Zimbabwe’s new gold-backed currency sliding on black market

Harare, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe’s recently introduced gold-backed currency is sliding on the local black market but officials insist the currency is getting stronger and has a bright future. Columbus Mavhunga reports from Harare.

Even songs are played on the radio encouraging citizens to embrace the currency, called Zimbabwe Gold — or ZiG — introduced on April 5 trading at 13.56 to the U.S. dollar.

Official statistics say ZiG is now trading at 13.41. But on the black market it is around 20.

Chamunorwa Musengi, a street vendor in Harare, is not optimistic about the new currency which for the moment is trading electronically, with notes and coins coming into circulation on April 30:  

“Let’s wait and see,” he said. “Maybe it will boost our economy for some time. But I do not see anything changing with the new currency, because things are really tight at the moment. We been through this before. When they introduced bond notes, things stabilized for a short time and then it started sliding on the market. They are saying ZiG is around 13 — it will end up around 40,000 against the dollar.”

Bond notes refer to the currency which was launched in 2019 after a decade of Zimbabwe using the U.S. dollar and other currencies.  The bond note had lost about 80% of its value and was trading at around 40,000 to the dollar before its official demise.

Samson Kabwe, a minibus conductor, says he cannot wait for the physical notes and coins of ZiG to be released.

“We are for ZiG, especially for change,” he said. “We had no small notes for change. If ZiG notes and coins come, the government would have done a great thing. We want it like now.”

The government says for now, commodities like fuel will still be bought and sold using U.S. dollars. 

Gift Mugano, an economics professor, predicts the new currency will go the way of the abandoned one.

“[In] 2016, we introduced bond notes which was backed by Afreximbank (African Export–Import Bank) facility of $400 million,” he said. “The Afreximbank is an international bank with reputation. But that was not be sufficient to guarantee the success of the bond notes. So it failed. Right? Why are we failing to guarantee stability? There is no sustained production in the economy because you defend the economy with production. Secondly, confidence issues. People do not trust this system because we have lost money several times.”

But John Mushayavanhu, the new governor or the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, predicts the currency will succeed because it is backed by reserves of gold and other minerals worth $175 million and $100 million cash.   

“We are doing what we are doing to ensure that our local currency does not die,” he said. “We were already in a situation where almost 85% of transactions are being conducted in U.S. dollars because [the] local currency was not living up to the function of store of value. We are going to restore that store of value so that we can start reviving our currency. So, we are starting at $80 million worth, and as we get more reserves, we will gradually be moving towards greater use of the local currency. It is my wish that if we get to the year (end) at 70-30, next year 60-40, the year after 50-50; by the time we get to 50-50 people will be indifferent as to which currency they are using. And that way we regain use of our local currency.”

While Mushayavanhu has that confidence, social media is awash with people and traders — including government departments — refusing to accept the outgoing Zimbabwe currency.

AI-generated fashion models could bring more diversity to industry — or leave it with less

Chicago, Illinois — London-based model Alexsandrah has a twin, but not in the way you’d expect: Her counterpart is made of pixels instead of flesh and blood.

The virtual twin was generated by artificial intelligence and has already appeared as a stand-in for the real-life Alexsandrah in a photo shoot. Alexsandrah, who goes by her first name professionally, in turn receives credit and compensation whenever the AI version of herself gets used — just like a human model.

Alexsandrah says she and her alter-ego mirror each other “even down to the baby hairs.” And it is yet another example of how AI is transforming creative industries — and the way humans may or may not be compensated.

Proponents say the growing use of AI in fashion modeling showcases diversity in all shapes and sizes, allowing consumers to make more tailored purchase decisions that in turn reduces fashion waste from product returns. And digital modeling saves money for companies and creates opportunities for people who want to work with the technology.

But critics raise concerns that digital models may push human models — and other professionals like makeup artists and photographers — out of a job. Unsuspecting consumers could also be fooled into thinking AI models are real, and companies could claim credit for fulfilling diversity commitments without employing actual humans.

“Fashion is exclusive, with limited opportunities for people of color to break in,” said Sara Ziff, a former fashion model and founder of the Model Alliance, a nonprofit aiming to advance workers’ rights in the fashion industry. “I think the use of AI to distort racial representation and marginalize actual models of color reveals this troubling gap between the industry’s declared intentions and their real actions.”  

Women of color in particular have long faced higher barriers to entry in modeling and AI could upend some of the gains they’ve made. Data suggests that women are more likely to work in occupations in which the technology could be applied and are more at risk of displacement than men.

