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Science Fiction to Science Experiment

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Early during the grey morning of Monday 8th November, a small picket coalesced outside the Royal Society near Hyde Park in London. A slightly unorthodox target for a demonstration, perhaps, but arguably an important one, for the limited coverage if nothing else. The banner strung up to the railings decried “Our planet is not your experiment”, a fairly ominous warning for passers by who knew nothing of what was happening beyond the doors of the building behind.
The gathering was there to highlight and protest the conference taking place on the issue of geo-engineering., hosted by the Royal Society (RS). In essence, geo-engineering is the practice of altering, either temporarily or permanently, the earth’s atmosphere to mitigate against the effects of CO2-based climate change. Although the idea has been around for sometime, it has, until now, received nothing but short shrift, but as global efforts to decrease CO2 output seem to be fledgeling dangerously, the RS decided that some of the techniques merited further investigation and debate, leading to said conference.

The RS is, apparently, honest and actually quite blunt about it’s motivation for exploring such an outlandish response to averting a global catastrophe. In a report from September ’09, the RS quite overtly states that “global efforts to reduce emissions have not yet been sufficiently successful to provide confidence that the reductions needed to avoid dangerous climate change will be achieved”. Therefore the venture of physical manipulation of the planet’s atmosphere has gained significant clout. The RS defines geo-engineering as “the deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment to counteract anthropogenic climate change”.
The two most examined techniques in this report are

1) Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) techniques, which remove CO2 from the atmosphere. As they address the root cause of climate change, rising CO2 concentrations, they have relatively low uncertainties and risks. However, these techniques work slowly to reduce global temperatures.

2) Solar Radiation Management (SRM) techniques, which reflect a small percentage of the sun’s light and heat back into space. These methods act quickly, and so may represent the only way to lower global temperatures quickly in the event of a climate crisis. However, they only reduce some, but not all, effects of climate change, while possibly creating other problems .

The SRM technique warrants a little more elaboration; along with lava and ash, volcanic eruptions also release large amounts of what are known as aerosols into the atmosphere. These aerosols reflect solar radiation until they dissipate, and thus temporarily cool the area covered by the volcanic fall-out. SRM techniques mimic this process by artificially creating aerosols and blasting them into the atmosphere, but because aerosols are temporary this would have to be continuous.
The report states that CDR is the preferred method, because it “effectively reverses the effects of climate change”. One of the the main worries about the SRM technique would be a “depletion of stratospheric ozone”.

On the surface some may see this as an innovative and actually quite creative solution to such a pressing problem, and, on the surface of it all, it is. However, the worrying implication of adopting geo-engineering is that climate change is going to continue, that business-as-usual will prevail, and the root causes of anthropogenic climate change aren’t addressed. Much like the carbon-trading market, the approach is symptomatic rather than systemic. Because it allows for the current zeitgeist to continue unabated, people and organisations know that pollution and carbon – footprints will ultimately be combated by someone else. It also introduces an arguably more dangerous tangent of thought and relationship with the environment; that we can, and ultimately need total control of our atmosphere. There are other techniques, seemingly straight out of a good Alfred Bester novel, in the research pipline that assume control of the weather systems. Two such examples are Cloud seeding; whereby chemicals such as silver iodide are sprayed into the atmosphere to precipitate clouds and induce rain and snow. The primary researchers of this are the Chinese Meterological Association, and Bruce Boe of Weather Modification Inc. The second is storm modification, which attempts to prevent the formation of, or affect that pathways of storms, which is being looked into by Nathan Myhrvold and Bill Gates, of Intellectual Ventures, USA.
It is an attractive train of research, as it has been shown to be incredibly cost-effective, much more so than the action needed to reduce carbon emissions. However, by allowing carbon emissions to continue along the business-as-usual path, many of the affects of climate change wont be negated. For example, as it stands, the oceans currently act as what are known as ‘carbon sinks’, in that they absorb a lot of the extra CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere. Forests also act in this way. However, this has increased the acidity of the world’s oceans, dramatically altering delicate marine eco-systems, but SRM, for example, wouldn’t decrease this acidity, because it doesn’t halt the carbon, just offsets the extra heat by reflecting light back into space. October’s bio-diversity conference in Japan seemingly placed a ban on efforts to engineer the atmosphere, but only to the extent that it might affect biodiversity. Therefore, for example, adding more iron to the oceans to increase algae populations to absorb CO2 would theoretically be banned, as it would have significant impact on the biodiversity of the world’s oceans. In a highly critical report called Geopiracy, the campaign group ETC argues that even the research stages of geoengineering should be subject to some form of restrictions and governance, because as of yet the technology is largely untested and even theoretical. In fact, because geoengineering is now firmly at the top of its agenda, and the CBD advocates and argues for the maintenance of the rich genetic make-up for our planet’s various eco-systems, then geoengineering which makes forcible changes with a view to lowing the planet’s temperature should be, as asserted by the Geopiracy report, “diametrically opposed” by the 193 signatories to the pledge to protect the bio-diversity of the planet.

