BBC 2024-03-04 04:31:46


Israel-Gaza war: Kamala Harris urges more aid for starving Gazans

US Vice-President Kamala Harris says people in Gaza “are starving” and has urged Israel to “significantly increase the flow of aid” there.

She said “there must be an immediate ceasefire for at least the next six weeks”, which would “get the [Israeli] hostages out”.

Earlier, Israel did not attend truce talks in Egypt, saying Hamas was not giving a list of hostages still alive.

Hamas told the BBC it was unable to do so because of the Israeli bombing.

“Practically it is impossible to know who is still alive,” said Dr Basem Naim, a senior Hamas official.

Hamas’s team and mediators from the US and Qatar are understood to be in Egypt’s capital Cairo for the planned negotiations.

Pressure for a ceasefire deal intensified after Thursday’s incident outside Gaza City in the north of the Palestinian enclave where at least 112 people were killed when crowds rushed an aid convoy and Israeli troops opened fire.

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Speaking at an event in Alabama on Sunday, Ms Harris said: “What we are seeing every day in Gaza is devastating. We have seen reports of families eating leaves or animal feed, women giving birth to malnourished babies with little or no medical care, and children dying from malnutrition and dehydration.

“As I have said many times, too many innocent Palestinians have been killed.”

The vice-president stressed that “our common humanity compels us to act”, reiterating President Joe Biden’s commitment “to urgently get more life-saving assistance to innocent Palestinians in need”.

On Monday Ms Harris is due to have talks in Washington with Benny Gantz, an influential member of Israel’s war cabinet, to discuss a possible ceasefire deal and increased humanitarian aid for Gaza.

Ms Harris said “there is a deal on the table and as we have said, Hamas needs to agree to that deal. Let’s get a ceasefire. Let’s reunite the hostages with their families, and let’s provide immediate relief to the people of Gaza.”

She also said “the Israeli government must do more to significantly increase the flow of aid. No excuses.”

She was speaking in Selma, Alabama, at an event marking the 1965 attack by state troopers on civil rights demonstrators, known as Bloody Sunday.

The Israeli military launched a large-scale air and ground campaign to destroy Hamas after its gunmen killed about 1,200 people in southern Israel on 7 October and took 253 back to Gaza as hostages.

Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry says at least 30,410 people, including 21,000 children and women, have been killed in Gaza since then, with some 7,000 missing and 71,700 injured.

Dr Basem Naim, a member of Hamas’s political bureau, told the BBC’s Newshour programme on Sunday that the group was unable to provide Israel with a full list of surviving hostages.

“Practically it is impossible to know who is still alive because of the Israeli bombardment and blockage. They are in different areas with different groups.

“We have asked for a ceasefire to collect that data”, he said, adding: “we cannot accept any preconditions”. He was speaking from Istanbul.

The UK, US and their Western partners consider Iranian-backed Hamas to be a terrorist organisation.

“Hamas is a brutal terrorist organisation that has vowed to repeat October 7th again and again until Israel is annihilated. Hamas has shown no regard for innocent life,” Kamala Harris said, insisting that “Hamas cannot control Gaza”.

Nikki Haley beats Donald Trump in Washington DC for first primary victory

Nikki Haley has defeated Donald Trump in the Republican primary in Washington DC.

This is her first victory over the former president in the 2024 campaign to become the Republican presidential candidate.

She lost in South Carolina, her home state. But she is the first woman to win a Republican primary in US history.

Mr Trump however has a huge lead over Ms Haley and is likely to face Joe Biden in the November election.

The BBC’s US partner CBS reports that Ms Haley will receive all 19 Republican delegates who were up for grabs in Washington DC, giving her 43 delegates nationwide – well behind Mr Trump’s 247.

Ms Haley, a former US ambassador to the UN, won 62.9% of the vote, to Mr Trump’s 33.2%.

