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Thursday, September 24, 2015

A Lame Duck Climate Debate

I read in the newspaper last week that El Nino’s temperament earlier this year will probably lead to a cold winter here in England, and I am over the moon with delight.  My surf skim boards, carefully collected over many snowless years, are ready to bash me down the snow-laden Mendips at bigh speed during my scheduled winter sabbatical.  

In my mind’s eye I imagine the snowy 1970s in Ohio when we had weeks off school due to snow and ice, so we sledged every day behind the city hall.  This year I am going to be able to relive it all over again here in Somerset without any guilt about not working.  With such bliss derived from bad weather, it seems crazy that more billions of dollars, euro and pounds sterling of our tax money will spent trying to control the climate and stop me having fun with my kids.  

Climate delegates’ ritual migrations by polluting planes to cities like Kyoto, Cancun, Copenhagen, Bonn and soon Paris, are liken to ancient priests claiming control over the sun and rain, and sacrificing humans to affirm their power.    To me this seems pure hubris, but I did have a giggle when the pope arrived at the White House in an energy efficient Fiat.  I also know that this political dance disguises a steely heart.

Part of the global climate negotiations to be settled in Paris is an attempt to lock away access to millions of acres of forests, and thus open the door to the privatisation of the carbon in their standing trees.   Keeping this carbon locked up and protected from people, including indigenous people, it is said, could reduce up to 20% of global carbon emissions.  Once again, community forests have become a global asset heading for the auction block.

Since the outset of climate discussions delegates have been continually wooed by the climateratti with promises to share cash if they vote them into power.  I remember at a press conference in Brazzaville in 2004 with the first President Bongo of Gabon, who when asked about the benefits to Gabon from his creation of 13 parks covering 30% of the country, chuckled in his deep voice, smiled and said: “They said we would be paid for our carbon, and tourists would come and spend their money … we are still waiting for that.”  Since then Gabon has earned its crust from crude oil exports.

Early reports from pre-Paris climate negotiations suggest that limited funds for southern governments will finally appear in voluntary national commitments, but the developed countries’ proposed voluntary emission targets in the final climate agreement will not unleash the long-hoped for flood of junk bond carbon cash.   Already in September there is broad consensus that none of the measures from Paris will have any discernible impact on the rate of climate warming, but the air tickets and hotels are booked and delegates are rehearsing their statements, so the French party is on. 


With such anticipation I hope they have as much fun as I will be having - if the climate forecasters are correct, in December this carbon based life form will be snow sledding here in Frome.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Good luck to Congo for free and fair elections

The presidential television campaign in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is extremely exciting right now. Tshisekedi speaks with passion about 30 years of opposition and his Christian Democratic ideals while he takes questions from a room full of journalists in Kinshasa. Fantastic. Kabila’s apocryphal presidential videos and hero worship flood other channels, slick MTV marketing for a modern age and a super young electorate. Other less powerful candidates freely campaign on air from church halls, the gardens of villas or curtained off front rooms – in one I saw a few months ago there was a child’s tiger toy perched on the back of the stuffed chair, apparently whispering into the candidate’s ear. Across the channels there are endless debates and polemics, mixed with a weirdly American style stew of real life soaps, confessionals, and religious programming, interrupted by advertisements for beer, yogurt and household cleaning products.

Much of this noisy torrent reminds me of late night Tennessee TV in 1984 – when Al Gore was boring us on local television with his wooden delivery of ideals he never delivered, followed by Tammy Baker’s crocodile tears streaming mascara down her cheeks on the late night evangelical show, and punctuated by car dealers in chicken outfits proclaiming “crazy deals.” What I like about the DRC is that almost all of such lowbrow hustles are combined with the best music and life-loving dancing in the world. From Franco to Tabu Ley to JB Mpiana (who is totally hot right now), the DRC is a happening place. One young pop group is using the campaign as an opportunity to launch a clothing brand, and to market sunglasses made in Dubai.

