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‘Can You Dig It?’ Africa Reality Show Draws Youth to Farming

As a student, Leah Wangari imagined a glamorous life as a globe-trotting flight attendant, not toiling in dirt and manure.

 

Born and raised in Kenya’s skyscraper-filled capital, Nairobi, the 28-year-old said farming had been the last thing on her mind. The decision to drop agriculture classes haunted her later, when her efforts in agribusiness investing while running a fashion venture failed.

 

Clueless, she made her way to an unusual new reality TV show, the first of its kind in Africa. “Don’t Lose the Plot,” backed by the U.S. government, trains contestants from Kenya and neighboring Tanzania and gives them plots to cultivate, with a $10,000 prize for the most productive. The goal: Prove to young people that agriculture can be fun and profitable.

 

“Being in reality TV was like the best feeling ever, like a dream come true for me,” Wangari said. But she found it exhausting. As callouses built up on her hands, her friends made bets that she wouldn’t succeed.

 

“Don’t Lose the Plot” is aimed at inspiring youth in East Africa to pursue agribusiness entrepreneurship. Producers said the show wants to demystify the barriers to starting a small business and challenge the prejudices against farming-related careers, even as many youths flee rural areas for urban ones.

“What we hope to achieve … is first to show people that you can make money out of farming, to change the age profile of farmers in Africa from 60 to the youth. And the next thing we want to do is to show farmers, young farmers, that they can use their mobile and technology in order to farm and achieve their goals,” producer Patricia Gichinga said. The show also offers training via online platforms and text message.

 

Attracting people to agriculture is no small challenge in Africa, where a booming young population is often put off by the image of punishing work and poor, weather-beaten farmers.

 

“Most young Africans think of farming as back-breaking labor that pays peanuts,” former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, the committee chair for the $100,000 annual Africa Food Prize and a farmer himself, wrote in the New African magazine last year. “This view, though largely inaccurate, is to some extent understandable.”

 

If Africa’s youth, who make up about 65 percent of the population, don’t venture into agribusiness, “then there is little chance that agriculture will have a transformative impact on the continent’s fortunes,” Obasanjo wrote.

 

Most experts agree that farming growth can boost African economies by increasing trade, creating more jobs and improving food self-sufficiency on a continent with the highest occurrence of food insecurity in the world.

 

But much of the potential remains untapped. Africa has over 60 percent of the world’s fertile but uncultivated land while importing $35 billion to $50 billion in food per year, the Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa says . Weak or corrupt land governance is a challenge, as well as conflict.

 

Yields for major crops remain low compared to other regions of the world. Change must come by empowering the smallholder farmers who produce 80 percent of the food consumed on the continent, the organization says.

Now Wangari is one of them. After placing second in “Don’t Lose the Plot,” she became a full-time mushroom farmer.

 

In a damp structure of mud and clay on the outskirts of Nairobi, she has harvested her first crop and is preparing for her second. She had expected to make a $2,500 profit but took in $1,000 instead after mites from a nearby chicken house invaded and lowered her yield.

 

“When I see young men in the village now sitting idle I feel disappointed because there is a lot of idle land and they can use it to make ends meet,” she said. “They don’t require a lot of capital but they don’t have the information.”

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Land Fight Simmers Over Brasilia’s Shrine of Shamans

Brasilia – It is one of the most expensive areas in the Brazilian capital – and one of the most sacred.

A plot in downtown Brasilia – known as Santuário dos Pajés or Shrine of the Shamans – is at the center of a conflict between indigenous people hoping to preserve their traditional way of life and developers eager to build an upmarket neighborhood.

While property is often contested in Brazil, it is usually waged over remote jungles or distant mountains – vast swaths of land that can be mined or farmed for profit.

This conflict centers on Brasilia’s urban power base. Just minutes from the National Congress, the Shrine of the Shamans – with its unpaved roads, forest and small houses – sits surrounded by lavish high rises.

