SAN ESTEBAN SASROVIRAS — It is the dead of night when police storm a house near Barcelona where hundreds of cannabis plants are growing in the basement under the glare of a sea of heat lamps.
After decades as the gateway for Moroccan hashish to enter Europe, Spain is now seeing illegal plantations multiply as the country morphs into a cannabis production hub, attracting criminal gangs from across the continent.
Between 2014 and 2018, seizures of marijuana plants quadrupled, interior ministry figures show.
Spain alone accounted for a third of all such operations across the EU, according to the 2019 European Drugs Report.
And the highest number of seizures was in Catalonia, the wealthy northeastern region that borders France.
“Catalonia has become Europe’s marijuana orchard,” says Ramon Chacon, a top criminal investigator with the regional Mossos d’Esquadra police.
The phenomenon began a decade ago when groups involved in pushing Moroccan hashish along Spain’s Mediterranean coast, who already had a good distribution network and contacts in place, “realised they could earn more by selling marijuana”.
With some 25 million consumers, cannabis is the drug of choice in Europe, bringing in some 11.6 billion euros ($13.6 billion) last year, estimates by EU’s policing agency Europol show.
A forest of marijuana
Catalan police carried out three raids in the first week of October, one of which targeted two properties in San Esteban Sasroviras near Barcelona, where they seized 1,500 plants and arrested four people.
Ahead of the raid, there was a tense silence as agents wearing bullet-proof vests and carrying assault weapons advanced towards the housing estate in an operation witnessed by AFP.
Here many properties empty since the financial crisis of 2008 have been either rented or taken over by criminal groups who set up indoor plantations, which if well maintained can produce four times the harvest of an outdoor crop.
The operation goes without a hitch, with the Albanian “gardeners” giving themselves up without any resistance.
In a huge basement illuminated by glaring yellow lights is a forest of green plants, each about a metre (3.3 feet) high.
|Members of the Catalan regional police force Mossos d’Esquadra arrest two men during an intervention in an illegal marijuana plantation in a private residence in Martorell near Barcelona on October 6, 2020. Photo: AFP|
Despite the whirring of dozens of fans, there is a jungle-like humidity and an overpowering smell of cannabis.
According to the officer in charge of the raid, who did not want to give his name, with four crops a year, the gang could expect to earn between 200,000 and 400,000 euros on the European market.
Although a gram of marijuana goes for 5.0 euros in Spain, it costs around three times as much in the rest of Europe, and even six times that amount in some Nordic countries — offering a juicy markup for savvy importers.
“Europol operational intelligence exchanges over recent years reveal Spain as an increasing place of settlement for organised crime groups of foreign and multi-national configuration,” Europol spokesman Jan Op Gen Oorth told AFP.
“These groups set up major production facilities (indoor and outdoor) with the intent of supplying the demands of their countries of origin.”
Criminal groups from Britain, Sweden, Serbia, Poland and France, among others, had moved into the market, lured by the low production costs and the “grey areas” of Spain’s legal framework, Chacon said.
Although the sale and public consumption of cannabis is illegal in Spain, growing it for personal use is allowed as is the sale of seeds and other propagation materials
This has led to the creation of cannabis clubs, informal groups of consumers who produce and distribute cannabis for the use of its registered members.
Although Catalonia has moved to legalise marijuana, it is currently being appealed.
To a certain extent, this has desensitised debate around cannabis, allowing drug traffickers “to get their claws into all levels of society”, corrupting everyone from police officers to politicians, Chacon says.
But behind the widespread popularity of marijuana, those involved in its production have also been linked to gang violence, illegal weapons trading and even human trafficking with immigrants enslaved on certain plantations.
“There appears to be diversification in organised crime groups’ involvement in the cannabis market in the EU, with the competition leading to higher levels of intergroup violence,” Europol’s Oorth told AFP.
In Catalonia, where levels of gang-related violence remain low, there have been three murders linked to the cannabis trade in the past month.
