Archive for December 2011

Ibaraki High School Student Discovers Nearly Complete Ancient Elephant Skull

December 18, 2011

Ibaraki Elephant SkullThe newly discovered fossilized stegolophodon skull; its tusk is measured against a 30 cm ruler.

Ibaraki High School Student Discovers Nearly Complete Ancient Elephant Skull
Yomiuri Shimbun: ほぼ完全な古代ゾウの頭部、茨城の高校生が発見
December 16, 2011

The nearly complete fossilized skull of a stegolophodon (the lower jaw is missing) has been discovered in Nogami, Hitachi Ōmiya City, Ibaraki Prefecture.

Mizudo Kiryō High School second year student Yumeki Hoshika (17) discovered the skull while doing a geological survey. Judging from its level in the ground stratum, the animal lived 16.5 million years ago. Ibaraki University Paleontology Professor Hisao Andō said “only individual parts of their skulls had been discovered until now, so this a huge step in understanding the evolution of mammals.”

The fossilized skull is approximately 60 cm long and 30 cm tall; the tusks are about 26 cm long. The skull was buried with the crown facing down. After being contacted by Mr. Hoshika and company, the Ibaraki Natural Museum and Ibaraki University investigated the site themselves and determined that the fossil came from a stegolophodon. A press conference was held to announce and explain the discovery on the 15th.

According to the university, the stegolophodon is a kind of elephant that lived in Japan from 17 million to 16 million B.C.

Parts of skulls and lower jaws, mostly molars, have been discovered in 7 prefectures (Yamagata, Miyagi, Fukushima, Ibaraki, Tōyama, Ishikawa, and Nagasaki), but this is the first nearly complete skull to be found.

On the 11th, Mr. Hoshika, who does geological surveys as a hobby, coincidentally unearthed the skull. “I knew it was a fossil from a mammal, but I didn’t realize it was a stegolophodon skull,” he said. He was happy about the discovery.

From here on, the museum will undertake a general public examination of the fossil.


Holland Extinguishing Pot Tourism

December 17, 2011

Marijuana Smoker in Amsterdam Coffee ShopA woman smokes marijuana in an Amsterdam coffee shop. Photo by Associated Press.

Holland Extinguishing Pot Tourism
Holland will prohibit foreign visitors to consume marijuana in its “coffeeshops”
El País: Adiós al turismo del porro
Isabel Ferrer reporting from The Hague December 15, 2011

Holland has hardened its rules governing the consumption of marijuana in “coffeeshops”. As of January 1, 2013, these businesses (there are some 650 in the country) will be converted into clubs for their Dutch members or good citizens with residence permits only. Tourists, who are a good part of the shops’ current clientele, will not be allowed to enter. In the three southern provinces, where many cities border Germany and Belgium, this order will come into force on May 1. Holland’s Ministry of Justice expects the restriction to cover the nation’s entire territory by 2013.

The stricter control of coffeeshops derives from an increase in the potency of cannabis made in Holland. Because of manipulation of the plant during its cultivation, typical Dutch cannabis is now more than 15% tetrahidrocannabiol (THC). This is its principal active agent; the higher the level, the greater the effect of marijuana consumption on the brain. Because practically all coffeeshops sell this variety, the government has decided to classify strong cannabis as a hard drug. “it is considered dangerous to the most vulnerable smokers: adolescents and young adults,” Ivo Opstelten, Minister of Justice, said in explanation of the measure.

Although Dutch clients can continue smoking marijuana without problems, they will have to register and show their corresponding cards upon use. Each establishment can have a maximum of 2000 members. Also, shops will not be allowed to sell drugs with THC content higher than 15%. The police will do regular inspections.

At the moment, any adult visitor of any nationality can consume marijuana in these establishments, whose strong presence in Amsterdam have made them a fixture on the Dutch capital’s postcards. But the city government would rather promote other types of tourism. It also wants to keep elementary and secondary students from coming into contact with the drug; for this reason, coffeeshops less than 350 meters from a school ((about half of all coffeeshops) will have to close by 2014.

