Tag Archives: environment

Chico Mendes

23 Dec

A little while ago I heard from a friend I hadn’t seen or heard from in about 20 years. He happened to send me an instant message on Facebook while I just happened to be online myself – Facebook is funny that way.

My friend, Gomercindo Rodriguez, was typing on his keyboard from Acre state in Brazil, just near the border with Bolivia, and I was in Ontario, Canada, trying to dredge up my long-unused Portuguese (battling autocorrect the whole time) on my iPad. But ever since then, we have been Facebook, and not just historical, friends. And yesterday he posted about an event that affected both us tremendously.

I’m talking about the shooting death of Francisco ‘Chico’ Mendes exactly 28 years ago.

I learned about it at a Christmas party, from someone who had heard it earlier that morning on CBC radio. Gomercindo was the first person to arrive at Chico’s tiny wooden shack in the town of Xapuri after his wife, who was home at the time with their two small children, raised the alarm.

A rancher named Darli Alves had sent his son, Darci, with a shotgun to murder Chico Mendes when he stepped out of his house, and the news went around the world. But for each of us personally, Chico’s death was shocking, horrific, deeply saddening and impossible to accept. It also, I believe, had an effect on us that in some way made its mark on both of our lives.

For me, the thing about Chico is that he was a truly nice person, kind and empathetic, generous and determined to change the world for the better without being authoritarian or arrogant about it.

Changing the world, above all the world of impoverished and disenfranchised forest dwellers, by changing the way we understood the environment around us, was like a normal, even unremarkable goal for Chico. It was just something that needed to be done, something logical and sensible and fair. Actually – let me highlight the fair. Thousands of families earned their living by extracting the natural products of the rainforest, and at the same time, the forest was a global resource that belonged to all of humanity. Destroying it to produce meat was an injustice. And that fight for what was fair, what was right for all of us, cost him his life.

Chico’s death – and the lackadaisical judicial response to it – bothered me for years. It seemed to symbolize the powerlessness of the average person, and the way people with money and influence but no ethics can so easily ride roughshod over our collective rights like an out-of-control steamroller. It could almost have made a person turn cynical and bitter.

But the legacy of Chico Mendes’s life and ideas also had its influence (and not just because Google featured him on its search page recently).

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In the case of Gomercindo Rodriguez, it led to him becoming a lawyer. One of his first, most significant cases involved the defence and eventual liberation of three young men falsely accused of rape in order to protect the real culprit, the son of a local mayor.

For me, it made me increasingly curious about the way poor and disenfranchised people are actually coming up with collective, positive solutions to powerlessness, all the time. It got me looking at the way this happens, and for more examples of people doing this. It’s what made me write Broke but Unbroken: Grassroots Social Movements and their Radical Solutions to Poverty, and, looking at it another way, looking at the essential problem of top-down, First World aid, The Anatomy of Giving.

Yesterday, on the 28th anniversary of the murder of this kind man who was our friend, Gomercindo emphasized the fact that Chico Mendes is still alive because his ideas are still among us and are gaining strength. There are now protected Extractive Reserves throughout the Amazon. The fact that burning rainforest is a big part of the potential destruction of the entire planet is common currency. Most of all, though, the notion that people with few resources can come together and fight against what’s wrong and win – that too is more true than ever.

Chico Mendes would have been 72 years old now, if he hadn’t been murdered. None of us can say what he would be like. But I tend to think that the years wouldn’t have changed him much. After every and any victory for forest dwellers and for the forest itself he always thought about the next step. He would always say ‘the struggle continues.’

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The Politics of Strawberries

19 Jul

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The other day I went to pick strawberries. Since I live near countryside these days, that’s easy to do. In ten minutes I was at a strawberry farm, several acres of long, low, leafy rows, and no trees. Among the rows, small groups of foreign workers from Jamaica were filling green, plastic mesh quart boxes that then go into a cardboard flat, ready to then go on to a supermarket somewhere.

When you bend down to pick the strawberries here, you find that they do not in any way resemble the enormous red globules that come in plastic clamshells from Mexico or California. These berries are small and clustered beneath jagged leaves, close to the ground, on runners. They really are what their name in Dutch is – aardbaien, or earth berries.

In fact, it reminded me of the last time I picked berries, which was maybe ten or fifteen years ago, with my mother, who was from Holland. And the taste of the berries, again utterly unlike the kind I buy all winter long, also remind me of the past. At one time in my life, I think, this was the only kind of strawberry I knew or had tasted.