The impact of the research into geoengineering has not been completely overlooked by those involved. In November of this year, Nature published the report from a conference in March of this year that aimed at producing some guidelines along which research for “climate engineering or intervention techniques”, as put by the conference organisers The Climate Response Fund. The five main principles outlined by the conference, as reported by Nature, are:
a) Climate engineering research should be aimed at promoting the collective benefit of humankind and the environment.
b) Governments must clarify responsibilities for, and, when necessary, create mechanisms for the governance and oversight of large-scale climate engineering activities.
c) Climate engineering research should be openly and co-operatively, preferably within a framework that has broad international support
d) Iterative, independent technical assessments of research progress will be required to inform the public and policy makers.
e) Public participation and consultation in research planning and oversight, assessments, and development of decision-making mechanisms and processes much be provided.

However, if Clive Hamilton, writing for the UN University is to be believed, then already these guiding principles are not being followed; any one of a dozen or so countries with the scientific ability to research geoengineering could being unilateral actions, countries or blocs such as China, the USA, the European Union, Russia, India, Japan and Australia. Hamilton even asserts that “Even now, beneath the radar, Russia has already begun testing. Yuri Izrael, a Russian scientist who is both a global-warming sceptic and a senior adviser to Prime Minister Putin, has tested the effects of aerosol spraying from a helicopter on solar radiation reaching the ground. He now plans a full-scale trial”. Izrael’s filed test, according to the Russian journal Meterology and Hydrology, consisted of blasting aerosols from a mounted generator up to a level of 200 meters, and measuring the levels of reflected sunlight. According to blogger Chris Mooney, the Russian scientists taking part in the test claimed it was “successful”, however, no elaboration on this has been given.

Written by rythmist

November 16, 2010 at 12:21 pm

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“Now, on the main field, the the Race for Private Security…”

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In August of this year Hamid Karzia gave private security contractors operating in Afghanistan fours months to pack their things and say their farewells. An interesting move, and given that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have seen an explosion in the use (and dependency) of the privatised military and security sector, one that is not likely to prove popular. Reports suggest that the motives for such an announcement lie in the rapidly increasing antagonism between said firms and the Afghan people, as the issue of civilian casualties become an ever increasing headache for both the Afghan government and the image of western forces, both private and government-based. Case-in-point, the firm formerly known as Blackwater, now known as Xe standing trial for the alleged murder of Iraqi civilians, and the release of the now-infamous Us military files via wiki-leaks. According to a number of mainstream news sources, this phase out is due to be completed by 2011.

Yet not all is doom and gloom in the private military sector; as Karzai announced what at least appears to be an end to the Friedman-esque market policies in military protection in Afghanistan, just two weeks prior an Associated Press dispatch outlined of the possibility of terrorist attacks at the London 2012 Olympics, issued by the director of security for the Olympic organising committee, Ian Johnston. This warning also came with the acknowledgement that private security will play a huge role in policing the games.

Incidentally, Johnston was the head of the British Transport Police during the 2005 bombings on the London underground, the day after London had been awarded the right to hold the games. During the games, the threat level will remain at a steady ‘severe’, just one below the highest level ‘critical’.

The sentiments and concerns of Johnston have been echoed by a former US intelligence officer based in London, Bob Ayers, who gave this ominous threat “if you rank the order of the countries that al-Qaida wants to do things to, it’s the `Great Satan’ (United States) first, and it’s the Brits second […] here’s this massive event coming up. You know exactly when it’s going to occur … If you’re a terrorist planner, it doesn’t get any better than this”. Who better to fill the policing gap for the games than the still burgeoning private security industry, about to be expelled from its current play-ground.

On the 16th July, David Evans, the project director of the 2012 games for the British Security Industry Association (BSIA), a lobby and umbrella group representing the UK’s private security sector, released a statement confirming the cosy relationship between the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) and the BSIA: “… the BSIA has been at the forefront of security planning for London 2012. Working alongside Government departments such as the Olympic Security Directorate and Olympic Delivery Authority, as well as the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, the BSIA has helped to identify both the opportunities and challenges that both public and private sectors will face in securing the Games”.