The government is also trying to fight the exportation of Dutch-made marijuana, an unexpected problem. The Opiate Law penalizes the traffic, possession, and sale of more than 30 grams of marijuana, but it has not resolved this legal loophole: cultivation is penalized, but consumption isn’t. Modifying this law, however, is a large-scale undertaking the center-right government would rather not deal with at the moment.

The decriminalization of cannabis consumption (no more than five grams per person) dates to 1976. The model has been presented as a success ever since because it has separated the markets for light and heavy drugs and stymied the black market.

Basque Country to Consider Legalizing and Regulating Cultivation, Sale, and Consumption of Cannabis in 2012

December 15, 2011

Basque Country to Consider Legalizing and Regulating Cultivation, Sale, and Consumption of Cannabis in 2012
El País: Euskadi plantea regular el “cultivo, la venta y el consumo” de cannabis en 2012
Ania Elorza reporting from Vitoria, Basque Country, Spain December 12, 2011

Next year, Euskadi (the Basque Country) will consider a bill amending the addictive substances law to create a regulatory apparatus for the “cultivation, sale, and consumption” of cannabis. A draft is being prepared now, and it is expected to come before the Basque Legislature in the first months of 2012. The announcement was made by Vice Councilor of Health Jesús María Fernández during a press conference this morning presenting the sixth anti-addiction plan.

“It’s better to bring order than to prohibit,” said the Vice Director, who supports regularizing practices that are “already consolidated.” “There is already a normative frame,” shared Councilor Rafael Bengoa, who has made legal pleas for the consumption of cannabis in a responsible and self-regulating way, with all information about the consequences given, insisting that “we do not want to be prohibitionists.” Although the details of the new regulations have not been decided, “technical and juridical studies” are being done ahead of the text itself.

The consumption and possession of cannabis are prohibited in the Penal Code and Civil Security Law. Official spokesmen for the Basque Health Department qualify that the new regulation plan is an attempt to open a debate with associations in favor of such consumption and “the expression of their rights.”

Fernández has also assured that the tobacco consumption plan has areas in which “more legislation must be done”, for example smoking in closed areas with minors or sports fields with open air. In short, the Ministry of Health wants to adopt the proposal the Basque government realized in its current anti-tobacco law, which in January will complete one year in effect. The norm became less strict during parliamentary procedure, and some items were stopped cold, like a probition against smoking in a car with minors inside it. For the moment, Health favors raising societal awareness through the sixth addiction plan so smokers will avoid these harmful practices motu proprio (of their own initiative).

The plan, which will pass the Government Council tomorrow, also takes action to prevent and treat compulsive gambling, which affects 2% of the Basque population, and addictions to new technology. After extolling the results that the Euskadi anti-tobacco law has had, Bengoa called attention to “young alcoholics”: “we are still behind in that area.”

43% of Orange Juices in Spanish Bars and Restaurants Have High Level of Bacteria

December 14, 2011

Orange Juice
Nearly half the juices served in bars and restaurants are contaminated. Photo by SINC.

43% of Orange Juices in Spanish Bars and Restaurants Have High Level of Bacteria
El País: El 43% de los zumos de naranja de los bares tiene bacterias
Emilio de Benito reporting from Madrid December 13, 2011

43% of the natural orange juices served in bars and restaurants have bacteria levels higher than the legal limit, according to a University of Valencia analysis of 190 batches. The study was published in the Food Control journal.

Specifically, the analysis distinguished the presence of Enterobacteriaceae, a family that, in general, causes fermentation and oxidation in food, which decreases the nutritional quality of the juice. The most dangerous members of this family include Escherichia coli and salmonella, which can provoke grave digestive disorders. The researchers also discovered that the prevalence of airborne mesophiles, which can survive at 25-40°C (77-104°F) and which include fungus and yeast, exceeded the legal limit by an average of 12%.