Indigenous residents say they feel cornered by the encroaching developers, with multiple interests fighting over the last undeveloped plot in Brasilia, a planned city known for its futuristic buildings designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.

“The sanctuary has been an indigenous land for more than 40 years. We have been fighting for its demarcation,” indigenous leader Márcia Guajajara told the Thomson Reuters Foundation inside the Shrine.

“When the developers arrived, we were already here. They think that money always wins,” she said.

It is one of many such conflicts in Brazil, rich in land to be exploited and low on deeds and property records.

For land demarcation is controversial in Brazil, despite safeguards in both the constitution and United Nations guidelines that are supposed to enshrine rights for indigenous people.

About a third of almost a million indigenous people live in Brazil’s cities, according to government statistics.

There are several land battles wending their way through the courts, many of them pit native people against powerful business interests.

But it is the prime downtown location that makes the fight over the Shrine stand out in the capital city, declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations for its modernist architecture and artistic planning.

Conflicting Claims

Conflict began a decade ago when the local government claimed it owned the Brasilia plot, prompting indigenous groups to counterclaim, saying the Fulni-Ô Tapuya had lived and performed religious ceremonies there for decades.

To further complicate matters, the federal government said it took ownership of the area in 2008 and a year later sold it on to building firms to create a green and sustainable neighborhood called Noroeste (Northwest).

Since then, high-rise buildings have sprung up all around the sacred soil, making the Shrine one of the few areas in the city that is free of new buildings.

Forty-year-old Guajajara has been living in Santuário dos Pajés since 1996, after marrying shaman Santxiê Tapuya, considered the founder of the sacred land. She is one of 180 indigenous people who live in the area.

According to court documents, a receipt from 1980 shows Santxiê bought an area of about 4 hectares (9.8 acres), the size of almost six football pitches.

Indigenous locals say pressure to displace them from the area has steadily increased over the years.

One November afternoon last year, Guajajara said about 10 men – some armed – and three tractors invaded the Santuário dos Pajés area, knocking down trees in the hope of clearing the land sufficiently to pave an avenue down its middle.

Her 18-year-old son Fetxa said he tried and failed to stop them by blocking their path. “I did not get out of the front.

They pushed me forward, along with the soil, twice. I was shocked.”

According to Guajajara, she and her son – the only ones in the area when the tractors arrived – screamed they could not enter the indigenous land because it is protected by a court decision.

But the men said they had an order “to run it over.”

The local government’s development arm, Terracap, said its staff were doing some infrastructure works in the neighborhood close to the indigenous area but denied they were armed.

“We are removing garbage in various locations and they understood this as an affront,” Júlio César Reis, the head of Terracap, said by phone.

In an emailed statement, Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency, Funai, said it would not comment.

Federal prosecutors are investigating the case.

The indigenous residents were quick to fence in the area, though it is no barrier to any possible future encroachment.

How Much Land?

In 2013, a court recognized the indigenous land ownership rights over the area of about four hectares bought by Santxiê but Funai, Terracap and federal prosecutors appealed.

Terracap said it has not been proven the indigenous people lived in the sacred area before their registered their claim.

The matter was further complicated when in October 2017 federal prosecutors, who act on behalf of indigenous people in Brazil, made a request in court to allocate a further 28 hectares to  Santxiê’s family and the ethnic group Fulni-Ô Tapuya.

Federal prosecutor Felipe Fritz Braga said the sanctuary is crucial to ensure the Fulni-Ô Tapuya’s future in the area.

An anthropological report used in the suit found evidence that indigenous tribes have been living in the area since 1956, during the construction process of Brasília, he said.

Santuário dos Pajés has been targeted by almost 30 lawsuits over the last 10 years.

“This number of lawsuits reflects the complexity of the problem,” Braga said in an email to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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Solar Power Push Lights Up Options for India’s Rural Women

In her village of Komalia, the fog swirls so thick at 7 a.m. that Akansha Singh can see no more than 15 meters ahead. But the 20-year-old is already cycling to her workplace, nine kilometers away.