Opportunities? What does he mean by opportunities? Opportunities perhaps to utilise security companies expelled from Afghanistan? Two companies (possibly as well as others) currently operating in Afghanistan that have been awarded contracts to police the Olympics are G4S Securities and Ageis. According to the business networking site competeforlondon.co.uk. G4S Securities, who also have their subsidiary, AmourGroup operating in Afghanistan, have been awarded the contract of security guarding. The Afghanistan section of the G4S website proudly claims

G4S provides experienced, well-qualified, Close Protection (CP) teams and Personal Security Details (PSDs) for government and commercial clients, ensuring their employees and their families are protected in their offices, residences and while travelling. G4S also offers expertise in ordinance management (mine clearing) and close guarding, a useful service with so many heads-of-state and other dignitaries visiting such an apparently likely target for terrorism.

In may of this year, David Insberg of the Huffington Post reported that on the 17th of February the defence contractor Ageis, which also has Iraq on its portfolio, was awarded a contract to provide security consultancy services (helpfully supplying the contract number: Lot 3. Contract Award Notice No.: 2010/S 33-046942, Contract No.: 9938).

Unfortunately, British private security contractors don’t have a squeaky-clean record in the conflict. The offices of contractor Olympus Security Ltd were raided and shut down by Afghan soldiers after it was found to be operating illegally. Similarly, Ageis was involved in a law suit after its employees shot U.S. Special Forces sergeant Khadim Alkanani at the entrance to Baghdad International Airport, where it was heard in court that there was no hostile activity taking place. Alkanani subsequently developed hepatitis C, and has not recovered the full use of his foot, but his case was thrown out of court because Ageis’s defence argued that at the time of the shooting it was not registered as a corporation, and therefore did not exist, even though the facts of the event were not disputed. To reiterate Insberg, lets hope the ODA have contracted a company that “is officially incorporated and deemed to legally exist”, rather than the phantom mercenaries form they took in Iraq.

Neither G4S nor Ageis appear on the BSIA website after a search in the ‘company finder’, and after searching the 2008 directory of security contractors compiled by the BSIA and the Association of Police and Public Security Suppliers (APPSS), G4S receives a brief mention as the parent company of AmourGroup, and Ageis doesn’t appear at all. However, the directory does list a number of contractors likely to allay fears of terrorism, such as SDS Group, whose services include, armour, bomb disposal clothing and bomb suppression, explosion detection and x-ray equipment. Another is HVR Consulting services, a subsidiary of QuinetiQ, who are listed as providing ‘counter-terrorism and disaster management’ services. As well as this, Ian Johnston’s promise that the discreet approach to policing the Olympics will be made easier by Seven Technologies’ statement in the 2008 index that “We believe we will be able to add to the security services covert surveillance operational effect during the Olympics by using our hard fought experience to provide key enabling equipment and training where required”.

Returning to the AP dispatch, member of the House of Lords John Patten claims that ‘authorities’ are worried about the use of improvised chemical bombs, or ICDs, which, according to General David Richards, requires specialist military teams, usually deployed in Afghanistan, to check for roadside bombs. In fact, Liam Fox has actually confirmed that discussions are underway to determine the role of Britain’s military forces in policing the games. Yet none of this will be visible, apparently, because Johnston has also confirmed that there won’t be a heavy-handed approach to the policing, but that security will be “discreet and effective”. Discreet? Or perhaps Evans uses ‘utilise’ to refer to the introduction and testing of new security technologies, which the AP piece states will include CCTV systems to check for suspicious activity among spectators and unmanned drone aircraft to monitor crowds. The inspiration for using unmanned drones must have come from their use in Afghanistan, where their stirling performances have caused the UN to request that the CIA cease their use of drones in ‘targeted’ killings.

Maybe the AP got it wrong, because the idea that the games will require a host of new technology directly contradicts the statements made by Olympic games security minister Lord West, who, when addressing representatives from the private security industry in February of this year told them that focus would lie in tried-and-tested methods. Then adding a slightly ominous glimpse at the government’s plans for post-2012 security arrangements: “I look forward to building a longer-term partnership with the industry. This will assist with the success of the broader CONTEST counter-terror strategy beyond the Olympic Games.”. From the look of things, the possibility of terrorist attacks during the 2012 Olympics is being used as a justification for the expansion of the domestic security sector in Britain far beyond what is currently in place. This will prove especially useful now that the police forces are looking at significant cuts.

A continuous stream of vague threats from official sources was, however, the method used to justify policing tactics at the G20. During the build up to the demonstrations, the London daily free-bees depicted running battles between faceless ‘anarchists’ and the police, and pained a picture of London under siege from sinister black-hooded forces. Warnings were issued from the Met about violent protesters attacking bankers, and advice was given to those going to work in the City that day to wear casual clothes to avoid being identified. Interestingly, none of these threats actually came from the protest organisers.

