Australia’s ‘watergate’: here’s what taxpayers need to know about water buybacks



File 20190423 15224 l8c00.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The federal government committed to reducing water extraction from the Murray-Darling Basin.
Shutterstock

Lin Crase, University of South Australia

In 2017, the then agriculture minister, Barnaby Joyce, signed off on an A$80 million purchase of a water entitlement from a company called Eastern Australia Agriculture.

The problem is that Energy Minister Angus Taylor used to be a director of Eastern Australia Agriculture – though he didn’t have a financial interest – and the company is a Liberal party donor. What’s more, the value of the water purchased for A$80 million is under question.

Now, as the election looms, this issue has resurfaced. But why should taxpayers be concerned?




Read more:
Is the Murray-Darling Basin Plan broken?


Water buybacks using an open tender were halted by the current government in 2015, even though this is the most cost-effective way to set aside water for the environment. Instead, the government pronounced that subsidies for irrigators were a better deal.

Until 2015, the government bought back most water using an open tender process, before it was replaced by a subsidy scheme for irrigation and occasional closed tenders.

The problem with the closed tender process is that it tends to lack transparency, which raises questions about how effectively the government is spending public money. And it’s hard to prove closed tenders deliver the most cost effective outcome.

The Murray-Darling Basin is a very productive agricultural zone and its rivers have been used to boost agricultural outputs through irrigation.

State governments spent much of the 20th century allocating this water to agricultural users. By the 1990s it was clear too much water was being extracted. This resulted in both harm to the river environment and potential reduced reliability for those with existing water rights.

Various attempts to rein in extractions were made around this time, but ultimately the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was adopted to deal with the problem.

In agreeing on the plan, the federal government committed to spending A$13 billion to reduce the amount of water being extracted from the Murray-Darling Basin. To accomplish this the government has two basic strategies.

One involves buying up existing rights for water use. The other hinges on using subsidies so farmers use less water when irrigating.

Reducing water extraction from the basin

The second approach of using subsidies is generally more politically appealing. This is because few farmers ever object to receiving a subsidy and the public has an affinity with the idea of “saving” water.




Read more:
Damning royal commission report leaves no doubt that we all lose if the Murray-Darling Basin Plan fails


The problem, however, is that subsidies are a more costly way of returning water to the river system than simply buying back existing water rights. And so-called water savings are hard to measure how much water savings are a result of subsidies or some other factor.

This is why some analysts even claim subsidies are reducing the level of water available for the environment.

Buying back water rights is generally more cost-effective than providing subsidies. But a clear and transparant process still matters because water rights are not the same for everyone and it’s a complex process to determine their overall value.

Allocations and entitlements

First, most water users hold a legal right, known as an entitlement. Water entitlements represent the long-term amount of water that can be taken and used – subject to rain, of course.

Second, water allocations represent the amount of water currently available against a given entitlement – this is the water that is available now.

If a farmer owns an entitlement in the River Murray, chances are the annual allocation will be determined by how much water has flowed into upstream storages like Hume Dam, Dartmouth Dam or Lake Eildon.

Even then the allocation will vary, depending on which state issued the original entitlement. For instance, New South Wales water is generally allocated more aggressively. This means NSW entitlements tend to be less reliable in dry years than Victorian or South Australian entitlements.

If a farmer owns an entitlement where there are no upstream storages, as is the case with much of the Darling River system, then the allocation will vary depending on how much water is flowing in the river.




Read more:
Discontent with Nationals in regional areas could spell trouble for Coalition at federal election


So what?

All of this means the amount of water that can actually be used for the environment when an entitlement passes to the government will depend heavily on the underlying characteristics of the water right.

Partly for this reason, water buybacks were historically conducted using an open tender process.

This meant the government would announce its willingness to buy water entitlements. Farmers would then notify the government about what entitlements they held and the price they were prepared to take.




