crew members conduct experiments in biology, physics, astronomy, meteorology, and many other fields. It is also suited for testing spacecraft and equipment required for lunar and Martian missions.

The ISS has been serviced by a variety of spacecraft, including the Russian Soyuz and Progress, the American Dragon and Cygnus, the Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle, and formerly the American Space Shuttle and the European Automated Transfer Vehicle. Since 2011, the Soyuz has been the sole means to transfer personnel, while the Dragon is the only provider of bulk cargo return to Earth.

The ISS is the ninth space station to be inhabited by crews, and only the second not to be Russian, following the Soviet / Russian Salyut, Almaz, and Mir stations and the American Skylab. It also surpassed the record for longest continuous human presence in low Earth orbit, having surpassed Mir’s record of nine years and 357 days.

The station is expected to operate until at least 2028, with the American portion being funded until 2025 and the Russian portion until 2024. Both Russia and America have discussed developing an ISS replacement, although NASA has yet to confirm for certain if this will happen; for their part, the Russians have proposed using elements of their section for a new Russian space station, OPSEK.

The ISS is an enduring, if limited, demonstration of the fruits of global cooperation in space exploration. Various other rising space powers, including Brazil, China, and India have also discussed joining the project, or devising their own space stations.