Month: October 2019

Capitol Hill Republicans Rally in Defense of Trump

House Republicans have intensified their dissent against an impeachment inquiry of U.S. President Donald Trump, protesting that the House Intelligence Committee is questioning witnesses in hearings closed to the public and other lawmakers. The protest is part of Republicans’ strategy of attacking the process by which House Democrats probe allegations Trump sought foreign interference in the 2020 presidential election. VOA’s congressional correspondent Katherine Gypson reports from Capitol Hill.

Heavy Rain Brings Deadly Flooding, Mudslides in Japan

Torrential rain that caused flooding and mudslides in towns east of Tokyo left at least nine people dead and added fresh damage in areas still recovering from recent typhoons, officials said Saturday.

Rescue workers were looking for one person still missing in Chiba. Another person was unaccounted for in Fukushima, farther north, which is still reeling from damage caused by Typhoon Hagibis earlier this month.

The death toll included eight people in Chiba and one in Fukushima.

Chiba inundated

While rains and floodwater subsided, parts of Chiba were still inundated. About 4,700 homes were out of running water and some train services delayed or suspended.

In the Midori district in Chiba, mudslides crushed three houses, killing three people who were buried underneath them. Another mudslide hit a house in nearby Ichihara city, killing a woman. In Narata and Chonan towns, three drivers drowned when their vehicles were submerged.

“There was enormous noise and impact, ‘boom’ like an earthquake, so I went outside. Then look what happened. I was terrified,” said a resident who lived near the crushed home in Midori. “Rain was even more intense than the typhoons.”

A street is flooded by heavy rain, Oct. 25, 2019, in Narita, east of Tokyo.

In Fukushima, a woman was found dead in a park in Soma city after a report that a car was washed away. A passenger is still missing.

Rain also washed out Friday’s second round of the PGA Tour’s first tournament held in Japan, the Zozo Championship in Inzai city.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held an emergency task force meeting Saturday morning and called for “the utmost effort in rescue and relief operations.” He also urged quick repairs of electricity, water and other essential services to help restore the lives of the disaster-hit residents.

Month’s worth of rain in half a day

The Prime Minister’s Office said the average rainfall for the entire month had fallen in just half a day Friday.

The downpour came from a low-pressure system above Japan’s main island of Honshu that moved northward later Friday. Power was restored Saturday at most of the 6,000 Chiba households that had lost electricity.

Two weeks ago, Typhoon Hagibis caused widespread flooding and left more than 80 people dead or presumed dead across Japan.

Yoshiki Takeuchi, an office worker who lives in a riverside house in Chiba’s Sodegaura city, said he had just finished temporary repairs to his roof after tiles were blown off by the September typhoon when Friday’s rains hit hard.

“I wasn’t ready for another disaster like this. I’ve had enough of this, and I need a break,” he told Kyodo News.

Washington Banning US Flights to All Cuban Cities But Havana

The Trump administration is banning U.S. flights to all Cuban cities except Havana in the latest move to roll back the Obama-era easing of relations, officials said Friday.

Supporters of the ban said it would starve the Havana government of cash and limit its ability to repress Cubans and support Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whom the U.S. wants to overthrow.

Opponents said prohibiting flights would simply make it harder for Cuban-Americans to visit their families outside the capital, without making a significant impact on the Cuban government.

The State Department said JetBlue flights to Santa Clara in central Cuba and the eastern cities of Holguin, Camaguey would be banned starting in December. American Airlines flights to Camaguey, Holguin and Santa Clara, the beach resort of Varadero and the eastern city of Santiago are also being banned.

Flights to Havana, which account for the great majority of U.S. flights to Cuba, will remain legal.

“This action will prevent the Castro regime from profiting from U.S. air travel and using the revenues to repress the Cuban people,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Twitter. Raul Castro stepped down as president last year but remains head of the Communist Party, the country’s highest authority.

Another stated reason for the move is to prevent tourism to Cuba, which is barred by U.S. law. But it is not clear how many people take the banned flights for tourism purposes. Many are used by Cuban-Americans visiting relatives in cities far from Havana by road.

“Eager to punish Cuba’s unbreakable defiance, imperialism is going after regular flights to various Cuban cities. It doesn’t matter that they’re affecting family relations, or the modest pocketbooks of most Cubans in both countries,” Carlos F. de Cossio, head of Cuba’s department of U.S. affairs, said on Twitter. “Our response isn’t changing.”

Charter flights to destinations outside Havana are apparently not affected by the ban, but those flights tend to be more expensive and far less convenient. The other remaining legal option is a flight to Havana and then a road trip that could last as much as eight to more than 12 hours over rutted, unsafe roads, in the case of Cuba’s eastern cities.

FILE – American Airlines planes arrive at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, July 17, 2019.

JetBlue and American issued brief statements saying they would comply with the decision.

The announcement coincided with an event in Miami calling for regime change in Cuba and featuring U.S. officials, Organization of Americans States President Luis Almagro, and a variety of Cuban-Americans and Cuban dissidents.

“This is a step forward,” said Cuba-born barber Ernesto Regues, who said he left the island in 2012 and still has family in Havana. “ow they need to stop the flights to Havana.”

Carrie Filipetti, deputy assistant secretary for Cuba and Venezuela in the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, said Havana would serve as the gateway for Cuban-Americans wanting to see their relatives.

“We want to make sure that Cuban-Americans do have a route to their families. You need to enter. Havana is currently carved out for this,” she said.

She warned, however, that “we will continue to increase sanctions” and said other countries should do the same.

“It is a long path with many steps along the way,” she said to a standing ovation.

Lourdes Diaz, a retired Cuban-American who arrived in the U.S. one year after Castro’s Revolution, said she disagrees with the current sanctions, feeling they help Cuba’s communist government more than hurt it.

“The only thing that suffers is the people,” Diaz said.

FILE – Tourists ride inside a vintage car as they pass by the Norwegian Sky cruise ship, operated by Norwegian Cruise Lines in Havana, Cuba, May 7, 2019.

The Trump administration has been regularly tightening the six-decade-old embargo on Cuba in recent months with the stated purpose of cutting off income to the Cuban government and forcing it to cut ties to Venezuela and grant more human rights to Cuban citizens. Washington has barred U.S. cruise ships visiting Cuba, sanctioned oil tankers moving petroleum from Venezuela to Cuba and permitted lawsuits against foreign companies profiting from their use of properties confiscated from Americans or from Cubans who later obtained American citizenship.

