Tuesday, 29 August 2006

Eating globally

Much as we might all try to Think Globally and Act Locally, sometimes it is not possible. And sometimes it is not even desirable. Supermarkets may not be the best thing for the environment, but they are here to stay, and I along with the overwhelming majority, use them. When using them I try to apply some basic moral principles. I do try and buy mostly organic food, but not at the cost of thousands of airmiles. And perhaps of more doubtful value, I try and support the economies of those countries I have enjoyed visiting. Hence I buy Argentinian and Sicillian wine. When I can find them I buy organic or fair trade bananas from Ecuador or Belize. And organic/shade grown coffee. It is worth reminding onself that not all long distance foods involve airmiles. Bananas and wine are still shipped by sea, at relatively low environmental cost. I won't by wine from the USA and I won't buy Israeli citrus. While I might have political issues with both regimes, this is also because of their environmental records. Israel has sprayed crops and destroyed cave-dwelling bats, while the USA's position on climate change is outrageous. I do not think for one moment that my stance makes one jot of difference. But it does make me feel very slightly better as I go through the check out.

Thursday, 24 August 2006

cows for Africa

A short blog this time. One of the World Land Trust's supporters just sent me this message:

I just looked at Send a Cow website I can accept zero grazing (and poor conditions for some animals) but they now distribute RABBITS!! Think Australia.
Keep up the good work

Tuesday, 22 August 2006

Does charity aid create poverty?

Six months ago I wrote about the problems goats were causing in the third world, particularly Africa. I criticised aid charities for funding goat keeping and encouraging the British public to think of goats (and camels and cattle) as a solution to the problems of poverty in Africa. I pointed out that there was plenty of evidence that they were in fact often the cause of poverty.

The response was huge; almost entirely supporting my contentions. The only people supporting the position of charities such as Oxfam, Farm Africa and Christian Aid, were usually doing it from either purely emotive standpoint, or based on misinformation. But support for my attack on goats was universally well informed, and from scientists, foresters, tropical ecologists and that ilk.

It is truly worrying that, according to Oxfam, one of the five most frequently asked questions is 'How can I buy a goat'. This is scary. To a conservationist or an ecolgist it has the making of a horror movie.

Yet six months on aid charities are still promoting goats and other livestock as a solution to poverty. How short-sighted can you get? And, paradoxically, this is depite criticisms that some organisations are not actually using the money raised in this way on buying goats.

However my investigations into the issues surrounding goats and poverty also led me to look more closely at the aid charities' strategies. And I did not like a lot of what I found. It often seemed patronising, and almost a form of modern imperialism. Selling to underdeveloped countries technological fixes that would make them dependent on further aid or debt to the developed world. Many of the agencies employ significant numbers of field staff. And many of these people are paid at European salary levels, and drive around in 4x4s, living in western style accommodation.

And then there is inappropriate aid. I will give a single example. When travelling in southern India after the tsunami, I saw (and photographed) the fibreglass boats donated by aid charities that had been supplied to replace the wooden fishing boats used by the local populace of poor fishermen. The main beneficiaries were undoubtedly the relatively more prosperous manufacturers of fibre glass boats. Now the fisherman had boats, but they needed an outboard motor and fuel to power them. The relatively primitive, wooden, outrigger sailing boats they had previously used needed neither of these. But no doubt the donors felt they had done really well by providing a more 'modern' alternative.

And then finally, what is meant by poverty?
I sent Oxfam the following on the 7 July:

Please can you let me have a definition of poverty, and an understanding of that is meant by making poverty history. How will it be established when a person or a nation is out of poverty? What are the measures?

A few days later I received a reply. Of sorts. It was the sort of response one comes to expect from BINGOs (Big International Non-Government Organisations). It was a standard response giving a few web addresses, none of which actually answered the question posed. Here is their response:

Thank you for contacting Oxfam recently regarding your research. We are always pleased to hear from people who are interested in the work we do. As we do have limited time and resources unfortunately we are unable to arrange interviews, complete questionnaires or organise visits to projects we support. However, I?m sure you will find the information you need from the resources that are available to you.

