Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Czechs cheer for GMOs, America's mission closer to accomplished

Last week, the Biology Centre of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic released a document, supporting the farm production of genetically modified crops. This is a small win for US business interests, specifically the biotech lobby.

The paper published by the team of Czech scientists, entitled White Book: Genetically Modified Crops, Scientific opinion of Czech researchers working with GMO, is based on a twelve-year study of GM crops and their effects on the environment. In a nutshell, the authors of the study concluded that the positive benefits of growing GM foods outweigh the negative.

In sharp contrast, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) nearly simultaneously released a statement calling for an immediate moratorium on genetically modified foods. AAEM argues that "GM foods pose a serious health risk." The press release states:

Citing several animal studies, the AAEM concludes "there is more than a casual association between GM foods and adverse health effects" and that "GM foods pose a serious health risk in the areas of toxicology, allergy and immune function, reproductive health, and metabolic, physiologic and genetic health."

The Czech study, which focused predominantly on the effects of GM crops on the environment, argues that: "in the case of commercialized GM crops, scientific evidence as well as practical experience has [sic] demonstrated that they bring considerable economic benefits to farmers and are more environment-friendly than comparable technologies."

Furthermore, the authors contend that there is no need to regulate GMO production: "There are no scientific data showing the exceptional position of plants expressing a trait based on transgenesis. Thus there is no ground for their regulation to be any different to [sic] plants obtained by traditional breeding methods." Public opinion, in the eyes of the White Book team, should not be given much weight, as implied in this statement: "The involvement of citizens ought to be proportional to their knowledge of the issue."

Though the scientists behind the White Book report acknowledge that "the deployment of GM crops may bring, as other technologies, certain benefits (and) it may also damage the environment and human and animal health," their goal is to dispel fears of GM farming, so prevalent in Europe. The study incorporates a disclaimer that it "is neither an advertisement nor an advocacy for the deployment of GM crops," but instead "a call for the use of critical intelligence and knowledge in the decision making process on this technology." However, the text reads very much like a cheerleader chant for GMO production. Case in point, associate professor Jindřich Bříza, one of the authors of the study, was quoted in a report by the Czech Radio as saying:

"In Europe the situation concerning genetically modified crops is very negative and the public is constantly influenced into thinking GM crops are something bad. . . We don't think our publication will change anything, but we want to give a clear signal about what the situation is from the perspective of the scientific community. We want to be the first pebble which will unleash an avalanche and we will convince the public that genetically modified plants have largely a positive role."

By some, including this blogger, the study could be viewed as a wink and a nod to the powerful and aggressive agri-business biotech industry which has been attempting to make inroads into Europe, renowned for its fierce resistance to GMO farming, marked by, for instance a 2% decline of the area with GM crop cultivation over the last year, and 35% decrease for all of Europe in the last 4 years. Currently, GM maize, which is the only GM crop approved, constitutes a mere 0.21% of agricultural land in the European Union.

In a recent informal reader poll by the Czech business daily, E15, 45% of voters, said they would not buy GM foods, citing fears of negative consequences on human health. Another 45% of those polled, however, said they have no problem with GMOs. In the last Eurobarometer poll, conducted in 2005, a majority of Europeans (58%) voted against the development of GM foods, seeing such foods as "not being useful, as morally unacceptable and as a risk for society." The Czech Republic is one of the few EU countries, in which GMO supporters outnumbered the opponents in the Eurobarometer survey.

While the majority of Europeans are opposed to GM food and feed production, the Czechs nearly lead the pack in the amount of GM crop grown in the country. The Czech Republic is now the second largest grower of Bt corn in the EU. According to the United States Department of Agriculture Service's Global Agriculture Information Network report, "acreage of Bt corn in the Czech Republic has been substantially increasing every year for the last four years, as well as (the) number of growers. In 2008, 171 farmers planted Bt corn on a total of 8,380 hectares."

The USDA report continues:

(Though) Bt corn is the only GM crop approved for commercial planting in the EU, other varieties have been waiting for approval. Several of them have also been tested in the Czech Republic on test plots, for example genetically modified flax and potatoes with a higher content of starch. Since Czech farmers have had a [sic] very good experience with genetically-modified corn, they would welcome other GM crops as well, mainly GM rapeseed, and the above mentioned GM potatoes for industrial use.

The readers of the report are further informed that the Czech Ministry of Agriculture has been preparing an amendment to the Law on Agriculture, hopefully making it easier for Czech farmers to grow GM crops. This government report, prepared by the U.S. Embassy in Prague and approved by the U.S. Embassy in Poland, concludes with a call for biotechnology companies to invest into the Czech biotech industry.

The logical question arises of why U.S. embassies would be publishing documents directly encouraging biotech investment in countries outside the US. A report by Food & Water Europe, a nonprofit consumer organization working to ensure clean water and safe food, answers that question. The report, published last month, details how US Embassies push GMOs throughout Europe and reveals how successful such a tactic has been in particular in the Czech Republic and Poland.

The Food & Water Europe report explains:

Throughout the EU, US diplomats have been pressuring members of parliaments, threatening trade retaliation and criticising scientific findings that question the safety of GMOs. As inappropriate as these tactcis may seem, . . . they are part of a coordinated effort by US diplomats to promote GMOs. These efforts were orchestrated by Robert Zoellick, a former high-ranking foreign policy adviser to President George W. Bush and current president of the World Bank.

Zoellick, a staunch proponent of the idea of securing America's hegemony through the establishment of trade policies favoring US-based business, has said: "American trade policies are connected to our broader economic, political and security aims. This intellectual integration may confound some trade scholars, but it follows in the footsteps of reconstruction after 1945."