Or maybe, the both Lord West and the AP are right, and that the Olympics will see a host of new security technologies, but ones that have been sufficiently trialled in the run-up to the games. According to statements made by Met Assistant Commissioner Tarique Ghaffur, who heads London’s Olympic security directorate, the met have “installed a technological footprint across London” and that extensive technology is “the first level of policing”. This technology, while including the less sinister ticket tracking systems, it will cover identity-recognition techniques, enhanced car number-plate recognition and three new helicopters to monitor crowds. The labour force building the Olympic park is already being screened through biometric fingerprinting. These comments were made back in ’08, its now 2010. The two years between will have been long enough to get some technological trials up and running. But even beyond the games, with all these now tried-and-tested methods in place, how many of them are going to be relinquished after the games finish? The ticket tracking that links the ticket to the identity of the owner? Possibly, although it’s entirely possibly that this will become standard practice for large music venues, such as Wembley stadium or the O2 Arena. It’s hard to imagine the Met uninstalling this sophisticated surveillance network, especially if something were to happen during the games to justify its continued use in the public.

Written by rythmist

November 2, 2010 at 10:12 am

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lifeisland.org back up

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The campaign website lifeisland.org is back up.

Thanks to Rooftopjaxx for the update.

Written by rythmist

September 8, 2010 at 9:55 am

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Lifeisland.org removed from web, apparently

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Since posting my last article, the campaign website from which I drew much of my material has vanished from the web. http://www.lifeisland.org, set up by the Manor Gardens Society to communicate their running battle with the Olympic Delivery Authority is no longer available.

Written by rythmist

August 9, 2010 at 11:54 am

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Droning On and On

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The recent news that American forces are to replace their beleaguered British counter-parts in Sangin, expands on a recent trough in the war in central Asia for the coalition. In a decision that The Guardian reports as resembling the British pull-out from Basra in 2007, there are concerns that this move is likely to be seen as the British being saved by the Americans. However, in a refreshingly frank interview, Rciahrd Dannatt, the ex-head of the army and now advisor to David Cameron, told the Radio 4 Today programme that “I don’t want to see the figures [of British fatalities] get to 400, but they probably will”. Concern over rising casualties in the region is the basis for a decision that is likely to prove a PR nightmare for the British command; of the 312 British casualties in Afghanistan, 99 of them have occurred in Sangin. This will seem to more than just the local militia and American media then as a retreat, and families of the British personnel are likely to question the reason for their loved ones dying at all. However, although some in America will trumpet this as Uncle Sam coming to save the day, it will likely add to the problems of the already stretched Nato mission, which saw June as it’s bloodiest month in Afghanistan since 2001, with 102 fatalities, and 17 already this month.

This development comes as the use of unmanned drone attacks has come under legal fire from various sources. As Pakistan’s The Nation reported, Chris Rogers, an “expert on international law”, has stated that the attacks cannot be justified under any “international humanitarian law”. The use of drones, introduced onto the battlefield in 2001, has increased dramatically, particularly on the Afghan-Pakistan border, and focused intently in the tribalised Waziristan region of north-west Pakistan. They have been introduced as part of a CIA strategy of targeted assassinations of senior Al Qaeda and Taliban militants. Ironically, these targeted assassinations have been far too indiscriminate in the casualties involved, and civilians in their hundreds are being killed, which has introduced a divisive element into U.S. relations with a regional ally. One BBC report quotes the civilian deaths are in the “many hundreds”, a number apparently echoed by various other news sources.

The drones themselves are manned by CIA-personnel in Virgina, and the worrying dependency on unmanned drones for targeted killings is starting to parallel the dependency on private contractors in Iraq.
Moreover, as the BBC reported, a UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings has warned of a “playstation mentality” developing from the use of unmanned drones. While the U.S. is the main culprit, his report has also brought renewed scrutiny onto Israel and Russia. The Times of India has reported that Pakistani politician Imran Khan has filed a petition within the Pakistani supreme-court, asking it to declare the drone attacks “illegal and unconstitutional”. The petition requested that the supply of facilities or logistics (including intelligence?) to foreign country or ally (namely the U.S.) that allowed the destruction of Pakistani territory as a result of drone attacks be branded illegal. In addition to this, it also asked that “such acts should also be declared a violation of the United Nations charter, the universal declaration on human rights, international laws and international humanitarian laws”.
Compounding the criticism, a recent working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in the U.S. has found “strong evidence for a revenge affect” when looking at the results of civilian deaths by coalition forces, according to Wired News. Although the paper, doesn’t actually examine the results of civilian deaths from drone attacks, given the level of backlash from all sides, a similar outcome (the radicalisation of civilians) is likely. This sentiment has been echoed by U.S. counter-insurgency advisor Dr David Kilcullen, quoted on Wired News as saying “If we want to strengthen our friends and weaken our enemies in Pakistan, bombing Pakistani villages with unmanned drones is totally counterproductive”.

