2010 - %3, November

Terrifying Widget of the Day

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 11:56 AM PST

I just spent a few minutes on the website of the Population Institute, and according to the fast-moving, somewhat panic-inducing ticker in the upper right corner of the home page, the world population grew by some 6,000 people in that time.

What's the problem? These stats from Julia Whitty's recent Mother Jones cover story:

As recently as 1965, when the world population stood at 3.3 billion, we collectively taxed only 70 percent of the Earth's biocapacity each year. That is, we used only 7/10 of the land, water, and air the planet could regenerate or repair yearly to produce what we consumed and to absorb our greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Global Footprint Network, a California think tank, we first overdrew our accounts in 1983, when our population of nearly 4.7 billion began to consume natural resources faster than they could be replenished—a phenomenon called "ecological overshoot." Last year, 6.8 billion of us consumed the renewable resources of 1.4 Earths.

[...]

The only known solution to ecological overshoot is to decelerate our population growth faster than it's decelerating now and eventually reverse it—at the same time we slow and eventually reverse the rate at which we consume the planet's resources. Success in these twin endeavors will crack our most pressing global issues: climate change, food scarcity, water supplies, immigration, health care, biodiversity loss, even war. On one front, we've already made unprecedented strides, reducing global fertility from an average 4.92 children per woman in 1950 to 2.56 today—an accomplishment of trial and sometimes brutally coercive error, but also a result of one woman at a time making her individual choices. The speed of this childbearing revolution, swimming hard against biological programming, rates as perhaps our greatest collective feat to date.

Check out what all we're up against here. And this excellent companion piece about how it's kind of the Vatican's fault here.

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What's Happening in Haiti: Elections Edition

| Mon Nov. 29, 2010 12:00 PM PST

Here's the CliffsNotes version: Yesterday the country's first post-quake elections were held. By midday, most of the 18 candidates banded together to denounce the vote, claiming that the government was fixing the race in favor of the candidate from President Rene Preval's party. The government says ballots were only destroyed at 3.5 percent of polling stations, so the vote stands. Today, some protesters in Port-au-Prince are blocking roads and setting stuff on fire; supporters of Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly, a popular musician, are getting teargassed. Unfortunately, the ugliness has a long time to escalate: Results aren't expected for more than a week. And things are likely to get worse before they get better. "The people," one of my Haitian friends texted me this morning, "want Preval's head."
 

Liberia: African Feminists Look Like This

| Mon Nov. 22, 2010 2:30 PM PST

Editors' Note: Laura McClure is traveling in Liberia this month on an IRP Gatekeeper Editors trip organized by the International Reporting Project (IRP).

The Liberian lady holding our latest issue is Margreat Malley, one of the market women leaders in the West African Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP).

She—along with Etweda "Sugars" Cooper and the other smart, fearless feminists pictured here—helped bring an end to Liberia's civil war through nonviolent protests and mass sit-ins. (Watch the documentary "Pray the Devil Back to Hell" to learn more about their struggle.)

Etweda "Sugars" CooperEtweda "Sugars" Cooper

Now the Liberian women's movement faces a new challenge: With peace on the ground and Africa's first female president in office, can leaders find a way to engage younger feminists? Malley leads the call and response you'll hear in the recording below, taped in Liberia earlier this month. (Click the little arrow below this paragraph to play the recording.) The words she's singing: "Tomorrow's a brand new day."

Liberian peace activists

Stay tuned for more Africa dispatches.

Cholera and Conspiracy Theories in Haiti

| Thu Nov. 18, 2010 11:20 AM PST

More than a thousand people have died of cholera in Haiti over the last few weeks. Now, a couple more have been shot dead by the UN peacekeeping force, MINUSTAH, during protests that erupted earlier this week. Rumors that the disease, never present in the country before, was brought in by Nepalese UN troops were exacerbated by a CDC announcement that the strain resembles South Asian cholera. The protests the peacekeepers are trying to keep under control are against the peacekeepers themselves. 

Or are they? Here's what the UN says: "The way in which the events unfolded leads to the belief that the incidents had a political motivation, aimed at creating a climate of insecurity on the eve of the elections."

Well, here's what a lot of Haitians, who don't have the benefit of using CNN as an outlet for their message, will tell you: They are honestly not wild about having 12,000 foreigners with guns walking around their country like they own the place and on occasion shooting unarmed civilians, or threatening to shoot unarmed civilians in the face, which many people feel may not be the best use of a lot of international money when their standard of living remains abysmally low. 

