Wednesday, February 27, 2008

I Hate to say I Told You So...

But I told you so. Or to be more accurate, everyone who cares more about people than profit told you so.

From a post in 2005 about biofuels:
Not only inefficient, but "a humanitarian and environmental disaster", says George Monbiot, presenting a chilling vision, in which "most of the arable surface of the planet will be deployed to produce food for cars, not people." He reminds us that markets respond to profit, not hunger. Those who need food the most are exactly the ones with the least amount of money to buy it, and so the monied person's car will always win out. He reminds us that even today, those who buy meat products have more purchasing power, so grain is fed to animals instead of to starving kids.

In 2006, when I blogged about the Global Food Supply Near the Breaking Point, the problem was overproduction and low commodity prices driving smaller farmers out.
"Many Canadian and U.S. farmers are going out of business because crop prices are at their lowest in nearly 100 years," Qualman said in an interview. "Farmers are told overproduction is to blame for the low prices they've been forced to accept in recent years."

However, most North American agribusiness corporations posted record profits in 2004. With only five major companies controlling the global grain market, there is a massive imbalance of power, he said.

Now, here we are in 2008, and the UN's food aid programme is in serious trouble, due to the astronomical increase in the price of food.
What is the problem?

In the three decades to 2005, world food prices fell by about three-quarters in inflation-adjusted terms, according to the Economist food prices index. Since then they have risen by 75%, with much of that coming in the past year. Wheat prices have doubled, while maize, soya and oilseeds are at record highs.

Why are food prices rising?

The booming world economy has driven up prices for all commodities. Changes in diets have also played a big part. Meat consumption in many countries has soared, pushing up demand for the grain needed by cattle. Demand for biofuels has also risen strongly. This year, for example, one third of the US maize crop will go to make biofuels*. Moreover, the gradual reform and liberalisation of agricultural subsidy programmes in the US and Europe have reduced the butter and grain mountains of yesteryear by eliminating overproduction.

*Note, because of the high cost of food, the "US, the biggest single food aid contributor, will radically cut the amount it gives away."

Again, I recognize that there are many problems with the food aid system, because it does nothing to help the economic structural problems that are to blame for hunger and malnutrition (food aid can in some cases even harm local food producers, say by undercutting them) but this is certainly not the answer.

Monday, February 25, 2008

One person, one body, one count

Who has fought hardest to prevent violence against women, if not feminists? And it is advocates for women, like the beleaguered Status of Women Canada, who have been working to alert the public to the prevalence of violence against pregnant women.

From the SWC publication, Assessing Violence Against Women: A Statistical Profile:
Women are particularly vulnerable when they are pregnant and when they take steps to leave their violent partners. With regard to pregnancy, the Violence Against Women Survey found that 21% of abused women were assaulted during their pregnancy, and in 40% of these cases, this episode was the beginning of the abuse.
The public also has relatively low awareness levels of prenatal violence with 20% [of a survey taken in New Brunswick] undecided on whether physical abuse of a woman often starts during pregnancy and 44% who disagree that violence often starts at this time.

Without the constant hard work of feminists and organizations like the SWC, domestic violence - including violence against pregnant women - would likely drop off the public radar. Who researches reports, creates policy recommendations, organizes programs for abused women, and builds women's shelters? I'll give you a hint: it isn't the anti-abortion movement.

So for them to claim that opposing the Unborn Victims of Crime Bill (Bill C-484) is somehow demonstrating a lack of care for these women is pretty ridiculous. One could note that being so keen to abolish the SWC displays a callous disregard for all the women, including the pregnant sort, that it works so hard to help.

A woman who has chosen to give birth, who wants and welcomes her baby, has invested the fetus with her hopes and dreams. Indeed she comes to think of the fetus as a baby before it is born. Nobody denies this. It doesn't follow that the fetus should be enshrined in law as an unborn child, and a human being with the same status as the mother. Harm to the fetus that she has come to care for is a tragedy, particularly when it is caused by violence to her own body. If we want to protect pregnant women, then let's enact effective policy and write meaningful laws to protect pregnant women, not disingenuous laws for fetal rights.

Other comments on here, here, here, and here, and especially here - among many others today

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Torture in 60s South Shows Error of Waterboarding

Tom Gardner:
When I read about the increasing acceptance of waterboarding as a form of torture, I vividly recall how in 1968 members of the Memphis Police Department believed I could tell them information about civil rights insurgents arriving to create havoc. Forty years later I still hide my serrated scars.

I was 14 years old and forgot I was a black boy living in racist America and heading for the devil's den of discrimination.
Who were these people I supposedly knew who were ready to disrupt the city's infrastructure? My wild eyes could only register pain as the large men kicked, punched and beat me with nightsticks because I was unable to speak coherently between my sobs of sorrow and moans for my mother.
Like relentless Stalinists, the policemen gave me a few hard, calculated kicks with steel-toed boots in my back and ribs for making them exhausted from their beating. I promised them the names of protesters, when they were coming, and what they were driving. I could hardly speak from my busted lips, chipped teeth and broken jaw, but I forced words from my mouth that sounded like what they wanted as long as they stopped their feverish beating to decipher what my cracking voice was revealing.