Halfway there she stops for two hours at a computer training center, where she’s learning internet skills. Then she’s off again, and by 10 a.m. reaches the small garment manufacturing plant where she stitches women’s clothing for high-end brands on state-of-the-art electric sewing machines.

Solar energy powers most of her day — the computer training center and the 25-woman garment factory run on solar mini-grid electricity — and clean power has given her personal choice as well, she said.

If the mini-grid system had not been put in place, Singh — a recent college graduate without funds to pursue training as a teacher, the only job open to women in her village — would have had no alternative but to marry, she said.

In fact, “I would already be married off,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Today, however, she earns 4,500 rupees ($70) a month working on solar-powered sewing machines. She uses part of that to pay 300 rupees ($4.70) a month for her computer education class — and is planning to start a computer training center closer to home.

Like her, most of the women at the factory earn between 2,500 and 4,500 rupees ($39- $70) a month, which has helped their families eat better, get children to school and pay for healthcare, they said.

“With a month’s earning alone we can buy new bicycles for ourselves and our school-going children,” Bandana Devi, a mother of four, told the Thomson Reuter Foundation, as she looked up from her sewing.

She bought one for her 12-year-old daughter, she said, and her 6-year-old rides pillion with her to the school, 2 km away.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced a $2.5 billion plan to electrify every Indian household by 2019 — a huge task in a country where close to 240 million people still have no access to electrical power.

Solar power — including the use of small local grids — is likely to be a big part of the push, with 60 percent of new connections expected to be to renewable power, according to a report by the International Energy Agency.

Stable Power, More Contracts

In a clearing in an acacia plantation, the more than 140 solar panels that make up the Kamlapur mini-grid are being cleaned early in the morning.

The 36-kilowatt plant, set up by the for-profit OMC Power Private Ltd.(formerly Omnigrid Micropower Company) in 2015, distributes solar energy over 2.4 kilometers of power lines to 70 households, two telecommunications towers, the clothing manufacturing unit and several other small businesses.

Solar mini-grids usually rely on one or two large users of power — often mobile phone towers — to provide a stable base revenue for the system. But as solar electricity becomes available in areas beyond the traditional grid, power-hungry small businesses are emerging that could become anchor users.

Kamlapur’s garment factory, for instance, consumes 10 kilowatts of power each day — the same as the telecom towers, said Ketan Bhatt, an OMC official in Uttar Pradesh state.

The state in 2016 became India’s first to put in place a mini-grid policy, recognizing private solar companies as legitimate players in India’s push to get power to all.

Company owners, in turn, say solar mini-grids — which can be more reliable than the unstable grid power their competitors rely on — is giving them a business advantage.

“Because the power supply is steady, we are regularly able to deliver on contract deadlines, which in turn enhances our reputation to bag more contracts,” said Mohammad Riyaz, who set up the Kamlapur garment unit in 2016.

Rohit Chandra, a co-founder of OMC, said he was seeing many solar power users moving beyond simply buying power for home lighting and appliances. Now, he said, they are harnessing solar energy for profit.

“We see barbers installing televisions and fans in their shops to attract more customers. Carpenters buy electric saws and wood polishers, fruit sellers are adding electric juicers. Health centers and dispensaries are coming up in underserved villages too,” Chandra said in a telephone interview.

“People are now continuously climbing,” he said.

Sangeeta Singh, of the Uttar Pradesh New and Renewable Energy Development Agency, said rural villagers “are willing to pay for assured, customized hours of supply, even at a higher price.”

“The myth that rural consumers will not pay for electricity is now demolished,” added Jaideep Mukherji, the CEO of Smart Power India (SPI). “Over the last two years we’ve discovered not only do rural consumers pay for the electricity, 93 percent pay on time.”

