Day: November 13, 2021

Africa’s ‘Great Green Wall’ Shifts Focus to Contain Sahara

The idea was striking in its ambition: African countries aimed to plant trees in a more than 8,000 kilometer-line spanning the entire continent, creating a natural barrier to hold back the Sahara Desert as climate change swept the sands south.

The project called the Great Green Wall began in 2007 with a vision for the trees to extend like a belt across the vast Sahel region, from Senegal in the west to Djibouti in the east, by 2030. But as temperatures rose and rainfall diminished, millions of the planted trees died.

Efforts to rein in the desert continue in Senegal on a smaller scale. On the western end of the planned wall, Ibrahima Fall walks under the cool shade of dozens of lime trees, watering them with a hose as yellow chicks scurry around his feet. Just beyond the green orchard and a village is a desolate, arid landscape.

The citrus crop provides a haven from the heat and sand that surround it. Outside the low village walls, winds whip sand into the air, inviting desertification, a process that wrings the life out of fertile soil and changes it into desert, often because of drought or deforestation.

Only 4% of the Great Green Wall’s original goal has been met, and an estimated $43 billion would be needed to achieve the rest. With prospects for completing the barrier on time dim, organizers have shifted their focus from planting a wall of trees to trying a mosaic of smaller, more durable projects to stop desertification, including community-based efforts designed to improve lives and help the most vulnerable agriculture.

“The project that doesn’t involve the community is doomed to failure,” says Diegane Ndiaye, who is part of a group known as SOS Sahel, which has helped with planting programs in Senegal and other countries across the Sahel, a broad geographic zone between the Sahara in the north and the more temperate African savanna to the south.

The programs focus on restoring the environment and reviving economic activity in Sahel villages, Ndiaye said.

With the loss of rainfall and the advance of the desert, “this strip of the Sahel is a very vulnerable area to climate change,” he said. “So we should have projects that are likely to rebuild the environment … fix the dunes and also help protect the vegetable-growing area.”

On Senegal’s Atlantic Coast, filao trees stretch in a band from Dakar up to the northern city of St. Louis, forming a curtain that protects the beginning of Green Wall region, which also grows more than 80% of Senegal’s vegetables. The sky-reaching branches tame the winds tearing in from the ocean.

This reforestation project started in the 1970s, but many trees were cut down for wood, and work to replant them has been more recent. More trees are also planted in front of dunes near the water in an effort to protect the dunes and keep them from moving.

“We have had a lot of reforestation programs that today have not yielded much because it is often done with great fanfare” and not with good planning, Ndiaye said.

Fall, the 75-year-old chief of his village, planted the citrus orchard in 2016, putting the trees near a water source on his land. His is one of 800 small orchards in six communes of a town called Kebemer.

“We once planted peanuts and that wasn’t enough,” he said in the local Wolof language. “This orchard brings income that allows me to take care of my family.” He said he can produce 20 to 40 kilos of limes per week during peak season.

Enriched by the trees, the soil has also grown tomatoes and onions.

The village has used profits from the orchard to replace straw homes with cement brick structures and to buy more sheep, goats and chickens. It also added a solar panel to help pump water from a communal well, sparing villagers from having to pay more for water in the desert.

African Development Bank President Akinwumi A. Adesina spoke about the importance of stopping desertification in the Sahel during the United Nations’ COP26 global climate conference. He announced a commitment from the bank to mobilize $6.5 billion toward the Great Green Wall by 2025.

The newest projects in Senegal are circular gardens known in the Wolof language as “tolou keur.” They feature a variety of trees that are planted strategically so that the larger ones protect the more vulnerable.

The gardens’ curving rows hold moringa, sage, papaya and mango trees that are resistant to dry climates. They are planted so their roots grow inward to improve water retention in the plot.

Senegal has 20 total circular gardens, each one adapted to the soil, culture and needs of individual communities so they can grow much of what they need. Early indications are that they are thriving in the Great Green Wall region. Solar energy helps provide electricity for irrigation.