In March 2023, iconic denim brand Levi Strauss & Co. announced that it would be testing AI-generated models produced by Amsterdam-based company Lalaland.ai to add a wider range of body types and underrepresented demographics on its website. But after receiving widespread backlash, Levi clarified that it was not pulling back on its plans for live photo shoots, the use of live models or its commitment to working with diverse models.

“We do not see this (AI) pilot as a means to advance diversity or as a substitute for the real action that must be taken to deliver on our diversity, equity and inclusion goals and it should not have been portrayed as such,” Levi said in its statement at the time.

The company last month said that it has no plans to scale the AI program.

The Associated Press reached out to several other retailers to ask whether they use AI fashion models. Target, Kohl’s and fast-fashion giant Shein declined to comment; Temu did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, spokespeople for Nieman Marcus, H&M, Walmart and Macy’s said their respective companies do not use AI models, although Walmart clarified that “suppliers may have a different approach to photography they provide for their products, but we don’t have that information.”

Nonetheless, companies that generate AI models are finding a demand for the technology, including Lalaland.ai, which was co-founded by Michael Musandu after he was feeling frustrated by the absence of clothing models who looked like him.

“One model does not represent everyone that’s actually shopping and buying a product,” he said. “As a person of color, I felt this painfully myself.”

Musandu says his product is meant to supplement traditional photo shoots, not replace them. Instead of seeing one model, shoppers could see nine to 12 models using different size filters, which would enrich their shopping experience and help reduce product returns and fashion waste.

The technology is actually creating new jobs, since Lalaland.ai pays humans to train its algorithms, Musandu said.

And if brands “are serious about inclusion efforts, they will continue to hire these models of color,” he added.

London-based model Alexsandrah, who is Black, says her digital counterpart has helped her distinguish herself in the fashion industry. In fact, the real-life Alexsandrah has even stood in for a Black computer-generated model named Shudu, created by Cameron Wilson, a former fashion photographer turned CEO of The Diigitals, a U.K.-based digital modeling agency.

Wilson, who is white and uses they/them pronouns, designed Shudu in 2017, described on Instagram as the “The World’s First Digital Supermodel.” But critics at the time accused Wilson of cultural appropriation and digital Blackface.

Wilson took the experience as a lesson and transformed The Diigitals to make sure Shudu — who has been booked by Louis Vuitton and BMW — didn’t take away opportunities but instead opened possibilities for women of color. Alexsandrah, for instance, has modeled in-person as Shudu for Vogue Australia, and writer Ama Badu came up with Shudu’s backstory and portrays her voice for interviews.

Alexsandrah said she is “extremely proud” of her work with The Diigitals, which created her own AI twin: “It’s something that even when we are no longer here, the future generations can look back at and be like, ‘These are the pioneers.'”

But for Yve Edmond, a New York City area-based model who works with major retailers to check the fit of clothing before it’s sold to consumers, the rise of AI in fashion modeling feels more insidious.

Edmond worries modeling agencies and companies are taking advantage of models, who are generally independent contractors afforded few labor protections in the U.S., by using their photos to train AI systems without their consent or compensation.

She described one incident in which a client asked to photograph Edmond moving her arms, squatting and walking for “research” purposes. Edmond refused and later felt swindled — her modeling agency had told her she was being booked for a fitting, not to build an avatar.

“This is a complete violation,” she said. “It was really disappointing for me.”

But absent AI regulations, it’s up to companies to be transparent and ethical about deploying AI technology. And Ziff, the founder of the Model Alliance, likens the current lack of legal protections for fashion workers to “the Wild West.”

That’s why the Model Alliance is pushing for legislation like the one being considered in New York state, in which a provision of the Fashion Workers Act would require management companies and brands to obtain models’ clear written consent to create or use a model’s digital replica; specify the amount and duration of compensation, and prohibit altering or manipulating models’ digital replica without consent.

Alexsandrah says that with ethical use and the right legal regulations, AI might open up doors for more models of color like herself. She has let her clients know that she has an AI replica, and she funnels any inquires for its use through Wilson, who she describes as “somebody that I know, love, trust and is my friend.” Wilson says they make sure any compensation for Alexsandrah’s AI is comparable to what she would make in-person.

Edmond, however, is more of a purist: “We have this amazing Earth that we’re living on. And you have a person of every shade, every height, every size. Why not find that person and compensate that person?”

Polish abortion opponents march against steps to liberalize strict law  

WARSAW — Thousands of Polish opponents of abortion marched Sunday in Warsaw to protest recent steps by the new government to liberalize the predominantly Catholic nation’s strict laws and allow termination of pregnancy until the 12th week.