SPI is backed by the the U.S.-based Rockefeller Foundation’s $75 million Smart Power for Rural Development initiative, which aims to get power the “last mile” to users without it in India, Myanmar and sub-Saharan Africa.

SPI works with seven private mini-grid operators, including OMC, in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand — some of India’s least electrified states — to boost demand for solar mini-grid power and help develop rural economies.

The aim is both to improve life for poor people in power-hungry regions and help make sure solar mini-grid power is financially feasible for its operators, Mukherji said.

Chandra, of OMC, said that, on average, after supplying reliable power for a year, “we see around 30 micro-enterprises come up in each village.”

Though most are expansions of existing businesses, some are new ventures — such as a new water purifying plant in Kamlapur.

Sanskrit language teacher Aparna Mishra has just invested 400,000 rupees ($6,240) to set up a reverse osmosis water purifier.

Starting later this month, 100 customers — including schools, hotels and homes in the area — will begin receiving 20-liter refillable jars of water, dropped off at their doorstep, the entrepreneur said.

Mishra’s two-year target is to produce 3,000 liters of clean water a day, delivered over a 12-km radius from the 5-kilowatt plant.

“If villagers can understand the link between good health and clean drinking water from my plant, that itself is the biggest return on my investment,” the 26-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

An assessment of Smart Power India villages at the end of 2016 found that after two years of access to mini-grid power, small businesses using it had increased their monthly income by 13 percent.

A Price Too High?

While Smart Power India is reaching a growing share of communities without electricity, a 2017 study by the International Center for Research on Women found that large numbers of women and poor families still lack access to clean energy, even in areas where it is available.

For some of them, the cost of private mini-grid power is a deterrent to using it.

Riyaz’s clothing factory, for instance, pays 25 rupees (39 cents) for each kilowatt of the 10 kilowatts of power it uses each day — well above the 11 to 17 rupees that rural users of grid power pay.

“The electricity bill pinches,” the 45-year-old tailor said.

Chandra, of OMC, admitted that “on the face of it, our charges for reliable power might look high.”

But grid power users in Uttar Pradesh must pay a minimum monthly fee of 1,000 rupees, he said. With many small solar businesses — such as phone recharging — using less power, and even larger businesses often saving energy by using efficient machines, solar mini-grid power can come out cheaper, he said.

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Hotel in DC Offers a Cooking Class for Couples before Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day is probably the most romantic holiday. In the United States, with people sending 190 million Valentine’s Day cards and spending around $100 per person on gifts. Instead of going out for a restaurant dinner for the holiday, a new idea is taking hold. These days more couples are planning to do something together. Classes like painting and cooking are a popular. Mariia Prus checked out the options for couples at one of Washington’s fanciest hotels.

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GM to Close Auto Plant in South Korea in Restructuring

General Motors said Tuesday it will close an underutilized factory in Gunsan, South Korea, by the end of May as part of a restructuring of its operations.

 

The move is a setback for the administration of President Moon Jae-in, who has made jobs and wages a priority.

 

A GM statement said Monday the company has proposed to its labor union and other stakeholders a plan involving further investments in South Korea that would help save jobs.

 

“As we are at a critical juncture of needing to make product allocation decisions, the ongoing discussions must demonstrate significant progress by the end of February, when GM will make important decisions on next steps,” Barry Engle, GM executive vice president and president of GM International, said in the statement.

 

The company’s CEO Mary Barra has said GM urgently needs better cost performance from its operations in South Korea, where auto sales have slowed.

 

South Korea’s government expressed “deep regret” over the factory’s closure. It said it plans to study the situation at the business and will continue talks with GM.

Korea’s finance ministry said earlier this month that GM had sought government help. The government has denied reports that South Korea will raise the issue in trade talks with the U.S.

 

The factory in Gunsan, a port city about 200 kilometers (125 miles) southwest of Seoul, has been making the Cruze, a sedan, and the Orlando model SUV. It employs about 2,000 workers, and only used about 20 percent of its full production capacity in 2017, rolling out 33,982 vehicles.

