Police remove protesters from Chevron’s fracking site in Romania

Stop Chevron at a makeshift camp erected by fracking for shale gas protesters in Romania

A protester holds a ‘Stop Chevron’ flag at a makeshift camp near the village of Pungesti, Romania, where the US firm wants to drill for shale gas. Photograph: Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images

US energy company Chevron has resumed its search for shale gas at a controversial site in north-east Romania after hundreds of riot police forcefully removed protesters from the village of Pungesti.

For more than two months, the village, which is believed to be sitting on large reserves of the valuable natural resource, has been the site of largely peaceful protests. Villagers, many of whom are elderly farmers, have set up camp next to the fields targeted for drilling, spending their nights in makeshift tents and cooking on open fires.

Even as the weather turned and temperatures dropped below zero, they looked set to stick the winter out. “We want the mayor to leave and Chevron to leave. We need courageous men, not to use force, just to show them we are united and we are not afraid,” said Alexandru Focșa, 45, a farmer who has been camping since October.

At 4am on Monday the Romanian gendarmerie [paramilitary police force] moved in to secure the way for Chevron’s trucks. In a scene that resembled a military operation, they occupied the village, blocking all access points with riot police vans and preventing anyone from leaving or entering for over 24 hours. Several villagers were detained and fined for the criminal offence of blocking a public road. Villagers say that anyone leaving their homes was stopped for questioning.

With no journalists allowed entry at the time, details are vague. But local newspapers claim that between 30 and 40 people had been beaten by police. Many villagers complained of brutality and injustice. Costică Spiridon, 56, a former village mayor, said: “They came on Tuesday morning with their clubs, they shoved me, I fractured a rib.”

By the time the police started to move out and the roads were opened up, Chevron had built a new access road, erected a metal fence around the drilling site and deployed their own private security team.

Prime minister, Victor Ponta, has responded to anti-fracking protests around the country by saying that “the actions of the gendarmes were 100% according to the law and I congratulate them for this.”

But others are demanding investigation. Maria-Nicoleta Andreescu, executive director of the Helsinki Committee Association for the defence of human rights in Romania, said: “There are important signs that indicate that the gendarmes’ actions were at least abusive if not illegal. It is very clear is that by restricting the access of the press in the area the authorities did not allow the public to be informed.”

In response to questions from the Guardian, Chevron said: “The company is committed to building constructive and positive relationships with the communities where we operate and we will continue our dialogue with the public, local communities and authorities on our projects.” Explaning this week’s events, a spokesperson said they are “committed to working with local communities to explain the benefits of natural gas.”

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A Sarkozy comeback?

HER husband, Jacques Chirac, a former French president, may have long ago retired from public life. But Bernadette Chirac remains a wily old political operator. So when she speaks out, even as an aside, it is worth paying attention. Twice in recent weeks she has announced brazenly that “of course” Nicolas Sarkozy, Mr Chirac’s Gaullist successor, will run again for the presidency in 2017.

Mrs Chirac’s most recent assertion came in a surprisingly self-assured appearance on “Le Petit Journal”, a satirical prime-time television show presented by Yann Bartès on Canal +, which has spent much time mocking the former first lady. When shown a photograph of Mr Sarkozy, she grinned like a love-struck teenager. Would he run again? “Yes”, she replied without missing a beat. This followed a similar declaration to Europe 1, a French radio show.

When Mr Sarkozy was defeated in 2012 after just one term by François Hollande, the Socialist incumbent, he promised that he would disappear from public view. For a political showman, this always seemed improbable. Mr Sarkozy is not temperamentally suited to retirement, and has a highly charged competitiveness that suggested he would never rest until he had a chance at evicting the man who dislodged him.

Since 2012, Mr Sarkozy has indeed mostly kept a low profile in France, jetting about the world instead to give lucrative lectures. And the more absent he has been, the higher his poll ratings have climbed: from 31% a month after losing office, to 40% today, according to TNS-Sofres, a polling group. By French standards, this makes him the joint-most popular politician in France today, sharing the top spot with Manuel Valls, the Socialist interior minister.