We have a fantastic website, which contains an abundance of up to date information about our work. It includes recent policy papers, press releases, newsletters and also development and campaigning information, which I hope will provide you with the information you need for your studies. You can find our website at: http://www.oxfam.org.uk/

There is also our website for teachers and young people called Cool Planet, which has lots of information about our work and ways you can get involved. Please click on this link to take you there: http://www.oxfam.org.uk/coolplanet/

We also have a range of published books and journals, covering issues and case studies surrounding development and relief. A number of these are available through our Oxfam Publishing catalogue, which can be viewed on our website at: http://publications.oxfam.org.uk/oxfam/search.asp?TAG=&CID=
If you would like us to send you a copy of the catalogue, then please contact us on 0870 333 2700. You may be able to borrow publications listed in the catalogue through your local library?s inter-library loan service. Alternatively, they can be ordered by credit card, either on-line via our website, or from our distributor, Bournemouth English Book Centre, on 01202

Now the WLT along with many other small charities also gets lots of enquiries, but somehow, we manage to respond to almost all of them. Since 'making poverty history' is a slogan being bandied around with considerable abandon, surely it is not expecting too much for a clear definition to be available? If it is, I certainly could not find it on any of the sites referred to by Oxfam. There were several complex definitions, which left me even more confused, but no simple statement of targets.

So let's ask a few more questions. Do we expect everyone to aspire to the basic standard of living acceptable in England? Clean, hot and cold, running water; flush toilets; free, accessible, primary and secondary education; affordable housing? These do not seem unreasonable targets -- after all many people living in the UK with all of the above are still considered as living in poverty in the UK. But to bring everyone in Africa and Asia to that standard has huge implications for the continents' resources. In fact I would suggest that it would be totally unsustainable. Has anyone thought it through? I suggest not. Not remotely. And meanwhile almost all the aid charities pursue policies that ensure that the fuse on the population bomb gets shorter and shorter, day by day.

One of the problems is that, within the charity sector, it has become almost de rigeur to not criticise other charities. But when another charity is carrying out operations which are apparently undermining the efforts of others, I think it is time to speak out. There is nothing illegal or uncharitable in the activities of the Aid charities, but in my personal view, they are often based on naive strategies, short-term thinking and a lack of understanding of the long-term impacts. They are playing on the emotions of affluent westerners with a guilt complex.

In the 19th and early 20th century missionaries spread all over the world, and one of the first things they did was clothe the 'natives' as their nakedness was an affront to Christian morality. Aid agencies regularly dump second-hand clothes in the third world, which is now creating a demand for 'designer' and fashion goods even among the poorest sectors of society. It's the same evangelical missionary attitude in another guise, ensuring western values are adopted, and markets for western goods are created. Trade not Aid, is a concept that comes nearer to a fairer non-interventionist approach, but most of the agencies only play lip service to it, and international trade is not always the best way forward.

It's a debate that is largely supressed, but I believe should be opened up. However, just as with the goat issue, the charities involved don't want to discuss it because it could have a major impact on their fund-raising capabilities. But a healthy debate may well improve their strategies, and actually achieve something that 40 years of aid to Africa, has so far almost universally failed to achieve -- the actual relief of poverty overall and the ongoing degradation of the environment.

This was a longer meandering than usual; but I believe it is one of the most important issues confronting wildlife, particularly in Africa.

Monday, 21 August 2006

Privatisation of utilities

Following on from blog a few weeks ago, I thought about other one-time nationalised industries. Electricity, gas, coal. I.e. Power supplies. Everyone in the UK is being exhorted to conserve energy by the government (as well as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and every environmentalist under the sun). Public awareness of the issues concerning energy from non-renewable natural resources is now almost certainly higher than at any time in the past. Even awareness about the complexities surrounding so-called renewables such as wind-power are more widely understood.

But call me thick, when energy supplies are privatised, and owned by profit making companies, the companies have primary responsibilities to their shareholders, and they have a legal responsibility to return a profit. In order to make a profit they have to sell energy, and since they are in competition with other companies selling the same or similar products, the principal way they can increase profits is by selling more of their product. They can of course increase 'efficiency' whatever that means, but ultimately, to maintain profits, they have to sell more of the product. Which of course is in direct conflict with the objectives of conserving energy. The same of course applies to petrol and diesel for cars.