“Marijuana-related murders are starting to be a regular thing,” admits Chacon, who fears that such violence will increase.
For now, “everyone is earning a lot of money without too much competition between gangs,” but one day that will change, he warns, predicting tensions will rise and eventually trigger “a more serious battle over territory”.
Nature loss means deadlier future pandemics, UN warns
Future pandemics will happen more often, kill more people and wreak even worse damage to the global economy than COVID-19 without a fundamental shift in how humans treat nature, the United Nations’ biodiversity panel said Thursday.
Warning that there are up to 850,000 viruses which, like the novel coronavirus, exist in animals and may be able to infect people, the panel known as IPBES said pandemics represented an “existential threat” to humanity.
Authors of the special report on biodiversity and pandemics said that habitat destruction and insatiable consumption made animal-borne diseases far more likely to make the jump to people in future.
“There is no great mystery about the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic — or any modern pandemic,” said Peter Daszak, president of the Ecohealth Alliance and chair of the IPBES workshop that drafted the report.
“The same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also drive pandemic risk though their impacts on our agriculture.”
The panel said that COVID-19 was the sixth pandemic since the influenza outbreak of 1918 — all of which had been “entirely driven by human activities”.
These include unsustainable exploitation of the environment through deforestation, agricultural expansion, wildlife trade and consumption — all of which put humans in increasingly close contact with wild and farmed animals and the diseases they harbour.
Seventy percent of emerging diseases — such as Ebola, Zika and HIV/AIDS — are zoonotic in origin, meaning they circulate in animals before jumping to humans.
Around five new diseases break out among humans every single year, any one of which has the potential to become a pandemic, the panel warned.
IPBES said in its periodic assessment on the state of nature last year that more than three-quarters of land on Earth had already been severely degraded by human activity.
One-third of land surface and three-quarters of fresh water on the planet is currently taken up by farming, and humanity’s resource use has rocketed up 80 percent in just three decades, it said.
IPBES conducted a virtual workshop with 22 leading experts to come up with a list of options that governments could take to lower the risk of repeat pandemics.
It acknowledged the difficulty in counting the full economic cost of COVID-19.
But the assessment pointed to estimated costs as high as $16 trillion as of July 2020.
The experts said that the cost of preventing future pandemics was likely to be 100 times cheaper than responding to them, “providing strong economic incentives for transformative change”.
“Our approach has effectively stagnated,” Daszak said.
“We still rely on attempts to contain and control diseases after they emerge, through vaccines and therapeutics.”
The IPBES suggested a global, coordinated pandemic response, and for countries to agree upon targets to prevent biodiversity loss within an international accord similar to the Paris agreement on climate change.
Among the options for policymakers to reduce the likelihood of a COVID-19 re-run are taxes or levies on meat consumption, livestock production and other forms of “high pandemic-risk activities”.
The assessment also suggested better regulation of international wildlife trade and empowering indigenous communities to better preserve wild habitats.
Nick Ostle, a researcher at the CEH Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, said the IPBES’ assessment should serve as a “withering reminder” of how reliant humanity is on nature.
“Our health, wealth and wellbeing relies on the health, wealth and wellbeing of our environment,” said Ostle, who was not involved in the research process.
“The challenges of this pandemic have highlighted the importance of protecting and restoring our globally important and shared environmental ‘life-support’ systems.”
Global coronavirus cases rise by single-day record of half a million
Global coronavirus cases rose by more than 500,000 for the first time on Wednesday, a record one-day increase as countries across the Northern Hemisphere reported daily spikes.
Global daily COVID-19 cases have risen by nearly 25% in less than two weeks as the world witnessed 400,000 daily reported cases for the first time last Friday.
Most western countries and parts of Latin America have reported their highest single-day surges in the past few weeks.
Many governments, with the notable exception of the United States, have started taking stronger measures to bring the spread of the virus under control.
The global coronavirus tally stands at 44.7 million cases and about 1.17 million deaths.
Europe, North America and Latin America account for over 66% of global cases and over 76% of global deaths.