In recent months, however, Mr Sarkozy has turned up and turned heads at concerts given by his wife, Carla Bruni, a model-turned-singer who is currently on tour. Last week Mr Sarkozy got a rock-star greeting when he came to watch a campaign rally by Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, the centre-right UMP candidate at elections for the mayor of Paris next month. As the former president pressed flesh and waved at the crowds, it looked every bit like the start of his 2017 campaign. According to French press reports, Mr Sarkozy will now take this unofficial campaign to Berlin, where he is due to meet Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, on February 28th.

It is a high-risk strategy. Although it must be galling for the unpopular Mr Hollande to see his predecessor treated like a political star, it is just as irksome for Mr Sarkozy’s centre-right rivals. No single alternative candidate has managed to emerge within the UMP. Instead, a number of potential nominees, including Jean-François Copé, François Fillon and Alain Juppé, are watching each other warily. None would be happy to see Mr Sarkozy return to steal the show.

Most hazardous of all for Mr Sarkozy, it is far from clear that the French public would feel so well disposed towards him if he were indeed to make an official comeback. Part of the reason Mr Sarkozy gets such good poll numbers is that he says nothing. The moment he returned for real, this nostalgic warm feeling could evaporate, and the French might remember why it is that they voted him out of office in the first place.

JPMorgan sues FDIC for more than $1bn

JPMorgan Chase sued the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation on Tuesday, striking back against the government weeks after agreeing to pay $13bn to resolve claims that it mis-sold mortgage securities.

The largest bank in the US said it was trying “to recover substantially in excess of a billion dollars” from the FDIC, which managed the receivership of Washington Mutual after the bank failed during the crisis and then sold most of its assets to JPMorgan.

WaMu packaged billions of dollars of bad mortgages into securities and sold them to institutional investors before the crisis. That mis-selling rebounded on JPMorgan, which faced fraud claims from the government over WaMu’s behaviour, which it later settled as part of its record $13bn deal with the Department of Justice and other agencies.

The FDIC declined to comment. Officials at the agency, which guarantees bank deposits against failure and regulates banks, believe JPMorgan took on WaMu’s legal liabilities as part of its acquisition and does not have a claim over $2.7bn in assets that remain in the receivership, according to people familiar with the matter.

JPMorgan’s lawsuit, filed in district court in Washington, claims that the FDIC “wrongly refused to acknowledge or honour its expansive indemnification obligations”.

It said those obligations were contained in a deal between the government agency and JPMorgan, which “protected the FDIC from potentially unprecedented liability and helped ensure the stability of the country’s banking system by enabling the former [Washington Mutual] branches to remain open for business as usual following the failure”.

JPMorgan said it should not be held responsible for the “numerous lawsuits” brought against it over the actions of WaMu “including alleged misrepresentations about loans being securitised”.

It listed 24 suits brought by a variety of investors, for which it said it should not have to take responsibility.

However, missing was the biggest bill from WaMu: the DoJ’s settlement with the bank agreed last month. As part of that settlement, the justice department demanded that JPMorgan give up its right to push the bill to the FDIC.

Other WaMu creditors, many of them hedge funds who bought debt after the bank failed, are keen for JPMorgan to be defeated in its attempt to claim against the FDIC because the bank’s demand is so large. JPMorgan said the $2.7bn funds in the receivership “should be sufficient to satisfy” its claim.

When JPMorgan agreed to the government’s demand for a $13bn settlement last month, Eric Holder, US attorney-general, said: “The size and scope of this resolution should send a clear signal that the justice department’s financial fraud investigations are far from over. No firm, no matter how profitable, is above the law, and the passage of time is no shield from accountability.”

FLOWERS UNDER $50: MOSQUITO-FREE GARDEN PART


Summer is here, and in Texas, the heat and bugs are on the rise. But instead of hiding indoors, counting down the days until the mercury drops, you can entertain in a lovely way outdoors on the cheap while keeping the mosquito bites at bay — no harsh chemicals necessary!

Today, we’re really getting our hands dirty and making lovely kokedama arrangements of rosemary, copper canyon daisy and lavender that you can hang over any outdoor dinner party and keep on the porch to stave off those skeeters! — Mary Kathryn Paynter


Images by Mary Kathryn Paynter

There are many plants said to repel mosquitoes, the most famous being citronella and catnip. However, both have strong odors that, while repellent to mosquitoes, can also be extremely disruptive for entertaining, especially while eating or if you have pets. Instead, I suggest using rosemary and lavender, both of which have mosquito-repelling properties and are also beautiful together and wonderful to have around for pets, too. Look into which native plants in your area are mosquito repelling. In Texas, we have the gorgeous copper canyon daisy, whose elegant foliage is nice and sculptural when used in kokedama.