Many participants in the downtown march were pushing prams with children, while others were carrying white-and-red national flags or posters representing a fetus in the womb.

Poland’s Catholic Church has called for Sunday to be a day of prayer “in defense of conceived life” and has supported the march, organized by an anti-abortion movement.

“In the face of promotion of abortion in recent months, the march will be a rare occasion to show our support for the protection of human life from conception to natural death,” a federation of anti-abortion movements said in a statement.

They were referring to an ongoing public debate surrounding the steps that the 4-month-old government of Prime Minster Donald Tusk is taking to relax the strict law brought in by its conservative predecessor.

Last week, Poland’s parliament, which is dominated by the liberal and pro-European Union ruling coalition voted to approve further detailed work on four proposals to lift the near ban on abortions.

The procedure, which could take weeks or even months, is expected to be eventually rejected by conservative President Andrzej Duda, whose term runs for another year.

Last month Duda vetoed a draft law that would have made the morning-after pill available over the counter from the age of 15.

A nation of some 38 million, Poland is seeking ways to boost the birth rate, which is currently at 1.2 per woman — among the lowest in the European Union. Poland’s society is aging and shrinking, facts that the previous right-wing government used among its arguments for toughening the abortion law.

Currently, abortions are only allowed in cases of rape or incest or if the woman’s life or health is at risk. According to the Health Ministry, 161 abortions were performed in Polish hospitals in 2022. However, abortion advocates estimate that some 120,000 women in Poland have abortions each year, mostly by secretly obtaining pills from abroad.

Women attempting to abort themselves are not penalized, but anyone assisting them can face up to three years in prison. Reproductive rights advocates say the result is that doctors turn women away even in permitted cases for fear of legal consequences for themselves.

One of the four proposals being processed in parliament would decriminalize assisting a woman to have an abortion. Another one, put forward by a party whose leaders are openly Catholic, would keep a ban in most cases but would allow abortions in cases of fetal defects — a right that was eliminated by a 2020 court ruling. The two others aim to permit abortion through the 12th week.

Instagram blurring nudity in messages to protect teens, fight sexual extortion

LONDON — Instagram says it’s deploying new tools to protect young people and combat sexual extortion, including a feature that will automatically blur nudity in direct messages.

The social media platform said in a blog post Thursday that it’s testing out the features as part of its campaign to fight sexual scams and other forms of “image abuse,” and to make it tougher for criminals to contact teens.

Sexual extortion, or sextortion, involves persuading a person to send explicit photos online and then threatening to make the images public unless the victim pays money or engages in sexual favors. Recent high-profile cases include two Nigerian brothers who pleaded guilty to sexually extorting teen boys and young men in Michigan, including one who took his own life, and a Virginia sheriff’s deputy who sexually extorted and kidnapped a 15-year-old girl.

Instagram and other social media companies have faced growing criticism for not doing enough to protect young people. Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Instagram’s owner Meta Platforms, apologized to the parents of victims of such abuse during a Senate hearing earlier this year.

Meta, which is based in Menlo Park, California, also owns Facebook and WhatsApp but the nudity blur feature won’t be added to messages sent on those platforms.

Instagram said scammers often use direct messages to ask for “intimate images.” To counter this, it will soon start testing out a nudity-protection feature for direct messages that blurs any images with nudity “and encourages people to think twice before sending nude images.”

“The feature is designed not only to protect people from seeing unwanted nudity in their DMs, but also to protect them from scammers who may send nude images to trick people into sending their own images in return,” Instagram said.

The feature will be turned on by default globally for teens under 18. Adult users will get a notification encouraging them to activate it.

Images with nudity will be blurred with a warning, giving users the option to view it. They’ll also get an option to block the sender and report the chat.

For people sending direct messages with nudity, they will get a message reminding them to be cautious when sending “sensitive photos.” They’ll also be informed that they can unsend the photos if they change their mind, but that there’s a chance others may have already seen them.

As with many of Meta’s tools and policies around child safety, critics saw the move as a positive step, but one that does not go far enough.

“I think the tools announced can protect senders, and that is welcome. But what about recipients?” said Arturo Béjar, former engineering director at the social media giant who is known for his expertise in curbing online harassment. He said 1 in 8 teens receives an unwanted advance on Instagram every seven days, citing internal research he compiled while at Meta that he presented in November testimony before Congress. “What tools do they get? What can they do if they get an unwanted nude?”

Béjar said “things won’t meaningfully change” until there is a way for a teen to say they’ve received an unwanted advance, and there is transparency about it.