It is seen as a largely symbolic win, as the capital is a heavily Democrat-leaning jurisdiction, with only about 23,000 registered Republicans in the city.

Local party officials said 2,035 Republicans participated in the primary, the Washington Post reported.

Ms Haley’s campaign national spokesperson Olivia Perez-Cubas said: “it’s not surprising that Republicans closest to Washington dysfunction are rejecting Donald Trump and all his chaos”.

Mr Trump has dominated every state primary or caucus so far in the Republican campaign, and is poised to win more delegates this week, on Super Tuesday, when voters in 15 states and one US territory will nominate their candidate. It is the biggest day of nominating contests, with 874 Republican delegates’ support at stake.

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Two sessions: Can a rubberstamp parliament help China’s economy?

The Chinese government is under massive pressure to come up with solutions for its troubled economy.

So people will be watching the National People’s Congress to see what’s on offer when it starts on Tuesday.

Nearly 3,000 NPC delegates gather annually, for just over a week, inside Beijing’s cavernous Great Hall of the People to pass laws, approve personnel changes and delegate the operation of government to smaller groups which meet throughout the year.

It is, for the most part, a political performance which rubber-stamps decisions already made behind closed doors.

But given that the messages delivered have been thought through by those in power, analysts will be looking out for any change in the official Party line and what it might mean for China and the world.

For example, a certain new phrase might signal a change in industrial policy or a potential new law governing investment rules.

Crucially, the lens through which to view all of this is that there is nothing more important to the Communist Party than ensuring the longevity of its rule in China. For the current leader, Xi Jinping, it is absolutely paramount in virtually all aspects of life.

This has not seemed like much of a struggle in recent decades, as business boomed and living standards improved for most, year after year.

But now Asia’s engine of growth is locked in a real estate crisis which has dissolved the life savings of many families who paid for flats which were never delivered; it has armies of university graduates who can’t find good jobs and it is burdened by huge amounts of local government debt, which has robbed policymakers of the ability to inject funds into infrastructure in the same way they used to be able to, whenever times were tough.

It had been the case that a new road project, or a series of bridges, could soak up a lot of unemployment, unused steel and excess concrete capacity. But this is a period of much more uncertainty.

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“This year’s NPC will be held at a time of unusual ferment and volatility, particularly over economic policy,” says Richard McGregor, author of The Party, which examines China’s structures of government.

He told the BBC that there are “rumours swirling about the government looking for a large statement of some kind to restore confidence and lift growth. There is widespread unhappiness about the state of the economy, and in turn about the direction Xi Jinping has set for the country”.

In the past, when enormous changes generated great concern – like the flooding of entire historic areas to make way for the Three Gorges Dam project – there have been protest votes registered at the NPC.

But it would take an exceptionally brave Party representative to try that under Xi Jinping.

Mr McGregor said he doesn’t expect denunciations of leadership during this Congress, as “all of the delegates have learnt to stay very much on message”. However, he added that “even critical murmurs will be significant”.

Professor Ann Lee from New York University said the session could see legislation providing more support to the private sector.

“This is a tacit recognition that China’s economy needs more entrepreneurial investment in order to meet Xi’s high-quality growth goals,” she said.

‘New productive forces’

A phrase Mr Xi has been using since the end of last year in reference to the direction of the country is “new productive forces”. This is likely to be peppered through speeches in coming weeks as well.

But what does it mean?

Dr Jon Taylor from the University of Texas at San Antonio said that Mr Xi is referring to “an emphasis on the development and commercialisation of technology and science, digitisation, and high-end manufacturing centring on emerging intelligent and eco-friendly technologies”.

He added that, while this is a “quite interesting catchphrase”, it is going to take time for these types of industries to take off, partly because “these sectors of China’s economy are relatively small”, and “the problem is that China faces some serious challenges, thanks to an underperforming economy”.

He said that the new emphasis on technological innovation may pay off in the long term, but that “in the short term, China remains dependent on infrastructure spending and a wobbly property market”.

