Peru’s government launched operation Mercurio 2019 in February to once and for all curb the illegal mining in Madre de Dios. The illegal mining in Madre de Dios is centered around the ad-hoc gold rush town La Pampa near the Tambopata National Reserve. The main goal is to rid the area of the more than 5,000 illegal miners and several thousands of merchants and other people working in the area in supporting roles. It is likely that the operation will have some success in ridding the area of the illegal miners. Positive results from the initial phase foster some optimism, however, it is unclear if the operation will yield any major long-term success. If the government manages to sustain the military operation and follow up with good policy initiatives, the intervention does have a chance of success where previous similar operations have failed. However, there are a series of pitfalls and risks facing the operation.
Illegal gold mining badly hurt the environment, and the fragile ecosystem in the Tambopata National Reserve is at great risk. The reserve is one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, spanning around 1,000 square miles, and it is estimated that more than 5,000 illegal miners are active within the buffer zone around the reserve. The environmental hazards are several. Besides the deforestation of the mining area, miners use toxic mercury in the separation process, leading to an intoxication of the soil. According to a report in 2016, 41 % of the population in Madre De Dios was affected by this, mostly in terms of contaminated water and fish. As illegal mining is inevitably unregulated, the 2015 ban on mercury had no effect on the illegal miners, who are reportedly importing black-market mercury from Bolivia.
Operation Mercurio 2019 consists of several phases; an initial intervention phase, followed by a consolidation phase before moving on to sustained work planned until 2021. The initial phase pertained a raid against the town and illegal mining hub La Pampa on 19 February, resulting in some 40 women rescued from sex trafficking and 30 illegal mining camps dismantled. Some 1,500 security personnel, both military and police, was dispatched to the region to take part in the raid. The second phase is due to last for six months, and is aimed to relocate residents, rid La Pampa from crime and establish a security presence through four military bases. The first of the bases was inaugurated on 5 March near the Tambopata National Reserve. The last phase, set to last for two years, is designed to reintroduce some of the miners but legalize and regulate the mining. Through these efforts, the government wishes to assure that the mining is done in an environmentally responsible manner. Further efforts to diversify the economic activities are also planned.
The policy initiatives set to follow on the military operation aims to replace the illicit mining activity with legal commerce such as tourism, forestry and agriculture. The goal is also not trying to eradicate gold mining, but to steer it away from the national reserves and register and regulate it. On paper, these initiatives seem like good solutions to reinvent the area, however, these policies are facing a host of problems. The long-standing issues in Madre De Dios, such as its reputation as a crime-ridden and mercury polluted area, will likely weaken the attraction of these alternative industries. Further, as gold prices globally keep soaring, the appetite for gold mining is unlikely to diminish. Trying to replace this highly lucrative source of income with legal activities will be very difficult. The announced policy efforts might also not provide sufficient options for the thousands of people who are losing their livelihood and need to relocate. Thus, the operation risks driving the miners further into the rainforest, where they are likely able to continue the illegal mining.
The style of the operation is by no means a novel measure taken against the illegal miners, as previous operations, reaping little success, have shared many characteristics. However, this operation appears to be bigger and more resolute. Defence Minister Jose Huerta said, in a statement, that the troops will not leave the area until it is as green as it always was. But troops are not enough, and the potential success of the operation will highly likely lie in the implementation of long-term replacement policy.
Despite all pitfalls and risks, Mercurio 2019 appears to be a decent attempt to rescue Madre De Dios from the immense environmental hazard illicit gold mining causes, and the other illegal activities following it. There will be many bumps ahead, but if the operation does reap long-term success, and manages to turn the Madre de Dios region around, it can provide useful lessons to subsequent operations, both in Peru and internationally.