I am glad to buy berries from this local farm but at the same time, I wonder how the owners make much of a living from their berry fields. Because the other thing that has changed radically from my earlier years is the whole financial aspect of farming.

The hundred-acre farm on which I grew up, which in the 50s might have been worth $9000 or $10,000, is now priced at more than a million, from what I’ve heard. According to a 2013 article in the Globe and Mail, prices on average ranged from $6000 an acre to $14,000, across ten counties near me. Thanks to higher commodity prices and lower interest than in my Dad’s day, some are as high as $20,000 per acre, an amount he’d have never imagined.

But it also means viable farms are much bigger, highly leveraged, and more mechanized. Produce has to sell, and that also means that fruit and vegetables that are not perfect get trashed.

A recent study done in the U.S. found that half – that’s right, one half – of produce is thrown away or left rotting in the field or fed to animals. Food waste accounts for 8 per cent of global climate pollution and, according to the EPA, is the single largest component of landfill and incinerator waste. That makes it a significant source of methane, a greenhouse gas more powerful than carbon dioxide. Add to that the waste of water, land and other resources and the picture just seems head-shakingly stupid.

How did we get here? Why are people going hungry while potatoes, apples and strawberries have become the Stepford Wives of the food chart?

I honestly can’t figure it out, despite the economists’ explanations. All I can do is look for alternatives in my small corner of the agricultural world and turn those fresh berries into ruby-coloured jars of strawberry jam.

But yes, someone should write a book about it.

Canada’s development aid: will Trudeau make a difference?

15 Feb

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So maybe they weren’t the unequivocally happiest people in Canada when the Tories lost the elections last October.

But they had to be among the most relieved.

As Liam Swiss, a sociology professor at Memorial University who studies Canada’s development assistance, put it, many international aid people “had been waiting with bated breath” for a new government. And while he preferred the New Democratic Party’s aid-policy platform, it didn’t even matter who won in the end. “The notion was that things couldn’t get worse than they had been in the recent years under Harper,” he said.

Now the development community is cautiously optimistic that, with Justin Trudeau in power, things will change. While it is still early days, “the mandate letter that the Prime Minister sent to [Marie-Claude Bibeau] the Minister of International Development is very encouraging,” said Ian Smillie of the McLeod Group, “because it starts with poverty eradication, poverty alleviation, as being the basis for her mandate. And that is as it should be.”

But for the Conservative government it wasn’t. And while this was taxpayers’ money they were spending, their blatant attempts to win back benefits for Canadian corporations with money meant for the poor didn’t get much play in the press.

Yet the new policies, practices and funding cuts created havoc within the international charity sector. Every NGO had to make do with less but small- and medium-sized organizations were adversely affected, losing out in favour of the bigger players. Support for social justice advocacy disappeared pretty much completely.

“If you look at some of the organizations that were defunded, or have ceased to exist as a result of the collateral damage of that decision,” said Swiss, “it’s a really sad story.”

Then, in what used to be called the Partnership Branch, there was “ a move,” said Chantal Havard, spokeswoman for the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, “from responsive, predictable, long-term funding mechanisms to a call for proposals, a competitive process, more in line with priorities identified by the government. There were fewer opportunities for organizations to make proposals and the bureaucracy was quite heavy as well.”

Indeed as one anonymous respondent to a survey carried out by the CCIC described it, “this new system has been a colossal failure in every way for the development sector in Canada, and has devastated partnerships with civil society overseas.”

Harper also had the Canada Revenue Agency carry out tax audits, questioning whether what organizations were doing actually even amounted to “charity.” “There was a trend where organizations that were more critical of government policies were targeted,” said Havard, (a trend I wrote about last August).

So now that sorry picture is improving. Last month the government announced that the tax audits would be stopped. And at December’s climate change conference in Paris, it pledged $2.65 billion to help developing countries with adaptation and mitigation. For Smillie, “This is certainly part of the long-term development perspective. It’s not very clear how much of that money will go through normal machinery, or how much would go some other way – I don’t think they’ve figured that out yet either,” he added. “But I think that is a promising sign.”

But aside from revitalizing the agency the Tories re-christened with the anodyne name ‘Global Affairs Canada,’ will more be done to make our collective response to the global poor more useful? Isn’t it time to think about why its help, along with that of most wealthy countries, has done so little to really fight poverty?