Instagram said it’s working on technology to help identify accounts that could be potentially be engaging in sexual extortion scams, “based on a range of signals that could indicate sextortion behavior.”

To stop criminals from connecting with young people, it’s also taking measures including not showing the “message” button on a teen’s profile to potential sextortion accounts, even if they already follow each other, and testing new ways to hide teens from these accounts.

In January, the FBI warned of a “huge increase” in sextortion cases targeting children — including financial sextortion, where someone threatens to release compromising images unless the victim pays. The targeted victims are primarily boys between the ages of 14 to 17, but the FBI said any child can become a victim. In the six-month period from October 2022 to March 2023, the FBI saw a more than 20% increase in reporting of financially motivated sextortion cases involving minor victims compared to the same period in the previous year.

Study: Mexico produces tons of illicit fentanyl, can’t get enough for medical use

MEXICO CITY — A report released by the Mexican government Friday says the country is facing a dire shortage of fentanyl for medical use, even as Mexican cartels pump out tons of the illicit narcotic.

The paradox was reported in a study by Mexico’s National Commission on Mental Health and Addictions. The study did not give a reason for the shortage of the synthetic opioid, which is needed for anesthesia in hospitals, but claimed it was a worldwide problem.

The commission said fentanyl had to be imported, and that imports fell by more than 50% between 2022 and 2023.

Nonetheless, Mexican cartels appear to be having no problem importing tons of precursor chemicals and making their own fentanyl, which they smuggle into the United States. The report says Mexican seizures of illicit fentanyl rose 1.24 tons in 2020 to 1.85 tons in 2023.

Some of that is now spilling back across the border, with an increase in illicit fentanyl addiction reported in some Mexican border regions — a problem Mexico paradoxically blamed on the United States.

“Despite the limitations of availability in pharmaceutical fentanyl in our country, the excessive use of opiates in recent decades in the United States has had important repercussions on consumption and supply in Mexico,” the report states.

The report said that requests for addiction treatment in Mexico increased from 72 cases in 2020, to 430 cases in 2023. That sounds like a tiny number compared to the estimated 70,000 annual overdose deaths in the United States in recent years related to synthetic opioids. But in fact, the Mexican government does very little to offer addiction treatment, so the numbers probably don’t reflect the real scope of the problem.

The shortage of medical anesthetic drugs has caused some real problems in Mexico.

Local problems with the availability of morphine and fentanyl have led anesthesiologists to acquire their own supplies, carry the vials around with them, and administer multiple doses from a single vial to conserve their supply.

In 2022, anesthetics contaminated by those practices caused a meningitis outbreak in the northern state of Durango that killed about three dozen people, many of whom were pregnant women given epidurals. Several Americans died because of a similar outbreak after having surgery at clinics in the Mexican border city of Matamoros in 2023.

The response by the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to those twin problems — not enough legal fentanyl, and too much of the illicit stuff — has been contradictory.

In 2023, López Obrador briefly proposed banning fentanyl even for medical use but has not mentioned that idea lately after it drew a wave of criticism from doctors.

Meanwhile, the president has steadfastly denied that Mexican cartels produce the drug, despite overwhelming evidence that they import precursor chemicals from Asia and carry out the chemical processes to make fentanyl. López Obrador claims they only press the drug into pill form.

Poliovirus resurgence sparks concerns in Pakistan

Islamabad — The recent detection of poliovirus in sewage water samples collected across 30 districts in Pakistan has reignited concerns about a potential surge in polio cases.

Among those deeply troubled is Musal Khan, a polio survivor who navigates life in a wheelchair. Having represented Pakistan in wheelchair cricket at the global level, Musal Khan doesn’t want others to endure the same hardships he has faced.

Reflecting on his own experience, Khan, who contracted polio at age 2, told VOA, “My father didn’t permit polio vaccination for me, leading to a lifetime confined to a wheelchair.”

Khan urges all parents to give polio drops to their children and protect them from lifelong disabilities.

His father, Awal Khan, carries a heavy burden of guilt for his son’s condition. He joins Musal in urging parents not to obstruct polio workers and health officials from administering the vaccine to their children.

Polio, a highly contagious viral illness primarily affecting children under 5, spreads through feces, oral transmission or contaminated food and water. While incurable, it can be prevented through vaccination. Health experts warn that the poliovirus is a persistent presence in Pakistan, particularly in urban centers such as Karachi, Quetta and Peshawar.

Plan to eradicate polio

Shahzad Baig, the coordinator of the National Emergency Operations Center, has outlined Pakistan’s goal of eradicating imported strains of the poliovirus, particularly those originating from neighboring Afghanistan, by the end of 2024.