Kokedama is a style of gardening that originates from Japanese bonsai and involves blanketing the roots of a plant in moss, tying it with string and creating a hanging garden with the plants. It’s a lovely way to bring plants into an area with few surfaces and great for outdoor entertaining, as the plants can be hung with lights for dramatic effect.

To make our mosquito-repelling kokedama garden, you’ll need peat moss, bonsai soil, sphagnum moss, sheet moss, cotton thread and some kind of twine, string or cord to hang it with.


Image by Mary Kathryn Paynter

First, carefully brush soil away from the roots of the plants and gently tease out any roots that have grown into a ball. Dip both the roots and the sphagnum moss in water.


Image by Mary Kathryn Paynter

Squeeze out the excess water from the sphagnum moss and wrap it around the roots.


Image by Mary Kathryn Paynter

Mix the peat moss with the bonsai soil, using a little more than twice as much peat moss as bonsai soil. Add water until it has a consistency like clay and can be easily shaped in your hands. Shape it into a ball. The plant’s roots should be completely covered by the peat moss/soil mixture. Tie with cotton thread (it’s important that the thread you use for this step is biodegradable).


Image by Mary Kathryn Paynter

Add more of the peat moss/soil mixture and cover this ball with sheet moss. Wrap the twine, string or cord around it (we used suede cord for the color and texture) to bind everything until it feels bound and secure.


Image by Mary Kathryn Paynter

Hang your plants from a tree or porch, interspersing them with lanterns or twinkling lights to add a glow. Enjoy your yard again!

How to care for your greenhouse over winter

IF you are lucky enough to have a greenhouse you will know that it extends your growing season both at the beginning and end of the year.

Advice on how to look after your greenhouse this winter
Advice on how to look after your greenhouse this winter [GETTY]
So if you planted late potatoes under cover of glass then you are probably looking forward to digging them up for your Christmas dinner.Perhaps you live in the milder South West of the country and are picking the last of your tomatoes – even if they have long been taken out of soil and are just hanging from the rafters to ripen.But before you start sowing seeds for early spring vegetables and flowers you need to give your greenhouse a good clean to eliminate diseases and make sure there are no hiding places for bugs and pests to overwinter.You can start by throwing away any old empty product containers, fertiliser bags and general rubbish, then having a good sweep out.If you still have plants in the greenhouse either put them in your garage or a spare room to stop the cold affecting them or just clean one side of the greenhouse at a time.

All the tools, pots, plant labels, seed boxes and propagators that have been used in the greenhouse over the year will need cleaning in a disinfectant such as Jeyes Fluid, and all the shelves will need wiping over with disinfectant too.

You can start by throwing away any old empty product containers, fertiliser bags and general rubbish, then having a good sweep out

Letting what little light there is over winter and spring into the greenhouse is key to improving success rates with seeds, and Linda Lane, managing director of Griffin Glasshouses recommends using a proprietary glass cleaner if the panes are particularly dirty, otherwise just a sponge and bucket of plain water is fine.Check for broken glass, missing screws and general wear and tear, and Linda advises: “Repair broken glass because draughts can cause immediate damage in cold weather.”Guttering also needs to be cleared of old leaves and other gubbins, and if you don’t already have a water butt fitted it is worth adding it to your Christmas list.Of course, if you have already got one now is the time to drain and clean it using a long-handled brush to prevent a build up of algae. Then rinse it using a hose pipe.That should be enough to keept the bugs at bay and set you up nicely for raising next season’s seeds.

And one last piece of advice from Linda: “On warmer, sunny days, do make sure the glasshouse is ventilated but remember to close up at night.”

For more information about greenhouses go to http://www.griffinglasshouses.com

Beirut blast kills Sunni ex-minister Mohamad Chatah

Scene after Beirut blast, 27 Dec 13 - screen grab

The blast hurled wreckage across a wide area near smart hotels

A huge explosion in central Beirut has killed former Lebanese Finance Minister Mohamad Chatah.

