24 April 2010

The scramble for Africa

By Marguerite Finn

A recent report from the United Nations University (UNU) commented on the tragic irony that India is a country now wealthy enough for half of the people there to own mobile phones while the other half cannot afford the basic necessity and dignity of a toilet. In fact, India has some 545 million cell phones – enough to serve 45 per cent of the population, while only 366 million people have access to decent sanitation.

That is just one of many humanitarian challenges facing India today. Another is finding enough food to feed its growing population - currently standing at over 1 billion – approximately 15 percent of the world's population. One method they have chosen is to join in the 'land grabbing' currently occurring in Africa. The Indian Government has lent money to 80 companies to buy 350,000 hectares of land in Africa on which to grow food for their domestic market.

Nowhere in Africa is out of bounds in this 21st century scramble for Africa. Leading the rush to grow food there are investment banks, agribusinesses, commodity traders as well as UK pension funds. But not all the land is used for growing food. Land to grow biofuel crops is also in demand and the biofuel land grab in Africa is displacing both farmers and food production. For example, China has just signed a mega-contract with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to grow 2.8 million hectares of palm oil for biofuels. South Korea's Daewoo recently signed a 99-year lease for 1.3 million hectares of agricultural land in Madagascar to grow biofuels.

What is driving developed countries to re-colonise Africa in this way? The finance wizards say it is both an investment risk and an opportunity – but it is not clear that safeguards are always built into negotiations to protect the African farmers turfed off their land. The head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation warned that the controversial rise in land deals could create a new form of colonialism – with poor countries producing food for wealthy countries at the expense of their own people.

A major trigger for this new phenomenon was the food crisis in 2008, which caused prices to soar and caught many countries off-guard. Frightened by the food crisis, some net food importers like the UK are investing in foreign farmland and exporting the food to themselves.

The availability of water is another factor in the land-grabbing business. For example, Saudi Arabia is thought to be one of the biggest buyers and in 2008 actually reduced its domestic cereal production by 12 percent a year to conserve its water! This means that Saudi Arabia is not only acquiring Africa's prime agricultural land but also is securing for itself the equivalent of hundreds of millions of gallons of Africa’s scarce water every year. Concern is now mounting in the international community because so much land is being targeted for its good water supplies.

Where does Britain stand in all this? British firms have secured vast tracts of land in Angola, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Tanzania to grow flowers and vegetables. A report in The Independent on 19 April warns that a potential global water crisis in coming decades could cause UK food prices to "skyrocket" - damaging the UK economy.

Direct water consumption in the UK is around 145 litres per person per day, but this does not include the “virtual water” which is embodied in the food, clothes and goods we import. When virtual water is taken into account the average daily water footprint of people in the UK is 4,643 litres per person.

Bearing this in mind, does it make sense to build an 'eco-town' on agricultural land at Rackeath, straining existing water supplies?. Wouldn't it be better to use that precious land to grow our food and not import food from countries where the population is often starving?

17 April 2010

The politics of powerdown

By Charlotte Du Cann

Last Sunday I met my first climate denier. It was at a play about climate change called Turning the Tide, that mirrored the dilemmas of a small rural community engaged in carbon reduction. Afterwards the director invited the audience to debate the issues in the play and that's when Climate Denier started to fill us in on some stats about Arctic ice and sunspots.

Even though the elections have replaced CO2 levels as the hot topic, it's clear our focus has shifted in the last four years. Planetary issues have entered our ordinary lives. The political parties may be playing their traditional game of musical chairs, pointing fingers at each other and making big promises, but we're not listening to them in the same way we used to.

Climate Denier was monopolising a conversation all of us were supposed to be having. In a time of uncertainty he sounded convinced, oblivious to everyone else in the room. Every sentence began with "I". But "We" Climate Fools did not believe him.

Civilisations are obsessed with power, the power to conquer the world like Alexander, to lay other countries waste and keep everyone else underfoot. They rule by division and conflict. As a result we become individualists seeking power at every turn: the power to go fast, to be above it all, to Have Our Say, with our power-hungry machines, our cars, our aeroplanes, our computers where we sit like the Wizard of Oz controlling everything… except the weather.