On 27 March 2019, migrants hijacked a merchant vessel which had rescued them off the coast of Libya. In what appears to be the first such incident, officials have reported that 108 migrants were picked up by the cargo vessel El Hiblu 1, a Palau-flagged tanker that had diverted from its course from Turkey to Libya after being asked to rescue the migrants. The migrants however later hijacked the vessel when it became clear that it was planning to take them back to Libya, managing to force the vessel’s captain to steer the ship towards Europe. On Wednesday, a spokesman for Malta’s armed forces confirmed that the vessel had been hijacked and that Maltese authorities were monitoring its progress and that officials would not allow the vessel to dock in Malta. On Thursday 28 March, a Maltese special operations team boarded the tanker and returned control to the captain, before escorting the vessel to a Maltese port. The vessel eventually docked at Boiler Wharf in the city of Senglea. A number of migrants were taken for investigation and five suspected ringleaders were led off in handcuffs. In all, the Turkish tanker rescued 77 men, 19 women and 12 minors, including toddlers. The vessel had been heading towards Italy’s southernmost island of Lampedusa and the island of Malta when Maltese forces intercepted it. On 30 March, three teenage migrants from Guinea and Ivory Coast, aged 15, 16 and 19, were charged in a court in Malta with hijacking a small commercial oil tanker that had rescued them and others off the coast of Libya. The act is considered a terrorist crime under Maltese law, carrying a punishment of between seven years and life in prison. The suspects have pleaded not guilty and they have been denied a bail request.
While Italy’s hard-line interior minister has indicated that the migrants in this incident are pirates, aid groups have rejected the label, stating that the European Union’s policy of sending migrants back to Libya was the reason for the migrants taking control of the vessel. Humanitarian organizations maintain that migrants are being mistreated and even tortured in Libya and have protested protocols to return migrants rescued offshore to the lawless country. Both Italy and Malta continue to refuse to open their ports to humanitarian vessels that rescue migrants at sea, which has resulted in a number of standoffs as European governments try to agree on who will take them in.
This incident highlights migrant’s desperation to avoid being returned to Libya, and may have further consequences that are likely to spread across the wider shipping community, as vessels transiting the Mediterranean Sea may now be reluctant to aid stranded migrants. Initial reports indicated that the rescued migrants aboard the vessel had threatened crewmembers and had stated that they would jump off the ship unless it changed course. The Times of Maltahowever reported on Saturday that police had expressed doubts about the hijacking incident, reporting that authorities believe the captain may have said he was not in control of his ship in a bid to gain permission to dock in Malta, which has in the past refused ships carrying rescued migrants. What is certain is the difficulties that merchant vessels are now faced with: the need to fulfil the legal requirement to rescue anyone in distress at sea coupled with an increasing threat of hijacking by migrants desperate to reach Europe. The incident also comes just hours after the EU announced that it will suspend vessel patrols that have rescued tens of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean and brought them to Italy. The rescues were part of the EU’s Operation Sophia, which diplomats have decided to extend by six months beyond the 31 March 2019 expiry date, but without new ship deployments. Instead, the operation will now rely on air missions and close coordination with Libya. This inevitably will place increased pressure on merchant vessels transiting the Mediterranean Sea and may result in further similar attempts and successful hijackings by migrants attempting to reach Europe.
A great deal of global attention has been afforded to Syria since the beginning of its civil war in 2011. In recent months however, the country has found itself facing fresh waves of scrutiny with the return of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and US President Donald Trump’s recent announcement to withdraw US troops from the region. Despite allegations that ISIS is almost defeated, along with Syrian Democratic Forces closing in on the terror group’s last remaining stronghold in Baghouz, the security situation still remains increasingly unstable in the country with new threats lurking on the horizon.
The jihadist militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has been making gains in northern Syria in the last few months, mainly by way of seizing more than a dozen towns and villages in Idlib province. This has resulted in a rapidly deteriorating security situation in the area. The group have previous affiliations to Al-Qaeda and have remained a dangerous opposition force throughout the duration of the Syrian conflict, according to the Centre for Strategic International Studies (CSIS). CSIS further state that the US State Department formally recognised the group as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation in May 2018. However, according to CSIS, they are now thought of as a fairly localised Syrian terrorist organisation which preserves a Salafi-jihadist ideology. International aid organisations have subsequently withdrawn aid and support for schools and hospitals in the fear of aid money being diverted by the terrorist group. This has inevitably had a wide-scale effect on the quality of life of civilians living in Idlib province.
Residents have also been rightly concerned that the Syrian government will use the gains of the terrorist organisation as a justification to launch a full-scale assault and completely break the ceasefire which Russia and Turkey initially agreed in September last year. Idlib has already been subject to weeks of shelling, resulting in the deaths of at least 160 people since the beginning of February, according to reporting by The New Arab. At the beginning of March, in an apparent effort to end the killings, Turkey and Russia announced they would be launching joint patrols in Idlib province. According to Al Jazeera, the agreement states that Russian forces would patrol the edge of the province, whilst the Turkish army would operate in the demilitarised zone. Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akdar testified that the patrols marked a significant step for ensuring stability in the region.