According to Toni Solo's November 2003 article in the Dissident Voice, "Zoellick works to benefit giant US agri-business biotech companies."

Food & Water Europe further exposes the role of US officials in pressuring Europe to open up its markets to GM farming:

In January 2002, Zoellick, then the US Trade Representative, sent 14 pages of instructions to US ambassadors throughout the world claiming that proposed EU measures to trace and label GMOs "are not workable or enforceable, would be very expensive to implement, and would not achieve the stated objectives." According to Zoellick, who played a key role in the lengthy GMO dispute between the EU and the US, such measures would unduly impair trade in products already approved in the United States."

The EU-US dispute referred to above dates back to May 2003 when the Bush administration, along with Canada and Argentina, all three the world's largest growers of GMOs, officially accused the European Union of violating international trade agreements in blocking imports of U.S. farm products through its long-standing ban on genetically modified food. It was Robert Zoellick who announced the filing of a formal complaint with the WTO challenging the moratorium. The formal WTO case challenging the EU's regulatory system was in particular lobbied by U.S. biotechnology giant Monsanto as well as by big agricultural groups such as the National Corn Growers Association.

In his 2006 article for Global Research, F. William Engdahl writes:

The issue of breaking resistance barriers in the European Union to the proliferation of GMO crops has been a matter of the highest strategic priority for those controlling policy in Washington since 1992 when then-President George H.W. Bush, issued an Executive Order proclaiming GMO plants such as soybeans or GMO corn to be ‘substantially equivalent’ to ordinary corn or soybeans, and, therefore, not needing any special health safety study or testing.

That ‘substantial equivalence’ ruling by President Bush in 1992 opened the floodgates to the unregulated spread of GMO across the American agriculture landscape. As basis for its 2003 WTO filing against the EU, Washington, on behalf of agribusiness interests including Monsanto, Dow, DuPont and others, charged the EU with violation of the American ‘substantial equivalence’ doctrine!

Unfortunately, three years after the 2003 complaint against the EU, "a private organization with unique powers over world industry, trade and agriculture," as Engdahl terms the WTO, issued a ruling on the case brought by the Bush Administration. In this February 2006 ruling by a secretive tribunal, the World Trade Organization ruled that a six-year European ban on genetically engineered crops violates international trade rules. The ruling was widely touted as a victory for the US pro-biotechnology lobby hoping to penetrate the EU market. However, it is important to point out that as Friends of the Earth, the world's largest grassroots environmental network argues, "the WTO ruling is not a victory for the US administration and the biotech giants" because the WTO failed to win most of the arguments and because the ruling did "not prevent countries from restricting or banning GM foods."

In fact, the European Union's battle against GMOs continues. The timeline of the latest GMO-related news and legislation can be seen on the Friends of the Earth Europe website.

The Food & Water Europe report concludes:

Given the significant role of American diplomats in promoting genetic engineering throughout the world, it is difficult not to question their motives. The official story is that biotech crops can bring higher yields and therefore feed more people. But even though GM crops are widespread globally, they have not made a noticeable impact toward reducing malnutrition and starvation. Worse, in may cases GMOs have become the only crops offered as aid to countries with malnutrition problems. As American food aid often comes with strings attached, the US's global support of GMOs places US food policy into a completely new light.

Further, given that many biotech companies are now struggling to develop new markets as they back away from markets that are drying up, it is difficult to ignore the likelihood that US diplomats are being used to drum up business for a select few companies that have very little impact on the broader US economy. Further, given the ongoing trade dispute between the US and EU, any European farmer who grows and promotes GMOs will become a de facto tool in US political ambitions.

Monday, June 08, 2009

The far-right gains in EU Parliament elections

Centre-right parties have dominated over their left-wing opponents in the 2009 European Parliament elections June 4-7. Of major concern in the biggest transnational vote in history last week, are the gains for the far-right and anti-immigrant parties.

Of the approximately 375 million eligible voters in the 27 EU member states, only 43% turned out to vote for representatives to fill the 736 parliament seats. In the Czech Republic, turnout was much lower, only 28%, though approximately 75% of the laws affecting Czech citizens are decided in the EU Parliament.

Tthankfully, the Czech ultra-right-wing parties did not make the cut to represent the Czech Republic in the EU governing body, the alarming news is that the far-right Workers Party (DS) got 1.07 percent in the vote. The party thus fulfilled its election goal, becoming eligible to receive money from the EU earmarked for parties that raise support topping one percent. To my dismay, the far-right also came out strong in the UK, Netherlands, Austria and Hungary.

Here is the breakdown, taken from BBC online:

UK - the far-right British National Party, which gained two seats (of 72) in Brussels - its first wins in national elections.

Austria - 2 seats of 17 for the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe)

Hungary - The far-right Jobbik ("For a Better Hungary") party also performed stronger than expected, beating the Socialists into third place. Jobbik, which blames the Roma, or Gypsies, for a perceived breakdown of law and order in the countryside, took nearly 15%, giving it three seats.

The Netherlands - The far-right Party for Freedom (PVV) of the controversial politician, Geert Wilders, stormed to second place with 17%, winning four seats (out of 25) in the European Parliament in its first attempt. Mr Wilders is facing prosecution for making anti-Islamic statements, following a Dutch court ruling in January.