If the criticism from both sides of the conflict wasn’t enough, the robotics themselves have been called into question, with the LA Times reporting that a “Pentagon accident reports reveal that the pilotless aircraft suffer from frequent system failures, computer glitches and [ironically] human error”.
In the rush to launch this new dimension of combat, problems with the systems were never fully ironed out, and investigators have cited pilot mistakes, coordination snafus, software failures, outdated technology and inadequate flight manuals. According to the article, 38 drones have crashed while on combat missions, in both Afghanistan and Iraq and nine more on bases in the U.S.
Although the proportion of crashes is falling (get it?), the increased dependency on the craft is increasing the basic figures. The number of flight hours increased three fold in 2009 from 2006, totaling 185,000, and the Air Force expects the number to increase to 300,000 this year. Interestingly, these figures again do not include the attacks over the Pakistani boarder, just those used by the ground forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, because the Pentagon does not acknowledge the program. Yet, given that they are the same craft, it follows that they are susceptible to the same problems as the ones encountered in acknowledged use, a logic stated by “international experts” in the LA Times.

This new potential rift in relations between the U.S. (and by implication its allies) and Pakistan, a traditional ally in the region, is likely to deepen the alliance between Kabul and Karachi, especially now that troop pull-out deadlines have started to be announced from both Washington and London.

Written by rythmist

July 12, 2010 at 11:24 am

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Urban Farming Takes Root in London

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Last year, just before I graduated, I helped to spearhead a project at my university to start an on-campus vegetable allotment. As the only campus-based university in London we were an ideal location for such a scheme. We held a few tentative but excited initial meetings: there was myself and one other student, a geography lecturer and a senior voice from the ‘estates’ department; the people responsible for maintenance of the university grounds. ‘Estates’ were the people we had to get on board if anything significant was going to happen. As it turned out, not only did they give us their permission, but our contact within the department was as driven about the idea as we were. A good start. The next hurdle was finding a suitable spot on the grounds. After much umming, erring and wistful padding around, we consulted ‘Dave’, from Eco Gardens, and he highlighted a spot with both ample space for growth (vertically and horizontally) and good access to sunlight. And so began the construction of the first raised bed; four of us headed down to the spot and found the equipment estates had left for us: an axe, a saw, a large mallet and some wooden steaks. By driving sharpened steaks into the stone-riddled ground we erected a rudimentary bed that would hold soil. Since these conceptual seeds were sewn, we used the university’s Go Green Week as an opportunity to hold a ‘help start the allotment day’, about 20 people came and we got 4 or 5 beds dug and built, now there are over 20. The surrounding vicinity has been transformed into an outdoor amphitheatre, there is a small, well-equipped play area for children, a permanent shed for all the tools, a compost heap and a use was found for the 40-odd tonnes of fertile topsoil lying around. As well as this, the garden has extended its community outreach in conjunction with Catch 22, a scheme aimed at helping young people from rough backgrounds who see unemployment, crime and poverty as the norm. They have dug their own beds to grow, which as well as offering them something constructive to channel their energy into, goes some way to dismantling the social barriers between the university and the surrounding council estate.

From Roehampton University in London’s leafy suburban south-west to Stratford, in the city’s gritty industrial north-east, the area allocated as the site for the 2012 Olympic games. Just around the corner from the Olympic development site lies another community-run initiative called Abbey Gardens. The name derives from the (almost indecipherable) ruins of what used to be a gatehouse to the 12th century Langthorn Abbey. One of the founders of the project, Dasha, told me of motivations for the project, “[before] it was an eye-sore”. Dasha lives directly opposite the plot, and before the transformation into a garden, the small site was so over-grown with thistles, weeds and various other organic shiznit that the local council had to haul in industrial machinery to clear it; “individual volunteers couldn’t have done it”, she told me. Dasha’s motivation highlights one of the many benefits of urban farms: their aesthetic value. Penned in from all sides by corrugated iron warehouses, industrial sites and building machinery, the diversity of colour, grass and notable tranquillity constitutes a visual oasis in a plane grey stone and steel. I was given a tour by the volunteer know-how man, Hamish, who runs the three-weekly gardening sessions. He explained that after clearing out the debris they found the soil to be contaminated, rendering it unusable for growing. 20cm of this soil, spanning the entire space, was excavated and a semi-permeable membrane was used, allowing things to go down, but nothing from the contaminated side to come up.