Ian Smillie thinks so. “In addition to supporting NGOs for the good work they do overseas, I think government should also pay attention to the kind of work they do in Canada,” he said. “And this business of showing fly-blown children sitting in the dirt and tugging at heartstrings is not really about development. It is not a good way, it’s not an adult way, of portraying the challenge to Canadians.”

It is practically the default image to appeal for donations, “almost like a drug,” he said, but does a huge disservice to the people of the developing world and simplifies a complex problem.

“It is almost counterintuitive to promote good development overseas through NGOs and ignore this retrograde message they are putting out in Canada,” he said. “Diaspora communities in Canada hate it. African Canadians hate that kind of message. I’m sure governments of African countries don’t like it either.”

So while, as Havard and others have pointed out, the aid community has high hopes that the Trudeau government will stick to a promise made by the previous minister, Christian Paradis (who, in fairness, was somewhat more sensible and approachable than his Tory predecessors) maybe those consultations should take on this aspect as well.

“I think it is definitely something the government could and should do,” said Smillie. “As far as matching grants are concerned, look at what value NGOs are adding to the development question, and the value added is not only overseas, it is here. We want Canadians to understand why development assistance and poverty eradication, why all of that is important to Canada. It isn’t just to get short-term contracts. It is to make the world safe for everybody in every way, healthier and better able to trade and all the rest of it.”

Past Liberal governments have also struggled with the purpose of Canadian aid, and used it for goals other than straightforward development.

Maybe this time they will be different. Maybe they will be open to better, more effective, approaches to aid.

“It shouldn’t be a question of going back to where we were before the Harper government came in,” said Smillie. “I think we can move forward in a more intelligent way.”

Fool’s Gold

4 Sep

Fields of Fool's Gold So- called ‘Golden Rice’ is back.

If, that is, it ever really went away.

I remember people talking about Golden Rice several years ago — and not in very complementary terms either. What’s with spending millions of dollars figuring out how to get more vitamins into white rice when it could be spent on promoting small-holder agriculture, land reform and anti-urban-poverty initiatives in general so people could add some vegetables to their rice?

Or on food education showing how cheaper brown rice is much healthier?

But now the spectre of this genetically modified rice is coming at the urban poor again, this time with a golden halo of self-righteousness that imbues it with altruistic life- and sight-saving miracle powers.

“We’re talking about saving millions of lives here,” said Nina Fedoroff, a professor and former science adviser to the Bush administration, in the New York Times recently. Dr. Fedoroff even helped spearhead a petition supporting Golden Rice, signed by thousands of like-minded scientists, many of whom “vented a simmering frustration with activist organizations like Greenpeace, which they see as playing on misplaced fear of genetic engineering in both the developing and developed worlds,” said the Times.

Yes, at issue now is not the absurdity of going to extraordinary, typically technical, First World lengths to deal with malnutrition instead of acknowledging that we already produce enough food for everyone on the planet, but just don’t have a system whereby the poor can afford to buy it. It has instead been cloaked with an aura of legitimate scientific research, the kind that could see all kinds of foodstuffs beefed up with nutrients and other cool stuff. Complaining about genetically modifying — as opposed to using natural hybridization techniques to improve  — what we eat is like complaining about progress itself, in this scenario. After all, as former Monsanto engineer Gerard Barry puts it, the idea of the poor eating healthy, abundant and varied diets is both expensive and logistically challenging.

Right.  So it’s okay for the poor to eat nothing but a couple of bowls of white rice everyday — or roti or tortillas — as long as it contains some beta-carotene.

It reminds me of something the International Institute for Environment and Development’s Diana Mitlin said to me in London earlier this year, about how “one of the appalling things about development is it’s lack of ambition.”

This came up actually in the context of the Millennium Development Goals and its (still unachieved) plan to halve extreme poverty by 2015. Indeed. Why half? “The whole concept almost goes back to, you know, Sophie’s Choice,” said Ms. Mitlin. “Which of her two children is she going to save? Which of my two children am I going to give water to?”

Today’s critics of Golden Rice are calling it a “Trojan Horse” that will help convince farmers that GM products are, in general,  not such a bad thing after all. They won’t even have to pay royalties to plant it.

But for me the very notion that someone even thought about devising something like Golden Rice is a seriously dangerous one. An either-or proposition that actually reinforces the status quo of inequality that creates entire populations of people who are dying of hunger, it’s one that says, “We really don’t care if you  are poor and hungry. We just want to make your paltry rations slightly more nutritious.’

