May 2021

  • Three Fingers

    Image from: MYANMAR

    Three Fingers captures a young child poignantly raising three fingers during a non-violent protest in Hpa-an, Kayin state, Myanmar. The child’s three-fingered salute is a symbol of defiance and solidarity for pro-democracy movements across south-east Asia. Since February 2021, Myanmar has been embroiled in an internal political crisis, the Civil Disobedience Movement, which is the largest peaceful protest in the country since the 2007 Saffron Revolution.

    On 1 February 2021, Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, blocked elected ministers and members of the legislature from taking their seats on the opening session of the 2021 government after a landslide victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD) party in the November 2020 elections, led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Alleging election fraud, the junta took absolute control of the country and detained ousted State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and numerous other NLD government elected officials. 

    The Tatmadaw justified seizing control of the country under a provision in Myanmar’s constitution that allows the military to take control in the event of a national emergency. After seizing power, the military quickly took control of national infrastructure, shutting down flights, blocking most television broadcasts, cutting off mobile phone and internet access and imposing additional nightly curfews in major cities.  In response, people from all ethnicities across the country took to the streets to oppose the military coup. As the peaceful protests grew daily to include millions across the country, the military intensified its brutal crackdown using increasingly violent and lethal force, including the use of water cannons, rubber bullets, and live ammunition. External groups have verified that at least 800 protesters, including children, monks, and bystanders have been killed and approximately 4,120 detained, though in-country reporting suggests the number of casualties is much higher. On 27 March 2021, the single deadliest day of the protests to date, over 100 people were killed.

    As demonstrations continue, sources have reported the Tatmadaw is continuing to target all protestors and civil society leaders with raids and searches, detention and torture, and threats against their families. Outside of major city centres, the military is reportedly quashing resistance by ordering aggressive attacks and airstrikes on villages and towns, particularly in Chin, Kachin and Kayin states. An estimated 100,000 people have been displaced across southeast Myanmar, as escalating violence has created a humanitarian crisis. 

  • Digital Wasteland

    Image from: GHANA

    Two men burn electronic waste at the Agbogbloshie dump in central Accra, Ghana, one of the largest e-waste dumps and one of the most polluted places in the world. The dump receives close to 250,000 tons of e-waste each year, although experts suggest this figure is likely much higher.

    Every day, an estimated 10,000 informal workers sort through mountains of e-waste, without protective gear or proper equipment, looking for valuable elements such as copper and gold. This dangerous work is largely carried out by the poor, many of whom are migrant workers from northern Ghana and neighbouring countries.

    The adjacent settlement to the dump is home to approximately 80,0000 residents. The burning of e-waste components produces toxins that pollute the air and leech into nearby soil and groundwater, causing both workers and nearby residents to develop serious health conditions, including chronic headaches, skin disorders, hearing loss, DNA damage, respiratory illnesses, organ damage, immune system dysfunction, and cancer.  Exposure to these toxins also results in premature births and stillbirths, as well as congenital malformations, developmental disabilities, and behavioural changes in children. The local food supply is increasingly dangerous, with a single egg of an Agbogbloshie chicken found to contain 200 times the accepted European limit of chlorinated dioxins, which can cause long-term reproductive and developmental harm.

    Developed countries export large volumes of second-hand computers and other electronic goods for “resale,” but the percentage actually resold or recycled is unknown. A 2019 study reports that 50 million tons of e-waste are generated each year, a figure expected to double by 2050, with only 20% of this waste properly disposed of or recycled. As consumption of electronic devices increases around the world, regulations for e-waste recycling and disposal are crucial to protect workers, citizens, and the environment.

  • The Mountain that Eats Men

    Image from: BOLIVIA

    In the Andes mountains, 4000 metres above sea level, a woman overlooks a silver mining site of Cerro Potosí, Bolivia, an endangered World Heritage site. The mountain, also known as Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) was first exploited by Spanish colonists in 1545, who used forced labourers from Peru and Africa to extract silver from the mines.  The high fatality rates of these labourers earned Cerro Potosí a second nickname: “The Mountain that Eats Men.”

    Despite continued risks, Cerro Potosí is still mined centuries later by an estimated 15,000 miners working for small family-run companies. While the mines previously brought wealth and prosperity, current extraction rates of tin, zinc, and trace amounts of silver now provide only subsistence living. Cerro Potosí miners, on average, die before they turn 40 due to the numerous hazards of working in the mines. Most miners suffer from long-term incurable respiratory problems, including diseases such as silicosis.