Jonathan Pershing, deputy special envoy for climate at the U.S. State Department, visited Senegal as part of an Africa trip last month, saying the U.S. wants to partner with African nations to fight climate change.

“The desert is encroaching. You see it really moving south,” Pershing said.

In terms of the Great Green Wall project, he said, “I don’t think that very many people thought it was going to go very far,” including himself. But there are indications of progress, as seen in the community projects.

“It has a global benefit, and people are prepared to make those kinds of long-term investments through their children and their families, which I think is a hallmark of what we need to do in other climate arenas.”


Explainer: Conservatorships and How Britney Spears Was Freed

A judge has freed Britney Spears from the conservatorship that controlled her life and money for nearly 14 years.

Here’s a look at how conservatorships operate, what’s unusual about hers, and how calls from her and her fans to #FreeBritney eventually worked.

How do conservatorships work?

When a person is considered to have a severely diminished mental capacity, a court can step in and grant someone the power to make financial decisions and major life choices for them.

California law says a conservatorship, called a guardianship in some states, is justified for a “person who is unable to provide properly for his or her personal needs for physical health, food, clothing, or shelter,” or for someone who is “substantially unable to manage his or her own financial resources or resist fraud or undue influence.”

The conservator, as the appointee put in charge is called, may be a family member, a close friend or a court-appointed professional.

Several states have recently used the attention that Spears has brought to the issue to reform their conservatorship laws. 

How does Spears’ work?

With a fortune of nearly $60 million comes secrecy, and the court closely guarded the inner workings of Spears’ conservatorship.

Some aspects have been revealed in documents. The conservatorship had the power to restrict her visitors. It arranged and oversaw visits with her two teenage sons, whose father has full custody. It took out restraining orders in her name to keep away interlopers deemed shady. 

It had the power to make her medical decisions and her business deals. She said at a June hearing that she has been compelled to take medication against her will, has been kept from having an intrauterine device for birth control removed and has been required to undertake performances when she didn’t want to.

Spears also said she had been denied the right to get married or have another child, but she has since gotten engaged to longtime boyfriend Sam Asghari.

Who had power over Spears?

The ultimate power in the conservatorship fell to Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Brenda Penny. She used it on Friday to end it.

Before his suspension in September, her father James Spears had the lion’s share of day-to-day power over his daughter’s choices for 13 years. In 2019, he gave up the role of conservator over her life decisions, maintaining control only over her finances. His replacement, John Zabel, now has a few minimal administrative powers to move Britney Spears’ money around as power over it transitions back to her.

Jodi Montgomery, a court-appointed professional, acted as conservator over her personal matters from 2019 until Friday. Her agreement was key when the termination finally came.

Why did so many called to #FreeBritney?

Some fans objected to the conservatorship soon after it began. But the movement, and the #FreeBritney hashtag, truly took hold early in 2019, when some believed she was being forced into a mental health hospital against her will. 

They pored over her social media posts to extract clues about her well-being and protested outside the courthouse at every hearing. 

They were long dismissed by Spears’ father and others as conspiracy theorists, but in the end their power was undeniable. 

They felt vindicated by two dramatic speeches she gave this summer, in which she confirmed many of their suspicions. They felt triumphant when her father was removed. And they felt truly jubilant when the conservatorship was terminated.

She was quick to give them credit, since first acknowledging in court filings in 2020 that they may have a point. “Good God I love my fans so much it’s crazy” she said on Twitter and Instagram after Friday’s ruling, along with video of the celebrations outside the courthouse and the new hashtag #FreedBritney. 

Why was it imposed in the first place?

In 2007 and 2008, shortly after she became a mother, she began to have very public mental struggles, with media outlets obsessed over each moment. Hordes of paparazzi aggressively followed her every time she left her house, and she no longer seemed able to handle it.

She attacked one cameraman’s car with an umbrella. She shaved her own head at a salon. She lost custody of her children. When she refused to turn over her boys after a visit, she was hospitalized and put on a psychiatric hold. The conservatorship was put in place within days.