Contrary to popular myth, here in Congo there is a less chaos than you might think. And in most of the country during this presidential and senatorial election campaign (election planned for November 28th), there is no armed fighting, just good old-fashioned stump speeches to curious crowds, and a lot of intellectual and often theoretical debate between media pundits. There is also a lot of histrionic campaigning by young people in the streets, the passionate soldiers of the political parties, armed only with mobile phones and declarations. In many ways the DRC right now is just like DC in an election year, only the people are much leaner and have much more to gain from their democracy. And the Congo police are quite a bit tougher, although so far they have used much more tear gas than bullets.

Some of the main candidates’ conservative, traditional views are those I would normally disagree with, but the way they are being delivered in the context of this election campaign is massively welcome. This is especially notable after such a long period of dictatorship and war that has plagued the country, and particularly amidst the tide of democratic ambiguity that washes the rest of Guinean shoreline to the north. Welcome too are the multitude of opposition views being freely broadcast nightly, until well after midnight, on about 20 TV channels available over the air or by satellite. Between them they reach up to 60 million people living in one country the size of Western Europe.

I flicked on the TV again last night and spotted that politician with a tiger in his ear. The last time I saw him the tiger was worn and tattered, but this one looked new, renewed – Congo is moving forward, obviously.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Blame politicians and bad aid, not climate change, for increasing famine in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya

Once again we are being assaulted by the news of another impending famine in the Horn of Africa, with up to 10 million people affected, says the UN. Ordinary people from Somali, Ethiopia and northern Kenya are on the move in search of food, with many ending up at one of the feeding centres and refugee camps concentrated across eastern Ethiopia and northern Kenya. There is a public plea from humanitarian agencies for more resources to keep people fed as the crops fail and their animals die. The public campaign is on.

Andrew Mitchell from DFID announced last week that the UK has pledged UK£31 million to help feed millions of people over the next 3 months. And In March 2011 the UK government announced that Ethiopia had been moved to the top of its list of preferred recipients for development aid. The World Food Programme is already feeding 4.3 million people in Ethiopia, and this figure is now set to rise dramatically.

This all sounds like just another African disaster caused by poverty and environmental crisis, accompanied by the predictable response from an aid industry grown up in Ethiopia in the 1980s.

We have seen it all before - in my mind’s eye I already see the donor fatigue settling in a few years as public interest wanes. Meanwhile a new wave of young pop stars will ride off into the sunset on a giant wave of charity pop fame. Never mind the truth, nor the solution.

What is clear from the most recent research is that the current drought affecting Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya is not the worst ever, but possibly the worst in decades. The dead cattle in the dust is an early sign. And I know well from travelling with them that semi-nomadic agropastoralists have always gone long distances in search of water and pasture. But now they are going further than anyone remembers.

This traditional famine narrative has already been covered by the international press, Additional titillation is also being drawn from the climate debate, so expect predictions of figurative tornados and hailstones amidst the cracked soils. There is a convenient natural tragedy story to go with the video news package, and strong images of illness, death and environmental degradation to pull in public interest. The newspack has moved in.

But what is currently absent from the news coverage is the way the Ethiopian government is using aid to try to clear dissent from the Ogaden region along the border with Somalia. The native Ogadeni peoples have been itching for autonomy since their lands were handed over to Ethiopia by the British in the 1950s. Their Somali roots makes it easy for the government to associate them with Al-Quaeda linked militias based in Somalia, who the Americans are supporting Ethiopia and the African Union to control. The Ethiopians should be well–equipped for this little clearance job, since last year the US government gave them over half a billion dollars in aid. The fact that oil has been discovered in the Ogaden region further binds everyone into this conspiracy, inadvertently propped up by relief agencies struggling to keep innocent people alive.

And to be fair, the Ethiopian government has used some resources effectively, mainly to improve its own security, and especially by controlling dissent. Just last week they arrested two Swedish journalists who were investigating human rights abuses by the Ethiopian military in those border areas. The local communities’ allegations include the clearing and burning of villages, murder and rape, which combined with the ethnic element, sounds a bit like genocide to me.

Such stories have naturally helped to drive people from both sides of the border into desolate feeding camps in Kenya, hundreds of miles away from their customary areas, so confused and destitute they walk straight onto our TV screens. Since there is also another drought, their journey is even worse, so children and the elderly suffer terribly, hence the emergency requiring our prepared response.