    The centuries of mining have also compromised the very mountain itself.  Hundreds of miles of tunnels have caused the upper cone of the mountain to collapse, with other cave-ins and mine collapses increasing in frequency. The Bolivian government has attempted to shut down the most dangerous Cerro Potosí mines, but local miners have resisted.

  • Papuan Lives Matter

    Image from: INDONESIA 

    Robert William poses with the projected names of those who died during the ongoing militarization of West Papua, Indonesia. In November 2020, Williams’ cousin, Ronny Wandik, was allegedly killed by Indonesian security forces in Papua’s Mimika district.

    West Papua, which comprises the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua on the western half of the island of New Guinea, is one of the most remote and undeveloped places in the world and home to more than 5 million, including people from over 400 tribes who speak more than 250 languages. Indonesia has controlled West Papua since 1963, after it gained independence from Dutch colonial control. Indonesia formally integrated West Papua as Indonesian territory following a 1969 vote, which separatists reject as undemocratic and illegitimate; only 1,025 indigenous elders, who were selected and intimidated by the military, were permitted to vote, from a population of over 800,000. Since then, the ongoing power struggle between the Indonesian government and Papuan separatists has kept the region in a precarious cycle of conflict and violence.

    The United Liberation Movement for West Papua claims that more than 500,000 indigenous Papuans have been killed in the colonization of the territory since 1963. Human rights groups report that renewed calls for independence since 2018 have led Indonesian security forces to tighten their control over the region. International groups have reported that more than 500 civilians have died and more than 60,000 have been displaced since the conflict escalated in December 2018, but these numbers are likely higher. Estimates are difficult to confirm as the Indonesian government has prohibited journalists, foreign researchers, and United Nations officials from entering West Papua over the past several years.

  • Baby Trafficking

    Image from: NIGERIA

    In 2019, Mariam* was deceived, trafficked, and repeatedly raped in a “baby factory” in Nigeria when she was 16 years old.

    Mariam and her cousin were living in the Madinatu Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in northeastern Nigeria after the terrorist group Boko Haram attacked and destroyed their village in 2017. The IDP camp was reportedly poorly equipped, lacking sufficient food and supplies for camp residents. Desperate for money, the girls accepted jobs offered by a stranger they met outside the camp gates, who promised them well-paid domestic work in a distant city.  Instead, they were brought to a heavily guarded compound in a different city, where the cousins were immediately separated and brutally raped. The girls – along with dozens of others – were exploited as sex slaves, repeatedly raped by several men on a near-daily basis. When the girls became pregnant and gave birth, their traffickers took their their babies and then released the girls from captivity.

    The boom in illicit baby factories run by criminal networks is a growing problem in Nigeria and is now the third most common crime in the country.  The proliferation of baby factories is linked to the increase in demand for infant adoptions in the country over the past 20 years. Infants stolen from trafficked women and girls in captivity are typically sold by their traffickers to childless couples seeking to adopt. The baby factories often masquerade as orphanages, social welfare homes, and maternity clinics, making detection difficult and accurate data on the scale of the crime nearly impossible to gather. Those operating the baby factories often receive backing and protection from prominent and powerful allies. In 2020 alone, Nigerian police rescued 57 women, girls, and infants being held in baby factories. The growth of baby factories contributes to Nigeria’s significant human trafficking problem, which is estimated to impact between 750,000 and 1 million people who are trafficked for forced labour or sexual exploitation each year.

    * Name has been changed.

  • Weaving Resistance

    Image from: GUATEMALA

    An indigenous Mayan textile worker in Patzún, Guatemala, dressed in traditional clothing.

    Despite enormous losses from decades of colonialism and violence, weaving is one of the enduring Mayan cultural traditions still practiced to this day in Central America. Textiles hold deep spiritual significance for Mayan peoples and each community has their own unique designs passed down through intergenerational teaching. The fabrics and methods of textile production in Mayan communities are not only critical sources of generational and traditional knowledge, but also help build and maintain the identity and history of Mayan peoples. Because of systemic discrimination and violence against them, Mayan traditional textiles have taken on special significance and represent the spirit of resistance against repression.

    Mayan textile workers have accused both foreign and local companies of stealing their designs and mass-producing cheap “Mayan-inspired” textiles, without giving credit or compensation to indigineous communities. Mayan textile workers say mass production drives down the value of their handmade textiles, which is a critical part of their economy and an important source of employment, particularly for women. To protect their industry and cultural heritage, Mayan weavers from across Guatemala have spent years campaigning to reform Guatamalan intellectual property laws to protect their textile industry as cultural property.