The measures have contributed to the Cuban government’s chronic shortages of hard currency and were blamed for several weeks of fuel shortages on the island, but so far there is no indication that the Trump policy is having its desired effect. Cuba’s security services continue to detain and harass dissenters and human rights groups say freedom of expression, assembly and other rights remain highly curtailed.

The Cuban and Venezuelan government remain tightly aligned and both have declared their intent to become even closer allies in the face of the Trump measures.


UN Chief Urges Leaders to Listen to Their Discontented Citizens

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres urged leaders to listen to the problems of their people as demonstrations multiply in cities around the world.

“It is clear that there is a growing deficit of trust between people and political establishments, and rising threats to the social contract,” he told reporters Friday.

He cited economic problems, political demands, discrimination and corruption as some of the issues driving protests.

“People want a level playing field – including social, economic and financial systems that work for all,” Guterres said. “They want their human rights respected, and a say in the decisions that affect their lives.”

Demonstrations have erupted this year in scores of countries stretching across nearly every continent.

In Hong Kong, protestors have been on the streets since June, angered by a proposed bill that would allow extradition to mainland China. Hong Kong has been under Chinese rule since 1997. The bill was withdrawn last month, but protesters’ anger has not abated.

In the Middle East, demonstrations started sweeping Lebanon last week, after the government mismanaged the containment of massive forest fires and then, days later, announced plans to tax WhatsApp Internet-based phone calls.

Tens of thousands of protesters in the tiny country are demanding the cabinet’s resignation and early parliamentary elections. They want government corruption investigated, the minimum wage increased, and basic services provided — including clean water and 24-hour electricity.

Guterres said the Lebanese must solve their problems with dialogue and he urged maximum restraint and non-violence from both the government and the demonstrators.
In Iraq, the U.N. says at least 157 people have died and nearly 6,000 have been injured during protests that began October 1. Young people are frustrated with the lack of jobs and services, as well as government corruption and inefficiency.

“Governments have an obligation to uphold the freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly, and to safeguard civic space,” the U.N. chief said of all protests. “Security forces must act with maximum restraint, in conformity with international law.”

Guterres said he is “deeply concerned” that some protests have led to violence and loss of life.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, protests have erupted in Nicaragua, Ecuador, Haiti, Honduras, Bolivia and most recently Chile. While in Africa this year, demonstrators have raised their voices in Malawi, Zimbabwe, Guinea and Ethiopia. In Sudan, protesters succeeded in ousting the president who had been in power for 30 years.

Europeans are angry too. France, Britain and Spain have seen disruptive and sometimes violent protests, while in the United States, civil rights groups have marched for women’s rights. Supporters and opponents of President Donald Trump have also taken to the streets during the year.


Zimbabweans Protest Sanctions on Leadership

Thousands of Zimbabweans marched Friday in Harare to protest sanctions imposed on the country’s leadership for most of the past two decades.

Protester Gilbert Shumba says the sanctions are to blame for food shortages.

“Let’s go and destroy and kick these sanctions,” he said. “These sanctions destroy us, they are affecting me, my family, my kids, my dog, my rat, even that wizard which resides in my house, even that cockroach is relying on myself. When I am in hunger, all those things are in hunger.”

Deputy Information Minister Energy Mutodi says Zimbabweans are united in demanding the sanctions end, in Harare, Oct. 25, 2019. (Columbus Mavhunga/VOA)

Deputy Information Minister Energy Mutodi said Zimbabweans are united in demanding that the sanctions end.

“As Zimbabwe, we are saying enough of these sanctions. These sanctions are making our people to suffer in big numbers, there is widespread poverty,” Mutodi said.

The United States and European Union first imposed sanctions on former President Robert Mugabe and dozens of his allies in 2002. The sanctions were a response to what then-U.S. President George W. Bush called a systematic campaign to repress dissent and undermine Zimbabwe’s democratic institutions.

The travel and financial sanctions targeted only Mugabe and his supporters, not the entire country. But Zimbabwean leaders, including current President Emmerson Mnangagwa, blame them for blocking development of Zimbabwe’s economy.

A public holiday was declared in Zimbabwe for Oct. 25, 2019, to allow schoolchildren and workers to join a protest against sanctions imposed on on the country’s leadership. (Columbus Mavhunga/VOA)

Ahead of the Friday march, Brian Nichols, the U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, told media that Harare needed to make changes for the sanctions to be lifted.

“If the government of Zimbabwe were truly interested in the issue of sanctions and considered this a major problem, rather than having a rally, what the government of Zimbabwe would do was make a chart of what the things that the international community is asking it to do, and then come with an argument, saying we have addressed the concerns that you have here with you,” he said.

Nichols added that the U.S. has asked Zimbabwe to repeal laws that critics say are used to stifle dissent and media freedom, but the laws remain on the books.

In addition, the ambassador said Mnangagwa’s government should address corruption, which he said is causing Zimbabwe’s economy to remain depressed.

Rwanda Joins African Countries Signing Nuclear Deals with Russia

Rwanda is the latest African country to sign a nuclear deal with Russian state atomic company Rosatom.  But the deals between Russia and several African countries are raising concerns from environmentalists who say nuclear energy is not always clean and does not come free. 

A Russia-Africa summit in Sochi, Russia, this week brought together the heads of state and government representatives from 55 countries. Speaking at the forum, Russian President Vladimir Putin said his government was offering African countries an opportunity to use nuclear technology. 

“Rosatom is prepared to help our African partners in creating a nuclear industry,” with “the construction of research centers based on multifunctional reactors,” he said. 

Planned facilities

Rosatom is building a $29 billion nuclear plant for Egypt. The same company is helping Uganda, the Republic of Congo and Rwanda establish nuclear facilities. 

Right now, South Africa is the only country in the continent with a nuclear power plant. 

FILE – The Koeberg Nuclear Power Station, about 30 kilometers north of Cape Town, is owned and operated by South Africa’s power utility Eksom, Jan. 18, 2007.

In Rwanda, Rosatom will construct the Center of Nuclear Science and Technologies.  In Nigeria, a planned Rosatom nuclear reactor may provide the West African nation with electricity. 

Environmental activists are wary of these deals. Jakpor Philip of Nigeria’s Environment Rights Action said, “We continue to hear, for instance, that nuclear energy is clean, but in truth, it is not clean because you need a lot of water to keep the nuclear plant cool. You need an independent power to keep powering 24/7. If you need that much power to keep that plant running, then it shows it’s not clean.”  