 

GM Korea has made 10 million vehicles since it was set up in 2002. In 2017, it sold 132,377 units in Korea and exported 392,170 vehicles to 120 markets around the world.

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Opioid Makers Gave $10 Million to Advocacy Groups Amid Epidemic

Companies selling some of the most lucrative prescription painkillers funneled millions of dollars to advocacy groups that in turn promoted the medications’ use, according to a report released Monday by a U.S. senator.

The investigation by Missouri’s Senator Claire McCaskill sheds light on the opioid industry’s ability to shape public opinion and raises questions about its role in an overdose epidemic that has claimed hundreds of thousands of American lives. Representatives of some of the drugmakers named in the report said they did not set conditions on how the money was to be spent or force the groups to advocate for their painkillers.

The report from McCaskill, ranking Democrat on the Senate’s homeland security committee, examines advocacy funding by the makers of the top five opioid painkillers by worldwide sales in 2015. Financial information the companies provided to Senate staff shows they spent more than $10 million between 2012 and 2017 to support 14 advocacy groups and affiliated doctors.

The report did not include some of the largest and most politically active manufacturers of the drugs.

The findings follow a similar investigation launched in 2012 by a bipartisan pair of senators. That effort eventually was shelved and no findings were ever released.

While the new report provides only a snapshot of company activities, experts said it gives insight into how industry-funded groups fueled demand for drugs such as OxyContin and Vicodin, addictive medications that generated billions in sales despite research showing they are largely ineffective for chronic pain.

‘Pretty damning’

“It looks pretty damning when these groups were pushing the message about how wonderful opioids are and they were being heavily funded, in the millions of dollars, by the manufacturers of those drugs,” said Lewis Nelson, a Rutgers University doctor and opioid expert.

The findings could bolster hundreds of lawsuits that are aimed at holding opioid drugmakers responsible for helping fuel an epidemic blamed for the deaths of more than 340,000 Americans since 2000.

McCaskill’s staff asked drugmakers to turn over records of payments they made to groups and affiliated physicians, part of a broader investigation by the senator into the opioid crisis. The request was sent last year to five companies: Purdue Pharma; Insys Therapeutics; Janssen Pharmaceuticals, owned by Johnson & Johnson; Mylan; and Depomed.

Fourteen nonprofit groups, mostly representing pain patients and specialists, received nearly $9 million from the drugmakers, according to investigators. Doctors affiliated with those groups received another $1.6 million.

Most of the groups included in the probe took industry-friendly positions. That included issuing medical guidelines promoting opioids for chronic pain, lobbying to defeat or include exceptions to state limits on opioid prescribing, and criticizing landmark prescribing guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Doctors and the public have no way of knowing the true source of this information and that’s why we have to take steps to provide transparency,” said McCaskill in an interview with The Associated Press. The senator plans to introduce legislation requiring increased disclosure about the financial relationships between drugmakers and certain advocacy groups.

‘Front groups’

A 2016 investigation by the AP and the Center for Public Integrity revealed how painkiller manufacturers used hundreds of lobbyists and millions in campaign contributions to fight state and federal measures aimed at stemming the tide of prescription opioids, often enlisting help from advocacy organizations.

Bob Twillman, executive director of the Academy of Integrative Pain Management, said most of the $1.3 million his group received from the five companies went to a state policy advocacy operation. But Twillman said the organization has called for non-opioid pain treatments while also asking state lawmakers for exceptions to restrictions on the length of opioid prescriptions for certain patients.

“We really don’t take direction from them about what we advocate for,” Twillman said of the industry.

The tactics highlighted in Monday’s report are at the heart of lawsuits filed by hundreds of state and local governments against the opioid industry.

The suits allege that drugmakers misled doctors and patients about the risks of opioids by enlisting “front groups” and “key opinion leaders” who oversold the drugs’ benefits and encouraged overprescribing. In the legal claims, the governments seek money and changes to how the industry operates, including an end to the use of outside groups to push their drugs.