On a busy day 20 people will turn up for one of these sessions. Interested in the various reasons for attending, Hamish informed me that mainly its for the learning experience. Education is one of the more long-term and deeply rooted benefits harvested from community-based urban farming: learning basics of vegetable growing and how the farms’ eco-systems function contributes to a sustainable livelihood by equipping the participants with the knowledge to grow, and possibly sell, their own food. By way of catering to as wider audience as possible the participants also grow wild flowers and other non-edibles. As we padded slowly between the risen beds, Hamish guided me through the crops and flowers: coriander, courgettes, globe artichokes, carrots, parsley, various types of onions, tomatoes, nasturtiums, fox gloves and others besides. At one point I mentioned I liked how they weren’t just growing crops, but by planting bee-friendly flowers and such, they were fostering the garden’s eco-system. His response was unexpected; “I’m not even sure how much this type of gardening is good for the environment”.
“Really?” I responded with genuine surprise.
“Well it’s still very controlled, there’s not much room for random stuff to grow”. Good point. As we had walked around, he’d nonchalantly pulled out weeds, and I had wondered just how closely this garden resembled a more rural or natural ecology. While aesthetics drove the initial effort to revamp the space, Abbey Garden’s successes have gone far beyond that: Hamish showed me the recently installed ‘honesty box’, where vegetables from the garden can be placed next to a tin for money, and people wishing to take food are asked to drop money in: a system built entirely on trust. All the food that is grown is harvested and distributed for free, and the organisers hold food festivals festival, and they have a small group of regular gardeners.

London is seeing a not-insignificant upsurge in similar or related projects. Capitalgrowth.org, one of the funding sources for Abbey Gardens, is a network that aims to provide both funding and “practical advice and support to communities around London, and helps people get access to land to create successful food growing spaces”. Capital Growth is coordinated by the London Food Link, and is aligned with the Sustain network, both of which have the principles of food accessibility, sustainability, livelihood improvement and culture blending at their cores.

While individual community rationales behind starting gardens may differ, Capital Growth highlights a few factors that seem to permeate many if not all of them:

In recent years there has been a tremendous upsurge of interest in food growing. This is in response to concerns about food prices, food miles and the environment. It is also because people want better access to good, healthy and affordable food, and to enjoy cultivating beautiful green spaces and meeting local people.

The principles of access to organic food, sustainability and self-sufficiency were by far-and-away the driving forces behind the Roehampton allotment, aiming to provide students with a near-free source of healthy food. As well as this, it has aimed right from the off to ignite the social benefits (such as working with Catch 22) as well as the environmental and food-based ones. Although one of the primary drives behind Abbey Gardens was to be rid of an eyesore, the benefits outlined above were some of the garden’s main success stories.
The various projects in urban farming also highlight another crucially important development in urban life, lying in how community and individual empowerment can be expressed. For much of the recent past, going back several decades at least, one of the most acknowledged expressions of social discontent, either locally or in international solidarity is the boycott of certain products. While this can be an effective source of citizen leverage over companies causing widespread discontent, it does also, somewhat ironically, disempower those willing to wield it. By expressing discontent via, for example, a product boycott, it reduces the influence of those involved to what they can and cannot buy. Urban community farming retrieves this dependence and puts the siamese twins of power and responsibility back into the hands of the community and the individual. The two overt forms of expressed self-dependency, food production and income, go along way to maintaining a healthy and sustainable livelihood.

Written by rythmist

July 9, 2010 at 2:34 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Rain, Rice, and a School on a Mountain.

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Although having an actual showerhead attached to a pipe constituted a bit of a luxury, the water at that time of day was so cold that the only mental tool I had to propel myself into it was by telling myself “it’s not getting any warmer…”.

I padded across the courtyard for my morning ritual of chai with Jagdish and his family and to read my copy of The Times of India, whilst Akash and Vivec watched cartoons starring Indian gods.

I sat outside in the cool, damp morning and waited for the jeep and the social workers.  Nakeran and I started talking about what lay ahead of us that day, and laughing at his comical take on the differences between western-style concepts of organisation, and how Indians, particularly those working for grass-roots organisations, conduct themselves.  Having done anthropology for his post-graduate degree meant not only was he acutely aware of cultural discrepancies, he was engagingly articulate about describing them.  He explained to me how before working for UNICEF, he had been in charge of running 4 or 5 NGOs in India, and had tried time-and-again to hammer home concepts such as punctuality, pre-planning and time keeping.  With the conclusion “I failed on every front” we both laughed out loud.  According to his analysis, Indian people working within the grass-roots sector make a connection between working outside of a formal institution and informal work habits. As such they tend not to adhere to codes of work habits, such as punctuality or time-keeping in the same way that westerners or their neighbours working for a large multi-national might.