Most African countries have needs that could be met by nuclear energy. According to the International Energy Agency, 57 percent of Africa’s population does not have easy access to electricity, and those who have it must deal with frequent power outages. 

‘In-country’ managers

Michael Gatari, the head of nuclear science and technology at the University of Nairobi, said African countries can pursue nuclear technology but must get their own people to manage the nuclear reactors. 

“We should have in-country, competent, well-trained manpower not depending on expatriates’ support, because that would be very expensive in long run,” he said. “Manpower development for nuclear energy is very critical.” 

Gatari also said Russia was seeking business in Africa, not giving away gifts. 

“Africa is not going to get a free reactor,” he said. “They are selling their technology. So the issue of helping does not come in.  Of course, there is a component of ‘we will train your people, we’ll do this,’ but still if you calculate the cost, it’s we who cough. So the African countries should move into it with a business vision.” 

And in Sochi where Putin rolled out the red carpet for African leaders, he reminded them Russia was open for business. 

North Korea Asks South to Discuss Removal of ‘Capitalist’ Mount Kumgang Facilities

North Korea has proposed that Seoul discuss the removal of its facilities from the North’s resort of Mount Kumgang, a key symbol of cooperation that Pyongyang recently criticized as “shabby” and “capitalist,” the South’s officials said on Friday.

In the latest sign of the neighbors’ cooling ties, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has urged that the South’s “backward” and “hotchpotch” facilities at the infrequently used resort be taken down and rebuilt, the North’s KCNA news agency has said.

On Friday, North Korea sent notices to the South’s Unification Ministry, which handles issues between the two sides, and Hyundai Group, whose affiliate Hyundai Asan Corp built resort facilities, asking for the demolition and seeking discussion through the exchange of documents, the ministry said.

“The government will prepare a creative solution to the Mt. Kumgang tourism project” by protecting the property rights of South Korean people while considering the international situation, inter-Korean agreements and domestic consensus, Unification Ministry spokesman Lee Sang-min said in a briefing.

Any withdrawal of South Korean relics from the scenic resort would be another setback for President Moon Jae-in’s campaign to end confrontation between the old foes, including efforts to resume stalled business initiatives.

“The North asking the South to discuss the issue ‘in writing’ means they don’t even want to talk about other things,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at South Korea’s Sejong Institute.

Mt. Kumgang is on North Korea’s eastern coast, just beyond the demilitarized zone separating the two countries. It was one of two major inter-Korean economic projects, along with the Kaesong industrial zone, and an important token of rapprochement during decades of hostilities following the 1950-53 Korean War.

Kim, on a visit to a nearby province, hailed a new tourist resort being built there as a striking contrast to Mt. Kumgang’s “architecture of capitalist businesses targeting profit-making from roughly built buildings,” KCNA said.

However, the South’s Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul said he did not see the North’s proposal as a bid to exclude the South, because Kim Jong Un had said he would welcome South Koreans if it was properly rebuilt, the Yonhap news agency said.

Tourism has become increasingly key to Kim’s policy of “self-reliant” economic growth, as it is not directly subject to U.N. sanctions aimed at curbing the North’s nuclear programs, though they ban the transfer of bulk cash to Pyongyang.

There have been no South Korean tours to Mt. Kumgang since 2008, although there have been infrequent events such as the reunions of families from both sides separated by the war.

Kim has called for Mt. Kumgang to be refurbished in “our own style” alongside other tourist zones, such as the Wonsan-Kalma coastal area and the Masikryong ski resort.

The Wonsan beach resort, one of Kim’s pet projects, is seen nearing completion by early 2020 after “remarkable construction progress” since April, 38 North, a U.S.-based project that studies North Korea, said in a report, citing satellite imagery.


2 Dead as Iraq Anti-Government Protests Resume

At least two demonstrators were killed in renewed anti-government rallies in the Iraqi capital on Friday, officials said, as security forces unleashed tear gas to push back thousands from Baghdad’s high-security Green Zone.

The protests were the second phase of a week-long movement in early October demanding an end to widespread corruption, unemployment and an overhaul of the political system.

Activists called Iraqis to go out on the streets again on Friday, which marks a year since Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi came to power. It is also a deadline set by the country’s top Shiite authority for him to enact desired reforms.

But the rallies began early, with hundreds gathering in the capital’s iconic Tahrir (Liberation) Square on Thursday evening.

On Friday, many crossed the bridge to mass near the Green Zone, which hosts government offices and foreign embassies, but security forces used a volley of tear gas to push them back.

“Two demonstrators died, with preliminary information indicating they were hit in the head or face by tear gas canisters,” said Ali Bayati, a member of the Iraqi Human Rights Commission.

He said nearly 100 more people were wounded.

There were no reports of live fire being used to disperse protesters.

‘We want dignity!’

“We’re not hungry — we want dignity!” a protester shouted in Baghdad on Friday morning, while another lashed out at “the so-called representatives of the people who have monopolised all the resources”.

One in five people lives in poverty in Iraq and youth unemployment sits around 25 percent, according to the World Bank.

The rates are staggering for OPEC’s second-biggest oil producer, which Transparency International ranks as the 12th most corrupt state in the world.

“I want my share of the oil!” another protester told AFP.

Rallies were also rocking the southern cities of Diwaniyah, Najaf and Nasiriyah, where demonstrators said they would remain in the streets “until the regime falls”.

Iraq’s highest Shiite authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has backed reforms, urged protesters Friday during his weekly sermon to use “restraint” to stop the demos descending into “chaos”.

But the real test will be the afternoon, when many are expecting supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr — an influential cleric who controls the largest parliamentary bloc — to hit the streets.

His supporters have breached the Green Zone in previous years. This week, he called on his supporters to protest and even instructed members of his own paramilitary force to be on “high alert.”

They could be seen in parts of Baghdad on Friday in a clear show of force.   

PM snipes at Sadr

The movement is unprecedented in recent Iraqi history both because of its spontaneity and independence, and because of the brutal violence with which a torrent of protests on October 1-6 was met.

At least 157 people were killed, according to a government probe published on Tuesday, which acknowledged that “excessive force” was used.

A vast majority of them were protesters in Baghdad, with 70 percent shot in the head or chest.

In response, Abdel Mahdi issued a laundry list of measures meant to ease public anger, including hiring drives and higher pensions for the families of protesters who died.

The beleaguered premier defended his reform agenda in a scheduled televised appearance early Friday, telling watchers it was their “right” to demonstrate as long as they did not “disturb public life”.