Why did it go on so long?

A conservatorship can always be dissolved by the court. But it’s rare that a person achieves their own release from one, as Britney Spears essentially did.

They can last decades because the circumstances that lead to them, like traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s, or dementia, are not things people just bounce back from.

Spears’ father and his attorneys justified the continued conservatorship by arguing that she was especially susceptible to people who seek to take advantage of her money and fame.

Normally a series of mental evaluations would take place before a conservatorship ended, but on Friday Penny said that with no one asking for any examinations, none would be required.

How does Spears feel about all of this?

For years it was largely a mystery. But allowed to speak publicly in court in June, she called the conservatorship “abusive” and “stupid” and says it does her “way more harm than good.”

And in her social media posts on Friday, she declared, “Best day ever … praise the Lord.” 

What happens now?

Regaining her personal and financial powers after so many years will take some untangling. Montgomery, along with therapists and doctors, have created a care plan for the transition, and her attorney Mathew Rosengart says a financial safety net is in place too.

Rosengart has vowed to pursue an investigation of James’ Spears handling of the conservatorship even after it ends. He could take action in civil court, and has suggested he may even turn over his findings to law enforcement for consideration of criminal charges. James Spears has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. 

Britney Spears is likely to hire financial managers, assistants and attorneys to perform many of the same duties previously performed by the conservatorship. But their decisions will be subject to her approval, instead of vice-versa.


Alzheimer’s Drug Cited as Medicare Premium Jumps by $21.60

Medicare’s “Part B” outpatient premium will jump by $21.60 a month in 2022, one of the largest increases ever. Officials said Friday a new Alzheimer’s drug is responsible for about half of that.

The increase guarantees that health care will gobble up a big chunk of the recently announced Social Security cost-of-living allowance, a boost that had worked out to $92 a month for the average retired worker, intended to help cover rising prices for gas and food that are pinching seniors.

Medicare officials told reporters on Friday that about half the increase is due to contingency planning if the program ultimately has to cover Aduhelm, the new $56,000-a-year medication for Alzheimer’s disease from pharmaceutical company Biogen. The medication would add to the cost of outpatient coverage because it’s administered intravenously in a doctor’s office and paid for under Part B.

The issue is turning into a case study of how one pricey medication for a condition afflicting millions of people can swing the needle on government spending and impact household budgets. People who don’t have Alzheimer’s would not be shielded from the cost of Aduhelm, since it’s big enough to affect their premiums.

The new Part B premium will be $170.10 a month for 2022, officials said. The jump of $21.60 is the biggest increase ever in dollar terms, although not percentage-wise. As recently as August, the Medicare Trustees’ report had projected a smaller increase of $10 from the current $148.50.

“The increase in the Part B premium for 2022 is continued evidence that rising drug costs threaten the affordability and sustainability of the Medicare program,” said Medicare chief Chiquita Brooks-LaSure in a statement. Officials said the other half of the premium increase is due to the natural growth of the program and adjustments made by Congress last year as the coronavirus pandemic hit.

The late Friday afternoon announcement — in a time slot government agencies use to drop bad news — comes as Congress is considering Democratic legislation backed by President Joe Biden that would restrain what Medicare pays for drugs. However, under the latest compromise, Medicare would not be able to negotiate prices for newly launched drugs. The news on Medicare premiums could reopen that debate internally among Democrats.

“Today’s announcement … confirms the need for Congress to finally give Medicare the ability to negotiate lower prescription drug costs,” Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said in a statement. “We simply cannot wait any longer to provide real relief to seniors.” Pallone has been a proponent of the original House version of the legislation, which took a tougher approach toward the pharmaceutical industry.

Alzheimer’s is a progressive neurological disease with no known cure, affecting about 6 million Americans, the vast majority old enough to qualify for Medicare.