The advocates of free markets will of course argue that it's all to do with market share, but I am not convinced. The evidence is surely to be found in trade statistics, and also to be found in the philosophies of economists and politicians. Since most countries seem to be driven by the apparent 'need' for expanding economies, they have also based this concept on the 'need' for expanding populations. Of course the only people who actually need these, are those obsessed with making ever increasing profits (i.e big businesses and politicians controlled by them). For centuries economies were based on the overall majority of businesses being small, and sustainable, with huge groupings of population being largely self-sufficient.

I deduce from this that the only realistic way that a country like Britain is ever going to reduce its demands for energy and other non-renewable resources, yet still maintain its expected standards of living, is to have a declining population. Comments on a postcard, email, etc.

Wednesday, 16 August 2006

Water, water everywhere, even in a drought

The heat wave in Britain is bringing to the forefront, again, the issue of water supplies. I have never understood the supposed benefits of privatising Britain's water supply. One of the theoretical arguments in favour of privatisation was that it encouraged competition, and kept prices down. Call me stupid, but I fail to see how that occurs in an industry which has monopolies, and which pays out huge profits to investors instead of ploughing it all back in to its infrastructure. I have absolutely no choice in who I buy my water from. And I can see no earthly reason for conserving it when the profit-motivated company urges me to use less. Why should I not use it to water my garden? If they have not improved the infrastructure and prevented the millions of gallons/litres leaking away, why should my garden suffer? We are made to feel selfish if we do not conserve water, but the only people who will really suffer will be the shareholders, if the water supplies run out, and the companies fail to supply their customers. Unlike petrol or gas, water is a renewable resource, so there is no need for us to feel guilty or profligate if we use lots of it. Millions of gallons are used wastefully by industry, millions of gallons are polluted, so why should the individual feel guilty when watering their vegetable patch? Answers on a postcard., etc.

Wednesday, 2 August 2006

Public versus private transport -- a reasoned response

Last week I ran into an old Friend from my days with Friends of the Earth back in the 1970s. He was the transport campaigner Mick Hamer, and I talked to him about the issues I have raised concerning public transport, and in fact I rather loosely (but apparently more or less correctly) quoted him in an earlier blog. Mick kindly sent me his opinion, which does address some of my concerns, and gives a very logical and rational approach.

I think the bottom line is that a society in which everyone flies or drives is one that is completely unsustainable. One in which people only walk, cycle or use public transport is one that is pretty close to be sustainable--or could be made so. There would be less global warming, less pollution, no new roads and less building on greenfield sites.

Should people be discouraged from flying and driving? Yes. Should people be discouraged from taking trains or buses? This is much more difficult, partly because it is a less important problem than flying and driving and partly because if you want to tackle flying and driving then it makes sense to offer public transport as an alternative.

Hope that useful, Mick

This is a good approach, though I do have to say, that it is biased towards urban-dwellers. It does not really help if you live in low-density rural areas.

Too Much Research and Not Enough Action

I was walking through my library, gathering together some books in order to research my next book, and I noticed how large the section on conservation had grown. A whole shelf, about a metre long on the economics of conservation alone. And similar runs of books on other conservation topics. Looking at all this research made me ponder. It was all good stuff (or much of it was, as far as I could tell), all very interesting. BUT. How much had it all cost? How many hundreds of hours of some of the top brains in the world were used writing all these reports and books.

As I looked down my shelves I realised that this was the tip of an iceberg. Millions and millions, of pounds, dollars and Euros are being poured into all this theoretical research, while hardly anything ends up in real conservation and protection of endangered habitats.

Even the big conservation organisations seem to spend more money on writing reports and organising conferences and sending management teams and consultants around the world than they do on actual conservation. As we enter the second half of the first decade of the 21st century the plight of natural habitats is going critical. Rainforests continue to disappear, oil spills continue, coral reefs die. it is time to ACT. The World Land Trust is tiny compared with all the big international and intergovernmental agencies. But at least we are DOING something, and pro rata it's probably a lot more than most others.

Then a couple of days later I was in a bookshop and noticed that whole of natural history (including conservation) took up a few paltry shelves. Close by the section which embraced reflexology, astrology and a whole host of similar mumbo jumbo was positvely eenormous by comparison. Ditto cooker section, ditto gardening. Depressing?