But he also said political figures demanding “reform” had themselves failed to enact it, in an apparent reference to Sadr’s “Alliance towards Reform” bloc.

Some have backed the government, including the powerful Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force whose political branch is the second-largest parliamentary bloc.

And Iraq’s mostly-Kurdish north and Sunni west have stayed out of the protests.

Iraq has been ravaged by decades of conflict that finally calmed in 2017 with a declared victory over the Islamic State group.

Thus began a period of relative calm, with security forces lifting checkpoints and concrete blast walls and traffic choking city streets at hours once thought too dangerous.

Restrictions had even softened around the Green Zone but were reinstated as the October demonstrations picked up in Tahrir, which lies just across the Tigris River.

Authorities also imposed an internet blackout, which has been mostly lifted although social media remains blocked.

Trump’s Foreign Policy Process Stirs Controversy in Washington

From making so-called side deals with Ukraine to pulling U.S. forces from northeastern Syria, U.S. President Donald Trump has gone his own way when it comes to conducting U.S. foreign policy. But the Syria decision has sparked widespread opposition in Washington and in the case of Ukraine, critics say Trump sidestepped career U.S. diplomats to further his own interests against a potential election rival. 

Despite criticism, U.S. President Donald Trump is standing by his decision to move U.S. troops from the Syrian-Turkish border, where they fought alongside longtime Kurdish allies.
“They stayed for almost 10 years. Let someone else fight over this long, bloodstained sand,” Trump said.

This, as the top U.S. official to Syria appeared to distance himself from Trump’s decision.
“Were you consulted about the withdrawal of troops as was recently done?” Senator Bob Menendez, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asked James Jeffrey, the U.S. Special Representative for Syria.

“I personally was not consulted,” Jeffrey said.

Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, other diplomats testified about the Trump administration’s delay providing approved U.S military assistance to Ukraine.  

A written statement by one described how the White House bypassed normal diplomatic channels to press Ukraine to investigate Democrats and the Bidens in return for military aid.    

Democratic lawmakers have denounced this.

“The idea that vital military assistance would be withheld for such a patently political reason, for the reason of serving the president’s re-election campaign is a phenomenal breach of the president’s duty to defend our national security,” said Democrat Adam Schiff, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Trump’s actions on Ukraine could threaten his presidency as the impeachment inquiry continues.  
“We have agencies, we have tasked areas along government, whose job it is to investigate those. And if President Trump wanted the Bidens investigated for their activities there, it should have been done through the diplomatic channels,” said Shannon Bow O’Brien of the University of Texas at Austin.

Those normal diplomatic channels have set the United States apart from countries whose policies are set by autocratic leaders, says terrorism expert Mike Newton.  
“The checks and balances, where agencies push back against each other, and really experienced, smart policy makers wrestle with choices and consequences and diplomatic fallout and maybe military best practices,” Newton said.

When this process is bypassed, experts say, U.S. credibility around the world is damaged.
“If there are doubts about the President’s decisions which there are in the State Department and the Pentagon, and the intelligence community as well as in the Congress, there’s real questions about cohesiveness of U.S. foreign policy and whether we have a real strategy,” said Mark Simakovsky of the Atlantic Council, an international affairs think tank.
Donald Trump was elected on promises to break with traditional U.S. foreign policy, and his supporters show no sign of abandoning him.

But the impeachment inquiry and outcry over his Syria policy show there are limits to his approach.  

One of Europe’s Last Wild Rivers Is in Danger of Being Tamed

Under a broad plane tree near Albania’s border with Greece, Jorgji Ilia filled a battered flask from one of the Vjosa River’s many springs. 
“There is nothing else better than the river,” the retired schoolteacher said. “The Vjosa gives beauty to our village.” 
The Vjosa is temperamental and fickle, changing from translucent cobalt blue to sludge brown to emerald green, from a steady flow to a raging torrent. Nothing holds it back for more than 270 kilometers (170 miles) in its course through the forest-covered slopes of Greece’s Pindus mountains to Albania’s Adriatic coast. 
This is one of Europe’s last wild rivers. But for how long? 
Albania’s government has set in motion plans to dam the Vjosa and its tributaries to generate much-needed electricity for one of Europe’s poorest countries, with the intent to build eight dams along the main river. 

Hydropower boom
It’s part of a world hydropower boom, mainly in Southeast Asia, South America, Africa and less developed parts of Europe. In the Balkans alone, about 2,800 projects to tame rivers are underway or planned, said Olsi Nika of EcoAlbania, a nonprofit that opposes the projects. 
Some tout hydropower as a reliable, cheap and renewable energy source that helps curb dependence on planet-warming fossil fuels. But some recent studies question hydropower’s value in the fight against global warming. Critics say the benefits of hydropower are overstated — and outweighed by the harm dams can do.  

FILE – The sky is reflected in the Vjosa River after sunset near the village of Badelonje, Albania, June 30, 2019. Rivers are a crucial part of the global water cycle. They act like nature’s arteries.

Rivers are a crucial part of the global water cycle. They act as nature’s arteries, carrying energy and nutrients across vast landscapes, providing water for drinking, food production and industry. They’re a means of transportation for people and goods, and a haven for boaters and anglers. Rivers are home to a diversity of fish — including tiny minnows, trout and salmon — and provide shelter and food for birds and mammals. 
But dams interrupt their flow, and the life in and around them. While installing fish ladders and widening tunnels to bypass dams helps some species, it hasn’t worked in places like the Amazon, said Julian Olden, a University of Washington ecologist. 
Dams block the natural flow of water and sediment. They also can change the chemistry of the water and cause toxic algae to grow. 

Some will lose property
Those who live along the riverbank or rely on the waterway for their livelihood fear dams could kill the Vjosa as they know it. Its fragile ecosystem will be irreversibly altered, and many residents will lose their land and homes. 
In the 1990s, an Italian company was awarded a contract to build a dam along the Vjosa in southern Albania. Construction began on the Kalivac dam but never was completed, plagued with delays and financial woes. 
Now, the government has awarded a new contract for the site to a Turkish company. Energy ministry officials rejected multiple interview requests to discuss their hydropower plans.  

FILE – People raft on the Vjosa River near Permet, Albania, June 25, 2019. Some tout hydropower as a reliable, cheap and renewable energy source, but critics say the benefits of hydropower are overstated and are outweighed by the harm dams can do.