As political analyst for the Times Online David Charter writes, the danger lies here:

"The gateway to . . . funding and, crucially, influence, will be opened if Europe’s far-right parties can club together to form an official parliamentary group. This will require at least 25 MEPs (up from 20 in the last session) from a minimum of seven countries . . . An official group would not only receive guaranteed speaking rights in the parliament chamber at every debate and formal occasion but also a share of the annual €26.3 million allowance for parliamentary groups. . . If the European far Right bands together, it will have the power to claim deputy chairmanships of some committees."

And by the way, the votes were pen on paper and all one needed to show was photo ID, verifying one's permanent address already in the voter database.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

"Enough is Enough:" 3,000 demonstrate against neo-nazism

In 14 cities across the Czech Republic, about 3,000 people took to the streets to protest neo-nazism and racism today in an event entitled "Enough is Enough."

The demonstrators gathered to say no to the rising wave of extremism and to show solidarity with the Roma community, which has recently been shaken by a near-fatal racially motivated attack that left a whole family -- including a two-year old girl -- severely burned and struggling for their lives.

My whole family went to the demonstration in Prague, where about 350 people participated. The speakers included representatives from Roma and human rights organization, including Amnesty International. Also present was the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Karel Shwarzenberg, and Prague's Chief Rabbi Karol Sidon, who said he was dismayed to see a lack of politicians attending and supporting the cause, especially as the government has been under heavy criticism for not responding effectively to the rising extremism.

A petition condemning the rise of neo-nazism was circulated and donations to go to the family hurt in the recent arson attack were collected.

Milan Horvath, member of the Roma musical group Bengas expressed in a nutshell the gravity which underlined the gathering: "This is not fun and games anymore. This situation is a matter of life and death."

Martina Horvathova of the Slovo 21 Civic Association, a Roma organization, emphasized that the Czech Republic is home to the Czech Romanies (an important point to make as racists -- and white Czechs in general -- often see the Roma as outsiders or foreigners). Horvathova said that it is everyone's right to feel safe at home and then asked the crowd whether they felt safe in their country. A unanimous "no" rocked the square.

One Roma demonstrator could be heard exclaiming: "They kill our children!" and "We're afraid for our children!" A group of demonstrators briefly joined in a chant: "Away with neo-nazism!"

Radoslav "Gipsy" Banga," a Roma rapper from the internationally known group, in his speech urged everyone to stand up with a loud "no" to neo-nazism and violence. He said: "Remaining silent means you tacitly agree."

[a photo of my son with our sign: "Lhostejnost? Už dost!" which rhymes and means: "Indifference? No more!"]

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Rising extremism a danger to Czech minorities

The Czech government, prompted by a recent racially motivated attack, which left a Roma family, including a two-year-old girl, struggling for their lives, promises to come up with a plan to fight extremism. The details regarding the plan, however, remain to be seen. The government has been promising to put such a plan into place for months.

A comprehensive survey of ethnic minorities living in Europe, conducted by The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) and published earlier this month, shows that the Roma in the Czech Republic report discrimination in the largest numbers in all of Europe. The Roma (sometimes also called Romanies) experience discrimination at work, in access to education, housing and healthcare.

With extremism and racially motivated violence on the rise (more also here), the survey results only add to the pressure on policy makers in the Czech Republic, who have not shown much strength in dealing with the dangerous trend.

Roma rights organizations and activists favor a comprehensive approach, including development, education and tough-on-hate-crime legislation. Minority group advocates have been lobbying for change not only on the local and state government level, but on the level of the European Union as well. Recently, Roma activists have even asked the Pope to help by organizing a debate on the social position of Gypsies in the Czech Republic and in other European countries. Last February, a Romani activist association wrote an open letter to U.S. President Barack Obama about the position of Romanies and "the expansion of nationalists" in Czech society.

A much publicized trial to dissolve the far-right Workers' Party (Dělnická strana, or DS), which has been organizing extremist rallies and provoking the Jewish and Romani communities around the country, took place in March this year. In the end, the result was that The Supreme Administrative Court rejected the government's proposal to disband the party. Many minority rights activists were dismayed about the court's decision, however, others (myself included) feel that the banning of extremist parties isn't necessarily an effective solution, as the party can -- and promised -- to reform, and also because banning parties hinges on undemocratic in a country which lauds freedom of speech as one of its credos. Furthermore, such a ban can strengthen the far-right movement under the guise of victimhood in light of persecution of the group by the state.

The outgoing Minister of Human Rights and Minorities wants to establish a committee of experts on extremism, which a number of Romani activists support as but one of the possible solutions, especially when it comes to helping shape public opinion regarding extremism and racially motivated violence, which is such a threat that Czech Roma are applying for asylum in Canada in droves. InterPress Service reports today:

Roma organisations have called on those Roma who feel unsafe in the country to leave. There are up to 300,000 Roma living in the Czech Republic, that has a population of 10 million. (. . . ) At least 853 mostly ethnic Roma Czech citizens have applied for refugee status in Canada over the last year, and 84 have obtained it. But in only the first two months of 2009, there are already new 570 Czechs, mostly Roma, seeking asylum there.

Earlier this week, the Czech press reported that the Czech police and military employ neo-Nazism and extremist movement supporters, who provide the far-right groups with sensitive information and smuggle weapons to them, thus strengthening their movement.

Additionally, according to the Roma rights activist Gwendolyn Albert, it has been revealed that skinheads serving time for violent offenses in Czech prisons are well-served by organizations that send them racist literature and pay their legal fees.

Strategies among international experts on how to curb extremism vary widely. The Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the most respected and successful organizations at fighting extremist groups in the US, takes the legislative as well as educational approach. The organization tracks hate groups, providing comprehensive updates to law enforcement, and has a strong track record of fighting white supremacist legislatively. To combat the underlying causes of hate, the center runs an educational program for school children called Teaching Tolerance.