But I didn’t know anyone, and I certainly didn’t know about a conspiracy to take over Memphis...

Torture, not only cruel and immoral, but ineffective for intelligence gathering. The rest of the article at Common Dreams. And find out about the history of waterboarding at the torture museum: barbarism then and now.

Friday, February 22, 2008

City Planet - Housekeeping the Bookmarks part 1

I have a whole pile of fantastic links in my bookmarks that have been hanging out and going stale just waiting for some attention. I think it is time to share them. So, here is the first in a new series.

This 2006 article, City Planet, is about urbanization, squatting and slums.

"Pavement dwellers" living in open-air homes in Byculla, a Mumbai neighborhood

City infrastructure and housing in the developing world cannot keep up with the rapid pace of urbanization. The result: vast informal settlements and neighbourhoods. The article tells of the bad and the good, the crowded, dirty, and yet incredibly vibrant communities:
Let no one romanticize the conditions of slums. New squatter cities usually look like human cesspools and often smell like them. There is usually no infrastructure at all for sanitation, for water, for electricity, or for transportation. Everyone lives in dilapidated shacks jammed together wall to wall, with every room full of people. A typical squatter city, which may stretch for miles, has grown without a plan or government, in an area generally deemed uninhabitable: a swamp, a floodplain, a steep hillside, a municipal dump; clustered in the path of a highway project, squashed up against a railroad line.

But the squatter cities are vibrant. Each narrow street is one long bustling market of food stalls, bars, cafes, hair salons, churches, schools, health clubs, and mini-shops of tools, trinkets, clothes, electronic gadgets, and pirated videos and music. What you see up close is not a despondent populace crushed by poverty but a lot of people busy getting out of poverty as fast as they can.

What about the economic impact?
Gradually a consensus is emerging about the economic value of rural-to-urban migration. This migration, "on the whole, acts to alleviate poverty in both the urban and rural sectors," wrote geography professor Ronald Skeldon in 1997. He explained that the urban "informal sector, with its capacity to create an almost infinite variety and number of activities" and its "considerable potential for self-organization... can create a dynamic economy and society."
Cities have been the wealth engine for civilization since its beginning. Thus the bottom line in the U.N. report: "Cities are so much more successful in promoting new forms of income generation, and it is so much cheaper to provide services in urban areas, that some experts have actually suggested that the only realistic poverty reduction strategy is to get as many people as possible to move to the city."

Of course, cities, slums and informal developments aren't uniformly good.
It's easy to gloss over the enormous variety among the thousands of emerging cities with different cultures, nations, metropolitan areas, and neighborhoods. From that variety is emerging an understanding of best and worst governmental practices - best, for example, in Turkey, which offers a standard method for new squatter cities to form; worst, for example, in Kenya, which actively prevents squatters from improving their homes. Every country provides a different example.

View from a balcony in Rocinha, Brazil, a dense and relatively prosperous squatter community of 150,000 people, built on steep hills above Rio de Janeiro

These different governmental approaches are detailed for four major squatter cities in Robert Neuwirth's Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World, heavily referenced in this article. Aside from security (i.e. NOT living in fear of the government bulldozing your community), what helps these communities thrive?
Social cohesiveness is the crucial factor differentiating "slums of hope" from "slums of despair." This is where CBOs (community-based organizations) and the NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) that support local empowerment play such an important part. Typical CBOs include, according to the 2003 U.N. report, "community theater and leisure groups; sports groups; residents associations or societies; savings and credit groups; child care groups; minority support groups; clubs; advocacy groups; and more... CBOs as interest associations have filled an institutional vacuum, providing basic services such as communal kitchens, milk for children, income-earning schemes and cooperatives."

Women play a crucial role, as it is they who form and participate in many of the communal self-help organizations. Urbanization also brings decreasing birthrates and increased opportunities for women.
Already, as a result of the headlong urbanization, birthrates have plummeted in the developing world from 6 children per woman in the 1970s to 2.9 now. Twenty "less developed" countries, including China, Chile, Thailand, and Iran, have already dropped below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman.

And what about the young and fertile couples in developing countries? If current demographic trends continue, 2 billion of them will live in the cities, choosing to have fewer children. It's not because they're poor. They were poor in the countryside. In town they see opportunity to come up in the world. Having fewer children, who are better educated, is part of that equation.
"In the village, all there is for a woman is to obey her husband and family elders, pound grain, and sing. If she moves to town, she can get a job, start a business, and get education for her children." I heard this remark, made by a global community activist, in 2000 at a Fortune magazine conference in Aspen, Colo. It was enough to explode my Gandhi-esque romantic notions about the superiority of village life.