Read more:
Investors and speculators aren’t disrupting the water markets


Running an open tender allowed the government to assess the value for money of the different entitlements on offer at the time.

Water buybacks through open tender began seriously in about 2007 to 2008. This meant the price owners were prepared to sell for would be registered, and then the government would determine which offer provided the best value. Around 60% of all water now held for the environment by the Commonwealth was secured through open tenders.

As a general rule, a relatively high-reliability water entitlement was bought for about $2,000 per megalitre and this has become the metric for many in the market. But the current government halted this process in 2015.

Now, the government buys water through direct negotiation with water-entitlement holders.

The government justified ending open-tender buybacks on the basis that the water being secured was causing undue harm to rural and regional communities. And, instead, much more expensive subsidies would supposedly generate a better overall return.

This view is not universally shared. The receipts from openly tendered water entitlements were being used by many farmers to adjust their business, while still staying in the region.

Many rural communities continue to thrive, regardless of the strategy chosen to secure water for the environment. Subsidies also tend to favour particular irrigators rather than the community in general.




Read more:
Droughts, extreme weather and empowered consumers mean tough choices for farmers


Having set aside the cheapest option of open-tender buybacks and declaring support for irrigation subsidies, the problem the government now faces is that it must explain why closed tenders persisted (albeit in isolated cases) and were signed off by Ministers as good value for money.

Closed tenders need not deliver a poor outcome for taxpayers. But it does mean the likelihood of establishing the best value for money is reduced, simply because there are fewer reference points.

And if it’s legitimate to overspend public money on irrigation infrastructure subsidies, the credibility of a supposedly cost-effective closed tender is also brought into question.The Conversation

Lin Crase, Professor of Economics and Head of School, University of South Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Supermarkets are not milking dairy farmers dry: the myth that obscures the real problem


Gary Mortimer, Queensland University of Technology

Australia’s federal agriculture minister, David Littleproud, has called for a boycott of supermarket-branded milk. He is angry about lack of support for a “milk levy” of 10 cents a litre wanted by the dairy industry to support drought-stricken farmers.

Fellow National Party colleagues have called for nothing less than a royal commission into the supermarkets’ support for farmers. Nationals leader, and deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, has said he is open to the idea.

Amid intense price competition across many supermarket categories, the price of milk stirs passions like nothing else.

But calls to boycott supermarket-branded milk are misguided; and a royal commission would not be money well-spent.

The widely held belief that supermarkets are hurting dairy farmers by driving down the price of milk is incorrect.

It overlooks basic supply chain dynamics and the findings of the 18-month-long inquiry by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, which was ordered by then federal treasurer Scott Morrison to investigate the low milk prices paid to dairy farmers.




Read more:
Helping farmers in distress doesn’t help them be the best: the drought relief dilemma


Indirect relations

Looking at the supply chain for fresh milk helps show why the retail price of supermarket-branded milk does not determine the price paid to farmers as some claim.

There are many players within a food supply chain: producers, processors, wholesalers, retailers and consumers.


Fresh dairy supply chain volume map:
Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry

Dairy farmers typically sell their milk to processors, who then sell to supermarkets. There is a relationship between the supermarket and processor, not supermarket and farmer. Whether the supermarket sells a litre of milk at $2, $3 or $4 has no direct relationship on the price the processor pays to the farmer.

In the words of the final report of the competition watchdog’s Dairy Inquiry, “the farm-gate price paid to farmers for milk used to fulfil private label milk contracts is not directly correlated with private-label milk retail prices”.

Blame dairy processors

The ACCC’s report does identify a range of market failures due to bargaining power imbalances and information asymmetry, but these are crucially between dairy farmers and processors.




Read more:
Murray Goulburn and Fonterra are playing chicken with dairy farmers


Dairy farmers’ weak bargaining power means any higher price paid by supermarkets to processors would not necessarily result in higher farm-gate prices. The ACCC report notes that farmers get no more money for the milk that is sold at higher retail prices (such as branded milk).