The organization People in Need (Člověk v tísni), for instance, runs educational campaigns and helps monitor hate groups in the Czech Republic in concert with similar organizations across Europe. Step by Step, Czech Republic is an example of an organization which conducts anti-bias education projects in Czech schools. There are several such organizations in the Czech Republic. However, legislative-based activism against extremist groups is quite weak here.

In its latest Hate Crime Report Card for the Czech Republic in 2007, The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, reported:

The implementation of criminal law provisions devoted to racially-motivated crimes remains inadequate, and (. . .) reports of racially-motivated violence continue unabated. This conclusion is shared by the League for Human Rights, a Czech human rights organization in its report in February 2007 to the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination for the Czech Republic. This observes that cases of racially motivated violence persist. Unfortunately, the cases are not always vigorously pursued by the relevant authorities. Sometimes the police play down the gravity of the violence.

Throughout Europe, members of the most vulnerable populations, when questioned about the solvency of hate crime legislation for the FRA survey, across the board stated that they are not aware of any legislative recourse:

When asked whether there is a law prohibiting discrimination against people on the basis of their ethnicity when looking for work, the majority of respondents, with the exception of the Czech Republic, either indicated that there was no such law or that they didn’t know. (. . . ) Given that EC legislation against discrimination on the grounds of racial or ethnic origin in employment is now in place throughout the EU, this lack of rights awareness suggests that the message about anti-discrimination rights is not reaching some of the most vulnerable minorities in Europe.

The survey also asked respondents to identify any organisation in their country that can offer advice or support to people who have been discriminated against for whatever reason. Between 71 and 94% of respondents could not name a single organisation. In sum, the results indicate that although roma respondents in the seven countries experience very high levels of discrimination, they are generally unaware that discrimination against them might be illegal, and they also are unable to name organisations in their country – either State bodies or NGos - that might be able to assist them.

Clearly, there is an opening for action here. A crucial step the Czech Republic can take is to pass anti-bias legislation. The country is currently -- and embarrassingly -- the only EU country without such legislation, though the EU governing body has reprimanded the country and threatened it with a fine if the Czech government doesn't pass such legislation, required by the EU charter. The existing penal code can be strengthen, as was done earlier this week in the neighboring Slovakia, where the Parliament approved tougher legislation to combat extremism. Focus must be put on law enforcement and better screening of police recruits.

Long-term solutions include training and job opportunities as well as access to sound, affordable housing, especially in smaller towns and more isolated regions, as unemployment and poverty-rates among the Roma are disproportionately high, reinforcing the stereotype of the welfare-dependent person who doesn't contribute to the society. Such sentiment is shared by countless Czechs. Recently one Czech town decided to take action against the "unadaptable people" (a euphemism racist Czechs often use to mean the Roma) who owe the city back rent. The mayor of Chomutov decided to "cleanse" the town of these "undesirables" and to send collectors to the welfare office to confiscate the residents' welfare money, which is actually unlawful. This situation drew staunch criticism from local humanitarian groups as well as the Human Rights and Minorities minister. Unfortunately, the move also gained a tremendous amount of support (including praise from the Minister of Interior), which is still gaining momentum. On the internet networking website Facebook, a petition in support of the drastic and racist measures proposed by the city has been signed by nearly 165,000 people, the largest number of Czechs that has ever signed an online petition of any kind.

On a positive note, last week a new European platform for Roma inclusion met for the first time in Prague, to improve coordination of national actions to tackle the exclusion of Europe's biggest ethnic minority. As the European Commission website reports:

The meeting brought together national governments, the EU, other international organisations and civil society and stimulated cooperation and exchange of experience on successful Roma inclusion policies. (. . . ) The meeting identified a set of basic principles to effectively address the inclusion of Roma. In addition, the European Commission will outline how it plans to target the needs of Roma people with EU-level instruments and policies in 2009 and 2010. It will report too on the implementation of a new EUR 5 million pilot project which the European Parliament has added to the 2009 Budget.

Still, the threat of violence looms for the Roma and other people of color living in the Czech Republic. May 3 is a day of solidarity with the Roma and the victims of the latest brutal racist attack. Demonstrations entitled "Enough is Enough" against extremism will take place across the country. I will be there.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Wall Street Journal: The Czech Republic Pays for Immigrants to Go Home

Earlier this month I wrote about the Czech government's scheme to encourage foreign workers to leave the country. The Wall Street Journal ran a story about this incentive program today:

In 2007, foreigners scooped up nearly 40% of the new jobs created in the Czech Republic. In the last five years alone, the number of immigrant workers doubled to nearly 362,000 by the end of 2008.

With demand for exports down, unemployment has soared to a two-year high of 7.7%. Economists say the rate could hit 10% by year's end, and there are signs rising joblessness is pushing some Czechs to apply for the low-wage work they once left to foreign laborers. The Czech economy is set to contract by 2% this year -- a sharp fall from a growth peak around 7% in 2006.

In February, the government, fearing crime, homelessness and immigrants overstaying visas, launched a $3 million program to pay newly jobless migrants to go home. The pitch: €500 per legal immigrant, €250 for children under 15, and the cost of the tickets home.

Since February, 1,345 immigrants have signed on for the Czech program.