However, mere days after this agreement was brokered, Russian aircraft struck hospitals and civilian infrastructure in the area. According to reporting by The Guardian, the bombardment by Russian and Syrian planes was the most extensive yet with airstrikes reportedly intensifying in Idlib. Idlib residents said Russian aircraft conducted at least 12 aerial strikes on residential areas, including a civilian prison on its outskirts. At least 10 civilians were killed and 45 injured.
Approximately three million people are thought to live in Idlib province. Analysts have warned that a full-scale assault could result in severe displacement, leading to hundreds of thousands of refugees joining the four million who have already left Syria. Judging from the previous capabilities and intentions of Bashar al-Assad, he will be likely to want to regain complete control of the entire region, despite warning from humanitarian organizations and the international community that an offensive could send many fleeing towards Syrian’s northern border with Turkey. This would further compound the already existing humanitarian crisis in Syria. For example, 65,000 people who have fled from ISIS’ last stronghold in Baghouz are believed to be currently camping at Al-Hawl camp in northeast Syria. This figure is three times the capacity of the camp, with officials stating that health services are collapsing under the burden of so many people. Camp workers have warned that they do not have enough food, medicine or tents and have said that diseases will spread rapidly as a result.
Aid agencies have previously warned that a significant assault on Idlib could cause one of the worst humanitarian crises’ in Syria’s war. The situation could well pave the way for the next crisis in the Middle East, threatening the UN’s capacity to stick to other catastrophes it is currently engaged in, such as Yemen. However, given the strong desire of Western governments and humanitarian agencies to avoid furthering a crisis, aid will likely be reintroduced to the area, along with greater pressure applied on Bashar al-Assad to concede some control.
In the wake of the deadly Pulwama suicide terror attack of 14 February in which more than 40 Indian police officers were killed by a Pakistan-based insurgency group called Jaish-e-Mohammed, New Delhi has vowed to retaliate, among other measures, by cutting back on water flowing through its rivers to Pakistan. Indian Water Resources Minister Nitin Gadkari stated in a tweet that “Our Govt. has decided to stop our share of water which used to flow to Pakistan. We will divert water from Eastern rivers and supply it to our people in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab.” India has made this threat before when an Indian Army base was attacked in Uri in 2016, but in the end chose to use surgical strikes against targets in Pakistan. This time, however, India seems more determined about using water as a weapon.
Under the Indus Water Treaty (IWT), brokered by the World Bank in 1960, India and Pakistan divided the rights to the enormous Indus river and its tributaries as follows: while the waters of the Sutlej, the Beas, and the Ravi rivers flow to India, the waters of the West Indus, the Jhelum, and the Chenab rivers flow into Kashmir and beyond that into Pakistani territory. While the treaty has held even in spite of three wars between the two nations since 1965, it is increasingly being strained to its limit. Pakistan has accused India of throttling its water supply and violating the treaty by constructing dams over the rivers flowing into Pakistan from Kashmir.
Although both sides rely heavily on the water flows for hydropower and agriculture, it is Pakistan, for which the water of Indus is a lifeline: most of the country depends on it as the primary source of freshwater and it supports 90 percent of the country’s agricultural industry. While previously Pakistan was considered relatively plentiful with water, a mixture of mismanaged irrigation, water-intensive agriculture and climate change has reduced the water flow of Indus significantly. Now Pakistan is ranked as third among countries facing severe water shortages making it one of the most water-stressed countries in the world. It is facing challenges brought about by climate change which were not considered important during the negotiations for the IWT in 1960 and the access to water has become a matter of survival for the country. Therefore, a rhetoric suggesting a possible water war is alarming considering the fact that Pakistan is a country with nuclear weapons. If Pakistan were to be backed into a corner because its lack of access to water which is needed for growing food for its exploding population, it would be forced to use every means available to them.
In this dangerously evolving scenario the only thing that might keep India from shutting Pakistan off from the Indus waters is China. Because even India is dependent upon the mercy of China due to being even further upstream. As a result, if China were to pursue the regulation of water runoff from the glaciers in the Himalayas, it would have a similar effect on India.