Processors, not supermarkets, set farm-gate prices in response to market conditions (global and domestic demand), at the minimum level required to secure necessary volumes. Farmers are not paid according to the type or value of the end product their milk is used in. They are paid the same price for their raw milk regardless of what brand goes on the container.


Distribution of revenue from sale of private label vs branded fresh drinking milk:
ACCC Dairy Inquiry

Also blame consumers

Supermarkets are under pressure to keep food prices low, particularly on staples such as bread, milk and eggs. This is evident from the fact that campaigns to get shoppers to exercise their power as ethical consumers quickly run out of steam.




Read more:
We are what we eat: the demise of the ethical grocery shopper


In April 2016, for example, national attention on the plight of dairy farmers led to a campaign encouraging shoppers to leave “supermarket branded milk” on the shelves. In a single month the supermarket brands’ share of milk sales dropped from 66% to 51%. Then it began to rise again. Within a year it was back to nearly 60%.


https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/NyTIZ/1/


Adding to confusion

While a milk levy to directly help farmers during the drought has many supporters, the disconnect within the supply chain means it is near impossible for retailers to pass the money directly to the intended beneficiaries. That, again, depends on those who buys the milk from the farmers – the processors.

Despite this, and because the ACCC inquiry’s findings have so far done little to dispel myths about the price of milk, retailers such as Woolworths have seen it as prudent to embrace the levy idea and publicly demonstrate support for dairy farmers.




Read more:
Time to get regulation back into Australian dairy?


All the additional proceeds from its “Drought Relief” milk go back to processor Parmalat, who is responsible for distributing the money to suppliers in drought-affected areas. Coles, meanwhile, has slapped a 30 cent levy on its three-litre milk containers, with the funds going to the Coles Drought Relief Fund.

These measures arguably add to continuing confusion about how the milk market works and the relationship between farm-gate and retail prices.

In the court of public opinion the supermarkets probably had no option but to go along with the charade.

A minister for agriculture, however, should know better.The Conversation

Gary Mortimer, Associate Professor in Marketing and International Business, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We must look past short-term drought solutions and improve the land itself


David Lindenmayer, Australian National University and Michelle Young, Australian National University

With drought ravaging Australia’s eastern states, much attention has been given to the need to provide short-term solutions through drought relief. But long-term resilience is a vital issue, particularly as climate change adds further pressure to farmers and farmland.

Our research has found that helping farmers improve the rivers, dams, native vegetation and trees on their land increases productivity, the resilience of the land to drought, and through this the health and well-being of farmers.




Read more:
Helping farmers in distress doesn’t help them be the best: the drought relief dilemma


Now is the time to invest more heavily than ever in vital networks in regional Australia, such as Landcare and natural resource management groups like Local Land Services and Catchment Management Authorities.

Research shows that trees, dams and native vegetation are essential to increase agricultural productivity.
Shutterstock/Olga Kashubin

Growing pressures on agricultural land

Some researchers suggest that up to 370 million hectares of land in Australia and the Pacific is degraded. This diminished productivity across such a large area has significant implications for the long-term sustainability of agricultural production.

Australia also has one of the worst records for wildlife diversity loss, including extensive loss of biodiversity across much of our agricultural land. The problems of degradation and biodiversity loss are often magnified under the pressure of drought.




Read more:
Is Australia’s current drought caused by climate change? It’s complicated


The good news is that there are ways to strengthen the resilience of the farmland. One key approach is to invest in improving the condition of key natural assets on farms, like shelter belts, patches of remnant vegetation, farm dams, and watercourses.

When done well, active land management can help slow down or even reverse land degradation, improve biodiversity, and increase profitability.

Better lands make more money

Many studies have shown improving the natural assets on an farm can boost production, as well as avoid the costs of erosion and flood control. For example, restored riverbank vegetation can improve dry matter production in nearby paddocks, leading to greater milk production in diary herds and up to a 5% boost in farm income.