Though The Wall Street Journal mentions the high debt many of the foreign workers accrue just signing up to work in the Czech Republic via the "pay-to-go programs," no word is uttered about the mafia-like nature of the pay-to-go agencies, which immigrant rights experts say need to be scrutinized much more than individual workers on whom the police have stepped up their raids. The journal doesn't speak about the dangerous myths perpetuated by politicians and the press alike, flying the flag that falsely links crime to the foreign worker communities, and thus helps fuel the xenophobic sentiment already so prevalent among the Czechs.

For the rest of the article, go here.

Racism, discrimination of minorities widespread in Europe, especially the Czech Republic

Last week, a report based on yet the most comprehensive survey of ethnic minorities living in Europe conducted concluded that "the majority experience racism and discrimination on a day-to-day basis," with the Roma and Africans at the highest risk. In fact, "around 90 percent of North Africans in Italy and France reported discrimination, while around 85 percent of Roma living in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Greece said they had been treated with prejudice because of their ethnicity." As a group, the Roma reported the highest overall levels of being discriminated against of all groups surveyed.

The Czech Republic "leads" the pack with the highest percentage in all of Europe of Roma reporting discrimination. About 83 percent of Czech Romanies, of whom there are estimated to be 250,000 in the country of just over 10 million, believe that discrimination is rife in the Czech Republic.

The report by the EU’s agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) found that "minorities reported racially-motivated obstacles when looking for work or a home to rent or buy, when trying to open a bank account or get a loan, when dealing with healthcare, social services or school officials. They also experienced discrimination when entering cafes, restaurants and shops."

One of the key findings was that racist crime, harassment and discrimination are grossly underreported. As a matter of fact, 80 percent of the minority respondents stated that they did not go to the authorities about the racist crimes they or ethnically inspired bias they witnessed or experienced, reflecting the belief that little could be done to tackle the problem.

FRA concludes that "the results suggest a sense of resignation among ethnic minorities and immigrants who lack confidence in the mechanisms designed to protect victims of discrimination or racist crime. The main reason given for not reporting incidents was that respondents felt that nothing would happen following their complaint."

Additionally, "80% of the respondents did not know of any organisation that could offer support or advice to victims of discrimination." The survey thus "demonstrates an urgent need for better information, but could also reflect a real absence of effective support services in many Member States," states the FRA report.

The main purpose of the report was to provide statistical evidence in order to support anti-discriminatory policy-making across the EU.

Incidentally, the Czech Republic, which got the worst grade regarding racism and discrimination experienced by the Roma of all of Europe, is the only EU27 Bloc member state without anti-discriminatory legislation in place, for which the EU court has reprimanded the country. Shame on Czech politicians!

Saturday, April 18, 2009


According to a March survey by the Public Opinion Research Centre of the Institute of Sociology of the Academy of Sciences, more than half of Czechs feel there are too many foreigners living in the Czech Republic and nearly a fifth believe that the country should stop taking in refugees. It turns out that those who say the country is a home to too many foreigners are older and, surprisingly, also left-leaning individuals.

This is paradoxical, since ccording to Amnesty International's latest report, in 2005 out of 3,750 asylum seekers in the Czech Republic, only 219, that is 5.8 % of applicants, were granted asylum. Considering the world total number of asylum seekers and persons with official refugee status was 2,799,500, the argument that the Czech Republic should accept fewer refugees is ludicrous. This opinion is obviously not supported by statistics or reality.

As of December, 2008, the Czech Foreigner Police office informed that the number of foreigners living legally in the Czech Republic is 438,301. Of that number, 172,927 have a permanent status. Others are mainly holders of long-term temporary residency permits. In the Czech Republic, a country of nearly 10.5 million, foreigners make up 3.9 percent of the population.

It is true that the press has recently been giving some attention to the fact that the country's population increase -- as much as 90%, in fact -- can largely be attributed to immigration, but that's mostly because the birth rate has been so low for so many years. In fact, in 2004, it was reported that the Czech Republic has the second lowest birthrate in the world. Though the birthrate has begun to rise, ever-so-slightly, in 2007, the Czech Republic still had the second lowest birthrate in Europe after Slovenia.

The Czechs' institutional and social xenophobia has further been exasperated by the economic crisis and rising unemployment. In February, the Czech government came up with a scheme to push foreigners out of the country. Based on the prognosis that 12,000 foreign workers could lose their jobs in the first three months of 2009, and that the work visa of 70,000 additional individuals will expire, the government decided to offer a voluntary program: a free plane ticket home and a 500 euro "motivational contribution." The foreigners who want to take advantage of this "service," which is available for eight months, have to apply within one month of losing their jobs due to the economic crisis.

This controversial program had wide-spread public support, judging from the surveys of public opinion the newspapers published. However, it was ill-conceived according to experts on refugee and foreigner integration. Firstly, the "project of voluntary returns" was conceived, based on an assumed link between rising unemployment and crime within the foreign worker community, for which there is no statistical support. Secondly, the program was created without a deep understanding of the situations within which many foreign workers find themselves. Many of them have large debt they owe the sometimes mafia-like recruitment agencies, which prevents the workers from leaving the country prematurely. Additionally, the cost of returning home for many of them is much higher than 500 euro, and thus prohibitive.

So far, about 1,000 international workers have taken advantage of the program. The government has vowed to also make this program available to foreigners living in the Czech Republic illegally. Simultaneously, the police have been conducting raids and random checks of businesses, sweeping up foreigners who they deem could be in the country illegally. During these raids, they also apparently inform their targets that they can apply to receive government aid to leave the country. What a fiasco!