So far, the bulk of the violence and people setting up burning tires and barricades has been concentrated in Cap-Hatien, a city way north of Port-au-Prince. When I told one of my friends in the capital to please not get shot againhe took a bullet to the head in a robbery some years backhe said there's no trouble whatsoever there: "My wife is out buying shoes." But just like the quiet in Cap-Hatien this morning, the peace in Port-au-Prince, my friend expects, may not last. This is the guy who told me to calm down and quit overreacting when a hurricane was barreling toward the country. And he is, unlike the UN, not easily given to conspiracy theories. But in the face of the growing anger at MINUSTAH, the climbing cholera death toll, the oncoming elections? "Right now, we are fucked," he says. "Shit is going to hit the fan."

Aung San Suu Kyi's Release "Just the Beginning"

| Mon Nov. 15, 2010 11:00 AM PST

This weekend, Burmese Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, where she spent the better part of the last two decades. So. Now what?

(If your first question is actually Why was it again that she was imprisoned?, here's your primer: In 1988, Burma erupted into mass protest against the dictatorship, and Aung San Suu Kyi became a symbol of a new order because her dad was Aung San, father of independence, national hero, assassinated in 1947. She started giving speeches and leading a political party, the National League for Democracy, so she was locked up by the military government. After the NLD won the 1990 elections and the dictatorship decided to just void the results, she was kept locked up, except for two brief releases. During one of which the government tried to kill her, staging an unsuccessful assassination attempt.)

Let's start with the reasons she was let go. The military government says it's because her sentencing time was up, but over the last 20 years, her time's been up lots of times, and they've always just renewed and extended it, so no, that's not a plausible explanation. And entertaining the possibility that the ruling generals who plunder the country and propagate ethnic cleansing campaigns had a fit of anything remotely resembling magnanimity or a change of heart is absurd. More likely, Aung San Suu Kyi's release is a sign that they're so secure in the status quo that they didn't feel they needed to incarcerate her anymore. Her release also lends further credibility to the charade of democracy the regime started enacting with its rigged elections last week. And Aung San Suu Kyi's imprisonment was one of the only lasting points of Burmese oppression anyone actually talked about. Newspapers, politicians paid some lip service to her incarceration periodically, bringing unwanted attention to the otherwise isolated regime. 

The generals are right that making progress won't be easy for Aung San Suu Kyi. Their party won the majority of legislative seats in the election. Her party was legally disbanded after it boycotted, at her advice, the polls, which caused divisions within the party as well. And while her release was score one for the generals' honoring the most basic standards of human rights, there are still more than two thousand other, less famous, political prisoners in the country. To say nothing of that aforementioned ethnic cleansing, or the rebel militia from one of those minorities currently wreaking havoc on the eastern border.

But she's got some momentum—and many thousands of crowding fans—behind her, too: She's been hustling around giving interviews and speeches and calling for a chat with the generals, not that anybody (UN envoys, American presidents, whatever) ever got anything out of talking to them. She's announced she's going to work on a new agreement of peace and cooperation between the majority and minority groups, like the one her father made decades ago but that was never honored because of his death.

She doesn't have any real political power to actually implement these idealistic policies. She does have one very important tool, though: the fans. "I'm glad that you are welcoming me and supporting me," she told a crowd this weekend. "I want to say that there will be a time to come out. Do not stay quiet when that time comes." If anybody could mobilize the much-needed revolution in Burma, it'd be her. Whether or not she'll do it, and whether the military will fracture and fall to an uprising or just violently squash it like it usually does, remains to be seen. Like one old lady outside Aung San Suu Kyi's house said on Saturday, "I’m happier than if I won the lottery. But this is just the beginning, not the end." 

Liberia: Where the Rubber Trees Meet the Road

| Mon Nov. 15, 2010 4:00 AM PST

Editors' Note: Laura McClure is traveling in Liberia this month on an IRP Gatekeeper Editors trip organized by the International Reporting Project (IRP).

We're in a yellow school bus jouncing across Firestone's rubber tree plantation when I notice that the air smells exactly like Sophie the Giraffe—or would, if Sophie were 50 feet tall and stalking through Liberia. Sophie, my kid's "green" European teether, is made of rubberwood (havea), which in addition to being a kid-safe renewable resource, exudes an intoxicating warm honey smell. It's the wet end of rainy season when our bus slashes through two leafy green walls of potential Sophies, the rubber trees rolling out to the horizon on both sides of the recently paved road. The green-hued air itself feels almost thick enough to chew. It is noticeably easier to breathe here than in Liberia's capitol.