The contamination is much worse if the juice is produced beforehand and stored in a metallic container rather than made directly for consumption, according to the authors of the study. That increases the enterobacteriaceae percentage by 81%. When the juice was served directly into a glass, the percentage decreased by 22%, which indicates that part of the contamination comes from jars that are insufficiently washed.

In 2009, people in Spain drank 138 million liters of orange juice, according to Ministry of Environment and Rural and Marine Affairs data; around 40% of that was in natural form from catering establishments.

Gypsy Hunting on the Outskirts of Turin

December 13, 2011

Woman among Wreckage of Turin Gypsy CampA woman before the remains of a building in Turin’s Romanian community, which was attacked. Photo by Tonino di Marco, EFE.

Gypsy Hunting on the Outskirts of Turin
A false rape accusation sets off a night of violence against Romanian immigrants.
El País: La caza del gitano a las afueras de Turín
Pablo Ordaz reporting from Rome December 11, 2011

A 16-year old girl told her family gypsies had stolen her virginity. Her older brother, Alessandro, confirmed the story: “There were two of them. One was wearing a gray tracksuit. The other had a big scar.” The story spread through the neighborhood of Vallette, built on the outskirts of Turin in the ’60s to accomodate migrant workers from southern Italy. The neighbors decided to protest against this dishonor. At first, peacefully. Then with shouts and stones. Finally, a group of Juventus supporters took control of the protest and warned: “women and children, go home. We’re going to hunt those gypsies.” That night, the shanty houses began burning.

It was already late – too late – when Susanna (an alias the police created for the minor) and her brother Alessandro decided to tell the truth. They did it because their story hardly stood up to even the first questions asked by the Carabinieri. The girl had lost her virginity, but not by force, and not to a Romanian immigrant, but willingly to a friend her age. She and her brother fabricated the juvenile rape story out of fear. Fear of her parents, so obsessed with her virginity that they frequently took her to a gynecologist to certify her “purity”. And fear of her grandmother, to whom the adolescent had promised she would go to the altar for her wedding ceremony a virgin.

That Saturday night, a hundred radicals united with 500 neighbors who had until then protested angrily but nonviolently. The radicals didn’t hide their aims. They brought all the typical hardware of such groups: hoods, masks, baseball bats, Molotov cocktails… “We have to kill them,” the ringleader said according to a witness, “because they are sons of bitches.” The hunt began, and the gypsies ran and hid. Some took beatings while barracks burned and gas canisters exploded. Smoke and fumes had already swallowed up the camp set up on the outskirts of Vallette – a suburb of a suburb – when Carabinieri patrol cars arrived on the scene. Two men, ages 20 and 59, were arrested for participating in the altercation. Meanwhile, two agents drove to the scene with Alessandro, who tried to calm the violence: “Guys, guys, calm down. My sister made it all up. It’s not their fault…”

But “they”, the others, the gypsies, reacted as if it really was their fault. Italian television showed downcast people trying to recover their belongings from the smoking barracks as if the aggression of the previous night – or the next night – were an inevitable part of the story of their lives. They are the perfect culprits: poor nomads who cannot take shelter under a roof or a flag.

The Forests of Spain Return to Life

December 12, 2011

Mountain Recovery Project Team in La Póveda (Soria)
Various members of the mountain recovery project pose together with a centenarian oak in La Póveda (Soria). Photo by Carlos Rosillo.

Pedro Medrano y Cándido Moreno
Pedro Medrano and Cándido Moreno show one of the registry sheets with all the heirs to the communal mountain.

The Forest Returns to Life
El bosque vuelve a estar animado
Carmen Morán reporting from Soria November 28, 2011

This story covers more than a century and connects the dots on the Spanish map: from Zaragoza to Cáceres, from Asturias to Soria, leaping between communal mountains. The laying of railroads and the Carlist Wars had left the national treasury teetering…suffocating in debt, the state decided at the end of the 19th century to hold public auctions of the lands that were in the hands of the dead, the church, the military, the universities…and the municipalities as well, on whose pastures entire communities depended for firewood and hunting.