In an interview with the weekly Respekt, Marketa Kadlecova, coordinator of the project Migration of the People in Need, urged that the Ministry of Internal Affairs should collaborate with the refugee community organizations, who have approached the ministry with suggestions for effective solutions. Martin Rozumek, immigration lawyer and director of the Organisation for Aid to Refugees, argues that the Czech government should primarily focus on cracking down on the mafia-like recruitment agencies which bring workers to the Czech Republic, often bound by highly exploitative contracts (collecting up to 50% of the workers' salaries as fees, for instance).

What gives me hope is that the younger generations are actually more interested, and less threatened by the idea of diversity. I hope that is the case, anyway. The Czechs, as much as anyone, benefit from contact with other cultures. I hope the younger generation will pioneer a more open, truly multicultural, and just society. Teachers, too, can play their part in helping to encourage critical thinking and media analysis. Here is an excellent lesson plan by the organization People In Need (Člověk v tísni) on xenophobia in the Czech media, for instance, which Czech instructors can take advantage of.

What moved me was this poem by a Vietnamese poet living in the Czech Republic.

Here is an excerpt from To My Wife by NGO VAN Cuong:

The town of Mladá Boleslav is so sad in the fall, my dear
Though I am half the world away,
I think of you each day, my dear
Such longing I have inside
I think of home
(...) I have to work like an ox
and I earn so little money
After work I'm all broken
Those who've come here are not at all lazy
(... ) Take care of the children while I'm not home
Educated and nice children are a gift
So I have the strength to go on
I will keep earning money
I could not earn at home
Only two more years and our family will be together again

Friday, April 03, 2009

study: women and the Roma face discrimination in the Czech job market

This week, it was reported in the Czech press that, according to Social Watch, an international human rights watchdog, Czech women and the largest racial minority, the Roma, are discriminated against in the job market.

As I also wrote on this blog last month, Czech women’s salaries are, on the average, 25% lower than men’s. Furthermore, Social Watch has found this:

Women are also overrepresented in the secondary market, where labour positions are characterized by lower prestige, worse working conditions and higher insecurity. Those with children up to six years of age and women-breadwinners are particularly threatened by long-term unemployment and poverty. In a recent survey, 13.2% of Czech women reported that they had suffered sexual harassment at work.

The study examined women’s representation in places of power. It found that "in 2007 women’s representation was 11% in the Government, 15.5% in the Chamber of Deputies, 13.6% in the Senate, 15% in regional councils and 25% in municipal councils." Worldwide, the average percentage of women in government positions is 17%, though the minimum benchmark of at least 30 percent was established in 1995 at the World Conference on Women in Peking.

Though 97 countries around the world have mandated quota for numbers of women in government, no quota systems or other forms of affirmative action have yet been proposed in the Czech Republic. Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek was, in fact, quoted by Social Watch as declaring at the inauguration of the European Year of Equal Opportunities in April 2007:

As to women – who in my opinion do not represent a disadvantaged group, even though they are usually designated as such – we cannot talk about equal opportunities (…). A woman has the freedom to decide not to have children and by making that choice, I am convinced, she can have the same professional opportunities a man has.

In addition to women, the Roma (a self-identifying term used instead of the derogative term Gypsies), are severely discriminated against in the market place. Social Watch states that the Roma, who represent 3% of the population, have "a dog’s chance for equal rights."

The report continues:

Although they became a recognized ethnic minority after 1989, growing inequality caught a significant part of the Roma population in the trap of social exclusion and ghettos started to spring up. The Roma suffer discrimination in the labour market and in education. Restaurants frequently refuse to serve them. Racist-based aggression, sometimes ending in the death of the victim, has increased (...) Housing discrimination exacerbates spatial exclusion. More than 300 slums and slum-like housing estates are inhabited largely by some 80,000 Roma.

On the whole, the report states, public services in the Czech Republic have been gradually shrinking. The Government is implementing a far-reaching privatization of public services, including health services, and the the gap between rich and poor is growing.


Tento týden byla v tisku zveřejněna zpráva mezinárodní organizace Social Watch, že český trh diskriminuje ženy a Romy. Podle této organizace, která monituruje pokroky a nedostatky v boji proti chudobě a za rovnost mužů a žen, ženy v České republice vydělávají o 25 procent méně než muži a častěji zastávají pracovní pozice s nízkou prestiží. Ženy jsou také více ohroženy nezaměstnaností. Matkám dětí do šesti let a ženám, které jsou hlavami rodiny, obzvláště hrozí dlouhodobá nezaměstnanost a chudoba.

Zpráva také informuje o tom, že 13.2% žen v Česku v nedávném průzkumu uvedlo, že se v práci setkává se sexuálním obtěžováním.

Šetření se zabývalo i podílem žen na moci. Podle SW "v roce 2007 bylo ve vládě 11%, v Parlamentu 15.5%, v Senátu 13.6% a 15% v regionalních radách a 25% v městských radách." Celosvětový průměrný podíl žen v zákonodárných orgánech je 17%, i když na Mezinárodní konferenci žen v Pekingu v roce 1995 byla stanovena minimální 30 procentní reprezentace.

I když v součastnosti existuje 97 zemí s kvótami na poměr žen v politice, v České republice se zatím návrhy na podobná opatření nevyskytla. Předseda vlády Mirek Topolanek, ocitován organizací Social Watch, se naopak vyjádřil proti podpoře rovnoprávnosti při slavnostním zahájení Evropského roku rovných příležitostí v dubnu 2007:

V případě žen – což není znevýhodněná menšina, ale obvykle se tak o ní mluví – rovněž nelze mluvit o rovnosti příležitostí. Těhotenství a mateřství je výsadou žen a tato výsada činí ženy apriorně odlišnými od mužů. Například na trhu práce (...) Žena se může svobodně rozhodnout děti nemít a pak jsem přesvědčen, že má stejné příležitosti uplatnění jako muž.