"Me? I'm Pentecostal," says Comfort Willie, my hard-hat wearing Liberian seat mate. We are nattering on about the new houses Firestone built for its rubber workers, the crumbling brick buildings circa 1926, and the vast ecosystem of Christian churches in Liberia. Comfort, who in 2006 helped found the Firestone Agricultural Workers Union of Liberia with the online international help of United Steelworkers, is my new BFF. (When I disclosed earlier that I was in the Mother Jones union, she hugged me hard and said: "Eee! My union sister!," then waved over her labor colleagues to meet another member of the flock.)

If you ever wondered whether international labor organizing could make a difference in the lives of workers, so far as I can tell here on the ground the answer is yes. After Firestone Liberia was sued over allegations of not enforcing its own ban on child labor—an affair Firestone management heatedly describes as "bullshit"— a 2007 UNMIL report noted continuing problems, though US courts have dismissed one charge. As Comfort tells it, soon after rubber tappers went on a 28-day strike and unionized, management increased workers' take-home pay and began improving conditions for rubber workers on the plantation. I'd like to dig more deeply into these complex issues, so please, if you have tips for me, leave a comment. Here are some of the thorny unanswered questions I have: What exactly is the non-Liberian private security force's role on Firestone Plantation? Has forced labor really ended, or did it just move off the plantation into contracter-owned farms? Is there forced labor trafficking from neighboring countries? Who uses the company hospital, and why was it so empty the day we were there? How much money will the company really make off the old rubberwood they're cutting down now to make room for 5000 new seedlings a year? Just how Firestone-centric is the curriculum in the company-owned schools? Why do workers' take-home salaries remain so low? Why, after 82 years, isn't Firestone producing any rubber and rubberwood products in country? What are Firestone's plans to increase its corporate sustainable responsibility efforts in the coming years? Is there any way to use the word "plantation" without sounding, at best, like an insensitive clod?

At least the last question is easy: If you're a white American man with a thick Southern accent overseeing one in Africa, the answer is no. Especially when generations of workers living on your land have raised kids who also grow up to live and work on your land, receiving salary, housing, education, medical care, and a host of other goodies—all within the paternalistic embrace of one multinational company with strong ties to Nashville, TN.

I imagine that's why Charles Stuart, the president of Firestone Liberia, uses the word 'farm' instead. He seems, perhaps rightly, proud of recent corporate efforts to rebuild the national rubber industry that rebel armies destroyed and improve homes, schools, roads, and health care for Firestone workers, though there's plenty more to do. Like it or not, the Firestone plantation employs thousands of Liberians in a country where unemployment is currently upwards of 80 percent; these are coveted jobs. Indeed, with 5 Liberian doctors, 37 Liberian nurses, and 3 well-equipped ORs, Firestone's newly rebuilt hospital may actually be the best medical care facility currently in the country. So if the guy running the place was Malaysian instead of American, would I, as a Southerner, find it less fundamentally disquieting?

Before lunch at the air-conditioned, golf-trophy dotted country club at the heart of the Firestone plantation, we pass by a primary school with a metal American swing set painted green, red, and yellow. I'm still a little stunned on the bus ride over from our last stop: a high school tour, where we happened to walk by an English class in session. The teacher was asking students to repeat after him. Here's the classroom exchange we overheard:

Teacher: "Who made the decision to protect all the children?"

Students in unison: "Firestone."

Teacher: "Firestone, that's right! Firestone made the decision to protect all the children!"

You tell me: What the hell was that?

Stay tuned for more Africa dispatches.

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Liberia: This Baby Is Not Malnourished [PHOTO]

| Thu Nov. 11, 2010 7:34 PM PST

Believe it or not, most African babies aren't actually starving waifs. Here's an antidote to all those sad pics you've probably seen over the years that make you want to go find the nearest ledge:

Liberian baby held up by mom on baby weighing day at a local health clinic in MonroviaLiberian baby held up by his mom on baby weighing day at a local health clinic in Monrovia

Editors' Note: Laura McClure is traveling in Liberia this month on an IRP Gatekeeper Editors trip organized by the International Reporting Project (IRP). Stay tuned for more Africa dispatches.

Liberia: Candy From Strangers

| Wed Nov. 10, 2010 4:00 AM PST

Editors' Note: Laura McClure is traveling in Liberia this month on an IRP Gatekeeper Editors trip organized by the International Reporting Project (IRP).

