Sunday, January 08, 2017

8.6 - Good News of the Year, 2016: peace settlement in Colombia

Good News of the Year, 2016: peace settlement in Colombia

Since we've been doing Good News, we'll start off our look back at 2016 with our choice for Good News of the Year.

The choice this year was not as obvious as it was last year. The Good News for 2015 was easily the historic Supreme Court decision saying bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional. This year it didn't seem to me that there was one story that stood out so clearly from the rest.

Nonetheless, we did have some Good News this year, although at times it might not have felt that way.

We did, for example, see three developments on health and science news that we covered here.

One was a potential breakthrough in treating Alzheimer's based on the fact that inflammation of the brain, often associated with advancing Alzheimer's, now looks to be a driver of the condition rather that a result of it.

When mice with an Alzheimer's-like condition were treated by focusing on immune cells related to the inflammation, the progression of the disease was stopped.

Understand: This is not a prevention or a cure, it's a treatment that if it comes to fruition could severely retard or even halt the progression of the disease. It also needs to be noted that it's too soon for celebrations.

But it's not too soon to move to developing medications based on these discoveries, marking this as one of the most hopeful discoveries about Alzheimer's in over a decade.

Another health story was reported progress on a cure for Type 1 diabetes.

With Type 1 diabetes, the body does not produce the insulin the body needs, as opposed to Type 2 diabetes, where the body does produce insulin but can't use it properly.

Researchers have worked on a treatment involving transplanting insulin-producing cells into the patient's body, so the body can produce its own insulin. This works well - except for the fact that the body's immune system sees those cells as invaders and destroys them.

Now, researchers are trying what they call an "invisibility cloak" to keep the immune system from seeing the implanted cells as foreign bodies. In tests, this has worked in mice for nearly six months. That has lead to optimism that an improved "cloak" combined with transplanted insulin-producing cells could, within the foreseeable future, effectively cure Type 1 diabetes.

The third health and science story was progress against the Guinea worm, a parasite found mostly in Africa that rarely kills its victims but leaves them in debilitating pain.

In 1986, the Carter Center began a campaign to end the affliction. At that time, the number of people affected was around 3.5 million.

By 2012, the number of cases was down to 1100. In 2015, that number was down to 22 - and in the first half of 2016, the number of confirmed cases was two. From 3.5 million to two in 30 years.

The Guinea worm is on the verge of being only the second disease after smallpox and the first parasitic disease to be eliminated from the human population.

On a more immediate and more obviously political issue, there was the Good News that the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the TPP, is dead or at minimum comatose.

There were also a number of scattered victories, too many to go through, victories legislative, judicial, and by ballot initiative, on matters like voting rights, gun control, privacy, the minimum wage, there was even a win for unions at the Supreme Court. Even where the sky seems darkest, there were a few breaks in the clouds.

But what I suspect many among us would consider the Good News of the Year would be the - again at least temporary - victory achieved by the courage, determination, faithfulness, and sheer bloody-minded stubbornness of the water protectors at Standing Rock.

I didn't devote as much time to that as I should have, partly due to my own shortcomings involving getting caught up in week-to-week events rather than following an on-going story and partly due to a sense that the story was being told well enough elsewhere.

But surely it was one of the top news stories of the year, and its true value, at least in my mind, lay not in the story itself, not just in the events themselves and not even in the success in at least delaying and perhaps killing the DAPL, but in the movement that made it a story, a movement that showed that the passion for Native American rights is still there, the passion for the environment is still there, the passion about global warming is still there, and most importantly, a passion for justice that can still drive people into the streets in large numbers for the long term is still there, a passion that showed again that people power can face down the massed might of the state.

Despite all that, Standing Rock is not my choice for Good News of the Year for 2016. Understand this, as is true of all the awards, is a personal decision, related to how I reacted to the news.

I'm often struck by how insular we are, how narrow our American worldview is, how little we know about the world around us, how unaware we are of events that do not, as far as we think, affect us more or less directly. So when I myself become aware of such a case, ruing my own ignorance I tend to feel it more strongly.

So my choice for Good News of the Year, 2016, is the peace settlement reached between the government of Colombia and the rebel group known as FARC - in English, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - putting, if all goes well, an end to a civil war that has been going on for something like 52 years. Over a quarter of a million people have been killed, I don't know how many more wounded, somewhere between 5 and 8 million driven from their homes. And now it may be ending. And how can that not be Good News.

Especially because it almost wasn't: The deal was announced in August but nearly fell apart when a national plebiscite on October 2 narrowly rejected the pact by a margin of 0.4%.

But a quickly renegotiated deal between the government and FARC was passed by the Colombian Congress in early December, putting things back on track - at least hopefully.

There are still potential snags: For one big one, the failure of the plebiscite, which had been widely expected to pass easily, threw a monkey wrench into planning for the demobilization of FARC. Originally, some 16,000 FARC fighters were to turn in their weapons by December 31 but because of the lack of government-built infrastructure at the UN-monitored camps where that is supposed to happen, which was caused by the delay, the deadline has been pushed back to January 10.

But progress is being made on that front, along with legislative issues such as the passing of an amnesty law, which was accomplished just three days before the deadline for action.

At the same time, there is another rebel group in Colombia. It's the ELN, or in English the National Liberation Army.

ELN, which is much smaller than FARC, having an estimated 1300 fighters as compared to FARC's 16,000-20,000, is now in the early stages of having peace talks with the government.

In March, both sides agreed to talks to start in October, but that broke down when the rebels failed to release a hostage. However, a fresh attempt at talks is to take place in Ecuador later this month.

All of which means that there are still hills to climb, particularly to overcome the mental scars of decades of war - but just a year ago those hills looked like mountains. Which makes the prospect of the end of 50 years of civil war in Colombia my choice for Good News of the Year, 2016.

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