Český pracovní trh dále diskriminuje Romy, kteří tvoří 3% populace a podle zprávy SW mají "mizernou příležitost (doslova pod psa) dosáhnout rovnoprávnosti" s majoritou.

Zpráva pokračuje:

Ačkoliv jsou Romové oficiálně uznáváni za etnickou menšinu od roku 1989, zvětšující se nerovnoprávnost je svrhla do pasti sociálního vyloučení a díky jí se začala objevovat ghetta. Romové jsou diskriminováni na trhu práce a ve vzdělání. Restaurace je často odmítají obsluhovat. Množství zločinu podloženým rasovou agresí, někdy končící až i smrtí oběti, se zvyšuje (...) Diskriminace v bydlení stav vyloučení zhoršuje. Ve více než 300 chudinských čtvrtích a slumům podobných osadách žije přibližně 80.000 Romů.

Dále zpráva zahrnovala informace o tom, že veřejné programy se v České republice postupně ruší. Vláda provádí rozsáhlou privatizaci veřejných služeb, včetně zdravotnictví a rozdíl mezi chudými a bohatými roste.

Friday, March 20, 2009

the gender gap, here and there

Metro, a Prague daily, today reported that Czech women earn, on average, 22% less than their male counterparts with the same jobs. However, the gap widens for women between the ages of 35 and 44, who earn 40 percent less than men in identical professions. This is according to a survey by the employment agency Profesia, which conducts salary surveys in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

For comparison, in the U.S., in 2004, women earned 23.5% less than men, according to the the U.S. Census Bureau.


Pražský deník Metro dnes zveřejnil zprávu, že ženy v České republice si vydělávají v průměru o 22 procent méně než muži ve stejných povoláních. Mezera mezi platy mužů a žen dosahuje ale až 40. procentního rozdílu pro ženy ve věku od 35 do 44. O tom informovala firma Profesia, která nabízí služby zaměstnanosti a provádí průzkumy mezd v České republice a na Slovensku.

Pro porovnání, podle statistik Americké vlády ve Spojených státech si ženy v roce 2004 vydělávaly o 23,5 procent méně než muži.

Friday, March 13, 2009

the young and the restless speak their minds

The organization People In Need, together with the consultancy and research firm Millward Brown, conducted and just published the results of a survey, One World in Schools, of the attitudes of young people in the Czech Republic. This week, in the magazine Respekt, sociologist Martin Jílek, who analyzed the data, was interviewed, discussing the results.

One of the most interesting aspects of the study was the surprising finding that young people are interested in learning about Czech history from the period of communism. Although the generation which participated in the survey was born after the revolution, it's clear that its members' understanding isn't limited to the stereotypical notion that communism was primarily a time of "economic lack." Instead, the generation surveyed understands the period as a time when freedom was lacking. In fact, the study shows that those surveyed -- youth between fifteen and twenty years of age -- are much less materialistic than the older generations would have one believe. According to Jílek, young people "prefer non-material over material values." Family for the students surveyed is the first criterium for happiness. Next are friendship, good health and education. Finances are not found on the list until the fifth place from the top.

Furthermore, the findings show that young people feel they are not able affect events, whether at home or abroad. Even when they desire to do so, they are not sure, unless the media show specific examples, how to deal with world problems (e.g. recycling to help protect the environment). Coincidentally, young people are very affected by the media, it turns out. Only the occasional young person doesn't follow current events. The most frequent source of news for this age group is the television, followed by the internet, which a third of students consume as their primary media source. Based on this information, it could be concluded that the television should broadcast more programs focused on current events and ideas for solutions of the societal, environmental or political problems presented.

According to the study, the most serious problems faced by the young generation are: getting along with the Roma minority, problems with drug use, and transportation issues. Racism and xenophobia surprisingly placed very low on the list of concerns, perhaps because the white majority doesn't acknowledge that a key issue in "getting along with the Roma" is racism. This topic is interestingly listed as one on which the young get their information not from the media, but from personal experience. For the young, the media are the main source of information on local issues related to crime and also, to a degree, on the topic of their local environment.


Společnost Člověk v tísni spolu se soukromou výzkumnou agenturou Millward Brown uskutečnila a právě zveřejnila výsledky průzkumu názorů mladých lidí v Česku, Jeden svět na školách. V časopisu Respekt se tento týden k výsledkům vyjádřil sociolog Martin Jílek, který průzkum analyticky zpracoval.

Jedním z nejzajímavějších aspektů průzkumu bylo například překvapivé zjištění, že mladí lidé se zajímají a chtějí víc dozvědět o dějinách z doby komunizmu. I když se dotázaná generace narodila až po revoluci, době rozumějí převážně jako období nesvobody, zdaleka ne jen zkresleným stereotypem ekonomických nedostatků. Šetření poukazuje i na to, že mladá generace věkem mezi patnácti a dvaceti je překvapivě méně materialistická, než by mnozí ze starších věkových skupin odhadovali. Podle Martina Jílka studenti, kteří se průzkumu zúčastnili, "preferují nemateriální hodnoty před materiálními." Rodina je pro studenty prvním kritériem k životní spokojenosti. Následuje pak přátelství, dobré zdraví a vzdělání. Finance jsou až na pátém místě.