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One interesting aspect of Mr Xi’s “new productive forces” was when he told the Politburo in January that such forces would be “freed from traditional economic growth mode and productivity development paths”, which would seem to suggest that the coming high-tech breakthroughs could be organised by and for the Party.

According to the former Chief Economist at multinational investment bank UBS, George Magnus, “this emphasises the party’s leadership, control and power to leverage ‘new productive forces’ for ideological work. This, in turn, means an industrial policy that serves to strengthen the Party’s dominance in the economy’s core digital and scientific spaces”.

Professor Lee sees the use of this phrase as important because it shows that “Xi is determined to reinvigorate the Chinese economy after setbacks from its real estate sector and the ongoing trade tensions with the West” and said that it “may signal a turning point”.

Choreographed questions, mountains of jargon

This mass political gathering starts with a marathon speech from the Premier, in which he reads out the Government Work Report, which summarises – in a very formulaic fashion – how China has performed over the past 12 months over a wide range of areas: the economy, the environment, in agriculture and so on.

Then it moves on to what the Party’s plan for the next year is. This is a key place to pick up any shifts in government thinking, but a magnifying glass may be required to spot it amongst the mountain of jargon.

During the NPC, there will also be a series of highly choreographed press conferences in which only screened questions are permitted and virtually all answers rehearsed.

Over recent years, the Party has also placed fake foreign correspondents into these press briefings, who seemingly represent the international media but are really from front companies based overseas but controlled by Beijing.

“The days of relatively candid press conferences from various ministries and provincial delegations on the side lines of the Congress are pretty much gone,” said Mr McGregor.

This vast meeting may be an elaborate show – with loyal delegates head down in turgid reports – but that doesn’t mean it will be without important developments.

According to Dr Taylor, “while the Congress tends to be a decidedly performative autocratic exercise, there are elements of policy innovation and promulgation that bubble up”.

These are trying times for China, he said.

The country “faces several challenges that it will continue to struggle with this year: encouraging foreign direct investment in the midst of decoupling, systemically addressing local government debt, restoring private sector confidence, developing greater technological and scientific self-reliance, and ramping up consumer demand”.

There are significant problems facing this superpower and the moment for answers is upon it.

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Can skiing solve its diversity problem?

People of colour have been historically excluded from the sport, but now, a series of Black-run organisations around the world are hoping to change that.
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In early 2023, a coach full of skiers and snowboarders pulled into France’s Chamonix resort at the base of Mont Blanc. After carving down the slopes by day, the group turned up to a blend of Afrobeats, R&B and dancehall music at night, roping resort guests into a tipsy rendition of the Electric Slide as the stars glimmered overhead. The trip had been organised by Soft Life Ski, a British collective which aims to bring “Afro-Caribbean culture and vibes to the slopes”. 

Despite being at one of the world’s most famous mountain resorts, for five days, the group were the only Black skiers on the mountain. Today though, Soft Life Ski is one of a handful of organisations around the world working to address the sport’s lack of diversity. 

“If you go somewhere that is predominantly white [as a Black person], you might not feel at home,” said Edmund Antwi, one of Soft Life Ski’s co-founders. “We create room for those people to relax, enjoy their music, learn a new skill and have a laugh with people who look like them.”

Skiing has always been an overwhelmingly white sport. According to an annual survey conducted by the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), 88.1% of US skiers in the 2022-23 season were white, while just 1.5% were Black. In the UK, 2022 figures from Sport England show that white skiers made up nearly 70% of the total, while Black participation rates were too low to even register. 

Soft Like Ski aims to bring “Afro-Caribbean culture and vibes to the slopes” (Credit: Soft Life Ski)

But how did skiing come to be so homogenous in the first place? 