Aduhelm is the first Alzheimer’s medication in nearly 20 years. It doesn’t cure the life-sapping condition, but the Food and Drug Administration determined that its ability to reduce clumps of plaque in the brain is likely to slow dementia. However, many experts say that benefit has not been clearly demonstrated.

Medicare has begun a formal assessment to determine whether it should cover the drug, and a final decision isn’t likely until at least the spring. For now, Medicare is deciding on a case-by-case basis whether to pay for Aduhelm.

Cost traditionally does not enter into Medicare’s coverage determinations. But in this case there is also plenty of debate about the effectiveness of Aduhelm. Last November, an FDA advisory panel voted nearly unanimously against recommending its approval, citing flaws in company studies. Several members of the panel resigned after the FDA approved the drug anyway over their objections.

A nonprofit think tank focused on drug pricing pegged Adulhelm’s actual value at between $3,000 and $8,400 per year — not $56,000 — based on its unproven benefits.

But Biogen has defended its pricing, saying it looked carefully at costs of advanced medications to treat cancer and other conditions. The company also says it expects a gradual uptake of the Alzheimer’s drug, and not a “hockey-stick” scenario in which costs take off. Nonetheless Medicare officials told reporters they have to plan for contingencies.

Two House committees are investigating the development of Aduhelm, including contacts between company executives and FDA regulators.

Medicare covers more than 60 million people, including those 65 and older, as well as people who are disabled or have serious kidney disease. Program spending is approaching $1 trillion a year. 



With US Aid Money, Schools Put Bigger Focus on Mental Health

In Kansas City, Kansas, educators are opening an after-school mental health clinic staffed with school counselors and social workers. Schools in Paterson, New Jersey, have set up social emotional learning teams to identify students dealing with crises. Chicago is staffing up “care teams” with the mission of helping struggling students on its 500-plus campuses.

With a windfall of federal coronavirus relief money at hand, schools across the U.S. are using portions to quickly expand their capacity to address students’ struggles with mental health.

While school districts have broad latitude on how to spend the aid money, the urgency of the problem has been driven home by absenteeism, behavioral issues, and quieter signs of distress as many students have returned to school buildings this fall for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic hit.

For some school systems, the money has boosted long-standing work to help students cope with trauma. Others have launched new efforts to screen, counsel and treat students. All told, the investments put public schools more than ever at the center of efforts to attend to students’ overall well-being.

“In the last recession, with the last big chunk of recovery money, this conversation wasn’t happening,” said Amanda Fitzgerald, the assistant director of the American School Counselor Association. “Now, the tone across the country is very focused on the well-being of students.”

Last month, three major pediatric groups said the state of children’s mental health should be considered a national emergency. The U.S. Education Department has pointed to the distribution of the relief money as an opportunity to rethink how schools provide mental health support. Mental well-being, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has said, needs to be the foundation for the recovery from the pandemic.

The pandemic relief to schools totals $190 billion, more than four times the amount the Education Department typically spends on K-12 schools annually. Mental health investments have gone into staff training, wellness screenings and curriculum dedicated to social-emotional learning.

Still, questions remain over how schools will find ways to make the benefits last beyond the one-time infusion of money, handle privacy concerns, and track the effectiveness of their efforts. The implementation worries Katie Dockweiler, a school psychologist in Nevada who sits on the state board of education.

“Not all programs are created equal,” she said. “It really comes down to how it’s implemented, school by school. And there’s great variability there.”

She said districts should develop ways of tracking the impact on students: “Otherwise, we’re just throwing our money away.”

At the top of the list for many districts has been hiring new mental health specialists. When the National Association of School Psychologists surveyed members this fall, more than half of respondents said their districts intended to add social workers, psychologists, or counselors, according to policy director Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach.

With $9.5 million from federal relief funding and outside grant money, Paterson schools added five behavioral analysts, two substance abuse coordinators, and the teams to spot students going through crises.

In Paterson, one of the lowest-income parts of New Jersey, many of the 25,000 students faced food insecurity before the pandemic and struggled after family members lost jobs, Superintendent Eileen Shafer said.