Well, it's either a minor West African miracle or a Potemkin village conspiracy. So far not one Liberian child has asked me for pens, money, candy, stamps, my photo, their photo, a plane ticket, a tenfold price increase on a tourist item, or any address in the US.

I've traveled through 7 West African countries and never been this...not harassed. Good on you, Liberia! I imagine this attitudinal shift could make international funding for local fair-trade coffee projects, rainforest eco-lodge construction, and wandering-Australian-friendly surf camps a little easier to come by. Perhaps your neighbors could learn from this beautiful, baffling development. (Togo, I'm looking at you.)

MoJo Facebook fans: I've got your notes; thanks for your thoughtful questions. Answers coming this week after I track down the appropriate people here in Liberia. In the meantime, if you want to read a book about West Africa that will make you actually laugh out loud, here it is: Blue Clay People, William Powers' hilarious/excruciating account of life here as an NGO official focused on forest conservation. I'm reading it now; I'm at the end of Chapter 3 if you want to join me in an impromptu mini book club this week. (Spoiler alert: His guinea pig breeding experiment may run into a snag or two.)

Stay tuned for more Africa dispatches. Next post: Meet the women peace activists who ended Charles Taylor's bloody war. [PHOTOS AND AUDIO, GODS AND WIFI WILLING]

Liberia: Introducing the International Reporting Project

| Tue Nov. 9, 2010 4:15 AM PST

Editors' Note: Laura McClure is traveling in Liberia this month on an IRP Gatekeeper Editors trip organized by the International Reporting Project (IRP). The IRP, formerly known as the Pew International Journalism Program, is a nonprofit dedicated to filling gaps in American media coverage of international issues.

As always, Mac's got you covered on human rights issues. But this month, I'll be joining her in blogging on the Africa front. I'm here in Liberia for a few weeks—along with 10 US-based editors from outlets such as NPR, the Washington Post, and The Root—to see how a country rebuilds after a gruesome and protracted civil war. Soon I'll introduce you to born-again warlords, former child soldiers, General Peanut Butter—a potential 2011 presidential candidate here—and Jewel, the ex-wife of charismatic war criminal Charles Taylor. You'll also meet some of the inspiring women who brought peace to Liberia and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa's first female president. Gods and WiFi willing, I'll be blogging once daily about all this plus health, forced labor, and whatever shiny culture factoid I pocket that day in Africa. Got a question for me about corporate social responsibility in Africa? Leave it for me in comments—I'll be reading them each day.

MONROVIA, Liberia The first thing you notice is the weight of the air, heavy as a hand on a damp night. Second comes the smell: Ocean breeze and burning trash, tropical flowers, raw sewage. Then sound: taxi horns honk, crickets and frogs, low voices speaking African languages and English. Everything is muffled by the soupy air.

I write this in a hotel room with my head lamp looped around my neck, off but ready, in case the lights go out again. Though the Cape Hotel has good WiFi, magnificent feats of ongoing electricity are still rare in Liberia, a fragile country whose capitol is either powered by generators or not at all. Nothing's darker than a night road in Monrovia; no streetlamps, only rare lights in houses, the occasional car. Here in Room 222, a Stephen King movie was just starting when Teddy, a smiling Cape Hotel employee, flipped on the TV to demonstrate how well it functioned at the same time as the air conditioning, the lights, and the fridge. Later I unplugged every appliance I could reach. (Sorry, Teddy!)

Newsflash: Burma's Junta Winning Rigged Elections

| Mon Nov. 8, 2010 11:07 AM PST

The results of Burma's first elections in 20 years are coming in, and you may be shocked to hear that the military dictatorship is winning. As there were crazy amounts of cheating before the elections, so it was during yesterday's polls as well, from ballot stuffing to straight-up forcing people to vote the right way. Obama has already called BS on the results. There are wide reports that Burmese citizens are also, as they've been since the announcement of the process, unhappy with it, but so far, there haven't been any protests. 

But there has been the breakout of a great big fight between two ethnic militias and government soldiers on the Thailand-Burma border. Thousands of Burmese have fled to Thailand to escape the violence, which apparently erupted over the militias' dissatisfaction with the junta's plan to force ethnic soldiers into the Burma army in the new "democracy." The militias have captured several government buildings and government soldiers in the city of Myawaddy, and at least 30 people have been killed. Civilians are hoping that more ethnic militias don't join the fray and further broaden the conflict.