Skiing is widely believed to have been invented by Scandinavia’s Indigenous Sami people and exported globally by emigrants from Europe’s Alpine regions. These immigrants introduced skiing to the US in the late 19th Century, primarily as a means of transportation for those living in isolated mountain communities. Later, a wave of wealthy European migrants and US tourists, who frequented luxury resorts in Austria and Switzerland, spread its popularity and paved the way for a ski-based tourism industry in North America. 

“The whiteness of skiing in the US is partly tied to [its] cultural, national and racial history,” said Annie Gilbert Coleman, whose paper The Unbearable Whiteness of Skiing examines the sport’s lack of diversity. “It’s tied to the strategies of early resort owners, who were trying to bring investors in and make things look very sparkly. Celebrities and rich people were the target for [the popular Idaho ski resort] Sun Valley and they soon became the target for [Colorado’s famous ski destination] Aspen, too.” 

Ski resorts started to open across the US in the 1910s and ’20s. They often used stereotypical “all-American” images of cowboys astride their horses, ready to conquer the mountains. More prevalent, though, were symbols of “Europeanness” (think: Bavarian-style villages and German-language advertising slogans) used to market the Rocky Mountains as the Alps of the US. 

US ski resorts have long incorporated subtle nods to “Europeannes” – like Bavarian-inspired biergartens – to appeal to certain demographics (Credit: Alamy)

“[There was] a very specific construction of white, elite ethnicity that harkened back to Austria, Germany, Norway and Sweden,” said Gilbert Coleman. “Promoters merged them into this white ethnic image that became accessible to visitors through the purchase of European-made pants, boots and skis. When you went to a resort, you could eat at an Austrian restaurant, train with a French ski instructor and stay in a Swiss chalet.” Inevitably, people of colour were excluded from this vision of mountain life – a fact that was exacerbated by segregationist policies in many of the early US ski clubs. 

Today, many factors are used to explain low participation rates among non-white skiers – chiefly, its prohibitive cost. Skiing is expensive, but commentators have pointed out that many people of colour who could afford it actively choose not to. Generational factors may provide more insight. “It’s something I call skiing pedigree,” said Henri Rivers, president of the National Brotherhood of Snowsports (NBS), an umbrella organisation made up of 58 African American ski clubs across the US. “Growing up in this sport, I’ve seen so many families that have four or five generations of skiing. They have a house on the mountain, the whole family comes up every weekend, it’s their lifestyle. That is something that we don’t have historically as people of colour.” 

Yet, Black-run ski clubs actually have a long history. The oldest in the US, Jim Dandy, was established in Detroit, Michigan in 1958, and the NBS recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. In the UK, Nubian Ski was launched in 2000 and has organised 22 trips to resorts around the world. Now, a new wave of collectives focusing on increasing participation among young people of colour is following in their footsteps.

Soft Life Ski is one of them. The idea came about after a group of friends went skiing for the first time in Valfréjus, France. They had the time of their lives but were struck by the lack of diversity on and off the slopes. “Looking at these brands, looking at these resorts and not seeing yourself is something that subconsciously affects the mind. It makes you question if you’re welcome,” said Antwi.

Black-run ski clubs have been around for more than 60 years (Credit: Alamy)

Similarly, the British group Mount Noire, whose mission is “bringing colour to the mountain”, was founded after a group of Black British university students visited a Slovakian resort. Launched in 2019, Mount Noire hosts regular ski trips with the aim of increasing Black participation in the sport. They went to Bansko, Bulgaria, earlier this year and are heading to Val d’Isère, France, in March

According to the group’s co-founder, Wenona Barnieh, the sheer whiteness of skiing is directly related to its marketing. “If I ever went on ski apparel websites, the outfits were always modelled by Caucasian people. It was very hard to find clothing that would actually fit me,” she said. But the industry is now starting to take notice. Mount Noire has produced sponsored content for a long list of ski wear brands, including Ellesse and Oneskee. Likewise, Soft Life Ski has partnered with the Black-owned ski wear provider, Blanqo. And both Antwi and Barnieh have noticed an increase of diverse models in ski marketing.