U.S. deaths linked to opioids have quadrupled since 2000 to roughly 42,000 in 2016. Although initially driven by prescription drugs, most opioid deaths now involve illicit drugs, including heroin and fentanyl.

Companies and their contributions

Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, contributed the most to the groups, funneling $4.7 million to organizations and physicians from 2012 through last year.

In a statement, the company did not address whether it was trying to influence the positions of the groups it supported, but said it does help organizations “that are interested in helping patients receive appropriate care.” On Friday, Purdue announced it would no longer market OxyContin to doctors.

Insys Therapeutics, a company recently targeted by federal prosecutors, provided more than $3.5 million to interest groups and physicians, according to McCaskill’s report. Last year, the company’s founder was indicted for allegedly offering bribes to doctors to write prescriptions for the company’s spray-based fentanyl medication.

A company spokesman declined to comment.

Insys contributed $2.5 million last year to a U.S. Pain Foundation program to pay for pain drugs for cancer patients.

“The question was: Do we make these people suffer, or do we work with this company that has a terrible name?” said U.S. Pain founder Paul Gileno, explaining why his organization sought the money.

Depomed, Janssen and Mylan contributed $1.4 million, $650,000 and $26,000 in payments, respectively. Janssen and Mylan told the AP they acted responsibly, while calls and emails to Depomed were not returned.

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Trump’s $4 Trillion Budget Helps Move Deficit Sharply Higher

President Donald Trump is proposing a $4 trillion-plus budget for next year that projects a $1 trillion or so federal deficit and — unlike the plan he released last year — never comes close to promising a balanced federal ledger even after 10 years.

And that’s before last week’s $300 billion budget pact is added this year and next, showering both the Pentagon and domestic agencies with big increases.

 

The spending spree, along with last year’s tax cuts, has the deficit moving sharply higher with Republicans in control of Washington.

 

The original plan was for Trump’s new budget to slash domestic agencies even further than last year’s proposal, but instead it will land in Congress three days after he signed a two-year spending agreement that wholly rewrites both last year’s budget and the one to be released Monday.

 

The 2019 budget was originally designed to double down on last year’s proposals to slash foreign aid, the Environmental Protection Agency, home heating assistance and other nondefense programs funded by Congress each year.

 

“A lot of presidents’ budgets are ignored. But I would expect this one to be completely irrelevant and totally ignored,” said Jason Furman, a top economic adviser to President Barack Obama. “In fact, Congress passed a law week that basically undid the budget before it was even submitted.”

 

In a preview of the 2019 budget, the White House on Sunday focused on Trump’s $1.5 trillion plan for the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. He also will ask for a $13 billion increase over two years for opioid prevention, treatment and long-term recovery. A request of $23 billion for border security, including $18 billion for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and money for more detention beds for detained immigrants, is part of the budget, too.

 

Trump would again spare Social Security retirement benefits and Medicare as he promised during the 2016 campaign. And while his plan would reprise last year’s attempt to scuttle the “Obamacare” health law and sharply cut back the Medicaid program for the elderly, poor and disabled, Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill have signaled there’s no interest in tackling hot-button health issues during an election year.

 

Instead, the new budget deal and last year’s tax cuts herald the return of trillion dollar-plus deficits. Last year, Trump’s budget predicted a $526 billion budget deficit for the 2019 fiscal year starting Oct. 1; instead, it’s set to easily exceed $1 trillion once the cost of the new spending pact and the tax cuts are added to Congressional Budget Office projections.

 

Mick Mulvaney, the former tea party congressman who runs the White House budget office, said Sunday that Trump’s new budget, if implemented, would tame the deficit over time.

 

“The budget does bend the trajectory down, it does move us back towards balance. It does get us away from trillion-dollar deficits,” Mulvaney said on “Fox News Sunday.”

