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Morocco economic rebound threatened by drought, Ukraine war

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Agriculture accounts for 14 percent of Morocco's gross domestic product and around a third of all jobs
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A withering drought and poor harvests plus price hikes fuelled by the war in Ukraine are threatening Morocco’s fragile economic recovery and exposing structural weaknesses, experts say.

The North African kingdom had bounced back last year after a sharp recession in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the government of gas tycoon Aziz Akhannouch had forecast growth this year topping three percent.

But since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine he has been forced to slash that figure to at most 1.7 percent, telling parliament that “sudden external events and climate change” were to blame.

The International Monetary Fund has forecast even lower growth of 1.1 percent.

Morocco has pumped resources into diversifying its manufacturing sector, particularly by attracting auto giants such as Renault.

But those efforts “have not changed the structure of the economy”.

That is the conclusion of a 2021 report by a commission on the “New Model of Development” (NMD), a strategy announced last year which sets out ambitious plans including slashing Morocco’s wealth gap and doubling per capita economic output by 2035.

Morocco depends heavily on agriculture, a sector that accounts for 14 percent of gross domestic product and around a third of all jobs.

But farmers are on the front line of climate change, and have been hit hard in recent months with rainfall down by more than a third on the long-term average.

That has had a direct impact on crops, and the agriculture ministry now expects a cereal harvest two-thirds down on last year’s figure.

Despite an uptick in fruit and vegetable exports, the sector overall is set to shrink by 14 percent this year.

That will “directly hit jobs and the level of consumption, especially in rural areas”, said economist Abderrahim Hendouf.  

Over-reliance on agriculture, particularly for jobs, makes Morocco’s economy more vulnerable, he said.

– Profiteering, oligopolies –

But drought is not the country’s only vulnerability.

The war in Ukraine has sent grain and energy prices spiralling globally, pushing fuel prices in Morocco to record levels.

Many Moroccans have also pointed the finger at speculators and fuel distributors, accusing them of profiteering from the crisis.

In April, as Muslims marked the holy month of Ramadan, consumer inflation hit 5.9 percent on an annualised basis.

“The situation has hit Moroccans’ buying power and risks feeding social anger,” said Rachid Aourraz, a researcher at the Moroccan Institute for Policy Analysis.

Akhannouch’s government has announced a billion-euro assistance package to help farmers, as well as tackle inflation.

Aourraz predicts “the consequences of this crisis could be less severe than last time, thanks to positive developments in other sectors like services and industry”.

Since the start of the year, the government has doubled fuel and flour subsidies as well as offering direct financial aid to transport workers who had held a weeks-long strike over the crippling rise in costs.

Akhannouch has also vowed to boost state investments to create jobs.

But even prior to the current impasse, Morocco had seen a decade of slowing growth as well as gaping social and regional inequalities, with the richest fifth owning a half of the country’s wealth.

The kingdom is hoping to go beyond six percent growth by 2035, partly by bringing the large informal sector into the formal economy and by nurturing industry.

But the latter will need a major boost in private investment.

The commission for the NMD says it will also require major shifts in the business environment, currently hobbled by “oligopolies and anti-competitive practices”.

Karim Tazi, one of the report’s authors, points to the banking sector, dominated by three main operators, and the energy sector as particularly uncompetitive.

Such practices “are enough to destroy the growth of any economy,” he said.

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Google to delete user location history on US abortion clinic visits

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Google has faced calls to limit smartphone data collection in the wake of anti-abortion laws passed in the United States
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Google announced Friday it would delete users’ location history when they visit abortion clinics, domestic violence shelters and other places where privacy is sought.

“If our systems identify that someone has visited one of these places, we will delete these entries from Location History soon after they visit,” Jen Fitzpatrick, a senior vice president at Google, wrote in a blog post. “This change will take effect in the coming weeks.” 

Other places from which Google will not store location data include fertility centers, addiction treatment facilities, and weight loss clinics.

The announcement comes a week after the US Supreme Court made the tectonic decision to strip American women of constitutional rights to abortion, leading a dozen states to ban or severely restrict the procedure and prompting mass protests across the country.

Activists and politicians have been calling on Google and other tech giants to limit the amount of information they collect to avoid it being used by law enforcement for abortion investigations and prosecutions.

Fitzpatrick also sought to reassure users that the company takes data privacy seriously.

“Google has a long track record of pushing back on overly broad demands from law enforcement, including objecting to some demands entirely,” she wrote. 

“We take into account the privacy and security expectations of people using our products, and we notify people when we comply with government demands.”

Concerns over smartphone data and reproductive rights arose even before the Supreme Court ruling, when several conservative US states in recent months passed laws that give members of the public the right to sue doctors who perform abortions — or anyone who helps facilitate them.

That led a group of top Democratic lawmakers in May to send a letter to Google chief executive Sundar Pichai, asking him to stop collecting smartphone location data lest it become “a tool for far-right extremists looking to crack down on people seeking reproductive health care.”