In addition to brand partnerships, many Black-run skiing organisations are hoping to shake up the après-ski scene, too. “We listen to all music, we’re versatile, but typically Black cultural music – R&B, hip-hop. [Elsewhere, you don’t often] hear that on the mountains,” said Barnieh. 

Emmanuel Ojo, one of Soft Life Ski’s co-founders, echoes her thoughts. “Most bars [at ski resorts] have the same resident DJ every Friday night and they’re focused on EDM or electronic music. There’s no opportunity for a different kind of night out. We want to change up those experiences and bring a bit of Afro-Caribbean culture into the mix,” he said.

Groups like Soft Life Ski aim to create a “home away from home” for new and experienced skiers (Credit: Soft Life Ski)

When planning their trips, Mount Noire works with local bars to expand their musical repertoire, while other Black-run organisations sometimes invite artists on their trips. Ne-Yo and Anthony Hamilton performed at the 2023 NBS summit, and Soft Life Ski is flying a selection of Black British DJs to Norway for its upcoming trip to the Fyri Resort in Hemsedal in March. Ultimately, these efforts create a “home away from home” for new demographics, said Ojo. These collective experiences also help reduce self-consciousness for Black skiers. As Ojo said, “I’d rather stick out in a group of 20, then stick out in a group of two.”

Since 2020, sporting bodies in the US and UK have implemented a series of measures to boost diversity in skiing. In 2021, US Ski & Snowboard entered a four-year partnership with the NBS, with the eventual aim of “elevating an African American to a World Cup podium”. Snowsport England, the country’s national governing body for snowsport, is currently working with Mount Noire to fund training for a Black ski instructor. And GB Snowsport is currently rolling out a three-year Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, which aims to increase diversity among recreational skiers, instructors, coaches and, eventually, elite athletes.

“Our biggest focus is on taking a long-term view of diversity in snowsport,” said GB Snowsport’s chief executive, Vicky Gosling. “We’re excited to support the current generation of athletes that are already in or are on the verge of breaking into the elite environment […] In athletes like Siddhartha UllahZoe Atkin and Nina Sparks, we’ve got great examples of young skiers and snowboarders from non-White backgrounds thriving within the British team setup, and that’s something we’re working to build on.” 

Resorts are joining the conversation, too. In 2021, the CEO of Vail Resorts published an open letter, writing: “We need to acknowledge that there are parts of the culture of our sport that are clearly not inviting. Maybe the image we have created of the mountain lifestyle needs to be more varied.” And to mark Martin Luther King Jr Day – one of the most lucrative weekends for ski resorts in the US – Steamboat Ski Resort in Colorado raised $50,000 for the NBS. These efforts, combined with the work of groups like Soft Life Ski, Mount Noire and the NBS, mean that mountains are likely to become less snow-white in the decades to come.

For the past four years, sporting bodies in the US and UK have been actively trying to diversify the sport (Credit: Alamy)

Ultimately, Rivers wants as many people as possible to reap the benefits of skiing. “Being outdoors, in the mountains, is spiritually invigorating. That’s something every person on the planet should be able to do, no matter what colour they are.”

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What we owe the humble lentil

Farmed at the same time as wheat and barley, the lentil’s effect on human society has been less celebrated. Why?
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Archaeologists digging at an ancient, abandoned settlement at Gurga Chiya in Iraqi Kurdistan had a simple way to tell what was mud wall and what was the interior of a room. The dirt that had filled the settlement’s chambers in the thousands of years since its abandonment was packed – simply packed – with lentils. 

“The lower 30cm (12in) of the room fill is black with lentils; large parts are pretty much 100% lentil,” wrote archaeologist Mary Shepperson in a 2017 piece for The Guardian about the excavation in Iraqi Kurdistan. And this is far from the only lentil cache to be found by archaeologists in the Middle East. In 1983, at a site in Israel dated to around 10,000 years ago, more than a million lentils were uncovered.