Many locals oppose the plans. Dozens of residents from the village of Kute joined nonprofits to file what was Albania’s first environmental lawsuit against the construction of a dam in the Pocem gorge, a short distance downriver from Kalivac. They won in 2017, but the government has appealed. 
The victory, while significant, was just one battle. A week later, the government issued the Kalivac contract. EcoAlbania plans to fight that project, too. 
Ecologically, there is a lot at stake. 
A recent study found the Vjosa was incredibly diverse. More than 90 types of aquatic invertebrates were found in the places where dams are planned, plus hundreds of fish, amphibian and reptile species, some endangered and others endemic to the Balkans. 

Thwarting fish
Dams can unravel food chains, but the most well-known problem with building dams is that they block the paths of fish trying to migrate upstream to spawn. 
As pressure to build dams intensifies in less developed countries, the opposite is happening in the U.S. and Western Europe, where there’s a movement to tear down dams considered obsolete and environmentally destructive. 
More than 1,600 have been dismantled in the U.S., most within the past 30 years, according to the advocacy group American Rivers. In Europe, the largest-ever removal began this year in France, where two dams are being torn down on Normandy’s Selune River. 
With so few wild rivers left around the globe, the Vjosa also is a valuable resource for studying river behavior. 
“Science is only at the beginning of understanding how biodiversity in river networks is structured and maintained,” said researcher Gabriel Singer of the Leibniz-Institute in Germany. “The Vjosa is a unique system.”  

FILE – An abandoned bulldozer sits on the banks of the Vjosa River at the construction site of the Kalivac dam in Albania, June 23, 2019.

For Shyqyri Seiti, it’s much more personal. 
The 65-year-old boatman has been transporting locals, goods and livestock across the river for about a quarter-century. The construction of the Kalivac dam would spell disaster for him. Many of the fields and some of the houses in his nearby village of Ane Vjose would be lost. 
“Someone will benefit from the construction of the dam, but it will flood everyone in the area,” he said. “What if they were in our place? How would they feel to lose everything?” 
But the mayor, Metat Shehu, insisted that his community “has no interest” in the matter. 
“The Vjosa is polluted. The plants and creatures of Vjosa have vanished,” Shehu said. The biggest issue, he added, is that villagers are being offered too little to give up their land. He hopes the dam will bring investment to the area. 

‘Irreparable’ damage
Jonus Jonuzi, a 70-year-old farmer who grew up along the river, is hopeful the Vjosa will stay wild. 
“Albania needs electrical energy. But not by creating one thing and destroying another,” he said. “Why do such damage that will be irreparable for life, that future generations will blame us for what we’ve done?” 
This was produced in partnership with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content. 

Alaska’s Iditarod Joins New Global Sled-dog Racing Series

Alaska’s famed Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has joined a new global partnership billed as the World Series of long-distance sled dog racing and aimed at bringing more fans to the cold-weather sport.

The Iditarod has teamed up with Norway pet food supplement company and series creator, Aker BioMarine, and other races in Minnesota, Norway and Russia for the inaugural QRILL Pet Arctic World Series, or QPAWS, next year.

Logistics were still being worked out, but the series will use a joint point system over a still-undetermined time frame, GPS tracking and an online platform to follow the racing teams. Talks with potential broadcast outlets also are under way, organizers say.

FILE – Defending Iditarod champion Joar Lefseth Ulsom of Norway greets fans on the trail during the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, March 2, 2019, in Anchorage, Alaska.

“Together with Iditarod and the other unique events, we will make QPAWS a winning TV concept in order to build the sport for the future,” series project manager Nils Marius Otterstad said in an email to The Associated Press. He said the Iditarod was approached about the idea a year ago and agreed to move forward on it during this year’s race in March.

The other races

At 1,000 miles (1,610 kilometers), the Iditarod will be the longest race among those participating the first year, as well as serve as the finale to the series next March. The series also will feature races kicking off in late January with the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in Minnesota, followed by the Femundlopet in Norway in early February by the Volga Quest in Russia a week later.

Discussions also are under way to add other races, including the 1,000-mile (1,610-kilometer) Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race traversing Alaska and Canada’s Yukon each February. Marti Steury, the Quest’s executive director for Alaska, said Quest officials are watching to see how the first year goes.

New Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach poses for a photo in Anchorage, Alaska, Oct. 15, 2019.

Participants in any of the QPAWS races don’t have to join the circuit if they prefer to stick to just one contest, according to the Iditarod’s new CEO, Rob Urbach. Because the races are so globally distant and scheduled so closely together, he said the circuit could take place over two years.

“The complexity of our racing is unique in the world of sports, and therefore may see some different ways to do the series,” he said.

The Iditarod is already well-steeped in technology, despite the low-tech aspect of the trail, which spans two mountain ranges and the frozen Yukon River before it heads up the wind-scrubbed Bering Sea Coast to the finish line in the Gold Rush town of Nome. Sleds are equipped with GPS trackers that allow fans to follow them online and enable organizers to ensure no one is missing.

Race volunteers and contractors working out of an Anchorage hotel process live video streamed from village checkpoints, using satellite dishes. Some volunteers handle race-standing updates sent through equipment that activates a super-size hot spot in the most remote places with satellite connections.

Troubled time for Iditarod

The move to QPAWS follows a troublesome time for the Iditarod that was marked in recent years by multiple challenges, including escalating pressure from animal-welfare activists over multiple dog deaths, a 2017 dog-doping scandal and the loss of major sponsors.

Urbach, a former CEO of USA Triathlon, recently met with representatives of the Iditarod’s harshest critic, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA’s executive vice president Tracy Reiman called the new racing circuit a “World Series of Cruelty” destined for failure.

“Just as Ringling Bros. circus struggled to find an audience for its abusive elephant shows, the dogsledding industry is desperately scrambling for viewers — but kind people today have no interest in watching dogs being forced to run until their paws bleed, they choke on their own vomit, and they drop dead on the trail,” Reiman said in an email.

Branding expert Conor O’Flaherty said the venture has the potential to create a bigger audience.

“What’s important for a sport like this is it not only represents the distinct community, it also represents part of cultural history that’s important to protect,” said O’Flaherty, managing director at New York-based SME Branding.

Urbach contends QPAWS will go far in raising the exposure of long-distance mushing and better educate the public about the special relationship the dogs have with their human teammates. 

“You could argue that the sport needs a rejuvenation,” said Urbach, who took the helm of the Iditarod in July.

Mushers interested, cautious

With so many details about the series still unknown, many mushers are taking a wait-and-see approach. Defending champion Pete Kaiser said he plans to participate only in the Iditarod.