“We wanted to make sure before we try to teach anything new, that we’re able to deal with where our children are right now based on what they’ve been through,” she said.


In rural Ellicottville, New York, where school psychologist Joe Prior is seeing more anxiety and a “significant increase” in panic attacks, the district wants to use rescue funds to hire a counselor to connect students with psychological help. But the position remains unfilled, as few expressed interest.

“I have more students just looking me in the eye and saying ‘I’m completely overwhelmed and I’m not sure how to handle it,'” Ellicottville high school principal Erich Ploetz said.

It’s not the only district where ambitions for hiring have outstripped the number of available professionals. Some districts have turned to outside vendors to help fill mental health positions, while others are training existing staff.

The Kansas City, Kansas, school system is using some of the $918,000 in relief money dedicated to mental health to pay social workers and counselors already on staff to work at the new after-school clinic. The district also has added staff and mental health screenings.

Angela Dunn, who leads the 22,000-student district’s mental health and suicide prevention initiatives, said the mental health team has responded to 27 student deaths and 16 staff deaths since the pandemic started, double what is typical during that period. She said a handful of staff members died of COVID-19, but many of the others were homicides, suicides and overdoses.


The investments by schools in student mental health services have raised some privacy concerns, especially where schools are now monitoring student computers for distress signals or administering mental health screenings to all students. But the idea that it’s not the place of schools to involve themselves at all has receded.

“We just recognized that students are comfortable seeking help in a school setting,” Dunn said.

Chicago, the nation’s third-largest school district, unveiled a “healing plan” for students, using $24 million of its $2.6 billion in stimulus funds.

Over three years, the district will expand “care teams” — building staff who serve as the frontline response for struggling students — to each campus. The goal is to reach 200 schools by spring.

High school principal Angélica Altamirano used some of that funding to open a space outfitted with cozy furniture and a hand-me-down air hockey table. Already, the campus center has offered grief groups for students whose family members or friends have died and helped teachers dealing with burnout.

In Topeka, Kansas, $100,000 was budgeted for calming items and staff for sensory rooms, including one at Quincy Elementary. When students get so frustrated that they put their heads down on their desk, or wander into the hallway or cry, teachers can send them to the Roadrunner Room. There, they can climb into a tent and snuggle under a weighted blanket, put a puzzle together, play with sand or build with Legos.

Dean of students Andrea Keck has watched the room become a go-to place for one student to work out frustrations.

“She can journal it, get her hair put up, whatever she needs, and then she is successful the rest of the day,” said Keck, who oversees the room.

In Detroit, the district is spending $34 million on mental health initiatives, including screening students, expanding help from outside mental health providers, and offering extra support to parents.

On a recent Wednesday, that meant an hourlong meditation session for parents at a local coffee shop. One attendee worried her own stress was affecting her son’s ability to learn.

“As a community we have all been through something,” said Sharlonda Buckman, an assistant superintendent who participated in the session. “Part of recovery has to be some intentional work in spaces like this, so we can be there for our kids.”


COP26: African Youth Demand Rich Nations Fulfil Promises

Africa is on the front line of climate change. Nowhere is this more evident than the Lake Chad Basin, which covers almost 8% of the continent and supports tens of millions of people. The United Nations says it has shrunk by 90% since the 1960s because of drought.

The resulting competition for resources has caused poverty and conflict. Over 10 million people are dependent on humanitarian assistance.

Oladosu Adenike, 27, has witnessed Lake Chad’s tragic transformation firsthand. She is a prominent campaigner on climate change in Africa and started the Nigerian “Fridays for Future” campaign, joining the global movement after meeting Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.

Adenike is one of several young African delegates who traveled thousands of miles to Glasgow, Scotland, to be part of the COP26 climate summit and to convey their sense of urgency to world leaders.