Cities are important. A dense city, like New York, is the most environmentally reponsible way to organize large numbers of people. Depending on their organization, cities have shown other benefits too. They represent our future, and our past.
Cities are remarkable organisms. They are the most long-lived of all human organizations. The oldest surviving corporations (Stora Enso in Sweden and the Sumitomo Group in Japan) are about 700 and 400 years old, respectively. The oldest universities (in Bologna and Paris) have lasted a thousand years. The oldest living religions (Hinduism and Judaism) date back about 3,500 years. But the town of Jericho has been continuously occupied for 10,500 years. Its neighbor Jerusalem has been an important city for 5,000 years, though it was conquered or destroyed 36 times and it suffered 11 conversions from one religion to another. Many cities die or decline to irrelevance, but some thrive for millennia.

If you're interested, read the full article here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Watch the War Child trailer, the story of Emmanuel Jal, a Child Soldier turned Hip Hop Artist

Much attention at the 58th Berlin Festival has been on 'War Child', a documentary by first-time director Christian Karim Chrobog. It relates the stunning story of singer Emmanuel Jal who, in the space of a decade, made a remarkable transition from child soldier in Sudan to international hip-hop musician.

Jal, now 28, was seven when his mother was killed. Soldiers raped his sister, and he was hauled off for military training by Sudanese Liberation Army forces in the late 1980s, and given an AK47 taller than himself.

Trapped in the midst of a civil war, he survived front-line action before escaping after five "lost" years with 300 other boys. They endured a three-month trek before reaching safety.
Today, Jal is famous throughout Africa as a rapper, and for his work with the UN, Amnesty International and Oxfam in campaigning against employment of child soldiers and the illegal trade of arms. His first song Gua, which means "power" in Arabic, streaked to the top of the charts in Kenya. <IPS>

Here's the War Child Trailer:

Jal is fantastically talented. If you're a fan of hip-hop or African music, definitely listen to some of his tracks, try on his YouTube channel (I love this). A couple of songs are also streaming at Warning: the music starts automatically (and loudly).

Monday, February 11, 2008

Speaking of Starvation, How's that Biofuel Industry?

From an article by George Monbiot from a few months ago:
It doesn't get madder than this. Swaziland is in the grip of a famine and receiving emergency food aid. Forty per cent of its people are facing acute food shortages. So what has the government decided to export? Biofuel made from one of its staple crops, cassava. The government has allocated several thousand hectares of farmland to ethanol production in the county of Lavumisa, which happens to be the place worst hit by drought.

Monbiot says the biofuel trade
should be frozen until second-generation fuels - made from wood or straw or waste - become commercially available. Otherwise the superior purchasing power of drivers in the rich world means that they will snatch food from people’s mouths. Run your car on virgin biofuel and other people will starve.

He goes on to analyze the relative inefficiency of current generation biofuels (corn ethanol for instance), and reminds us:

If there is one blindingly obvious fact about biofuel it’s that it is not a smallholder crop. It is an internationally-traded commodity which travels well and can be stored indefinitely, with no premium for local or organic produce. Already the Indian government is planning 14m hectares of jatropha plantations. In August the first riots took place among the peasant farmers being driven off the land to make way for them.

If the governments promoting biofuels do not reverse their policies, the humanitarian impact will be greater than that of the Iraq war. Millions will be displaced, hundreds of millions more could go hungry. This crime against humanity is a complex one, but that neither lessens nor excuses it.

People are starving, but hey, at least the big rich greenwashing countries can look all environmentally friendly without anyone having to, say, drive less. 'Cause that would be a real tragedy.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Heaven and Hell: A Parable

A rabbi was talking with God about Heaven and Hell.

"Come," said God. "Walk with me, and I will show you Hell."

And together they walked into a room of cold, rough stone. In the center of the room, atop a low fire, sat a huge pot of quietly simmering stew. The stew smelled delicious, and made the rabbi's mouth water. A group of people sat in a circle around the pot, and each of them held a curiously long-handled spoon. The spoons were long enough to reach the pot; but the handles were so ungainly that every time someone dipped the bowl of their spoon into the pot and tried to maneuver the bowl to their mouth, the stew would spill. The rabbi could hear the grumblings of their bellies. They were cold, hungry, and miserable.

"And now," God said, "I will show you Heaven."

Together they walked into another room, almost identical to the first. A second pot of stew simmered in the center; another ring of people sat around it; each person was outfitted with one of the frustratingly long spoons. But this time, the people sat with the spoons across their laps or laid on the stone beside them. They talked, quietly and cheerfully with one another. They were warm, well-fed, and happy.

"Lord, I don't understand," said the rabbi. "How was the first room Hell; and this, Heaven?"

God smiled. "It's simple," he said. "You see, they have learned to feed each other."

(Temple Sinai Congregation of Toronto)
Charles K. 8/21/06 <source>

I had read this in Craig and Mark Keilbugers Me to We as a Japanese parable, featuring super long chopsticks (similar to this or this version). I thought it was a nice story, especially after this.