“My main concerns are, what do you have to do to win this thing and what are the logistics,” he said.

Three-time winner Mitch Seavey, who comes from a multigenerational family of mushers, also is watching developments closely.

“I’m in favor of the Iditarod and other races doing new things. We need to change our demographic. We need to change our fan base, or at least expand it. We need to modernize and appeal to more people,” Seavey said. “Give them a chance. That’s what I’m saying.”

Brazil Says It Will No Longer Require Visas from Chinese, Indian Citizens

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said on Thursday the South American nation will drop its requirement that visiting Chinese and Indian tourists or businesspeople obtain visas.

Bolsonaro, a far-right politician, came to power at the beginning of the year and has made it a policy to reduce visa requirements from a number of developed countries. But the announcement, made during an official visit to China, is the first he has made expanding that policy to the developing world.

Earlier this year, the Brazilian government ended visa requirements for tourists and businesspeople from the United States, Canada, Japan and Australia. Those countries, however, have not in return dropped their visa requirements for Brazilian citizens.


Buttigieg Calls Facebook’s Political Ad Policy a ‘Mistake’

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg says Facebook’s policy to not filter out phony political ads is “a mistake” and he says breaking up big tech companies should be “on the table.”

The mayor of South Bend, Indiana, made the comments to reporters after a campaign stop in New Hampshire. Days before, his campaign confirmed hiring staff recommended by Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife.

Zuckerberg has come under criticism from other Democratic candidates, especially Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, for Facebook’s hands-off policy regarding campaign ads, and they’ve called for the company’s breakup.

Buttigieg says that should be considered but shouldn’t “be declared in advance by a politician.”


Vaping-related Illnesses in US Still Rising, but More Slowly

Fewer reports of vaping illnesses are coming in, but U.S. health officials say they are not sure what to make of it.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 125 additional cases were reported in the last week, bringing the total to 1,604 in this year’s outbreak. That includes 34 deaths, one more than last week.
The outbreak is still happening, but the count of new cases has dropped for three straight weeks. A CDC spokeswoman said reporting delays could be one explanation.

The CDC reported the numbers Thursday.
The outbreak appears to have started in March. No single ingredient, electronic cigarette or vaping device has been linked to all the illnesses. Most who got sick said they vaped products containing THC, the high-inducing ingredient in marijuana.

Another Partial Victory in Ending Polio

Ending polio has been a long haul. The global campaign to eradicate the virus has been going on since 1988, and while it’s close, it’s not over. Sometime in 2020, Africa may be declared polio-free. But the disease is hanging on stubbornly in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and as long as it hangs on, it can spread around the globe.

The effort to end polio started more than 30 years ago. It’s been a massive program that relies on global funding, countless volunteer vaccinators, negotiations with political and religious leaders and parents. Vaccinators sometimes work in conflict zones, all to save lives and prevent lifelong disability.

Polio cases down 99.9%

In Kenya, facts about polio and the vaccine are taught in schools. Children are even taught what to tell their parents.

The international effort has seen the polio cases drop by 99.9%. Nigeria had its last case more than three years ago. It’s possible that next year Nigeria, and all of Africa, will be declared polio free.

Another victory: There used to be three strains of the virus. As of this week, there is now only one.

Afghan women wearing burqas from a polio immunization team walk together during a vaccination campaign in Kandahar, Oct. 15, 2019. Polio immunization is compulsory in Afghanistan, but distrust of vaccines is rife.

Pakistan-Afghanistan border

It is here, at the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan where the wild polio virus spreads. People are constantly crossing from one country to another, mostly to visit family members. Both countries saw cases increase in 2019 from the previous year. Oliver Rosenbauer is a spokesman for the World Health Organization. He spoke to VOA by Skype.

“The reality is that both countries are essentially one epidemiological block, and there is so much population movement. The same virus family is being ping-ponged back and forth across the border with population movements,” he said.

A second challenge concerns restrictions the Taliban have placed on vaccinators. The vaccine can only be given at immunization centers. Door-to-door immunizations are now banned.

WATCH: Another Partial Victory in Ending Polio

Another Partial Victory in Ending Polio video player.

Program’s success

Still another challenge is a result of the program’s success. There are so very few cases in the two countries, the global program now has to address other urgent needs like access to clean water and better nutrition.

Carol Pandak, head of the PolioPlus program at Rotary International, says the partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative have always been able to adapt.

“UNICEF, in particular, has a strategy for both Afghanistan and Pakistan to provide these complimentary services, and Rotary, for many years now, has been working with Coca Cola in Pakistan, providing water filtration systems in some of these highest risk areas,” she said.

Those involved in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative have traveled a road that is longer and harder than was expected in 1988, when the program began. It’s far from over, but Rotary International, UNICEF, the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, along with countless local and federal governments, and the vaccinators themselves have not given up.

Abuses in Nigerian Islamic Schools Spark Regulation Demands

Nearly 1,000 people have been freed in the past month from Islamic schools in northern Nigeria where they reportedly experienced abuse.  

In one such case, police sources said hundreds of men and boys had been freed from a school in Katsina, many of whom had been chained to walls, beaten and sexually abused. 

The four raided schools, all in predominantly Muslim northern Nigeria, have much in common.  All had managers who portrayed themselves as Islamic clerics teaching students how to be good Muslims. 
All the facilities also operated as reform centers to discipline misbehaving children. And all were in poor communities, drawing little attention — until now. 
Activists have sought regulation of private Islamic schools for years, but strong traditions have stood in the way. 

A 15 year-old-boy, one of hundreds of men and boys rescued by police from an institution purporting to be an Islamic school, reveals scars on his back at a transit camp set up to take care of the released captives in Kaduna, Nigeria, Sept. 28, 2019.

One such tradition involves a concept among Nigerian Muslims called almajiri. 

“Almajiris, according to Islam, means those who migrated to somewhere in search of Islamic knowledge,” said cultural historian Bukar Chabbal. “That is the original conception — one under a strict teacher who teaches them.” 

Almajiris are usually boys. A parent will send a son to live with an Islamic scholar, known as a mallam, for many years in the hope that the child will receive a sound education in Islamic doctrine. 
There are an estimated 10 million almajiris in Nigeria, often seen on the streets begging for food. According to their Islamic teachers, begging helps the students learn humility. 
But Chabbal and others say parents are abusing the system, giving their children away to Islamic clerics because they can’t afford to raise them themselves. 

Sending unruly children to Islamic schools to be disciplined is another traditional practice.   