To achieve this, he announced the implementation of eight comprehensive polio vaccination campaigns scheduled throughout the year.

Despite concerted efforts, the recent emergence of two polio cases in Chaman and Dera Bugti underscored the challenges facing Pakistan. Moreover, alarming findings from the analysis of more than 83 sewage water samples collected across 30 districts have revealed the presence of the virus.

Baig emphasized the importance of vaccination efforts considering these findings. He noted that even in areas where polio drops are administered, children remain susceptible to the virus due to deficiencies in the drainage infrastructure. Broken sewer lines contribute to the contamination of drinking water sources, facilitating the transmission of polio.

Baig stressed the urgent need for comprehensive measures to address not only vaccination coverage but also the improvement of sanitation infrastructure to prevent the spread of poliovirus.

This story originated in VOA’s Urdu Service.

Swarms of drones can be managed by a single person

The U.S. military says large groups of drones and ground robots can be managed by just one person without added stress to the operator. As VOA’s Julie Taboh reports, the technologies may be beneficial for civilian uses, too. VOA footage by Adam Greenbaum.

Indiana aspires to become next great tech center

indianapolis, indiana — Semiconductors, or microchips, are critical to almost everything electronic used in the modern world. In 1990, the United States produced about 40% of the world’s semiconductors. As manufacturing migrated to Asia, U.S. production fell to about 12%.  

“During COVID, we got a wake-up call. It was like [a] Sputnik moment,” explained Mark Lundstrom, an engineer who has worked with microchips much of his life. 

The 2020 global coronavirus pandemic slowed production in Asia, creating a ripple through the global supply chain and leading to shortages of everything from phones to vehicles. Lundstrom said increasing U.S. reliance on foreign chip manufacturers exposed a major weakness. 

“We know that AI is going to transform society in the next several years, it requires extremely powerful chips. The most powerful leading-edge chips.” 

Today, Lundstrom is the acting dean of engineering at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana, a leader in cutting-edge semiconductor development, which has new importance amid the emerging field of artificial intelligence. 

“If we fall behind in AI, the consequences are enormous for the defense of our country, for our economic future,” Lundstrom told VOA. 

Amid the buzz of activity in a laboratory on Purdue’s campus, visitors can get a vision of what the future might look like in microchip technology. 

“The key metrics of the performance of the chips actually are the size of the transistors, the devices, which is the building block of the computer chips,” said Zhihong Chen, director of Purdue’s Birck Nanotechnology Center, where engineers work around the clock to push microchip technology into the future. 

“We are talking about a few atoms in each silicon transistor these days. And this is what this whole facility is about,” Chen said. “We are trying to make the next generation transistors better devices than current technologies. More powerful and more energy-efficient computer chips of the future.” 

Not just RVs anymore

Because of Purdue’s efforts, along with those on other university campuses in the state, Indiana believes it’s an attractive location for manufacturers looking to build new microchip facilities. 

“Purdue University alone, a top four-ranked engineering school, offers more engineers every year than the next top three,” said Eric Holcomb, Indiana’s Republican governor. “When you have access to that kind of talent, when you have access to the cost of doing business in the state of Indiana, that’s why people are increasingly saying, Indiana.” 

Holcomb is in the final year of his eight-year tenure in the state’s top position. He wants to transform Indiana beyond the recreational vehicle, or “RV capital” of the country.  

“We produce about plus-80% of all the RV production in North America in one state,” he told VOA. “We are not just living up to our reputation as being the number one manufacturing state per capita in America, but we are increasingly embracing the future of mobility in America.” 

Holcomb is spearheading an effort to make Indiana the next great technology center as the U.S. ramps up investment in domestic microchip development and manufacturing.  “If we want to compete globally, we have to get smarter and healthier and more equipped, and we have to continue to invest in our quality of place,” Holcomb told VOA in an interview. 

His vision is shared by other lawmakers, including U.S. Senator Todd Young of Indiana, who co-sponsored the bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act, which commits more than $50 billion in federal funding for domestic microchip development. 

‘We are committed’

Indiana is now home to one of 31 designated U.S. technology and innovation hubs, helping it qualify for hundreds of millions of dollars in grants designed to attract technology-driven businesses. 

“The signal that it sends to the rest of the world [is] that we are in it, we are committed, and we are focused,” said Holcomb. “We understand that economic development, economic security and national security complement one another.” 

Indiana’s efforts are paying off. 