Such droughts have been good to Ethiopian elites over the past 25 years. They have built an enviable aid infrastructure that conveniently meets their needs, and those of the hundreds of expatriates involved in palliative relief operations or development talking shops. Between 1999 and 2009 the US provided around US$ 4.7 billion in aid funding. In 2008, at US$3 billion annually, Ethiopia became one of the largest global aid recipients, and this figure is now said to have reached US$7 billion. When I was there last year the hotel industry in Addis Ababa was booming – aid conferences and accommodating foreign consultants are lucrative businesses that generate significant benefits for the few.

Meanwhile abject poverty amongst the mass Ethiopian citizenry has remained the norm, with few improvements for the very poor majority despite the billions of aid that have been spent in Ethiopia over many decades. Strangely it seems that military aid has been better used. Maybe political stability and compliance is easier to improve than child mortality and education.

We all have a duty to help end the famine in that region, and I am sure that the Western public will give generously to try to keep people alive. By doing this we will signal our common humanity and duty to take care of our fellow man. But we should not prop up political leaderships who abandon their people. Bad aid does just this. Watch this space.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Biofuels, Palm and People


2011 in Africa started with a bang as Malaysian and North American corporates announced they were aiming to acquire around 300,000 hectares of land around Mount Korup and Ocean Department in Cameroon as part of their £1.2billion West Africa expansion plans. I was in Central Africa Republic when it was announced, and there was a shudder from forests already scented with the effects of palm expansion heading south from the capital Bangui. The whole region is booming with promises of mega infrastructure projects linked with resource exploitation and local level development plans. Mineral exploration programmes that will compete with Cameroon’s well-established logging industry are already well-advanced, and the future is becoming more clear: roads, rails and rocks will replace timber in Cameroon.

Climate change debates are also descending into the Congo Basin from two competing fronts, (i) conservation supported by carbon offset funding , about which I have written before, and (ii) palm plantations for the industrial food industry, supported by investors positioning themselves to feed the growing market in biofuels. As a result the expansion of palm plantations into increasingly remote African forests is gaining momentum, and the threats to poor communities everywhere are clear. This is why I support Action Aid’s campaign against expanding use of biofuels .

I know from interviews with officials across West Africa that millions of hectares of biodiverse forest across the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Cameroon, Central Africa Republic, and the Republic of Congo are threatened with conversion to industrial palm monoculture - 3 million in DRC alone. Without clear plans to protect people, this presents a direct threat to local and indigenous communities whose livelihoods are intertwined with forest diversity. Despite the rhetoric, there are few concrete plans by palm planters to support communities, apart from maybe employing some of them to work plantations that have taken over their lands. The woeful record speaks for itself when reviewing the old-fashioned modus operandi of most industrial enterprises already operating in places like Cameroon. Communities are destined to lose out.

Unfortunately West and Central African tropical forests make ideal places to cultivate palm, and the growing international demand for palm oils for biscuits and climate change busting car fuels has given a huge incentive for corporates from Asia – where land is increasingly difficult to acquire - to invest in the Congo Basin, where land is plentiful, the economies are weak, and government accountability to local communities is almost non-existent. Where certification has arrived in the region, for example with Forest Stewardship Council standards being applied by loggers, application has often been weak, and communities remain marginalised. In the Congo Basin alone over 40 million people rely upon those forests for income and food. The lands where they hunt, gather and farm are the same ones being targeted by this industry.

Most of the nations concerned have already signed up to the major human rights conventions, so they are under strong obligations to protect communities from dispossession without compensation, eg in the form of cash or strong social programmes addressing their priorities. However even when these are done well, when communities are deprived of their lands their foundations fall away, leaving them especially vulnerable to famine and spiralling poverty, particularly given that almost none of the profit from their lands trickles down from national capitals. Coupled with the loss of biodiversity that helps them remain resilient in the face of their unbending poverty, the poorest people will be swept away in a tide of plantations funded by northern hedge funds and banks. These investors have a responsibility to ensure that high standards are met.