About two hours after the pre-arranged meeting time, the rest of the social workers for the project joined us, as did the transport.  We piled into two jeeps, and thankfully I was traveling with Nakeran, whose intelligence, sometimes darkly ironic sense of humour, and immaculate English made for irresistible conversation.  We stopped briefly at a small rickety road-side café for breakfast: chai with deep-fried bread rolls and dried, whole green chillies, as standard.  As we continued out of Nasik City there seemed to develop a correlation between how rough and mountainous our surroundings were and how hard the rain came down.  By the time we had reached the first of the villages on our list, the heavens had completely opened up and started emptying its gutters.  We dropped off the first two of our group and continued our journey higher into the stunning scenery.

We had come out here as part of a jointly run scheme with UNICEF aimed at building awareness for adolescent women on issues such as family and life planning, sexual health and awareness and nutritional awareness.

When we reached our destination village, we were shown into the school. The school was the only concrete building in the small collection of rag-tag houses, which were constituted primarily of mud and sticks, with the roofing being provided by the tiles made in the village.  And then I saw something I will never forget, an image I know I will be recounting for years to come: scanning one of the houses next to me, I noticed a hole the size of a bed had found its way into the roofing, and I thought “jesus, look at that”, and yet, not 3 meters away on said roof, lay a satellite.  For a television…

We walked into the school and the image in front of me manifested in a small knot arriving in my gut.  About 20 toddlers sat on old gym mats on the floor eating a simple looking meal from bowls in the sole room that formed the building.  The food turned out to be as simple as it looked, just wheat with water and sugar.  We sat on chairs near the entrance and returned the gentle gaze of the inquisitive youngsters, most of whom had probably never seen a white man before.  In classic poverty-stricken style, they offered us some of the food that had been prepared for the children, Nakeran took only a small morsel so as to establish their diet.  He pointed at the head of one of the students nearest to us, and verbally noted the, quite stylish looking, streaks of light brown highlights in the boy’s otherwise jet-black hair.  Looking around I saw that he wasn’t alone, many of the children bore this apparently fashionable mark.  It turned out to be the result of chronic malnutrition.

After a short discussion in Marathi about what was going to happen (I was therefore unable to contribute), the children filed out through the door next to us, and we followed them.  We strolled leisurely around the village, surveying the structural damage to many of the buildings and generally doing a bit of exploring.  I was almost unable to process the breathtaking mountainous scenery.  Later, as Nakeran, the driver and I sat in the jeep avoiding the torrential rain munching biscuits the driver had bought us to snack on, I couldn’t help but be mildly put-off by the driver crassly throwing his plastic wrappers out his window onto the beautiful countryside.  When he saw me put mine in my pocket, he offered, with hand gestures as he didn’t speak any English, to thrown mine out for me.  I refused and asked Nakeran how people could discard their litter so carelessly.  His response was to work me through the logic of my own query:

“well, what do you do with it?” he asked rhetorically.

“I put it in my pocket and wait till I get home and put it in the bin”

“Then what happens?” he continued, knowing full-well where this was heading.

“The guy that works for the local community comes and take the rubbish from my bin in the morning”.

“Ok, so he takes your rubbish, what do you think he does with it?”

“err…” I responded dumbly, slowly catching on.

“throws it out on to the street” he said with his ironic sense of humour shining through the smile on his face.

After the meeting with the girls in the school had finished, the teacher took us to her home to eat.  The food, like absolutely everything I ate during those 6 weeks, was beautiful, and the prevailing near pitch-black darkness in the electricity-less hut meant I couldn’t even see it.  There was sticky rice, and some sort of thin but delicious sauce.

We crammed back into the jeep to pick up the 6 other social workers on our way back and while they discussed their findings and the project with Nakeeran, I slept soundly.  When I got back to the office I was using as bedroom, I prepared some Kijadi (masala rice) on my one-burner and pressure cooker, sat on my thin matress and the basked in the distinct feeling of satisfaction that ran over me.  I had been here one-and-a-half weeks, yet this was the first time I had actually done any work. This had, until now, resulted in an accute feeling of frustration which compounded the fatigue from jetlag, intense culture shock and home-sickness that had actually made me consider abandoning the whole trip.  The spear-point of this crippling sensation had now been blunted and replaced with a renewed sense of drive.