 

“Just because this deal was signed does not mean the future is written in stone. We do have a chance still to change the trajectory. And that is what the budget will show tomorrow,” he said.

 

Last year, Trump’s budget projected a slight surplus after a decade, but critics said it relied on an enormous accounting gimmick — double counting a 10-year, $2 trillion surge in revenues from the economic benefits of “tax reform.” Now that tax reform has passed, the math trick can’t be used, and the Trump plan doesn’t come close to balancing.

 

But critics are likely to say this year’s Trump plan, which promises 3 percent growth, continuing low inflation, and low interest yields on U.S. Treasury bills despite a flood of new borrowing, underestimates the mounting cost of financing the government’s $20 trillion-plus debt.

 

The White House is putting focus this year on Trump’s long-overdue plan to boost spending on the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. The plan would put up $200 billion in federal money over the next 10 years to leverage $1.5 trillion in infrastructure spending, relying on state and local governments and the private sector to contribute the bulk of the funding.

 

Critics contend the infrastructure plan will fail to reach its goals without more federal support. Proposals to streamline the permitting process as a way to reduce the cost of projects have already generated opposition from environmental groups.

 

Presidential budgets tend to reprise many of the same elements year after year. While details aren’t out yet, Trump’s budget is likely to curb crop insurance costs, cut student loan subsidies, reduce pension benefits for federal workers, and cut food stamps, among other proposals.

 

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Who’s at Fault in Amtrak Crash? Amtrak Pays Regardless

Federal investigators are still looking at how CSX railway crews routed an Amtrak train into a parked freight train in Cayce, South Carolina, last weekend. But even if CSX should bear sole responsibility for the accident, Amtrak will likely end up paying crash victims’ legal claims with public money.

Amtrak pays for accidents it didn’t cause because of secretive agreements negotiated between the passenger rail company, which receives more than $1 billion annually in federal subsidies, and the private railroads, which own 97 percent of the tracks on which Amtrak travels.

Both Amtrak and freight railroads that own the tracks fight to keep those contracts secret in legal proceedings. But whatever the precise legal language, plaintiffs’ lawyers and former Amtrak officials say Amtrak generally bears the full cost of damages to its trains, passengers, employees and other crash victims — even in instances where crashes occurred as the result of a freight rail company’s negligence or misconduct.

​No ‘iron in the fire’

Railroad industry advocates say that freight railways have ample incentive to keep their tracks safe for their employees, customers and investors. But the Surface Transportation Board and even some federal courts have long concluded that allowing railroads to escape liability for gross negligence is bad public policy.

“The freight railroads don’t have an iron in the fire when it comes to making the safety improvements necessary to protect members of the public,” said Bob Pottroff, a Manhattan, Kansas, rail injury attorney who has sued CSX on behalf of an injured passenger from the Cayce crash. “They’re not paying the damages.”

Beyond CSX’s specific activities in the hours before the accident, the company’s safety record has deteriorated in recent years, according to a standard metric provided by the Federal Railroad Administration. Since 2013, CSX’s rate of major accidents per million miles traveled has jumped by more than half, from 2 to 3.08 — significantly worse than the industry average. And rail passenger advocates raised concerns after the CSX CEO at the time pushed hard last year to route freight more directly by altering its routes.

CSX denied that safety had slipped at the company, blaming the change in the major accident index on a reduction of total miles traveled combined with changes in its cargo and train length.

“Our goal remains zero accidents,” CSX spokesman Bryan Tucker wrote in a statement provided to The Associated Press. CSX’s new system of train routing “will create a safer, more efficient railroad resulting in a better service product for our customers,” he wrote.

Amtrak’s ability to offer national rail service is governed by separately negotiated track usage agreements with 30 different railroads. All the deals share a common trait: They’re “no fault,” according to a September 2017 presentation delivered by Amtrak executive Jim Blair as part of a Federal Highway Administration seminar.