He was an adviser to the former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Sunni Muslim. A car was seen in flames near government offices and the parliament.

The Syrian conflict has increased sectarian tensions in Lebanon.

The Lebanese Shia militant movement Hezbollah has sent fighters to Syria to back the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

President Assad comes from the Alawite sect, a heterodox offshoot of Shia Islam.

Some of the Syrian rebel groups are affiliated with the Sunni Muslim al-Qaeda network.

Iran, which backs Hezbollah, saw its embassy in Beirut attacked last month.

Kulturinsel Einsiedel: A night in Germany’s bizarre Treehouse Hotel

Kulturinsel Einsiedel: dawn view from the balcony of the treehouse hotel

Kulturinsel Einsiedel: dawn view from the balcony of the treehouse hotel 

But if there’s one place on Earth that could knock just about anybody off their high horse, it’s our destination. Sitting right on the Polish-German border, Kulturinsel Einsiedel (which translates as “Culture Island”) is a giant, lovingly handcrafted fun park where childish adventure rules the day and creature comforts are left … well, to the creatures.

We’re here to stay in the Baumhaushotel, or Treehouse Hotel, but first we have to make our way there, which is a little more difficult than it looks. Our English-speaking guide Ulrike Konrad explains, “what looks like the short cut is never the fastest way here” as she leads us through maze-like bamboo channels, over rope bridges and ladders, and through underground tunnels to the back of the complex. Word to the wise: don’t bring your oversized suitcase on wheels. Your correspondent was not wise in this regard.

The five hectare Island (it’s not actually an island) is the brainchild of one man, explains Konrad: “The founder of this place is called Jürgen Bergmann. He started off as a forester, but then he learned the craft of … let me think how to say it in English – like wood carving? Specifically in the way of being an artist, like big sculptures and stuff. Sculptures for playgrounds all over the place. He also had an exhibition of all his playground objects, and every time people visited, even if they were just passing by, they were playing with those things. So he finally decided, let’s open up a park. It grew from just being a farmhouse to being an area of five hectares.”

Kulturinsel Einsiedel: site map
Kulturinsel Einsiedel: The Zauberschloss, or Enchanted Castle

She points at a purple tower – the Zauberschloss, or Enchanted Castle: “See that on top? It’s an antenna. It’s supposed to make people who grew accidentally into adults – it returns them into children.” And with that we’re going in an oddly-shaped wooden door, up a claustrophobic spiral staircase, across a balcony, down a tube slide in pitch darkness into an underground cave, before finally popping back out, completely disoriented. “The tunnels are really fun,” says Ulrike, “especially when there’s lots of guests and everyone gets stuck in the middle.”

There’s no such thing as a right angle at the Culture Island, yet every piece of wood fits perfectly against the next, and structures often weave themselves in with the landscape and trees. It boggles the mind how the Island’s craftsmen can work with such organic shapes.

Kulturinsel Einsiedel: at my advanced weight, I wasn't game to try the overground wire tun...

“In the shared living complex, there’s a horse, and donkeys, and a buffalo – they’re housemates,” Ulrike points out as we cross a high and narrow wooden bridge. “And over here, this is a hot tub, you can light a fire underneath and take a bath. We call it the cannibal pot.”

Kulturinsel Einsiedel: the cannibal pot – a hot tub for up to eight victims
Kulturinsel Einsiedel: the treehouse hotel at night

Finally we reach the Treehouse Hotel, and it’s a marvel in itself. There are nine tree houses in total, connected by a series of ramps, walkways and platforms built into and around the tall trees. Everything is hand-carved in a precise yet ramshackle style that defies photography but feels quite magical. Some houses sit around 10 meters off the ground, others are higher, and there’s a conveniently located tunnel slide at one end of the complex if you want to take the express route down.

Kulturinsel Einsiedel: dawn on one of the treehouse walkways.
Kulturinsel Einsiedel: the treehouse hotel

Each house is totally different, naturally, and each has its own name, theme and resident fairy or troll. “You are staying in Fiona’s Luftschloss (Castle in the Air),” Ulrike explains. “She’s a fairy and she likes buttons. We ask guests to leave a button as a gift when they stay.”