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Paulo, Maria — and the Hulk

19 Jun

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About a week ago,  fully expecting to receive a ‘yes,’ I sent an email to find out if legal possession had finally been granted to the families occupying an already expropriated estate in north east Brazil. I had stayed with the families in June 2006, after which the National Institute for Agrarian Reform designated the land as “unproductive,” and visited again in 2010.

But the answer I received instead was ‘no.’ Why? “Because,” in the words of the Landless Peasant Movement coordinator there, “the purchase value is very high because of the many physical structures” on this estate.

What??? Excuse me, Brazilian government, but haven’t you just spent $30 billion on a soccer tournament? Aren’t you pouring more billions into “physical structures” for the upcoming FIFA world cup and the Olympics? You don’t have a few tens of thousands available to pay for the estate owner’s house, office and the simple concrete dam he built in the nearby Meio River?

If an illustration were needed to explain the nation-wide anti-government protests roiling Brazil right now, the predicament of landless peasant farmers like Paulo and Maria da Silva would provide the perfect one. Theirs is just one example of the extraordinary inequality between a huge population of poor and under-served Brazilians and the comparative few who have reaped fortunes from the country’s erstwhile economic boom.

For me, Paulo da Silva is one of this world’s great unsung heroes. He had a job on the 5000-hectare estate, where a Recife-based magnate named Slaibe Hatem raised a few cattle. When the MST targeted the land for occupation and expropriation, he went straight down to join them, frustrated for years by his paltry salary and the unrelenting refusal of the estate manager to let him plant a garden, raise chickens or even collect honey. He has stuck with the occupation through thick and thin, patiently waiting for the day when the INCRA would finally — finally — make good on its decision to hand this enormous piece of land to the hundreds of poverty stricken families who would turn it into a patchwork of productive farm land.

And now it’s saying, sorry, giving you the right to earn your own living is just too expensive. There is money for show-off projects that will bring no economic capacity to Brazil, but none for agrarian reform, education, health care or paying the people, whose houses we have bulldozed in order to build stadiums, a fair and decent indemnification.

The lack of action on the plight of Paulo and Maria da Silva is especially heart-breaking. I have huge respect for this couple and know about their many great ideas to make Hatem’s former fazenda a model of diversified organic farming, including a major honey operation that could potentially boost exports and provide jobs in a region where unemployment is chronic.

No one should be surprised at the level of fury behind the current protests in Brazil. People expected better of a government run by the Workers Party, a party that struggled for years to win acceptance and always vowed to forge a different, more equitable society. Because of their popular political positions, it was difficult to organize any meaningful protests against them when they fouled up on their principles, although in fact, the MST has been demonstrating for years on the lack of importance given to agrarian reform. But now the rhetoric of the WP government has been shown for hollow thing it is, and the tables are being turned. For several days now, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets of Rio, Sao Paulo, Florianopolis, Curitiba, Belo Horizonte and Belem. On Tuesday, members of Toronto’s Brazilian community held a sympathy march in front of City Hall.

Even the Brazil team midfielder Givanildo Vieira de Souza, known as Hulk, has come out in defence of the protesters. “I come from the bottom of the social ladder and now I have a good life,” he said. “I see these demonstrators and I know that they are right.”

So if the news about Paulo has left me depressed and incredibly indignant, the news a few days later about the scope and determination of the protestors has given me back some hope. I hope it gives Paulo some as well. And I hope Brazil’s bureaucracy wakes up, looks out the window and sees the real Hulk, the average person who has turned into an angry, fed-up super-hero. And  realizes that these are the people they should be working for. Not a government that has lot all sense of fairness, honesty and integrity.

(This great little video by Carla Dauden has me feeling pretty good as well.)

Koch Backed Mountain

15 Jun

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There is a new ad out on our television screens. Paid for by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, it shows yet another canvas of wild flowers, grassy fields and big blue skies, with a soundtrack of soft tinkling music. That’s right, it’s another attempt to tell us how wonderful – and environmentally innocuous — are Alberta’s tar sands.