Last autumn I became part of a group of Transitioners who decided to voluntarily "powerdown" – to cut our personal carbon emissions to 50% of the national average over a year. We looked at transport, energy, food and "stuff" and began to consider our impact not only on eco-systems, but on the people who make our materially-acquisitive, fossil-fuelled lifestyles possible. And that's when equity started to kick in.

Climate change is a great leveller. The more you possess, the more carbon you emit. When you measure your life according to energy and resource use, you discover fair-share between people and nations. When you're struggling for power and material pleasures you're only thinking about Me and Them.

Something unforeseen happened as we engaged in this low-carbon life. We started to give each other things, swap seeds, buy food co-operatively and create our own culture. For some of us the economic downturn had already become a reality. So you wouldn't say we were better off, but in terms of conscience we were clearer, we were closer to the earth. And we didn't feel on our own anymore.

The reason most of us struggle for power is because no one wants to be humiliated and alone at the bottom of the heap. No matter what politicians promise, someone in our "one nation" will be required to be in the scapegoat position. The neighbour, the immigrant, the girl who wears the unfashionable shoes.

When you voluntarily powerdown the drive for success stops. The hostility stops. You might not know all the science behind climate change, but you know the world powered by that drive doesn't feel right. You have faced enough realities, crunched enough numbers, to see how to radically change your life. It's not a decision you've made in your mind, it's a heart decision, based on fair-play. And so the voices you listen to no longer belong to the loud and dominant. The issues you care about are happening everywhere on the planet, as well as the neighbourhood you live in. And that's when you find the people you've been looking for all your life.

Turning the Tide by Peppy Barlow was performed by the Open Space Theatre Co.

10 April 2010

If now is the time for cuts – let’s scrap Trident

By David Seddon

As the election campaign gets under way, it is clear that all parties will need to address the looming budget deficit. Indeed, it may well turn out that how they approach it will determine the results of the election.

Labour promises to reduce the budget deficit by half in the lifetime of the next Parliament, but starting in 2011 to prevent falling back into recession and protecting certain areas; the Conservatives have indicated they would start earlier but cut harder, although they also have 'ring-fenced' key areas for protection and are now talking of foregoing Labour's proposed increase in natural insurance contributions.

The Lib-Dems are 'hard-nosed' about the need for major cuts and ridicule the idea that some areas can be protected, arguing this would mean even deeper, possibly ruinous cuts in 'unprotected' areas. Nick Clegg has referred to the need for 'savage' cuts and Vince Cable has spelled out in more detail than either Darling or Osborne precisely how he would go about it.

Unlike Labour and the Tories, the Lib-Dems have addressed seriously the possibility of major cuts in so-called 'defence' projects. In June 2009, Clegg announced that he "would not renew Britain's Trident nuclear deterrent system with an equivalent modernised system". Hitherto, the Lib Dems had called for a 50% cut in nuclear warheads, but left open the possibility they would support like-for-like replacement for Trident in 2024. Clegg told the Guardian he was making the move because of the rapidly deteriorating public finances and because the case for such a nuclear deterrent in the post-cold war world was "a complete fiction".

He was said at the time to be the first – and only – leading politician to argue openly against a full-scale Trident replacement. But several leading members of the Green Party (including Caroline Lucas, now leader of the Greens, and Sian Berry, former Green Party Principal Speaker) were already on record as opposed to "the danger, expense and folly of renewing Trident". Only the Greens currently propose scrapping Trident.

The cost of replacing the Trident nuclear missile system and bringing into operation two large aircraft carriers could total £130bn. Trident alone could cost as much as £100 billion if replaced on a 'like-for-like' basis, while the cost of the carriers, including the US-made F35 aircraft designed to fly from them, could be as much as £30 billion. Even with three Vanguard submarines instead of four, as has been mooted, the savings would be small (maybe £3 billion).

On 15 September 2009, Vince Cable was reported as suggesting that the Lib-Dems would scrap the Eurofighter upgrade - saving £5 billion - and Trident - and the A400M transport plane. But in fact the Lib Dems have only opposed a full-scale Trident replacement. Clegg has actually considered equipping Astute submarines with nuclear cruise missiles, such as the Tomahawk; he also has suggested Britain, like Japan, could retain a stockpile of safeguarded fissile material that could be turned into a nuclear missile within six to 24 months. So, even the Lib Dems are not prepared to scrap Trident entirely or to abandon the UK's so-called 'independent' nuclear capability.