In April, South Korean microchip manufacturer SK Hynix announced it was planning to build a $4 billion facility near Purdue University that would produce next-generation, high-bandwidth memory, or HBM chips, critical for artificial intelligence applications.  

The facility, slated to start operating in 2028, could create more than 1,000 new jobs. While U.S. chip manufacturer SkyWater also plans to invest nearly $2 billion in Indiana’s new LEAP Innovation District near Purdue, the state recently lost bidding to host chipmaker Intel, which selected Ohio for two new factories. 

“Companies tend to like to go to locations where there is already that infrastructure, where that supply chain is in place,” Purdue’s Lundstrom said. “That’s a challenge for us, because this is a new industry for us. So, we have a chicken-and- egg problem that we have to address, and we are beginning to address that.” 

Lundstrom said the CHIPS and Science Act and the federal money that comes with it are helping Indiana ramp up to compete with other U.S. locations already known for microchip development, such as Silicon Valley in California and Arizona. 

What could help Indiana gain an edge is its natural resources — plenty of land and water, and regular weather patterns, all crucial for the sensitive processes needed to manufacture microchips at large manufacturing centers. 

Trump says Arizona abortion ban goes too far

Reproductive rights are again at the forefront of the U.S. presidential campaign, as Republican candidate Donald Trump distances himself from an Arizona Supreme Court decision to ban most abortions in the state. VOA’s Scott Stearns has the story.

Indiana aspires to become next great tech hub

The Midwestern state of Indiana aspires to become the next great technology center as the United States ramps up investment in domestic microchip development and manufacturing. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more from Indianapolis. Videographer: Kane Farabaugh, Adam Greenbaum

Scientists struggle to protect infant corals from hungry fish

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — South Florida researchers trying to prevent predatory fish from devouring laboratory-grown coral are grasping at biodegradable straws in an effort to restore what some call the rainforest of the sea.

Scientists around the world have been working for years to address the decline of coral reef populations. Just last summer, reef rescue groups in South Florida and the Florida Keys were trying to save coral from rising ocean temperatures. Besides working to keep existing coral alive, researchers have also been growing new coral in labs and then placing them in the ocean.

But protecting the underwater ecosystem that maintains more than 25% of all marine species is not easy. Even more challenging is making sure that coral grown in a laboratory and placed into the ocean doesn’t become expensive fish food.

Marine researcher Kyle Pisano said one problem is that predators like parrot fish attempt to bite and destroy the newly transplanted coral in areas like South Florida, leaving them with less than a 40% survival rate. With projects calling for thousands of coral to be planted over the next year and tens of thousands of coral to be planted over the next decade, the losses add up when coral pieces can cost more than $100 each.

Pisano and his partner, Kirk Dotson, have developed the Coral Fort, claiming the small biodegradable cage that’s made in part with drinking straws boosts the survival rate of transplanted coral to over 90%.

“Parrot fish on the reef really, really enjoy biting a newly transplanted coral,” Pisano said. “They treat it kind of like popcorn.”

Fortunately the fish eventually lose interest in the coral as it matures, but scientists need to protect the coral in the meantime. Stainless steel and PVC pipe barriers have been set up around transplanted coral in the past, but those barriers needed to be cleaned of algae growth and eventually removed.

Pisano had the idea of creating a protective barrier that would eventually dissolve, eliminating the need to maintain or remove it. He began conducting offshore experiments with biodegradable coral cages as part of a master’s degree program at Nova Southeastern University. He used a substance called polyhydroxyalkanoate, a biopolymer derived from the fermentation of canola oil. PHA biodegrades in ocean, leaving only water and carbon dioxide. His findings were published last year.

The coral cage consists of a limestone disc surrounded by eight vertical phade brand drinking straws, made by Atlanta-based WinCup Inc. The device doesn’t have a top, Pisano said, because the juvenile coral needs sunlight and the parrot fish don’t generally want to position themselves facing downward to eat.

Dotson, a retired aerospace engineer, met Pisano through his professor at Nova Southeastern, and the two formed Reef Fortify Inc. to further develop and market the patent-pending Coral Fort. The first batch of cages were priced at $12 each, but Pisano and Dotson believe that could change as production scales up.

Early prototypes of the cage made from phade’s standard drinking straws were able to protect the coral for about two months before dissolving in the ocean, but that wasn’t quite long enough to outlast the interest of parrot fish. When Pisano and Dotson reached out to phade for help, the company assured them that it could make virtually any custom shape from its biodegradable PHA material.

“But it’s turning out that the boba straws, straight out of the box, work just fine,” Dotson said.