“The peace and stability in this region – in the Lake Chad region, the Sahel – it depends on when we are able to restore the lake and able to say that people can get sustainable livelihoods, for them not to be able to be vulnerable to join armed groups of people. And this will likewise improve democracy in the region,” she told VOA.

Adenike is an official Nigerian youth delegate at the COP26 summit and has addressed senior delegates on the need to act fast. But she says she is frustrated by slow progress.

“We are still in the talking phase. We have not yet transited into the action phase, which is needed right now this moment, and not postponing it into the future. Because that is the most dangerous thing you can do right now. Delay now is a denial of the climate change crisis,” Adenike said.

Kaluki Paul Mutuku is a youth delegate for Kenya. Like Adenike, he’s a prominent young voice in the fight against climate change in Africa.

“We are constantly in the fear of losing our family members, losing our communities because the climate is dry – it is worsening by the day – there are droughts, there is extreme rainfall, and communities cannot bear it,” he told VOA.

“Just in 2019, we had a huge locust invasion that took over our crop plantations. We had huge floods in Nairobi, which killed so many people, and just this year, we are having so many people lives being lost due to starvation and famines,” he said.

Mutuku said that delivering on climate finance – the money rich countries have agreed to pay poorer nations to adapt to climate change and decarbonize their economies – is the most vital outcome of COP26. The 2009 pledge to pay $100 billion a year still has not been met.

“How do we finance to avoid emissions in Africa? How do we equip communities with resources and money to really be able to adapt to climate change, and how do we ensure that we give climate proofing for them?” he said.

“We cannot afford to lose hope. And as long as young people, grassroots, and our front-line communities are leading the decade of change, then we are in the right trajectory. For me, any delayed financing is a shame on (world) leaders,” Mutuku told VOA.

For young activists from around the world, it has been a long journey to COP26 in every sense. They say they will continue to fight for climate justice long after they return home. 



COP26: African Youth Demand Rich Nations Fulfill Promises

Several young African climate activists traveled thousands of miles to Glasgow, Scotland, to be part of the COP26 climate summit — and to convey their sense of urgency to world leaders. Henry Ridgwell spoke with some of them about their climate change experiences and what COP26 must deliver to help their communities back home.

Camera: Henry Ridgwell.


Businessman Who Went to Space With Shatner Dies in Plane Crash

A businessman who traveled to space with William Shatner last month was killed along with another person when the small plane they were in crashed in a wooded area of northern New Jersey, state police said.

The space tourist, Glen M. de Vries, 49, of New York City, and Thomas P. Fischer, 54, of Hopatcong, were aboard the single-engine Cessna 172 that went down Thursday. 

De Vries was an instrument-rated private pilot, and Fischer owned a flight school. Authorities have not said who was piloting the small plane. 

The plane left Essex County Airport in Caldwell, on the edge of the New York City area, and was headed to Sussex Airport, in rural northwestern New Jersey. The Federal Aviation Administration alerted public safety agencies to look for the missing plane around 3 p.m.

Emergency crews found the wreckage in Hampton Township around 4 p.m., the FAA said. 

De Vries, co-founder of a tech company, took a 10-minute flight to the edge of space October 13 aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft with Shatner and two others. 

“It’s going to take me a while to be able to describe it. It was incredible,” de Vries said as he got his Blue Origin “astronaut wings” pinned onto his blue flight suit by Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos. 

“We are devastated to hear of the sudden passing of Glen de Vries,” Blue Origin tweeted Friday. “He brought so much life and energy to the entire Blue Origin team and to his fellow crewmates. His passion for aviation, his charitable work, and his dedication to his craft will long be revered and admired.” 

De Vries co-founded Medidata Solutions, a software company specializing in clinical research, and was the vice chair of life sciences and health care at Dassault Systemes, which acquired Medidata in 2019. He had taken part in an auction for a seat on the first flight and bought a seat on the second trip. 

De Vries also served on the board of Carnegie Mellon University. 

Fischer owned the flight school Fischer Aviation and was its chief instructor, according to the company’s website.

The National Transportation Safety Board was investigating.