That’s how this story began. The Soria Forestry Association today wants to bring life back to that natural patrimony that belonged to neighbors. In some towns, there are already advanced plans and movements in progress to clear vegetation from mountains, build walls with fallen stones, organize the introduction of livestock, sell holly in a regulated manner, restore homes, plant potatoes, hold food festivals, recover irrigation ditches, save centenarian oaks…but who could do all of this? The property owners. And who are the owners of these mountains now? That brings us back to ancient history…

The confiscation planted fear in the people: anyone could buy public land and deprive them of their livelihoods They organized, took on debt and mortgages, and sent neighbors to public auctions. “Buying the mountain wasn’t easy. 117,000 pesetas was a lot of money at the time. Things went badly for most; they sold cattle at a loss to pay the bills, and in my town they had to renounce logging rights for 40 years. They were only reserved the rights to use the pastures and to collect wood for home construction or firewood,” said Cándido Moreno de Pablo, age 71, a native of Herrera de Soria. But they got the property. Her great-grandparents were among 45 neighbors, possibly the entire community, which bought the mountain and benefited from it equally. This occurred in many provinces, and there were many joint-stock mountains owned by neighborhood organizations, vacant lots with each site registered in someone’s name.

But the migratory waves of the 20th century emptied the communities. The mountains and homes abided, as did the proprietary documents, though many were lost forever.

This documentary fragility has persisted until today. If there are not papers, city halls can claim the mountains for themselves. “It wasn’t just for these properties, which had been purchasd at such great cost and which belonged to residents, would change hands like that, with nothing more. We decided to find the heirs and propose to them the rescue of the mountains to catalyze rural development,” explained Pedro Medrano, technical director of the Soria Forestry Assocation.

Last year, the Ministry of the Environment and Rural Areas invested €732,000 in combing the archives for the names of the heirs to these properties. The branches of those family trees have where one would expect: to Argentina, for example, but also to Barcelona and Bilbao…the work in Soria, the province which is farthest along, is already complete: 185,000 hectares were sold, and 81% became joint-stock mountains decided among individuals. The same process occurred in Zaragoza. Data that has been released indicates that studies until this date have been very brief (see the graphic). Some experts in this field calculate that the communal territory could occupy more than 2 million hectares of the close to 7 million hectares of confiscated forested land. The communal mountains, or lucky mountains, have been cared for by some few locals, but they could not make decisions without the agreement of all the proprietors, which was practically impossible. To clear this legal hurdle that had paralyzed hundreds of hectares, the Mountain Law was modified in 2003 to allow for solicitors’ unions, which would require just 11 neighbors, and which would have decision-making powers. There are already 22 such unions in Soria, seven in Asturias, and some in pockets of León and Segovia – but not all communities have conformed. Some are seeking all the heirs, casting out lines for them not only in archives but also in the memories of the elderly, “which, what’s more, has propitiated fruitful encounters and exchanges between generations.” The creations of solicitors’ unions in themselves, to which some have contributed with great solemnity, has been a grand affair in some communities. The streets have been decorated; the people have welcomed various authorities; some of the very old have attended to sign know papers crediting them with their property. “The mountains in the proindiviso regime have been the great forgotten areas, in official statistics, partially by forestry administrations and partially, even more sadly, by the heirs of the buyers themselves, who had forgotten this part of recent history,” said Amador Marín of the Soria Forestry Association.

The rescue of these lands has “a principal objective: to conserve the populations that live in these small towns, so they will not continue moving to the cities. For this reason, some of the benefits citizens obtain, if not all, should have this priority, to restore houses and allow neighbors economic assistance so they will continue living in their communities,” Medrano explained.