Boba straws are wider and thicker than normal drinking straws. They’re used for a tea-based drink that includes tapioca balls at the bottom of the cup. For Pisano and Dotson, that extra thickness means the straws last just long enough to protect the growing coral before harmlessly disappearing.

Reef Fortify is hoping to work with reef restoration projects all over the world. The Coral Forts already already being used by researchers at Nova Southeastern and the University of Miami, as well as Hawaii’s Division of Aquatic Resources.

Rich Karp, a coral researcher at the University of Miami, said they’ve been using the Coral Forts for about a month. He pointed out that doing any work underwater takes a great deal of time and effort, so having a protective cage that dissolves when it’s no longer needed basically cuts their work in half.

“Simply caging corals and then removing the cages later, that’s two times the amount of work, two times the amount of bottom time,” Karp said. “And it’s not really scalable.”

Experts say coral reefs are a significant part of the oceanic ecosystem. They occupy less than 1% of the ocean worldwide but provide food and shelter to nearly 25 percent of sea life. Coral reefs also help to protect humans and their homes along the coastline from storm surges during hurricanes.

Angolan fishermen blame Chinese trawlers for declining fish stock 

In the port of Benguela on Angola’s Pacific coast, fishermen and fish traders are struggling to make ends meet. They say their catch is getting smaller and they blame illegal fishing by Chinese  trawlers. For Joao Marcos, Barbara Santos has this report.  (Mayra de Lassalette contributed)

Ukrainian civilians help build up their country’s drone fleet

Inexpensive first-person view – or radio controlled – drones have become a powerful weapon in Ukraine’s war against Russian invaders. As the country presses the West for more military aid, many Ukrainian civilians are stepping in to help by making homemade attack drones. Lesia Bakalets has the story from Kyiv.

Biden administration imposes first-ever national drinking water limits on toxic PFAS 

Activists urge Nigeria to refuse Shell’s oil selloff plans 

London — Environmental and human rights activists are calling on the Nigerian government to withhold approval of plans by the London-based oil giant Shell to sell off its operations in the Niger Delta, unless the oil giant does more to tackle pollution in the region caused by the industry.

For decades, foreign energy firms have extracted hydrocarbons from the Niger Delta, and Shell is by far the biggest investor. It has earned the companies — and the Nigerian government — billions of dollars. Locals, however, have long complained of massive environmental damage.

“You can’t grow crops. You can’t drink the water. You can’t fish because the fish are dying or they’re dead,” said Florence Kayemba, Nigeria director at the civil society group Stakeholder Democracy Network, based in Port Harcourt in the Niger Delta.

Shell Oil announced in January it is pulling out of its onshore and shallow water operations the region. It intends to sell its Nigerian subsidiary, the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited (SPDC), to Renaissance, a consortium of five mainly local firms. The sale would include existing mining licenses and infrastructure. Shell says it is part of a plan to transition away from fossil fuels.

Civil society groups say Shell must do more to clean up the environment before it leaves. A recent report by a Dutch organization, the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations, or SOMO, warned the divestment plan is a “ticking time bomb.”

“Communities fear that, once Shell exits, they will never see their environment restored or receive compensation for lost livelihoods,” the SOMO report said. “Most people in the Delta depend on farming and fishing, occupations that are impossible when the soil and waterways are deeply contaminated.”

Florence Kayemba of the Stakeholder Democracy Network, which contributed to the SOMO report, told VOA that the Nigerian government must scrutinize the sale more closely.

“We are very concerned about the legacy of pollution being left behind by Shell — not only Shell but also other oil companies that have divested their assets from the Niger Delta,” she said.

“We believe that it’s very important for the federal government to look into these issues, because the oil is not going to flow forever,” Kayemba added. “You will have a post-oil Nigeria. You will have a post-oil Niger Delta. And we need to have an environment that is functional.”

Oil companies like Shell have often blamed theft and sabotage for oil spills, a claim contested by environmental groups. Locals also seek to make money from unlicensed small-scale production known as “artisanal refining,” according to Kayemba.

“What you have is a situation where artisanal oil refining is just reinforcing what has been happening,” she said. “And yet that pollution had already existed. So, by the time you get to disentangle this, it becomes really difficult. Who is to blame who?”

A report commissioned in May 2023 by Bayelsa State, one of the major oil producing regions in the Niger Delta, estimated that it would cost some $12 billion to clean up decades-old oil spills in the state over a 12-year period. It blamed Shell and the Italian oil firm ENI for most of the damage.

Both Shell and ENI dispute the findings.