Written by rythmist

July 9, 2010 at 2:29 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Life in a Communal Rubbish Tip

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By this point it was about 2 in the morning, and there must have been thousands of them, all walking on the side of the dusty motorway, heading in the same direction as us.  They all bore various bits of religious paraphernalia, and as we drove on and on, so did the seemingly endless stream of people.  After asking the orthopedic surgeon in the back, whose English was probably better than mine, it transpired they were pilgrims on their way from Mumbai to the religious focal point of Nasik City, where I was to be based for the next 6 weeks.

As I learned in the following days, these aren’t the only people migrating to Nasik City. Like many Cities in India, Nasik plays host to an increasing number of Indians from the poor rural and mountainous countryside.  The rural and tribal poor migrating to Nasik don’t make the long journey for religious reasons, they go because their local economies are unstable and undependable.  Thus they seek work in the cities, where they have the possibility of securing labour on a daily basis, but at the end of the road they learn what it’s like to live under the boot of dishonest contractors, inconsiderate city planners and discriminating local residents.  In this was the reason behind my being there: I was on my way to work as an intern for an NGO called The Disha Foundation, which works to improve the livelihoods of the migrant labourers.  We drove on, and although I was severely fatigued I found it difficult to sleep, captivated as I was by the colourfully decorated trucks, all with “horn ok, please” written in flowery and cheerful English lettering on the back.

As a result of the aforementioned unstable local economies, debts are high.  Really high.  Case studies compiled by Disha highlight various factors that cause this, but two of the most prominent ones are hospital bills, and wedding costs.

The migrants come to Nasik City in the hope of being employed on a day-to-day basis, to pay back these debts, but with no guarantee of work.  Many of them live within the city in domicile communities known as Wastis, and walking onto a wasti community for the first time was an experience that I expect to stay with me to the grave.

The first thing is the smell.  A sensation akin to several hair-fine razor sharp needles being forced slowly up just under the skin inside the nostril and up through the sinuses.

There aren’t many things that can create such a first impression, but piles of municipal waste roasting in the midday Indian sun is one of them.

Then comes vision and the realisation that in and around this waste and smell there is the faint pulse of a community.  Children, some of them infants, in the endlessly innovative and religiously positive way that only children can muster, use this urban discharge as centre-pieces for their games.  I get introduced to a few of the residents of this particular Wasti, and spend a few moments collecting and processing the surrounding situation.

I start snapping away on my expensive digital camera unable to shrug a nagging itch telling me there is something inherently wrong with reducing destitution to a photo opportunity.  Of course I rationalise over this: ‘you’re taking photos so that you can communicate some sense of what these people live through’ I find myself mentally reiterating several times.  Besides, they don’t mind having their picture taken, that was something I’d asked in the first week of being here. Its fine.  More than once I walked on to a Wasti to take pictures for Disha, and was greeted by one of the residents striking a comical, camera friendly pose without a word being uttered.  But there’s that funny thing about rationalising over feelings: that critical preposition, over.  It doesn’t replace or anesthetise the feeling, it just envelops it with a softening explanation.

The wasti shelters barely look as if they would withstand a strong gust, most of them are just tarpaulins covering branches and wood that have been erected into rudimentary house shapes.  Surrounded by waste of course. And animals.

No privacy, no sanitation, nothing.  There is less provision and infrastructure here than in the slums.  The slums at least are permanent structures, with the ability to shelter traces of dignified living conditions.  And of course they have no choice, the lack of a robust and stable rural economy or community organisation compels entire families to migrate to one of these Wasti communities. Cooking, washing, playing and, for many, sleeping, are all done out in the naked open.  And here they stay, for roughly 8 to 10 months of the year, a lifestyle so far removed from my own it doesn’t seem possible.  Of course I’ve seen pictures of this kind of thing before: emotive Oxfam ads and such.  But when confronted and surrounded by it physically, it’s a sensation that no amount of reading or education can prepare for.  A moment of mild melancholia sets in firmly.  The space is a large open stretch of concrete in the dead centre of the city, with the thickly polluted vein of the holy river running through the middle.  The tarpaulin shelters are scattered around in no particular fashion, with sleeping bags, cooking equipment, clothes and general piles of personal belongings filling the gaps between.  This is the biggest community of this type here, the most open, lying on one side of the bridge. And on the other: one of the most religious and spiritual places in India; the pilgrimage destination for millions to wash themselves in the river, and one of the only places in the entire country where relatives can be cremated.  But this side of the bridge is devoid of anything resembling spiritual: this isn’t just the bottom rung, this is under the rubber feet that steady the ladder.

Written by rythmist

July 9, 2010 at 2:24 pm

Posted in Uncategorized