After what has been a long crisis in Venezuela, the situation has now turned into a presidential stand-off between the socialist de-facto President Nicolas Maduro on one hand and self-proclaimed interim President Juan Guaido. Not only has this divide been heavily prevalent in Venezuela, but the international community is zooming in on the situation and taking sides. Amongst Guaido’s supporters we find most of the liberal western countries such as the US, most of the EU, the UK, Canada and many more. On the other side, supporting Maduro, we find countries such as China, Cuba, Turkey, Iran and last but not least, Russia. But what exactly is Russia’s interest in Venezuela? Being one of Russia’s last outpost in South America, Russia is heavily invested in having a Russia-friendly leader, Maduro, in place in Venezuela. Not only in terms of projecting power, but also protecting investments, as Russia has put big sums of money, several billions of USD, towards the oil and gas industry in the country. It is almost certain that if Maduro fails to stay in power and Guaido takes over, Russia’s influence in the country would be greatly diminished. Therefore, Russia is likely to go to great lengths to protect Maduro’s presidency, however, an outright military intervention is not likely given the severe repercussions that could entail.
Venezuela’s principal significance for Russia is most likely its location, on the doorstep to the US. Having a heavy influence in Venezuela provides a great, and possibly the only, opportunity to project power for Russia in the Americas. Russia’s interest in projecting power is, according to several experts, likely a nostalgic desire for a strong Russia as a serious player in the world arena. As recent as December 2018, Russia landed two nuclear-capable bombers, TU-160’s, on the Simon Bolivar airport in Venezuela as a show of support for Maduro’s government. The move raised serious concern in the US and was highly condemned. The US’s strong reactions to the event revealed to some extent exactly how significant the Russian influence in Venezuela is to the US, and thus, to the Russians.
Russia has invested heavily in Venezuela’ gas and oil asset, giving them even more reason to protect Maduro. Several billions USD has been forwarded towards Maduro and PDVSA, Venezuela’s state-owned oil company. Recently, Maduro visited Russian President Vladimir Putin in Russia, where Putin pledges additional funds to Venezuelan oil and mining. Reportedly, 17 billion USD has been poured into the Venezuelan oil and gas industry, and although a fair bit of it has been paid back, Venezuela still has a substantial debt towards Russia. Venezuela is having a hard time keeping up with the payment schedule, and rely on its oil reserves, one of the largest ones in the world, to be able to pay the loans back. However, due to US-led sanctions against the country and severe mismanagement of the oil production, the ability to sell oil and thus keeping the schedule is diminished. Further, if a US-friendly leader, like Guaido, were to take power in Venezuela, the investments made in the country might end up worthless and loans may not be paid back.
Maduro’s blockage of western humanitarian aid can become the catalyst for US military action. Arguably, the most sensitive conflict area is currently at the bridges on the border between Colombian town Cucuta and Venezuela, where Maduro-loyal military personnel are blocking US humanitarian aid from entering the country. Several clashes between protesters and military forces over the aid in the last days have resulted in at least two dead and several hundred injured. If sustained, the situation can lead to the necessity of military help to get the aid across the border, thus making the situation even more fragile. Russia’s possible response to a US military intervention in Venezuela is very hard to predict. Russia has a tremendous amount to lose if they lose Maduro, however, given the great physical distance between the countries a Russian military response would probably be very hard to sustain.
At the end of January 2019, Russia-connected private military company, the Wagner Group, was reported to be on the ground in Venezuela to protect Maduro. Although the links between the Russian government and the Wagner Group are unclear, it widely reported that Kremlin exerts some type of influence over the group. Sending mercenaries connected to Wagner Group instead of regular, Russian uniformed military forces helps Russia keeping their involvement in Venezuela at an arm’s length, providing plausible deniability. With the aid of the Wagner Group’s private security personnel, Maduro does not wholly depend on support from the Venezuelan military. However, it is unclear how much pressure the Wagner Group can withstand, and if enough of Venezuela’s military forces turn against Maduro, the mercenaries protecting him will likely not suffice. Russia can, in that scenario, decide to either back down and lose Venezuela to Juan Guaido, or double-down on their effort and send more help to Maduro, either in the form of more mercenaries or Russia-uniformed military personnel.
As the crisis in Venezuela continues, Russia will probably do its best to keep its involvement at an arm’s length. The possible consequences of a full-on military intervention might be very severe, as alliances have been pledged throughout the international community. It is almost certainly in everyone’s interest to resolve the Venezuela situation without resorting to military means, therefore exhausting every possible diplomatic venture before starting to mobilize military force will likely be the preferred course of action. But, to appear strong is in the blood of Russia, and most certainly Putin. Losing the influence in Venezuela would not only be a strategic and economic setback, but also a case of losing face. Because of this, military action to retain influence over Venezuela cannot be ruled out.