No fault means Amtrak takes full responsibility for its property and passengers and the injuries of anyone hit by a train. The “host railroad” that operates the tracks must only be responsible for its property and employees. Blair called the decades-long arrangement “a good way for Amtrak and the host partners to work together to get things resolved quickly and not fight over issues of responsibility.”

Amtrak declined to comment on Blair’s presentation. But Amtrak’s history of not pursuing liability claims against freight railroads doesn’t fit well with federal officials and courts’ past declarations that the railroads should be held accountable for gross negligence and willful misconduct.

​Maryland crash, backlash

After a 1987 crash in Chase, Maryland, in which a Conrail train crew smoked marijuana then drove a train with disabled safety features past multiple stop signals and into an Amtrak train — killing 16 — a federal judge ruled that forcing Amtrak to take financial responsibility for “reckless, wanton, willful, or grossly negligent acts by Conrail” was contrary to good public policy.

Conrail paid. But instead of taking on more responsibility going forward, railroads went in the opposite direction, recalls a former Amtrak board member who spoke to the AP. After Conrail was held responsible in the Chase crash, he said, Amtrak got “a lot of threats from the other railroads.”

The former board member requested anonymity because he said that Amtrak’s internal legal discussions were supposed to remain confidential and he did not wish to harm his own business relationships by airing a contentious issue.

Because Amtrak operates on the freight railroads’ tracks and relies on the railroads’ dispatchers to get passenger trains to their destinations on time, Amtrak executives concluded they couldn’t afford to pick a fight, the former Amtrak board member said.

“The law says that Amtrak is guaranteed access” to freights’ tracks, he said. “But it’s up to the goodwill of the railroad as to whether they’ll put you ahead or behind a long freight train.”

A 2004 New York Times series on train crossing safety drew attention to avoidable accidents at railroad crossings and involving passenger trains — and to railroads’ ability to shirk financial responsibility for passenger accidents. In the wake of the reporting, the Surface Transportation Board ruled that railroads “cannot be indemnified for its own gross negligence, recklessness, willful or wanton misconduct,” according to a 2010 letter by then-Surface Transportation Board chairman Dan Elliott to members of Congress.

That ruling gives Amtrak grounds to pursue gross negligence claims against freight railroads — if it wanted to.

“If Amtrak felt that if they didn’t want to pay, they’d have to litigate it,” said Elliott, now an attorney at Conner & Winters.

Same lawyers

The AP was unable to find an instance where the railroad has brought such a claim against a freight railroad since the 1987 Chase, Maryland, disaster. The AP also asked Amtrak, CSX and the Association of American Railroads to identify any example within the last decade of a railroad contributing to a settlement or judgment in a passenger rail accident that occurred on its track. All entities declined to provide such an example.

Even in court cases where establishing gross negligence by a freight railroad is possible, said Potrroff, the plaintiff’s attorney, he has never seen any indication that the railroad and Amtrak are at odds.

“You’ll frequently see Amtrak hire the same lawyers the freight railroads use,” he said.

Ron Goldman, a California plaintiff attorney who has also represented passenger rail accident victims, agreed. While Goldman’s sole duty is to get the best possible settlement for his client, he said he’d long been curious about whether it was Amtrak or freight railroads which ended up paying for settlements and judgments.

“The question of how they share that liability is cloaked in secrecy,” he said, adding: “The money is coming from Amtrak when our clients get the check.”

Pottroff said he has long wanted Amtrak to stand up to the freight railroads on liability matters. Not only would it make safety a bigger financial consideration for railroads, he said, it would simply be fair.

“Amtrak has a beautiful defense — the freight railroad is in control of all the infrastructure,” he said. But he’s not expecting Amtrak to use it during litigation over the Cayce crash.

“Amtrak always pays,” he said.

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Seeing America Through the Eyes of African Immigrants Turned Truckers

Increasing demand for long-haul truckers in the United States is drawing more African immigrants onto America’s roads. VOA’s Arzouma Kompaoré hitched a ride with African truckers whose routes to success stretch across the United States.