Tag Archives: global warming

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).

screen-shot-2016-12-23-at-2-19-06-pm

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.’

11477967673_33366bb1a3

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

15 Feb

2660359175_e4d52e8206_o

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.”

What’s for Lunch?

1 Oct
CC Photo by B.Adams

CC Photo by B.Adams

Well, if you are poor, these little creepy crawlies apparently.

A group of McGill University MBA students won a prestigious award from Bill Clinton last week, for having the best idea for a new social enterprise. This year’s challenge for the annual Hult Prize, which consists of a million bucks and some mentoring from top international business persons, was to come up with a solution to secure food for undernourished communities, particularly in urban slums. Their idea: insect farming.

That’s right. Along with Golden Rice, the urban poor might now improve their diets with ground up insects, which are nutritious, sustainable, already consumed by lots of people in the Global South and, I assume, cheaper than other protein sources like pulses or meat.

But I have an even better idea for Mr. Clinton and the Hult B-School poobahs. Land Reform!

Here’s my business plan: An astonishing number of Third World countries have both big populations of rural landless or land poor and, at the same time, enormous tracts of empty fertile land belonging either to the state or to very rich, absentee landlords. (So much in fact that they can afford to lease such land for mere pennies to multi-national corporations based in other nations.)

Take this land and divide it up among these rural families so that each one has enough to cultivate and earn a decent living. Those families will then be able to feed themselves, instead of being net buyers of food as most of them are, taking some pressure off of markets.

With the money they earn from actually selling to those markets instead of buying, they will be able to send their children to school, helping to end illiteracy and ignorance.

They will also be able to purchase things they need, helping to boost local economies, instead of abandoning their tiny plots and actually swelling urban slums seeking jobs that don’t exist.

Having enough land will also allow them to plant more trees to protect their water sources and help halt global warming. And lots of rural grassroots social movements are already organized to facilitate such transfers in an equable manner and offer agricultural advice and support.

Oh, and did I forget to mention this? It’s also inherently fair.

Maybe my idea is too logical for global decision-makers, because I don’t think any MBA students have ever thought of this. World Bank economists and big donors have also failed to suggest this as a solution to poverty. (Look at Zimbabwe! They say. Look at South Korea! I say.)

No, it is somehow more logical — and let’s face it, the market is based on rational behaviour, right?  — to spend millions of dollars tinkering around the edges of the real issue, the real cause of Third world poverty, which is the unequal distribution of resources.

Those MBA students may be congratulating themselves for their million-dollar windfall by putting bugs on the menu of the urban poor — while fighting off accusations of plagiarizing the research of a fellow student — but I’m not buying it. Nor should you, and nor should the poor. We can do better than this. And if we don’t, it’s because we don’t really want to.

2660359175_e4d52e8206_o

Koch Backed Mountain

15 Jun

detroit petcoke

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.

Some Thoughts on Chavez

7 Mar

There is a quote I use from Tony Benn in my book, Broke But Unbroken, that goes like this: “All progress comes from underneath. All real achievements are collective.”

It is an idea that is neither novel nor unusual, but with the death yesterday of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, I think it’s one many on the Left would do well to ponder.

Yes, he was an unalloyed champion of the Venezuelan underdog, using public money from the country’s oil industry to greatly reduce poverty and inequality. He took a country where an estimated 21 percent of people suffered from malnutrition and turned resources to education, health, housing, pensions for the elderly and agriculture. He supported grassroots social movements like Brazil’s Landless and Rural Workers Movement through scholarships to medical schools and agronomy courses. And in doing all of that he underlined the comparison we can make with other underdeveloped countries, especially the resource rich ones, that have never even tried to makes these kinds of endeavours and where poverty remains endemic and horrible.

But that is not a revolution. At least not the kind I’d prefer to see. Decision-making power remained in the hands of Chavez and his ministers. The improvements they made may have been significant, but they came from and were controlled up top, not down below.

And while I enjoyed his ‘the-smell-of-sulphur-is-still-here’ speech at the U.N. a few years ago as much as anyone,  I don’t think there is any kind of a positive spin that can be put on his embrace of extraordinarily nasty dictators like Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Likewise, he may have got rid of the hegemony of profit-minded, rich-country petroleum companies in Venezuela’s oil fields, yet only transferred the same powers to China, one of the most undemocratic nations on earth. According to Intercambio Climático, it now owes China more than $35 billion in so-called commodity backed loans.

