Latin America pledges to reforest 20m hectares

LIMA (AFP): Seven Latin American countries pledged Sunday to replant nearly 20 million hectares of forest by 2020 amid a UN climate conference in Lima.  The deal, dubbed “20x20,” which private investors pledged to support with $365 million, aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions generated by deforestation and land-use changes. The area is equivalent to more than 49 million acres. It came at a meeting held in parallel to the conference, with the agriculture and environment ministers from Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru. “In Peru, we are losing forests an an impressive speed,” said Agriculture Minister Juan Manuel Benites Ramos, citing illegal mining, overgrazing and coca planting as the driving factor behind the tree clearings.

The region needs to work on replanting the forests and moving toward “a carbon-neutral agriculture.”

His Argentine counterpart, Roberto Delgado, also urged putting the brakes on deforestation.

“In addition to restoring soil, it is important to stop losing hectares,” he said.

Mexico made the biggest pledge, promising to restore 8.5 million hectares, followed by Peru, which promised 3.2 million, Guatemala, 1.2 million, and Colombia, one million.

Ecuador promised 500,000 hectares, Chile another 100,000, and Costa Rica 50,000.

In addition, a plan to conserve the Patagonia region — which stretches across southern Argentina and Chile — would aim at restoring 4.1 million hectares of forest.

Experts say Latin America is one of the regions most vulnerable to climate change.

Beirut’s ‘fairytale’ villa comes back to life

BEIRUT (AFP): Like a mirage in the middle of Beirut’s high-rise seafront, the exquisite mansion is a lonely reminder of this city’s romantic past. Rose House is an architectural gem, an Ottoman villa perched rather bizarrely next to an equally elegant lighthouse overlooking the Mediterranean. As newly built apartment blocks crowd in on its palm trees and delicate ochre-pink arches, it has become a symbol to Beirutis of the lightness and beauty their city seems to be losing. A rare survivor not just of the 15-year civil war that claimed so many of its historic mansions, but the building boom that came with peace from 1990, it is even said to haunt some of their dreams.

The villa that once hosted French president Charles de Gaulle and American abstract artist John Ferren — a friend of Picasso — also inspired a film, “Around the Pink House”.

Yet its fortunes declined over the years.

But a chance visit by British painter Tom Young and his wife as they strolled along the seafront, together with the enthusiasm of a Lebanese property developer, has brought hope that the villa will be restored and revived.

The couple found their way into the villa, where they met its tenant, Fayza al-Khazen. She told them that her brother Farid, himself a painter, had used it as a meeting place for other artists during Lebanon’s golden age of the 1960s and 1970s.

When 71-year-old Khazen offered Young the chance to paint at La Maison Rose, as it’s known in the city’s francophone community, he jumped at the chance.

But her lease was up at the end of the summer and Khazen had to leave.

“I was quite concerned about what was going to happen to the building,” said Young.

Fortunately, villa owner and real estate developer Hisham Jaroudi was happy to let Young exhibit his work there, and to open it to the public for a time.

“This house will live on,” said Jaroudi, who bought Rose House several years ago.

“It will be renovated and turned into a museum where Beirut’s history can be preserved,” he told AFP.

Young can barely contain his excitement at being able to use the site as an art centre until the end of this year.

“This place is like a fairytale!” he told AFP.

Tiles and stained glass windows give colour to the villa’s interior.

Black-and-white photographs of the Ardati family, who lived there in the early 20th century, and the works of now-deceased Farid Khazen, haunt the villa from across the years.

“These places embody a culture and identity which must be preserved,” said Young, a 41-year-old from Northamptonshire who studied Islamic architecture in Istanbul.

“Buildings like this are so unique to Lebanon; they are very important for its cultural identity... There is a wisdom about them which really needs to be protected,” he said as he sat on a balcony overlooking a lush garden.

Activists have long lamented the disappearance of Beirut’s beautiful traditional homes.

From 1995 to 2010, the number of traditional villas around downtown Beirut alone plummeted from 1,200 to 400.

Young’s link with Lebanon dates back to 2006, when a Lebanese car mechanic in London commissioned him to paint scenes from home because “he missed it so much”.

Since then, Young has been in love with the country. Its complex and painful history and civil war remind him of a tragedy in his own life, when he was only 10 years old.

