Weekly Briefing

Nigeria: lead poisoning
In Zamfara State, northern Nigeria, lead poisoning has killed hundreds this year and affected thousands more. The unlikely explanation? "Backyard gold-digging", according to the UN Environment Programme.

The government recently employed a Chinese company to mine the remote region's gold. But impoverished residents, many working for local barons, have also been attempting to extract gold residues from the lead-contaminated soil around their homes, causing pollutants to leach into drinking water. The UN team was more concerned about the soil itself. In some villages, the lead concentration is 250 times higher than the US legal limit for residential areas.

The full UN report is due this month; in the meantime, Médecins Sans Frontières and other organisations are attempting to help clean up. It's not much of a birthday present for Nigeria as the country marks 50 years of independence.

Ecuador: wage crisis
“The people who shot at the president's car, and fired on the people in the streets, are still free, so the crisis is not over," Ecuador's foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño, told journalists. The state of emergency imposed by the government after a police rebellion on 30 September had just been extended to 8 October.

Protests over police bonus cuts turned violent - ten people were killed - and led to occupation of the country's airport, events President Rafael Correa identified as a coup. His government's response? Somewhat surprisingly, a pay rise for various ranks within the police and the military.
However, the country's defence minister, Javier Ponce, insists that the increases are unrelated to the unrest - and, in addition, that they are long overdue. Apparently, officers have been waiting for a pay rise since 2008.

US: climate change
The latest round of UN climate talks, which opened on 4 October in Tianjin, northern China, will be the last before the end-of-year summit in Cancún, Mexico. But some campaigners are focusing on the main event already.

On 5 October, Hillary Clinton received a letter, signed by five US lawmakers, calling for "the establishment of an equitable, effective and accountable global climate fund" at Cancún to help developing countries cope with climate change.

Given that 93 lawmakers signed another letter urging action on China's currency exchange rate, support was not overwhelming. But at least a (gas-guzzling, free-marketeering) national stereotype got a bit of a shake.

Iran: flight into Egypt
“Egypt and Iran are the lungs of the Middle East," Shahbaz Yazdani, an Iranian cultural official, told Egypt's al-Masry al-Youm newspaper. "The two can't breathe without each other."

After 30 years, Tehran and Cairo, the region's two biggest cities, are to restart direct flights. Given Iran's support for Hamas and Hezbollah, and Egyptian links to both Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and Lebanon's Saad Hariri, full diplomatic ties are out of the question for now. But, with an agreement providing for 28 flights a week, it seems ties of a more practical kind will resume shortly.

Uganda: gone bananas
Not many places have a National Banana Research Programme, but in Uganda, bananas are a vital crop. GM fruits resistant to BXW, a disease that costs Great Lakes farmers $500m a year, are now on trial. And bananas developed to help Ugandans resist disease and malnutrition are also on their way.

North of Kampala, bananas enhanced with genes from plants rich in iron and Vitamin A - many Ugandans are deficient in this - are now growing. Similar trials in Australia have produced ultra-nutritious fruit. In Uganda, GM bananas could be an affordable - and tasty - solution to much child and maternal mortality.