Lines of trees, called windbreaks or shelterbelts, can protect and improve the fields next to them.
Peter Fenda/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Similarly, shelter belts (tree lanes planted alongside paddocks) can lower wind speeds and wind chill, and boost pasture production for livestock by up to 8%, at the same time as providing habitat for biodiversity.




Read more:
Recent Australian droughts may be the worst in 800 years


Our own long-term work with farmers who invested in their natural assets prior to, or during, the Millennium Drought in New South Wales suggests these farmers are currently faring better in the current drought.

Investing in resilience for the long-haul

Groups like Landcare bring their expertise to land management.
Shutterstock/Darryl Smith

Well-supported and resourced organisations like Landcare groups are pivotal to supporting effective land management, which improves degraded land and helps farmland (and farmer) through tough times.

However, Landcare and other natural resource management agencies have been subject to major budget cuts over the past decade.

They are also a key part of the social fabric of rural communities, bringing together landowners to exchange ideas and support each other. Indeed, the Australian Landcare model is so well regarded globally it has been adopted in 22 other countries.




Read more:
Australia moves to El Niño alert and the drought is likely to continue


This drought is a critical decision point. The need to invest in maintaining and improving our vegetation, water and soil has never been more apparent than it is now. We have a chance to determine the long-term future of much of Australia’s agricultural land.The Conversation

David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University and Michelle Young, Director, Sustainable Farms, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Helping farmers in distress doesn’t help them be the best: the drought relief dilemma


Neal Hughes, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) and Steve Hatfield-Dodds, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)

Two years ago we were celebrating just about the best year for farmers ever. Now many farmers – particularly in New South Wales and southern Queensland – are in the grip of drought.

It underlines just how variable the Australian climate can be.

While attention is focused on responding to the current situation, it is important to also think long-term. In our rush to help, we need to make sure well-meaning responses don’t do more harm than good.

The drought policy debate

The recent drought has stimulated much empathy for farmers from the media, governments and the public. Federal and state governments have committed hundreds of millions of dollars in farmer support. Private citizens and companies have also given generously to the cause.

While there appears to be overwhelming public support for helping farmers through drought, concerns have been raised by economists as well as farmer representatives – including both the former and current head of the National Farmers’ Federation.

A central concern is that drought support could undermine farmer preparedness for future droughts and longer-term adaptation to climate change.

Another concern is that simplistic “farmer as a victim” narrative presented by parts of the media overstate the number of farmers suffering hardship and understates the truth that most prepare for and manage drought without assistance.

Sensationalist media coverage can also damage Australia’s reputation as a reliable food producer. Images of barren landscapes, stressed livestock and desperate farmers send the wrong signals to customers and trading partners.

An acute policy dilemma

The tension in drought policy is real.

To remain internationally competitive Australian farmers need to increase their productivity.

Agricultural productivity depends on two main factors. First, innovation – adopting new technologies and management practices. Second, structural adjustment – shifting resources towards the most productive sectors and most efficient farmers.

Supporting drought-affected farms has the potential to slow both these processes, weakening productivity growth.

This gives rise to an acute dilemma: should we support farmers in distress, or support the industry to be the best it can be?




Read more:
To help drought-affected farmers, we need to support them in good times as well as bad


Factoring in climate change

While it is difficult to attribute any specific event to climate change, it is clear Australia’s climate is changing, with significant consequences for agriculture.

Australian average temperatures have increased by about 1℃ since 1950. Extreme heat events have become more frequent and intense. Recent decades show a trend towards lower average winter rainfall in the southwest and southeast.

Research by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences shows climate change has negatively affected the productivity of cropping farms, particularly in southern Australia.

This research also shows evidence of farmers adapting to maintain productivity and reduce their sensitivity to climate.


https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/dbKqj/2/

Key southwestern and southeastern agricultural zones have been especially impacted by climate change.
ABARES

There is still much uncertainty over what climate change will mean for agriculture in the future.