“My mother took her own life, and this has had a seminal effect on everything I have done since,” Young said.

“I was fascinated by the contradictions of Lebanon,” Young said. “How can a place be the ultimate hell and also such a paradise?”

Now, he dreams of turning Beirut’s remaining old villas into art centres.

“I try to use art as a way to save these places,” Young said.

One of his paintings, entitled “Years”, shows piles of rubbish on a beach. To Young, it is “symbolic of the dysfunction of the state”.

Another canvas shows Rose House being crushed by monstrous towers.

“I think these wonderful places should be enjoyed by all people, of all classes, all ages and all religions,” said Young.

He also said children have visited Rose House, some of who come from “very disadvantaged backgrounds... Children come to learn and dream.”

During Young’s show, a video interview with Fayza al-Khazen delivers a message of hope for visitors.

“I hope that if this house is renovated it will be a sign that Lebanon is also being renewed,” she said.

Internet giants wage war on pop-up ad blockers

PARIS (AFP): Imagine being able to surf the web and watch videos online without having to swat away pesky pop-up ads?  These days you can, thanks to small programs like Adblock Plus that are available free for download and that arm your browser to defend against ads. Flashing banner ads, “pre-roll” ads (short ads that play before a video), pop-up notices that cover the whole screen — few of them make it past ad blocking software. In the beginning, the applications acted under the radar, and were known mainly only to young people or the really tech-savvy. But now they’re catching on.  Adblock Plus has nearly five million active users in France, with a further two million in the United Kingdom and 1.5 million in Spain.  

Worldwide, they have amassed about 144 million active users, up 69 per cent in a year, according to a September report from Adobe software developer and PageFair, a company that helps publishers see which ads are being blocked.

Depending on the website, the percentage of viewers equipped with ad-blocking software ranges from 10 to 60 percent

Internet users may dream about ad-free surfing, but for advertisers and web publishers, who rely on ads to fund content, ad-blocking applications are the stuff of nightmares.

“This is no small matter; it affects all publishers. Our members have lost an estimated 20 to 40 per cent of their advertising revenue,” Laure de Lataillade, CEO of GESTE, an association of web publishers in gaming, media, music and other domains, told AFP.

The growing popularity of ad blockers comes as companies plough more and more money into internet advertising.

A quarter of the 545 billion dollars spent on global advertising this year went on digital ads.

To protect that investment, a group of publishers in France, including Google, Microsoft and Le Figaro newspaper, have threatened legal action against the developers of ad blocking software.

In Germany, too, publishers are alarmed at the success of the anti-ad workarounds. “There have already been some companies that have lodged a formal complaint,” Oliver von Wersche, head of digital marketing at Gruner + Jahr, publishers of Stern news magazine and several other leading titles, told AFP.

Websites, meanwhile, are experimenting with a range of strategies to placate ad-addled audiences.

French sports daily l’Equipe’s website is using a carrot-and-stick approach.

Users with ad-blocking software who attempt to watch videos receive the message: “Unauthorised access. L’Equipe.fr is funded by advertising, which allows us to offer you free content.”

Once they deactivate the software they can gain access to the video.

“We have to find a viable economic model. Either the user pays for a premium model or he accepts advertising,” said Xavier Spender, deputy managing director of L’Equipe group.

Sean Blanchfield, CEO of PageFair, compared the campaign against ad blockers to the music industry’s takedown of the file-sharing program Napster a decade ago.

“They should instead learn from the Napster story that the users will ultimately get what they want,” said Blanchfield, whose company works with publishers to devise ads that “respect users’ privacy”.

For Helene Chartier, head of French web developers’ union SRI, the big mistake was to let users believe the internet was free in the first place, considering “there was never a problem with ads on television or radio.”

Industry professionals said the growing rejection of ads — and the shrinking space for them on mobile devices — should spur advertisers to come up with less intrusive messages.

In a sign of how seriously the problem is being taken in the industry, Google has launched an alternative to web advertising.

Called Google Contributor it charges users between 1 and 3 dollars a month to be spared ads, with the fee going to the affected websites.

In levying the fee Google urges users to “support” their favourite websites.

The idea is currently being tested on around a dozen US websites, including The Onion, Science Daily and Mashable.