Dále se ukázalo, že mladí lidé mají pocit, že dění ani doma ani v zahraničí nemohou ovlivnit. I když by chtěli, nevědí, pokud v médiích nenajdou příklady (jako třeba recyklování za účelem ochrany životního prostředí), jak problémy řešit. Shodou okolností jsou mladí lidé velimi ovlivněni médii. Jen málokterý student vůbec nesleduje zpravodajství. Především je jejich zdrojem zpravodajství televize, ale internet je pro třetinu studentů hlavním zpravodajským médiem. Podle těhle informací by se dalo vyvodit, že by televize měla častěji vysílat programy zaměřené nejen na zpravodajství, ale i na způsoby řešení lokálních i globálních problémů.

Jako nejzávažnější problém pro dotázanou mládež se ukázalo soužití s romskou menšinou, a problematika drog a dopravní situace. Rasismus a xenofobie se ale kupodivu umístily mezi méně významnými problémy, možná proto, že bílá majorita si nepřipouští, že v otázce soužití s romskou menšinou je rasismus klíčovou záležitostí. Na toto téma nejsou ovšem uvedena jako nejdůležitější zdroj informací média, ale osobní zkušenost. Média studenti uvádějí jako hlavní zdroj informací pro lokální problémy týkající se kriminality a do určité míry i u stavu životního prostředí v blízkém okolí.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

organic farming on an upward trend in the Czech Republic

I'm always tearing the Czechs apart on my blog. Here is something positive for change.

Last year, the number of organic food producers in the Czech Republic grew from 169 to 422. Organically farmed land now takes up about 350.000 ha, which equals more than 8 percent of total farm land. That's more than a 20 percent increase from 2007.

The demand for organically-grown goods and organic food-stuffs is also increasing despite the higher-than-conventional food cost. 39 percent of consumers buy organic products, and of that number, 14 percent shop organic regularly, or at least once a week.


Počet registrovaných výrobců biopotravin loni vzrostl z 169 na 422. Ekologicky se v Česku hospodaří na bezmála 350.000 hektarech a podíl ekologického zemědělství na celkové výměře zemědělské půdy přesáhl osm procent. Výměra orné půdy, na které rolníci hospodaří ekologicky, se loni zvýšila o 20 procent na více než 35.000 hektarů.

Stejně jako zájem o ekologické zemědělství roste v ČR poptávka po biopotravinách, i když je jejich cena většinou vyšší. Biopotraviny kupuje 39 procent spotřebitelů, z toho 14 procent pravidelně, tedy alespoň jednou týdně.


Friday, February 13, 2009

the winds of change

As reported in the business daily E15 yesterday, the amount of wind power produced in the Czech Republic doubled from 2007 to 2008. That is excellent news.

In 2008, wind-generated energy supplied approximately 170,000 people with power. Still, wind power comprises only less than one percent of the total energy production in the Czech Republic.

Michal Janeček, the president of the Czech Wind Energy Association (ČSVE), estimates there is potential in the Czech Republic for manufacturing enough wind power to supply about 4 million Czechs with energy. In a country of just over 10 million people, that would be quite a large slice of the pie.

However, as stated on the ČSVE website, wind energy is the cheapest, but simultaneously the least-well compensated and least-funded renewable source in the Czech Republic.

According to the European Wind Energy Association, of which the Czech association is a member, "the European Union has set a binding target of 20% of its energy supply to come from wind and other renewable sources by 2020. In order to achieve this 20% energy target, more than one-third of the European electrical demand would have to come from renewables, with wind power expected to deliver 12-14%."

Can the Czech Republic live up to this standard? Last year, the amount of energy from all renewable sources combined was at approximately 4 percent of total energy production, while one third of energy was supplied by nuclear energy. Compare the numbers to Sweden, where clean energy sources account for 40% of energy production, Latvia where the rate is 35 %, Finland with a rate of 29 %, and Austria with a 23 % renewable source energy production rate.

According to E15, by the year 2010 the amount of renewable energy produced in the Czech Republic should be raised to eight, then by 2020 to 13 percent of total consumption. Those numbers are lower than the goals set by the European Union, but we have to consider that the Czech Republic is one of the smaller land-locked countries with not as much land mass and as many resources available as some of the other European countries.

The Czech Republic is also a relatively population-dense country, so the reality is such that wind turbines are never too far removed from "civilization." According to the green lifestyle-oriented website, the energy giant ČEZ plans to invest into wind energy. One of the company's first project is the planned construction of a wind farm in the Stříbro area. The people near the future site of the farm, however, are opposed to the project.

A study of the attitudes of Czechs toward wind turbines as part of the landscape was released last October. The study's results showed that local residents' support of wind energy projects tends to be much stronger once they have one to three years of experience with wind farms in their area than before the start of a new construction project. Therefore, the study concluded that "the rate of support for wind farms rises based on personal and direct experience with such projects in operation." When people lack information about wind energy projects, negative attitudes seem to take root. Some of the common concerns are: disruption of the feel of the landscape, the danger of ice chunks chipping away from the turbine, the interference with satellite signals, noise levels, and negative impact on birds and animals. Once given information and time, though, people eventually do warm up to this source of energy in their backyards. Still the eyesore issue is a big one whether before or after the installation of wind turbines.

Interestingly, about half the opponents of wind farms said they would support such a project if their region received economic benefits as a result. Surprise, surprise.

Wind energy will likely continue to be harnessed in increasing quantities in the Czech Republic, however, it will be in the hands of private companies, which tend to deregulate and inflate prices as time goes on. Let's hope the local people have a say and reep the benefits that can be associated with switching to renewable resources.

If interested, here is an overview and text of Czech legislation pertaining to curbing global warming and to government benchmarks and support for renewable energy sources.