People in Windsor, Ontario, and Detroit, Michigan, however, are seeing quite another picture. A mountain of  oil-sands detritus called pet coke is quickly rising in a vast lot near the Detroit River. It has been put there by the Koch brothers, nasty, right-wing billionaires who have until now limited their assault on common decency by throwing big bucks at the most ultra-conservative of Republican candidates, the kind who want to curtail our rights while enhancing those of corporations. (If ever there was a pair of walking examples of the Mexican saying, ‘Dios da pan a quien no tiene dientes’ — God gives bread to those without teeth — it’s these guys.)

Collected in a huge pile three storeys high, Koch Carbon has purchased and stockpiled this gross stuff in order to sell it to, get this, to Asian countries to burn as a cheaper alternative to already harmful coal!

“This is dirtier than the dirtiest fuel,” Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat who represents the area where the pet-coke mountain has been accumulating, told the Guardian. Yet, thanks to the oil sands, there is lots of it. With every barrel of oil sands crude producing between 60 and 130 pounds of this noxious, sulphurous waste, the province of Alberta already has more than 70 tons of pet coke lying around.

Meanwhile people in Windsor and Detroit are seeing the dust from this mountain of black waste blown into their homes by the wind, and it is more than likely that rain has washed plenty of it into the Detroit River and the entire Great Lakes system.

This is what happens when corporations, whether in the oil business or any of its offshoots, dump their garbage on our door steps. Maybe someone should make a television ad featuring the other side of our addiction to fossil fuels and over-dependence on this awful commodity. And instead of the soft, relaxing music, they might want to use the sound track from ‘Jaws.’

PS At least Hollywood has been taking a few  shots at the Koch brothers in this year’s comedy The Campaign, starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis — and with John Lithgow and Canada’s own Dan Ackroyd as the ‘Motch’ brothers.

Losing our Experimental Lakes

19 Mar
Photo:J. Tyler Bell

Photo:J. Tyler Bell

The closing of the famous Experimental Lake Area research station in northern Ontario was announced almost a year ago,  and its dismantling is apparently already underway.

As is a way of thinking that holds that a clean environment is something worth preserving.

Just imagine this amazing piece of nature — 58 lakes surrounded by forest, where for the past 45 years scientists have made the kinds of discoveries that enhance the value of our freshwater resources — and compare it to the simultaneously smug yet boring features of Tory government ministers and their obsession with the Alberta tar sands.

It makes a picture that, in many ways, illustrates only too clearly the frightening prejudices of our small-minded prime minister, Stephen Harper, and his acolytes — as well as the sharp sense of frustration the more than 60 per cent of us who didn’t vote for them must be feeling.

It was the evidence amassed by ELA scientists that stopped the use of phosphates in detergents and fertilizers. Studies there also made an open-and-shut case against the sulphur oxide pollution from the south that caused acid rain.  As Andrew Nikiforuk, one of Canada’s best environmental journalists, put it in an article last year, “The project not only broadened the world’s horizons on water with more than 750 peer reviewed studies and 120 graduate theses, but provided hard data on the impact of industrial activities on the world’s most critical resource.”

What’s more, the costs of this useful scientific activity were not particularly high — especially when compared to the amounts the Harper government wants to spend on fighter jets, or already spends on the emoluments of our idle and self-congratulatory senators.

And worse, its loss — described by one foreign scientist in Nikiforuk’s article as “the kind of act one expects from the Taliban in Afghanistan, not from the government of a civilized and educated nation” — is only one measure in the Tories’ quest to eviscerate the environmental protections previously afforded to land, air, lakes and rivers throughout Canada.

The Tory government has also taken away funding of the Arctic Institute of North America’s Kluane Research Station, axed the seven-person team of smokestack specialists that worked with both enforcement officers and industry to stop air pollution and is closing the entire Department of Fisheries and Oceans contaminants program next month.

And that is aside from removing environmental protections from aboriginal lands, firing hundreds of scientist from government departments and putting the kibosh on journalists simply contacting and interviewing a relevant scientist for an article without getting permission from Ottawa first — the way we used to.

Little wonder that (now unemployed) killer whale expert Peter Ross was moved to express that “(i)t is with apprehension that I ponder a Canada without any research or monitoring capacity for pollution in our three oceans, or any ability to manage its impacts on commercial fish stocks, traditional foods to over 300,000 aboriginal people, and marine wildlife.”

In fact, apprehension is an understatement. Fear is more probably what we should be feeling. With the determination to push through tar sands pipelines, the disdain for science and the loss of the unique environmental laboratory that was the Experimental Lakes Area, we are now more than ever at the mercy of contaminants, pollution, climate change — and proudly ignorant politicians.