The SOMO report claims Shell is now selling its operations to domestic companies that may not have the capability to deal with the aging infrastructure and legacy of oil exploration.

“Shell is selling its oil blocks and infrastructure as going concerns to companies that appear, in several cases, to lack the finances and willingness both to deal with the old and damaged infrastructure and to undertake responsible closure and decommissioning when this becomes necessary,” the report said.

“Shell’s exit exposes the communities of the Niger Delta to major ongoing risks to their environment, health, and human rights, long after the oil industry ceases and likely for generations to come,” it added.

In a statement to VOA, Shell said that “Onshore divestments by international energy companies are part of a wider reconfiguration of the Nigerian oil and gas sector in which, after decades of capability building, domestic companies are playing an increasingly important role in helping the country to deliver its aspirations for the sector.”

“As divestments occur, mandatory submissions to the Federal Government allow the regulators to apply scrutiny across a wide range of issues and recommend approval of these divestments, provided they meet all requirements,” the statement said.

Shell added that it will continue to deploy its “technical expertise” under the terms of the sale to the new buyers.

The Nigerian government has indicated it intends to approve Shell’s divestment plans. Heineken Lokpobiri, Nigeria’s petroleum minister, told the World Economic Forum in Davos that the government is committed to “fostering a business-friendly environment” in the sector.

“On the part of the government, once we get the necessary documents, we will not waste time to give the necessary considerations and consent,” Lokpobiri said at Davos January 18, according to Reuters.

The Nigerian Ministry for Petroleum Resources did not respond to VOA requests for comment.

Peter Higgs, physicist who proposed the existence of the ‘God particle,’ dies at 94

LONDON — Nobel prize-winning physicist Peter Higgs, who proposed the existence of the so-called “God particle” that helped explain how matter formed after the Big Bang, has died at age 94, the University of Edinburgh said Tuesday.

The university, where Higgs was emeritus professor, said he died Monday following a short illness.

Higgs predicted the existence of a new particle, which came to be known as the Higgs boson, in 1964. He theorized there must be a subatomic particle of certain dimension that would explain how other particles — and therefore all the stars and planets in the universe — acquired mass. Without something like this particle, the set of equations physicists use to describe the world, known as the standard model, would not hold together.

Higgs’ work helps scientists understand one of the most fundamental riddles of the universe: how the Big Bang created something out of nothing 13.8 billion years ago. Without mass from the Higgs, particles could not clump together into the matter we interact with every day.

But it would be almost 50 years before the particle’s existence could be confirmed. In 2012, in one of the biggest breakthroughs in physics in decades, scientists at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, announced that they had finally found a Higgs boson using the Large Hardron Collider, the $10 billion atom smasher in a 17-mile (27-kilometer) tunnel under the Swiss-French border.

The collider was designed in large part to find Higgs’ particle. It produces collisions with extraordinarily high energies in order to mimic some of the conditions that were present in the trillionths of seconds after the Big Bang.

Higgs won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work, alongside Francois Englert of Belgium, who independently came up with the same theory.

Edinburgh University Vice Chancellor Peter Mathieson said Higgs, who was born in Newcastle, was “a remarkable individual – a truly gifted scientist whose vision and imagination have enriched our knowledge of the world that surrounds us.”

“His pioneering work has motivated thousands of scientists, and his legacy will continue to inspire many more for generations to come.”

Born in Newcastle, northeast England, on May 29, 1929, Higgs studied at King’s College, University of London, and was awarded a doctorate in 1954. He spent much of his career at Edinburgh, becoming the Personal Chair of Theoretical Physics at the Scottish university in 1980. He retired in 1996.

One highlight of Higgs’ career came in the 2013 presentation at CERN in Geneva where scientists presented in complex terms — based on statistical analysis unfathomable to most laypeople — that the boson had been confirmed. He broke into tears, wiping down his glasses in the stands of a CERN lecture hall.

“There was an emotion — a kind of vibration — going around in the auditorium,” Fabiola Gianotti, the CERN director-general told The Associated Press. “That was just a unique moment, a unique experience in a professional life.”

“Peter was a very touching person. He was so sweet, so warm at the same time. And so always interested in what other people had to say,” she said. “Able to listen to other people … open, and interesting, and interested.”

Joel Goldstein, of the School of Physics at the University of Bristol, said: “Peter Higgs was a quiet and modest man, who never seemed comfortable with the fame he achieved even though this work underpins the entire modern theoretical framework of particle physics.”

Gianotti recalled how Higgs often bristled at the term “God particle” for his discovery: “I don’t think he liked this kind of definition,” she said. “It was not in his style.”