Entering the “castle” is a bit of a mission with my giant suitcase and camera gear in tow – you’ve got to duck low to get in under the entrance way and then climb a short ladder up through a trap door to get in. Once inside, with the trapdoor shut, it’s a cosy little space with a big flat sleeping area covered in comfy mats, a second room to sit in, and a balcony that looks out across the treetops toward the river that forms the German/Polish border.

Kulturinsel Einsiedel: inside Fiona's Luftschlosse ... sleepy wife not included

The sink and toilet are the same carved wooden unit, with a swiveling tap that doubles as a flush. In the cold Autumn air we found it cosy and comfy with a heater on, and the gentle movement of the wind rocked us to sleep like babies.

Fiona’s Luftschloss is one of five “regular” rooms. There’s an additional 3 “luxury” rooms including “Modelpfutzen’s Wipfelgipfel” which I refuse to translate because I’m sure its true meaning is far less fun than what it sounds like in my head. The luxury houses have showers and kitchens in them, where the regular ones share showers. There’s also treetop camping spots and ground based teepee and hut villages and all sorts of other options.

Kulturinsel Einsiedel: there's not a lot of straight lines here

We’d come here to see the treehouse hotel, but the sheer scale of the rest of the place soon became the focus. Off to one end there’s a very hearty German restaurant/bar built from stone and wood, attached to a frankly indescribable performance area where each weekend, there’s a stage show that introduces Fiona herself as well as a bunch of other characters from around the park. The audience seating winds up and around the walls, joined by walkways and rope bridges, and there’s a cage where naughty audience members can be locked and ridiculed. Sadly we missed the show, but it sounds like a riot!

Then there’s the annual festival held on the site, an all-ages event that sounds even crazier: “Once a year, we have a festival for people who love folk music,” explains Ulrike. “Three days, 13 stages around the park. There’s a bazaar and lots of funny activities. This year they had a band playing up in the trees, there were musicians suspended in wire eggs … last year we had a platform installed and there was a rope slide on it. There was a sign up saying “free ride for naked sliders.” I think 30 percent of people had a slide.

We’ve barely scratched the surface of the place. There’s 4-horned goats in a spooky tree maze, there’s a “roof llama” who lives on top of the restaurant, wire-framed sky tunnels and dozens of other bits and pieces that you’re left on your own to discover throughout the park. But one area not many guests get to see is the zoned-off workshop out the back where a team of craftsmen are constantly engaged creating new treehouses and unique buildings, both for the Island and for other parks around Europe.

Kulturinsel Einsiedel: the woodwork craft shop out the back supplies strange wonky treehou...

“We produce tree houses for other clients,” Ulrike explains, “camping grounds, other parks, zoos. Every building is unique and they take a really long time to develop it with the client so we can realize what they’re dreaming of.”

It’s a truly unique spot to visit and an unforgettable place to spend the night. It’s not what I’d call cheap – at least 200 EUR (US$275) per room – and it’s certainly closer to camping than five star. It’s not very accessible if you’re disabled, and it’s also not for the risk-adverse – the wooden walkways get slippery in the rain and there’s probably a hundred different ways you could cause yourself grave injury. Just like kids’ playgrounds used to be before the age of OH&S took over and pulled the fun out of everything.

It’s also not really set up for English speaking guests at this point – everything is signposted in German, and while Ulrike tells me the Island is trying to become more bilingual, it’s Polish they’re shooting for before English. Honestly, that didn’t really bother us, the locals were a friendly and very eccentric bunch and it was a pleasure battling through the language barrier to get things done once Ulrike had left us to our devices.

So much time, love and effort has gone into making this a magical place for children and the young at heart, and yet we were struck with a poignant moment on the way out – a mother and father watching their toddler. In the midst of all the looming bizarre buildings, animals, tunnels, caves and activities, the kid was transfixed on a pretty yellow leaf he’d found, and stared at it for a good five minutes. It reminded me of my own childhood, when my brothers and I had a stack of toys to play with, but the best by far was the old cardboard box our fridge came in. Even when everything is geared towards making them have a great time, kids will find fun in the oddest places!

Kulturinsel Einsiedel: I hope that isn't my hire car

And with that, we trek back to the car park, signposted by a couple of cars impaled on tree branches, and hit the autobahn headed for Berlin.

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