What’s more, no one is thinking of becoming rich off this. When only 11 proprietors are found, just enough to make a solicitors’ union, the rest of the money can only be reinvested in improvements of the mountain or the town. And if all are found, the division of the money is ridiculous. “We’ve had the experiences we’d hoped for: some of the heirs are young people who are excited to participate and give life to their grandparents’ villages; they know that a 0.0008% share will never make them rich, and they don’t even dream of receiving a single payment for all the wood they could sell,” explained Manuel Gómez Ceña, president of the solicitors’ union of La Póveda (Soria), one of the towns with the most advanced plans.

The search for heirs has generated immense sheets of paper that are unfurled over the table of the Soria Forestry Association. Tears have been shed more than once by people who were contacted and told of their origins in Castilla and that part of a mountain there is theirs, at least 0.005% of the stock. “Elías cried like a Nazarene (Spanish metaphor for “penitent”). He took some rocks from the house that belonged to his grandparents and took them back to Argentina,” said Cándido Moreno de Pablo about a family’s recent visit. I explained to all of them that we will never permit the mountain to be used for self-interest. They answered that they were satisfied just to be able to show their children they are descendants of Spaniards. They are very sentimental people,” said Cándido, an old Castilian, in a flattering tone.

“We have to insist that this is not being done for economic benefit, that what we’re trying to do is recover a system of integrated management, of silvopasture, which was egaliatarian and sustainable,” Pedro Medrano continued.

But when money rears its head, things inevitably get complicated. In some towns, the mountain has become more profitable than before because of new windmills. The aerogenerators have caused conflict among neighbors and governments, such as Ledrado, a hamlet in Las Aldehuelas. “We have nine windmills. We have organized a solicitors’ union, and we plan to exploit the opportunity. We’ve already been delayed because the business is waiting to find out who they should pay,” explained Pedro Antonio Marín, who returned to the community after retirement and is emotionally invested in the idea of bringing life to the mountains. A windmill could bring some 3000 euros per year. “But so that no one will call it a swindle,” the dividends will be used for rural development, for reinvestment in the forest, for the common good of the community. The mayor, Segundo Revilla Jiménez, believes the same. “Our grandparents bought these mountains; they belong to the people; there’s no doubt about that. Why would City Hall reclaim them? In addition, the benefits would go to the people themselves and the maintenance of the population, which is vital here,” he added.

Whatever the case may be, everyone involved in this adventure points out that this story was born from solidarity and should not shift toward anything else. This was always so. In the town of Cándido, Herrera, there are 15 people according to the census but only four open homes. Each of these homes, in payment for keeping the community alive, receives 5% of the revenue from lumber and leases for cattle grazing. “It was always that way,” Cándido recalled. “The money was used for electric lighting, running water, and the construction of schools and roads. It was money that neighbors invested in neighbors.” So it continues.

The support mechanisms neighbors are organizing to share the mountains and their yields are diverse, and all involved speak of the past: precious traditions that constituted a formidable symbolic patrimony. “In Espejón, for example, to receive benefits, one has to agree to live in the community, and there is a log for overnight stays: the days someone can spend out of town are limited, and when neighbors leave, they have to inform the secretary,” Cándido recounted. It seems like an ancient story, but it’s happening right now.

From community to community, the enjoyment of the mountains is anchored in natural descendance: parents, children, marriages, new parents, new children. But the outflow of people is unstoppable. Some communities have been deserted again, although now the emmigration is only in terms of some kilometers, to the regional mastheads, to the cities. “They’re already talking about opening up communities to families who aren’t from there but who want to live in them: immigrants, for example,” Pedro Medrano recognized. Cándido is doubtful, mindful of tradition, of the old buyers…but times change, and she knows the priority is that communities stay alive, and their mountains with them.

“The Matter of the Mountains is Very Moving”
Upon the death of his father, an elderly Spanish emigrant who has lived in Argentina since 1925, Elías Pascual, wanted to search for his origins. His father had never spoken much about them. “We knew that he was from a town in Soria, and sometimes he mentioned El Burgo de Osma (another town). My father lost all his contacts when my grandparents died. We also knew that it was a very small village, so we took a car there and talked with them. At the first door we knocked on, a place where there were clothes hanging to dry, we met a cousin who, obviously, we had never known of before, and after that I met other cousins…it was emotional,” said Elías, age 73.