Children rescued from captivity by police are fed by officials at the Hajj transit camp in Kaduna, Nigeria, Sept. 28, 2019.

Aliyu Mohammed Tonga, an activist for almajiri children, said that “as I can recall, when we were young, what our parents used to tell us is that someone has been taken to so-and-so person and has been corrected.” 
Muslim groups in Nigeria are condemning the raided schools, saying the owners are not real clerics and the schools are not true almajiri schools. 
Activists like Aliyu say regulation is necessary, to separate the good from the bad. 
“Anybody can come in, even the criminal can come in in disguise and say, ‘I’m a mallam,’ and he can do what he can do, and that is what happened,” Aliyu said. 

President Muhammadu Buhari has directed Nigerian police to find abusive so-called Islamic schools and disband them. 

Some information for this report came from Reuters. 

ICE Withdraws Big Fines for Immigrants Living in Churches

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is reversing course months after threatening six-figure fines against immigrants taking sanctuary at churches. 
Seven women have been notified that ICE, using its discretion, is withdrawing its intent to pursue fines of $300,000 or more for their refusal to leave the country as ordered, according to the National Sanctuary Collective, a coalition of attorneys, organizers and other advocates for them. They count it as a victory. 
“We knew that these exorbitant fines were illegal and were nothing more than a tool to scare our clients and retaliate against them for fighting back and standing up to this administration,” attorney Lizbeth Mateo, who represents a Mexican woman living at an Ohio church, said in a statement. Mateo said immigration officials should exercise the same discretion “to release sanctuary families.” 
The immigrants have remained in the U.S. in violation of the law and still are subject to removal orders that ICE will enforce “using any and all available means,” agency spokesman Richard Rocha said in an email. He said ICE also could reassess the fines.   

FILE – This photo shows the bedroom of Maria Chavalan-Sut of Guatemala, who sought sanctuary at a United Methodist church in Charlottesville, Va. She and other immigrants taking sanctuary had received letters threatening them with huge fines.

Immigrants have sought relief from deportation at houses of worship because immigration officials consider them “sensitive locations” and avoid enforcement action at such sites. Maria Chavalan-Sut, an indigenous woman from Guatemala seeking asylum, moved into a United Methodist church in Charlottesville, Virginia. Another woman has lived in sanctuary with her 11-year-old son in Austin, Texas, for more than two years. 
Mateo’s client, Edith Espinal, has stayed at a Columbus church for the past two years. She was notified in June that she faced a fine of nearly $500,000. 
In a statement, she said ICE’s reversal on the fines was “an example of what speaking out and organizing can accomplish.” 
The agency said it issued nine notifications in June about its intent to pursue fines. It said Wednesday that eight of those had been withdrawn and one still was being pursued. It didn’t identify those cases or name the immigrants involved. 

Top priority for Trump
The six-figure penalties were another reminder of how President Donald Trump has made cracking down immigration, legal and illegal, a top domestic priority.   
Immigrants who are free on bond but ordered to leave the country are typically given a date to report to immigration authorities for removal. Others are ordered to check in with authorities, which, under former President Barack Obama-era policies, generally didn’t result in deportation unless the person was convicted of a serious crime in the United States. 
Trump lifted those restrictions almost immediately, causing people to get deported when they reported to ICE offices as instructed and discouraging others from coming. 

Saudi Arabia Appoints Foreign Minister with Western Experience

Saudi Arabia appointed as foreign minister Wednesday a prince with diplomatic experience in the West in a partial Cabinet reshuffle as the kingdom tries to mend its international image and prepares to take over the Group of 20 presidency next year.

Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud had served for the last few months as Saudi ambassador to Germany and earlier as political adviser at the Washington embassy. His previous business career in the defense industry included being chairman of a joint venture with Boeing.

FILE – Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud poses for the media in Berlin, Germany, March 27, 2019.

Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally in confronting Iran, has faced intense Western criticism in the past year over its human rights record, including the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and its involvement in the devastating war in Yemen.

Outgoing foreign minister Ibrahim al-Assaf, who had earlier served as finance minister for years, remains a minister of state. He was appointed less than a year ago to restructure the ministry.

As part of Wednesday’s reshuffle, which was announced in state media, Saleh al-Jasser, director general of Saudi Arabian Airlines, replaced Nabil al-Amoudi as transport minister.

It was unclear if Amoudi would have another government position. He was appointed last month to the board of state oil giant Saudi Aramco, which is planning a partial share flotation.

Trump Hails ‘Big Success’ on Turkey-Syria Border

President Donald Trump says there is “big success” on the Turkey-Syria border following the withdrawal of Kurdish forces from northeast Syria and the end of a Turkish offensive against them.

“Big success on the Turkey/Syria Border. Safe Zone created! Ceasefire has held and combat missions have ended. Kurds are safe and have worked very nicely with us. Captured ISIS prisoners secured. I will be making a statement at 11:00 A.M. from the White House. Thank you!.” Trump said on Twitter.

Big success on the Turkey/Syria Border. Safe Zone created! Ceasefire has held and combat missions have ended. Kurds are safe and have worked very nicely with us. Captured ISIS prisoners secured. I will be making a statement at 11:00 A.M. from the White House. Thank you!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 23, 2019

Turkey on Tuesday said there is “no need” to resume its military offensive against Syrian Kurds, saying the U.S. has told it that the Kurdish withdrawal from northern Syrian border is complete.
Turkey made its announcement hours after the five-day long cease-fire expired in the Turkish military incursion into what had been a Kurdish safe zone in northern Syria.  

The Syrian Kurds fought alongside U.S. forces against Islamic State terrorists. But Turkey considers them to be linked with Kurdish separatists who have long fought for autonomy inside Turkey. Turkey calls the Kurds terrorists.

Turkey launched its offensive after Trump ordered nearly all U.S. forces out of northern Syria two weeks ago.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, reached an agreement Tuesday on joint control of the Syrian border region.  
Kurdish fighters would be kept 30 kilometers from the entire 440-kilometer Turkish-Syrian border, and also withdraw from the towns of Manbij and Tel Rifaat.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper talks with U.S. troops in front of an F-22 fighter jet deployed to Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Lolita Baldor)

Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Mark Esper arrived in Baghdad Wednesday for talks with Iraqi officials about the arrival of U.S. troops recently withdrawn from northern Syria.