Wheat and barley get a lot of play as some of the first plants domesticated at the beginning of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent region. But the lentil was there, too. How long has this humble legume been with us, and when and why was it tamed?

Humans have been cultivating lentils for at least 10,000 years (Credit: Getty Images)

Civilisations began to farm lentils at about the same time as wheat and barley, says Hugo R Oliveira, a geneticist who studies the diminutive pulse at the Universidade do Algarve in Portugal. They are part of a pattern around the world where people first turned to agriculture, rather than hunting and gathering. “In all of them, there’s always a cereal and there’s always a legume,” Oliveira says. He numbers them off: In Mesoamerica, maize and beans; in West Africa, sorghum and cowpeas; in East Asia, rice and soybeans. And in the Middle East? Wheat, barley and lentils.

That’s likely because the cereals and grains pack a carb-heavy punch for quick energy, Oliveira says, while the legumes give protein – protein is behind around 25% of lentils’ calories. You can build a complex society on that pairing, and many times over the course of human history, people have. In the ancient Middle East, lentils were one of the main sources of protein, far more important in most people’s diets than meat or animal products.

“That is still relevant for today’s world,” said Oliveira. “In the developed world, we tend to think the main source of protein is meat. But in low and middle-income countries, the main source of protein is still plant-based.” The Ancient Egyptians were likely the same; the pyramids were built by people who were fuelled by lentils, peas and chickpeas.

The DNA information they’ve generated may help researchers identify the genetic underpinnings of traits like resistance to extreme heat and diseases

Curious about the process that took the lentil from wild plant to the foundation stone of civilisation, Oliveira and his colleagues sequenced the DNA of domesticated lentils held in gene banks, as well as numerous wild relatives. They found that today’s crop is the descendant of a single wild species, Lens orientalis, and domestication was centred in the Fertile Crescent, though the data doesn’t allow us to pinpoint exactly where lentils were first grown as a crop.

What’s more, the DNA information they’ve generated may help researchers identify the genetic underpinnings of traits like resistance to extreme heat and diseases.

Plant breeders are increasingly turning to the wild relatives of crops for abilities like these. Recently, potato breeders in Peru released a variety of spud armed with genes from wild potatoes that enable it to resist late blight, a devastating disease. In Morocco, a drought-tolerant wheat that’s also the result of cross breeding has also just become available, and not a moment too soon: six years of drought have brought the country’s reservoirs to critically low levels.

As people are urged to replace meat in their diets with plant-based foods as a way to reduce their climate impact – the UK’s Climate Change Committee argues for a 20% reduction in meat and dairy consumption by 2030 – lentils have the potential to once again take centre stage.

In countries such as India, lentils are an important source of protein; 25% of the pulse’s calories come from protein (Credit: Getty Images)

The Dutch governmental agency CBI has noted that lentil production increased significantly in Europe between 2017 and 2021, though demand was still so high that imports were needed to fill the gap. There are even now farmers working on growing lentils in Britain. They haven’t been grown commercially in Britain in the past in part because they can be labour intensive to harvest.

But as the world’s climate grows increasingly erratic, farmers and breeders will be faced with challenges they’ve never seen before. “With climate change happening as fast as it is,” says Oliveira, “we are going to have to speed up plant breeding.”

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He hopes that the traits of lentils’ wild relatives, such as resistance to disease and the ability to survive tough environmental conditions, can be bred into domesticated varieties. “[Lentils] are quite sturdy. You can find them in Scandinavia, and in oases in Yemen,” he says. “It’s very unexplored [the potential of this crop]. There’s a lot of biodiversity that has not been tapped.”

Perhaps we will once again fill our more than our cupboards with the little legumes, and in thousands of years archaeologists will be once again be astounded by the bounty preserved on our shelves.

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