However, the evidence we do have points to more frequent and more severe droughts, if only because of higher temperatures and evaporation rates.

Farming isn’t like other industries

Although businesses in other industries are expected to manage risk without assistance, agriculture has some special aspects that help build a case for a government policy response.

First, risk in agriculture is generally greater than in other industries. Farmers are vulnerable to variation in international commodity prices as well as droughts and other extreme events.


https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/yeSqZ/3/


Second, most farm businesses are also farm households.

While many other risky industries are made up of large corporate businesses (generally with diversified assets and ownership), agriculture is dominated by family farms.

Third, financial markets both in Australia and internationally struggle to provide viable risk management products for farmers – particularly drought insurance.

This means farming is an unusually risky business. Farmers must therefore be more conservative about financing and operating their businesses, which constrains investment, innovation and ultimately productivity.

Helping farms without making things worse

In 2008 a Productivity Commission review recommended a national farm income support scheme.

This led to the Farm Household Allowance program.

It provides a fortnightly payment, usually set at the rate of the Newstart unemployment allowance. There is also a financial assessment of the farm business and funding to help develop skills or get professional advice.

Those welfare programs provide an important safety net for farm households. Because they provide targeted support to households, rather than businesses, they result in fewer economic distortions than alternative approaches.

Past reviews have consistently recommended against subsidising farm business inputs or supporting output prices. This includes providing subsidies for livestock feed.

While these measures might provide short term relief, if they become routine they risk weakening the incentives to manage farms properly, by for instance destocking sheep and cattle ahead of likely droughts.




Read more:
Drought is inevitable, Mr Joyce


Looking to the future, it is possible insurance could have an important role to play.

While drought insurance has failed to thrive in Australia to date, advances in data could allow more viable forms of insurance to emerge.

In particular, index-based insurance products where payouts are based on weather data rather than an assessment of farm damages.

Such insurance, if done well, could provide farmers with better protection from climate risk, while also supporting adaptation and productivity growth – effectively sidestepping our current drought policy dilemma.The Conversation

Neal Hughes, Senior Economist, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) and Steve Hatfield-Dodds, Executive Director, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Farmers and services industry the winners under the revised Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal


Giovanni Di Lieto, Monash University

The revived trade agreement, now known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), has finally made it across the line. It’s a considerable win for Australian farmers and service providers, in a trading area worth about A$90 billion.

The 11 remaining countries from the initial Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement finally agreed to go ahead with the deal without the US, at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

The deal reduces the scope for controversial investor-state dispute settlements, where foreign investors can bypass national courts and sue governments for compensation for harming their investments. It introduces stronger safeguards to protect the governments’ right to regulate in the public interest and prevent unwarranted claims.




Read more:
Australia’s tenuous place in the new global economy


Despite earlier union fears of the impact for Australian workers, the CPTPP does not regulate the movement of workers. It only has minor changes to domestic labour rights and practices.

The new agreement is more of an umbrella framework for separate yet coordinated bilateral deals. In fact, Australia’s Trade Minister Steven Ciobo said:

The agreement will deliver 18 new free trade agreements between the CPTPP parties. For Australia that means new trade agreements with Canada and Mexico and greater market access to Japan, Chile, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei.

It means a speedier process for reducing import barriers on key Australian products, such as beef, lamb, seafood, cheese, wine and cotton wool.

It also promises less competition for Australian services exports, encouraging other governments to look to use Australian services and reducing the regulations of state-owned enterprises.




Read more:
The Trans-Pacific Partnership is back: experts respond


Australia now also has new bilateral trade deals with Canada and Mexico as part and parcel of the new agreement. This could be worth a lot to the Australian economy if it were to fill commercial gaps created by potential trade battles within North America and between the US and China.

What’s in and out of the new agreement

The new CPTPP rose from the ashes of the old agreement because of the inclusion of a list of 20 suspended provisions on matters that were of interest for the US. These would be revived in the event of a US comeback.