The disconnect between popularity and popular power can be seen, I think, in the troubling story of a housing project Venezuela built in Zorange, a district near the slum of Cité Soleil, in the Haitian capital of Port au Prince. Built at a cost of $4.9 million, 128 solid new homes sat empty for 15 months before a few chosen families were finally allowed to move in. By then desperate squatters had already gone in and taken over 50 of the houses. Who would get a house and through what mechanism has never been very clear, but one thing is certain: this was not a project designed with or directed by any organization of the urban poor in Haiti. Representatives of government, both Venezuelan and Haitian, were the one making the decisions.

Anyone can make mistakes, but the emotional, even irrational, adulation of Chavez and hatred of anyone who questioned him makes it impossible to want to cut the late leader any slack. Villifying people who have ideas different from his — and I do not include here the kind of people who would like to roll back time and have a small, ridiculously over-privileged elite return to its position of power — is not just short-sighted and unhelpful but unfair.(Ibid for the folks who lean the other way and think Chavez is the worst leader in the world.)

Venezuela still faces major challenges. Its crime rate is out of control — and along with enough to eat and a roof over one’s head, basic security is also a human right. Its economy is highly unbalanced, raising questions regarding whether it will need to exploit dirtier sources of oil and exacerbate global warming, and of course the wide political gulf still divides Venezuelans.

Authentic political and socio-economic progress still eludes Venezuela, but when it does come, it will be collective and it will come from below.

The Dangerous Prospect of Protesting Palm Oil

24 Feb
Photo: Lian Pin Koh, Creative Commons

Photo: Lian Pin Koh, Creative Commons

What’s worse than a palm oil company destroying acres of rain forest in Asia to plant palm trees for palm oil?  Those same companies doing the same thing in Africa.

And while they may not get away with threatening the life of someone organizing resistance to their bulldozing the forest and forest dwellers in Indonesia, it appears they are doing so in Nigeria.

The Indonesian Peasants Union, or SPI,  brought attention last week to the death threats and police harassment Odey Oyama is dealing with right now. Mr. Oyama, a barrister by profession, looks like a mild-mannered type of guy. He is the director of the Rainforest Resource Development Centre in Calabar, Cross Rivers state. He has charged one of the largest palm oil companies in the world, Singapore-based Wilmar International, with breaking Nigerian law by grabbing 50,000 hectares of land belonging either to a protected forest reserve or to local farmers for their business. And he has charged the local government for letting them do so.

Working to stem environmental havoc in his country for some 20 years now, Mr. Oyama previously tried to stop a cacao plantation in his state, one that would take over more than 5000 square kilometres of virgin rain forest part of which was under community management.

Wilmar is also going to take over dozens of small farms leased for 25 years to small holders in a poverty-alleviation scheme that allowed them to produce and sell palm oil , although not anywhere near the quantities a multi-million dollar multinational can.

Nigeria has enough problems, both environmental and social, without adding land grabbing to the mix. Despite its vast oil wealth, 80 percent of the population lives in poverty. It is also one of the most corrupt countries on the Transparency International list, with even presidents slicing large chunks of palm-oil pie for themselves on land that is not theirs.

Nigeria is not the only poor — although I hesitate to write that word in an country that earns billion in petroleum revenue, but it is — nation in Africa to have come to the attention of palm oil magnates.

In Liberia, still recovering after years of brutal warfare characterized by drug-fueled child solders and a gleeful predilection for mutilating people,  palm oil companies are grabbing almost  a million hectares of land whilst violating the human rights of local communities.

And in Cameroon, an American company called Herakles Farms is currently clearing land for a 70,000 hectare palm oil plantation that will sit between and partly within two National Parks. Herakles says it is a champion of sustainability with its biofuel business, and claims that a) much of the forest land is already degraded anyway, and b) the local villagers using the forest for its renewable resources would actually prefer to have the employment instead.

It counters the complaints of various environmental organizations like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace by saying that the backing of local chiefs is proof that they have the communities’ support.

But just how democratic was the decision-making process in those communities? Do some people stand to gain more than others within them when a multinational comes to town?

After all, whether national or at the district level, cash-crunched local governments often like to think that these enormous plantations will bring economic growth, but like any gigantic agri-business, they only seem to improve the livelihoods of their CEOs and shareholders. As Silas Siakor, a campaigner for the Liberian NGO Sustainable Development Institute put it, “Allocating large swathes of fertile agricultural land to foreign companies for several decades will push people further into poverty, as local income generating activities are curtailed and peoples’ earning capacities become limited.”

One can only hope that Mr. Oyama does not meet the same fate as Antonio Trejo, another lawyer who took on the biofuel bigwigs. After three years of representing peasant movements fighting land takeovers and palm oil plantations in Bajo Aguan, Honduras, he was gunned down last September.