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Kerry vows US to meet climate goal despite court setback

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US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry fists-bumps a guest at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles in June 2022
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US climate envoy John Kerry vowed Friday the United States will meet goals it submitted to the United Nations on slashing greenhouse gas emissions, despite a Supreme Court ruling that curtailed the government’s powers.

“We are determined to achieve our goals. We can achieve our goals,” Kerry told AFP.

“But obviously it would help if we had a majority of the Supreme Court in the United States of America that actually understood the gravity of the situation and was more willing to try to be helpful rather than present a hurdle of one kind or another,” he said.

President Joe Biden, after defeating the climate-skeptic Donald Trump, in April last year said the United States would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 52 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels, dramatically increasing the climate ambitions of the world’s largest economy.

He submitted the so-called nationally determined contribution to the UN climate body in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement, the landmark deal brokered by Kerry when he was secretary of state.

China, the world’s largest carbon emitter, called Friday on all nations to live up to Paris commitments, with foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian saying of the United States, “it is not enough to just chant slogans.”

Kerry, who has worked with Chinese officials in his climate role despite soaring tensions between Beijing and Washington, said that he was “not surprised by the messaging” from the Asian power.

“We will show China precisely how we’re going to get the job done,” Kerry said.

In an unusual commentary, Stephane Dujarric, the spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, called the Supreme Court decision “a setback in our fight against climate change.”

– ‘Every option available’ –

The Supreme Court, finishing a term in which three justices nominated by Trump pushed it sharply to the right, on Thursday cut the wings off a key way in which the government could have tackled climate change.

In a 6-3 ruling branded “devastating” by Biden, the top court said the Environmental Protection Agency did not have authority to order sweeping cuts on emissions from coal-fired power plants.

“I am convinced — and our legal people are looking at it very carefully — that this decision leaves plenty of latitude for us to be able to do a lot of things that we need to do,” Kerry said.

Asked about calls by some lawmakers from his Democratic Party for Biden to declare a climate emergency, Kerry said, “I think the president needs to evaluate every option available.”

Coal accounts for around 20 percent of US electricity generation — still roughly on par with renewables. China, despite investing heavily in wind and solar, has also kept building coal production capacity.

But Kerry said that the marketplace showed that coal was not the future.

“Nobody’s going to fund any new coal power in the United States — no bank, no private lender. Coal is the dirtiest fuel in the world,” he said.

– ‘Pin into balloon’ –

Scientists warn that the world is far off track in avoiding the worst ravages of climate change including worsening heatwaves, floods, drought, rising sea levels and storm surges. 

The Paris accord set the goal of limiting end-of-century warming to two degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels — and preferably not beyond 1.5 degrees — but the planet has already warmed by nearly 1.2 Celsius.

Ruth Greenspan Bell, a climate expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said it was difficult for the United States to show climate leadership while also fighting internally on whether it is a priority.

“It’s kind of putting a pin into a balloon. There’s a little bit less air in the balloon than there was before,” she said of the court decision. 

“The times call for a moonshot but imagine trying to pull off a moonshot when you are at the same time in a defensive crouch.”

Environmental groups have put guarded hope in negotiations in Congress on an energy bill that would include climate action.

But on the Democratic side, Senator Joe Manchin from coal-producing West Virginia holds the key vote — and Trump’s Republican Party is widely expected to advance in November elections.

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French police bust gang selling fake Bordeaux wine

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Bordeaux wines have become a major target of thieves and traffickers, who seek to profit off its worldwide recognition.
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French police have broken up a gang that had allegedly produced hundreds of thousands of bottles of fake Bordeaux wine in an elaborate counterfeiting operation, prosecutors said on Friday.

Officers investigating drug dealing in the southwestern French region discovered printing machinery being used to create the labels for the bottles last September, sparking a wider criminal probe.

It led to the arrest of around 20 people on Monday during an operation in seven different areas of France, with three of them charged with organised fraud, counterfeiting and money laundering.

The main suspect is a winemaker and broker in the Medoc region near Bordeaux who was buying low-grade wine from other areas including Spain, then bottling it up as more expensive local produce, a statement from Bordeaux prosecutors’ office said.

“Major orders” had been placed for the wine “destined for supermarkets and foreign countries”, the statement added.

Bottling operations were being run at night to avoid detection, it said.

“If the allegations are proven, we hope that the culprits will be heavily punished because these practices undermine the image of Bordeaux wines and those who work properly and respect the rules,” the local wine industry body told AFP.

French wine makers, customs and police are constantly on the lookout for cheats who pass off budget plonk as top vintages.

In 2016, police busted a Bordeaux vintner who was blending poor-quality wine with high-end Saint-Emilions, Lalande-de-Pomerols and Listrac-Medocs to sell to major supermarkets under prestigious labels.

The owner of several domains, Francois-Marie Marret, was handed a prison sentence and a fine of eight million euros after being found bringing in cheap wine at night.

In 2010, 12 French winemakers and dealers were convicted of selling millions of bottles of fake Pinot Noir to the US firm E&J Gallo.

Before that, in 2006 legendary Beaujolais winemaker Georges Duboeuf was fined more than 30,000 euros for blending grapes from different vineyards to disguise the poor quality of certain prized vintages.

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