These suspended provisions involved substantial changes in areas like investment, public procurement, intellectual property rights and transparency. With the freezing of further copyright restrictions and the provisions on investor-state dispute settlements, these suspensions appear to re-balance the agreement in favour of Australian governments and consumers.

In fact, the scope of investor-state dispute settlements are narrower in the CPTPP, because foreign private companies who enter into an investment contract with the Australian government will not be able to use it if there is a dispute about that contract. The broader safeguards in the agreement make sure that the Australian government cannot be sued for measures related to public education, health and other social services.




Read more:
Why developing countries are dumping investment treaties


The one part of the agreement relating to the temporary entry for business people is rather limited in scope and does not have the potential to impact on low-skilled or struggling categories of Australian workers. In fact, it only commits Australia to providing temporary entry (from three months, up to two years) of only five generic categories of CPTPP workers. These include occupations like installers and servicers, intra-corporate transferees, independent executives, and contractual service suppliers.

The above categories squarely match the shortages in the Australian labour market, according to the Lists of Eligible Skilled Occupation of the Home Affairs Department.

Bits of the original agreement are still included in the CPTPP such as tariffs schedules that slash custom duties on 95% of trade in goods. But this was the easy part of the deal.

Before the deal is signed

The new agreement will be formally signed in Chile on March 8 2018, and will enter into force as soon as at least six members ratify it. This will probably happen later in the year or in early 2019.

The geopolitical symbolism of this timing is poignant. The CPTPP is coming out just as Donald Trump raises the temperature in the China trade battle by introducing new tariffs. It also runs alongside China’s attempts to finalise a much bigger regional trade agreement, the 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

Even though substantially the CPTPP is only a TPP-lite at best, it still puts considerable pressure on the US to come out of Trump’s protectionist corner.

It spells out the geopolitical consequences of the US trade policy switch, namely that the Asia Pacific countries are willing to either form a more independent bloc or align more closely with Chinese interests.

The ConversationWill this be enough to convince the Trump administration to reverse its course on global trade? At present, this seems highly unlikely. To bet on the second marriage of the US with transpacific multilateral trade would be a triumph of hope over experience.

Giovanni Di Lieto, Lecturer, Bachelor of International Business, Monash Business School, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Lao Officials to Expel More Christian Families from Village


Katin chief says previously expelled Christians will be shot if they return.

DUBLIN, November 9 (CDN) — Officials in Katin village, southern Laos have ordered six more Christian families to renounce their faith or face expulsion in early January, advocacy group Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF) reported today (Nov. 9).

The Katin chief and the village religious affairs officer, along with local security forces, recently approached the six families with the threat after having expelled 11 Christian families, totaling 48 people, at gunpoint last January. The six families now under threat had become Christians since the January expulsion.

The eviction last January followed months of threats and harassment, including the confiscation of livestock and other property, the detention of 80 men, women and children in a school compound and the death by asphyxiation of a Christian villager. (See http://www.compassdirect.org, “Lao officials Force Christians from Worship at Gunpoint,” Feb. 8.)

Immediately after the expulsion, two more families in Katin village became Christians despite the obvious risk to their personal safety, according to HRWLRF. The village chief allowed them to remain in Katin but warned all villagers that their own homes would be “torn down” if they made contact with the expelled Christians.

In the following months, the expelled villagers suffered from a lack of adequate shelter, food and water, leading to eye and skin infections, diarrhea, dehydration and even the death of one villager. Katin authorities also denied Christian children access to the village school. (See http://www.compassdirect.org, “Christians Expelled from Village Suffer Critical Illnesses,” May 14.)

District officials in early May gave the Christians permission to return to Katin and take rice from their family barns to prevent starvation, said another source on condition of anonymity. Some families then tried to cultivate their rice fields to avoid losing them completely, but the work was extremely difficult as authorities had confiscated their buffaloes, essential to agriculture in Laos.