Seven hundred or more troops have moved into western Iraq, where 5,000 military personnel are already deployed.  
Angry Kurds screamed obscenities and pelted a U.S. convoy with rotten potatoes as the convoy headed through the streets of Duhok in the Iraqi Kurdistan region on the way to Iraq.
Esper has said the additional troops would help defend Iraq and be available to conduct anti-terrorism operations against Islamic State insurgents inside Syria.
But the Iraqi government says the troops do not have permission to stay in the country.  
During his visit to Saudi Arabia, the U.S. defense chief said that “eventually their destination is home” back in the United States.

Norway Downplays Terror Fears over Injury to Toddlers

Norway’s domestic security agency says early investigations into the injury of two toddlers in a stroller on an Oslo sidewalk by a man driving a stolen ambulance “doesn’t look like a terrorist incident.”

PST spokesman Martin Bernsen told Norwegian VG newspaper Wednesday that the agency continues to assist the Oslo police with the case.

A 32-year-old Norwegian man who was not named, was arrested Tuesday after injuring two toddlers when speeding in the ambulance while chased by police. He was finally stopped after officers shot at the tires and rammed the vehicle.

Inside the ambulance, police found an Uzi submachine gun, a shotgun and narcotics.

Another daily, Aftenposten, said the suspect had previously been convicted of a raft of crimes including robbery, illegal possession of drugs and arms.


China: US Has ‘Weaponized’ Visas to Target Exchanges

China on Wednesday accused the U.S. of having “weaponized” the issuance of visas following the reported inability of a top Chinese space program official to obtain permission to travel to a key conference in Washington.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters that the head of the Chinese delegation to the International Astronautical Congress wasn’t able to obtain a visa following an Oct. 12 interview, making it difficult for Chinese representatives to attend important events at the meeting.

Reports said the vice chairman of the China National Space Administration, Wu Yanhua, had planned to attend the congress.

Hua said the U.S. has “weaponized” visa issuances and “repeatedly defied international responsibilities and obligations and impeded normal international exchanges and cooperation.”

She said that “threatened and damaged the legitimate rights and interests of all parties in the international community.

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing said it couldn’t discuss individual visa cases because of privacy issues.

Hua said that “for some time, the U.S. has frequently rejected and delayed visa applications, revoked long-term visas of Chinese applicants and investigated and harassed the Chinese scholars, students, businesspeople, and scientific and technical personnel.”

China last year launched more missions to orbit than any other country, and is on track to do the same this year. Those missions include the first-ever soft-landing of a space craft on the far side of the moon.

However, close ties between the Chinese space program and the country’s military have limited its participation in multinational efforts, including the International Space Station. China is instead building its own permanent station and has invited other countries to join in the effort.

The visa incident also comes amid a simmering trade war between China and the U.S. in which accusations that China steals or coerces foreign firms into handing over sensitive technology have played a major role.


Hollywood is Taking Albuquerque by Storm

The first thing one experiences when landing in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at an elevation of about 1,600 meters, is the vastness of open space around the quiet southwestern town.

The 360-degree vistas extend as far as the eye can see on the arid high plateau, interrupted only by the Sandia Mountains to the east. In this town, the film industry is thriving and growing by leaps and bounds. Locals affectionately call it “Tamalewood” — melding the name of a beloved dish in New Mexico with that of California’s better-known Hollywood.

The TV and film industry here has gained ground since garnering tax incentives for filming in the state, leading to billion-dollar deals between leading production companies and Albuquerque Studios. But what started it all was the Albuquerque based Emmy-winning TV series “Breaking Bad,” about a struggling chemistry teacher turned meth drug lord. The show became a hit domestically and internationally.

Over a beer bet with a friend, Frank Sandoval, an extra on the show, came up with the idea of creating a company called “Breaking Bad RV tours.” He would buy an exact replica of the RV shown in the show and drive people around.

“Part of the deal was, if we got people to ride, he [Frank’s friend] would actually help us gut the RV and set it up just like the original. We did our first tour in May of 2014,” Sandoval said. It worked. He now drives two tours a day.

“’Breaking Bad’ really did put Albuquerque on the map in terms of the film industry,” he added.

Breaking Bad RV Tours features a 1986 Fleetwood Bounder RV, identical to the one in the TV series “Breaking Bad.”

Here, in an open landscape where sunshine reigns supreme for 310 days a year, and the longest traffic commute is 20 minutes, Netflix has put down roots.

The entertainment giant purchased Albuquerque Studios, a 100,000-square-foot compound, and signed a billion-dollar deal to produce TV series and movies over the next 10 years. NBC Universal followed with a $500 million deal. Its highly touted TV show “Briarpatch” is one of a dozen TV series filmed in one of the studios’ imposing stages in complete secrecy.

“Briarpatch” producers Keith Raskin and Linda Morel say New Mexico offers a great filming alternative to congested and expensive Los Angeles. The varied landscape, and local crew availability don’t hurt either. And the advantages don’t end there.

“Space! Space! We’ve been working in L.A. for a long time, obviously. I’m from there. It is very, very difficult to find stage space in Los Angeles right now. It’s always booked,“ Morel, Raskin’s longtime partner, said.

Raskin said all these benefits have become the talk of the town among L.A. producers gearing up to take their businesses to Albuquerque.

“I think we are at the beginning of a tidal wave. There’s been a big interest in shooting here,” he added.

Hollywood’s interest peaked after New Mexico further sweetened tax incentives last July, said Amber Dodson, film liaison for the city of Albuquerque.

“The rebate cap was previously at $50 million. It is now raised to $110 million,” she said.

The larger the amount a production company invests here, the larger the rebate. New Mexico wins as well, Dodson said. To get the incentive, production companies have to hire local talent.

“They are here for 10 years no matter what. And the amount of jobs! And it’s a conservative estimate, that, just that deal alone, will create is 1,000,” she said.

1,000 jobs a year, that is.

New Mexico’s film industry is also benefiting from political battles elsewhere in the country. Many Hollywood studios and production companies are pulling out of Georgia in reaction to the state’s enactment of an anti-abortion law, Dodson said.

“We have been busier than ever!” she added, calling TV and film production “a clean, creative industry” that benefits the entire city.

“When a production comes to a place like Albuquerque, they’re not just paying their casting crew,” she said. “They are using all kinds of vendors from dry cleaners to gas stations to car rentals to art galleries, lumber yards, hotels, restaurants. The list goes on and on.”

Sandoval, of the “Breaking Bad” RV tours, said he couldn’t agree more. His tour company, operating twice a day, is fully booked, drawing visitors from all over the world.

“What I see coming down the pike is where we’re going to become the next Hollywood. Some people call it Tamalewood,” he said.