In fact, 'our' Trident missiles are leased from the US and their warheads based on an American design (the W-76). They are manufactured at the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Berkshire – a copy of a nuclear plant at Los Alamos and two-thirds owned by American companies Lockheed Martin and Jacobs Engineering. The firing system is designed and built in the US, as is the missile guidance system; the missiles are aimed with the help of US satellites. The subs themselves are designed and built in the Britain, but use American components and reactor technology. Finally, Britain could never use Trident without US approval. So much for independence!

This week, in Prague, Presidents Obama and Medvedev ratified a nuclear arms reduction agreement, replacing the expired Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, effectively reducing their deployed nuclear warheads by 30 per cent to 1,550. If the USA and Russia can do this, surely Britain can now scrap Trident, thereby doing away with the myth of an 'independent' nuclear deterrent, contributing to global multi-lateral nuclear disarmament, and making great savings at the same time?

3 April 2010

Unions are not the cause of current crisis

By Trevor Phillips

A tabloid journalist recently described the UNITE union as "the terrorist wing of the trades union movement". It was an insult to workers, to journalism, to victims of terrorism and to our intelligence. Thankfully, millions of ordinary people are able to distinguish between the inconvenience of delayed journeys and the loss of a limb in a bomb attack.

Some media accuse unions of "bully boy tactics". But millions of UK workers choose to belong to unions because they know that bullying is most likely to come from unrestrained managers, driven by performance target pressures.

Yes, it has been open season on unions again recently, with familiar clich├ęs employed in an attempt to discredit people who, worried about paying bills if they lose their job or their wages are reduced, find themselves with no option but to take strike action.

We are told unions are "holding the country to ransom" when in fact the country has been held to ransom not by unions or pickets with placards but by casino banks and City speculators with Porsches. The ransom is about to be paid by us, the community.

Banks are already extracting vast profits from the publicly funded recovery, and still pay huge bonuses. The ransom to fund this will be public service cuts, wage freezes and devalued pensions. We could see closure of community facilities, cuts in health services, reduced support for the vulnerable, higher public transport fares and a diminishing quality of life. Many workers in the public sector may pay the highest ransom: losing their jobs or pensions, while tabloid bile vilifies their resistance and seeks to create a myth of "70s style union militancy". In fact, working days lost this year through industrial action are not even a fiftieth of 1979 levels.

In the private sector, the economic crisis intensifies competition and employers seek to cut labour costs. Competing employers then cut even deeper, in a race to the bottom: a low-wage, low-employment economy of diminished rights, pay and services. But BA cabin staff, on a basic of only £15,000 pa after five years service, can expect more howls of 'terrorist' from media jackals who tell them to accept unnegociated job changes and work for the pittance paid by some other airlines.

Having worked in trade unions for the last decade I have witnessed unions trying to promote fairness and justice: assisting disabled workers, increasing learning opportunities for low paid staff and combating discrimination. As a press officer I also saw anti-union media constantly reject positive news of unions' ideas and contributions. There was no space for stories of worker sacrifice and achievement. But there was always space for distorted coverage of disputes.

The work of unions is a valuable part of our democracy. For example, trade unionists, climate activists and academics recently produced A Million Climate Jobs Now, a report commissioned by unions CWU, PCS, TSSA and UCU. This is a well researched, costed plan for an immediate programme to lead the UK out of recession and towards sustainability. It would greatly benefit us all. This forward looking work offers realistic alternatives to the job cuts and slashing of public services which the major parties tell us are inevitable.

While creating a sustainable economy, we cannot ditch millions into unemployment or waged poverty, creating suffering and social upheaval. There must be a 'Just Transition' to the new economy with new, quality jobs for old. The many advantages of a low carbon economy must be shared by all and the costs of change must be borne fairly, not just by the unemployed or vulnerable workers. Unions are certainly not the cause of the current crisis but they are contributing ideas for solutions. We should be listening to them. And when their jobs and our community's services are threatened - we should be backing them.