Europe’s new daily infections have doubled over the past two weeks as it reported more than 250,000 cases for the first time on Wednesday, according to a Reuters tally.
The region has so far reported about 9.5 million cases and about 261,000 deaths.
France reported a new record daily total of more than 50,000 infections for the first time on Sunday.
Euro-zone economic activity has slipped back into decline this month as renewed restrictions to control the coronavirus pandemic forced many businesses in the bloc’s dominant service industry to limit operations, a survey showed last Friday.
|People exit a railway station amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Mumbai, India, October 29, 2020. Photo: Reuters|
The United States continues to lead the worldwide coronavirus tally with about 8.9 million infections and about 228,000 fatalities since the pandemic started.
The United States broke its daily record for new coronavirus infections on Friday as it reported 84,169 new cases due to outbreaks in virtually every part of the country shortly before its presidential election on Tuesday.
The United States is reporting about 75,000 cases a day on an average, according to a Reuters analysis and its death toll from COVID-19 could surpass 500,000 by February unless nearly all Americans wear face masks, researchers said.
Asia surpassed 10 million infections of the new coronavirus on Saturday, the second-heaviest regional toll in the world, according to a Reuters tally, as cases continue to mount in India despite a slowdown and sharp declines elsewhere.
India, the world’s second most populous country as well as the second worst affected country, is reporting about 48,000 cases a day on an average with a total of about 8 million cases, according to a Reuters tally.
As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to provide any successful vaccine to each of India’s 1.3 billion people.
The country is preparing a database of all government and private health personnel to speed up vaccinations once they become available.
In the Middle East, Iran, the most affected COVID-19 infections country is reporting one death every three minutes, according to state television.
Australian scientists find huge new healthy coral reef off northern coast
SYDNEY — Australian scientists found a detached coral reef on the Great Barrier Reef that exceeds the height of the Empire State Building and the Eiffel Tower, the Schmidt Ocean Institute said this week, the first such discovery in over 100 years.
The “blade like” reef is nearly 500 metres tall and 1.5 kilometres wide, said the institute founded by ex-Google boss Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy.
It lies 40 metres below the ocean surface and about six kilometres from the edge of Great Barrier Reef.
A team of scientists from James Cook University, led by Dr. Robin Beaman, were mapping the northern seafloor of the Great Barrier Reef on board the institute’s research vessel Falkor, when they found the reef on Oct. 20.
“We are surprised and elated by what we have found,” said Beaman.
He said it was the first detached reef of that size to be discovered in over 120 years and that it was thriving with a “blizzard of fish” in a healthy ecosystem.
|A robotic arm takes rock samples from a 500-metre-tall coral reef discovered by Australian scientists, off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, in this still image taken from video provided on social media, October 25, 2020. Mandatory credit Schmidt Ocean Institute/via Reuters|
The discovery comes after a study earlier this month found the Great Barrier Reef had lost more than half its coral in the last three decades.
Using the underwater robot known as SuBastian, the scientists filmed their exploration of the new reef, collecting marine samples on the way, which will be archived and placed in the Queensland Museum and the Museum of Tropical Queensland.
“To not only 3D map the reef in detail, but also visually see this discovery with SuBastian is incredible,” Beaman added.
|A robotic arm takes a sample from a 500-metre-tall coral reef discovered by Australian scientists, off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, in this still image taken from video provided on social media, October 25, 2020. Mandatory credit Schmidt Ocean Institute/via Reuters|
Although the northern section of the Great Barrier Reef suffered from bleaching in 2016, Beaman said this detached reef didn’t display any evidence of damage.
Bleaching occurs when the water is too warm, forcing coral to expel living algae and causing it to calcify and turn white.
The Great Barrier Reef runs 2,300 km (1,429 miles) down Australia’s northeast coast spanning an area half the size of Texas.
It was world heritage listed in 1981 by UNESCO as the most extensive and spectacular coral reef ecosystem on the planet.
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