 

Threat to Shoot

In July, officials from the Saravan provincial headquarters and the Ta-oyl district religious affairs office met with the evicted families in their shelters at the edge of the jungle and encouraged them to return to Katin, HRWLRF said.

The Christians agreed to return under five conditions: that authorities designate a Christian “zone” within Katin to avoid conflict with non-believers; that all forms of persecution end; that their children return to school; that Christians must be granted the right of burial in the village cemetery; and that the village award compensation for six homes destroyed in the January eviction.

When higher-level officials approached Katin leaders with these terms, village officials and local residents rejected them, insisting that they would only allow the Christians to return if they gave up their faith. The higher officials invoked Decree 92, a law guaranteeing the rights of religious minorities, but village heads said they would shoot every Christian who returned to Katin.

Shortly after this discussion took place, a further four families in Katin became Christians, according to HRWLRF.

A communist country, Laos is 1.5 percent Christian and 67 percent Buddhist, with the remainder unspecified. Article 6 and Article 30 of the Lao Constitution guarantee the right of Christians and other religious minorities to practice the religion of their choice without discrimination or penalty.

Report from Compass Direct News

UGANDA: THREATS, EXPULSIONS FOR CHRISTIAN COUPLE


Hostilities evident in Muslim area where missionaries were slain.

NAIROBI, Kenya, June 26 (Compass Direct News) – When a young Muslim woman in northern Uganda heard about Jesus in February 2005 and began having dreams about the cross of Christ, it marked the beginning of a nightmare.

Between the dreams and otherwise sleepless nights, Aleti Samusa of Yumbe district soon converted to Christianity; her family immediately kicked her out of their home.

Economically devastated and deprived of that which is most valued in the communal culture, Samusa sought refuge in a local church in Lotongo village. There she found the man she would marry later that year, David Edema, who was raised a Christian but who began sharing in the sufferings of a convert from Islam by virtue of becoming one flesh with one.

His bride’s family did not attend the couple’s wedding, Edema told Compass, and it wasn’t long before her relatives threatened to break up their marriage. With Samusa’s family threatening to forcibly take her from Edema, the couple fled Lotongo village to Yumbe town. Their troubles had just begun.

“The Muslims started sending people, saying that I am not wanted in Yumbe town and that I should leave the town,” Edema said.

Most houses in Yumbe are owned by Muslims, he said, and since 2006 the couple has been forced to move from one rented house to another without notice.

“The owner just wakes up one morning and gives us marching orders to vacate the house,” the 29-year-old Edema said. “Nowadays, the situation is getting worse. Muslims are openly saying even in their mosques that they plan to take unknown action against my family.”

One potential danger amounts to a death threat against his wife, now 24.

“The Muslims are saying that they are going to send some Jinns [evil spirits] to my wife because she forsook Islam, and that this spirit will kill her,” he said.

Asked what steps he has taken in the face of these threats, Edema was resigned.

“It will be pointless to take this matter to court, because the people who are to hear the case are Muslims,” he said. “I feel no justice will be done.”

Area Violence

Edema said he and his wife are hoping that God will open a door for them to move to another town.

“The sooner the better for us,” he said, “for we do not know what the Muslims are planning to do with us.”

Violence in Yumbe district is not without precedent. On March 18, 2004, seven suspected radical Islamists dressed in military fatigues murdered two African Inland Mission missionaries and a Ugandan student in an attack on a college run by local aid group Here is Life. Warren and Donna Pett, both 49 and agriculture experts from the U.S. state of Wisconsin, were teachers at the Evangelical School of Technology. The slain student was Isaac Juruga.

The murder case was dismissed in February by the state attorney, who claimed lack of evidence. A Here is Life official who requested anonymity, however, said not enough weight was given to evidence that included a mobile phone recovered from one of the suspected assailants.

“We feel that justice was not done in the ruling of the killing of the two missionaries,” he said.