On that journey, he shed good tears. He collected many stones from the home of his grandfather for himself and his sister and returned to Argentina. But he never lost contact again. The economy did not allow them to travel as they wished, but he made a second visit to Spain three years ago with his children. That’s when he met Cándido Moreno, who had written him in advance asking for information so he and his children could be credited as proprietors of Mount Herrara (Soria). She sent the papers to Argentina; they were signed and sent back to Spain.

“I should get my hands on one of the trees – I don’t know if they’re big or small,” he joked. “But most of all, it’s satisfying to have these memories of my family, of my grandfather, who was one of the people who went through so much to buy the mountain.” Emotion overcame Elías, and he had to pass the phone to his wife, Adriana Mattioli, an Italian who also immigrated to Argentina. “He’s very emotional – there are lots of memories, you know? All this about the mountains is very moving, about what our ancestors did with so much love for the land; we have to keep taking care of it so it won’t disappear. And it’s very clear that there aren’t any economic interests or favors involved, none at all. It’s only to maintain what our elders did.”

Spain Has Highest Proportion of Overqualified Laborers in EU

December 11, 2011

University students filling in job application forms at the Polytechnic University. The sign in the background says “we’re looking for people like you.”  Photo by Carles Francesc.

Spain Has Highest Proportion of Overqualified Laborers in EU
Nearly a third of college and vocational school graduates have vocations that do not require this level of education; the European average is 19%
El País: España es el país de la UE con más trabajadores sobrecualificados
Juan Antonio Aunión reporting from Madrid December 8, 2011

Spain has a higher proportion of overqualified laborers than any other European Union country; that is to say, 31% of its laborers that have university degrees or superior vocational training are doing work suitable for those without this level of formation; the European average is 19%.

Overqualification is a serious problem that has dogged Spain for years: the education level of its population, most of all its citizens’ degree of university education and superior vocational training, has increased much more quickly than the number of corresponding jobs available in an economy based on construction and services. Between 1999 and 2009, the percentage of Spaniards with higher education increased from 21% to 30%, and among today’s youth the rate is 39%.

After Spain, Ireland (29%) and Cyprus (27%) are the member states with the highest percentage of overqualified laborers age 25-54; on the other end of the spectrum are the Czech Republic and Slovenia (7%), according to a statistical study by Eurostat based on 2008 data. Italy’s rate is 13%; Germany’s and the UK’s 20%; France’s 19%.

Spain was already tabbed in a 2008 EU study based on 2006 data as one of the countries with the most overqualification among those with university diplomas: it was 38%, topped only by Ireland and Estonia. The studies are not exactly comparable, as that one did not differentiate between natives and foreigners, like the more recent one does, but it does signal this is a recurring problem.

In any case, the three years since 2008 have seen intense crisis; it’s not clear how they have affected the overqualification rate in a country that has surpassed 20% general unemployment and 45% youth unemployment. The chair of the Economics Department at the Universidad Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, José García-Montalvo, predicted in 2009 that the overqualification rate could rise above 50%, as many people with low or middling levels of education who have been out of work during the crisis have hit the books again, increasing the public’s education level further though there are no signs of a significant increase in jobs requiring high qualification. The matriculation rate for junior college degrees has grown more than 15% over the last two academic years; university matriculation, in turn, has risen 10%.

Something else that has a great effect on the general overqualification rate is the overqualification rate for foreign laborers; 9 out of every 10 people leaving Spain are foreigners, according to the Immigration Agency. The Eurostat study compares the labor situations of natives and foreigners and finds that in Spain, the overqualification rate among the latter reached 58% in 2008. Only foreign laborers in Greece have it worse (62%).

The differences in overqualification between the two groups are immense in the majority of EU countries. The same goes for the risk-of-poverty rate (18% for natives, 32% for foreigners) and the probability of living in public housing (3% versus 12%).