In Yumbe, the administrative arm of the government as well as the judiciary is run by Muslims, said Edema, who added that the district is still not a safe place for Christians.

“Sometimes they even confront me that I should stop converting Muslims to Christianity – this is not true,” Edema said. “It is just a way of wanting to pick a quarrel with me.”

Edema, his wife and two children belong to Pilgrim Church. Christians and converts to Christianity are a tiny minority in the area, but about three kilometers from Yumbe town is the Church of Uganda in Eleke, with a congregation of about 100. This church has recently sounded alarms about Muslims making land-grabs of its property.

A church leader who requested anonymity said area Muslims have seized a substantial portion of the church’s land, but when the matter went to court, the case was dismissed due to lack of a title deed.

In addition, in May Muslim youths beat a female church worker who had taken a photo of a mosque that was under construction 100 meters from the church, he said.

“Rowdy Muslim youths removed the film after destroying the lid of the camera,” he said. “The militant youths started beating up the church worker as they dragged her to the police station in Yumbe, where she was interrogated for three hours before being released.”

Peter Manasseh, vicar of the Eleke Church of Uganda, said the church has filed a complaint with the local governing council, “but we do not expect any fairness to be done because the person handling this case is a Muslim and will be partisan.”

A journalist who works for a Christian radio station, however, decided to look into the case – and was himself beaten. Ronald Oguzu of Voice of Life radio in Arua town went to Yumbe yesterday to investigate, said a senior station official who requested anonymity.

“At the mosque site, the Muslims caught hold of Oguzu, beat him and he had his tooth broken,” the official said. “He was then hospitalized in Yumbe hospital and is still receiving some medication.”

He said a criminal case has been filed, but that chances for justice were not good.

“We know that this case will be thrown out of the window, just like that of the killing of the two missionaries,” he said. “To date no arrests have been made.”

Report from Compass Direct News

REBEL VIOLENCE IN CONGO AFFECTS CHRISTIAN OUTREACH


The European Union hasn’t ruled out the possibility of taking military action in the Democratic Republic of Congo as rebel troops have shattered peace in that beleaguered nation, reports MNN.

Rebels in the eastern part of the country say they’ll overthrow the government if it refuses direct talks to the Congolese government. Those loyal to renegade General Laurent Nkunda want one-on-one negotiations with the government over the protection of their Tutsi ethnic group.

Two months of army/rebel fighting has forced 250,000 people from their homes, according to the United Nations. Nkunda says he’s defending Congo’s Tutsi minority from a mainly Rwandan Hutu militia, whose leaders allegedly took part in neighboring Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.

Pete Howard is the relief coordinator with Food for the Hungry. He says the city of Goma has been adversely affected. “Civilians have been having to flee out into the wilderness just to get away from the troops. The civilians are out of their homes and trying to forage for whatever they can find — grubs [and] berries.”

Food for the Hungry is doing all they can to help the victims. Howard says, “Food for the Hungry is currently in the process of shipping 275,000 family meals into Eastern Congo, just south of where the fighting is taking place.”

He says this kind of relief is important to seeing the Gospel spread. “Our staff [is] trained to work with people and share their faith and to bring the love of Christ, even as they’re bringing in food or doing agriculture training or health training. When people are in crisis, they’re much more open to hearing the Gospel.”

Food for the Hungry staff members have been evacuated several times, says Howard. “Right now our staff has been able to move back in. We’re doing a road building program to try to get supplies into areas where people have had to flee.”

Howard is asking Christians to pray “both for the international staff that are there as well as the national Congolese staff who are in fear both for their lives and the lives of their families. They’re working and trying to work as normal, but they have their bags backed so they can leave at a moment’s notice if the rebels get any closer.”

While prayer is needed for safety, Howard is also asking Christians to pray for the rebels. “It’s conflict between people over ethnic or political strife, and we believe that the principles of Christ and the love and compassion of the message that we have can help with that. And that’s one reason why we’re staying there even though there is conflict.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph