Tag Archive: Politics


Lucie’s terrible idea

Having waited at the side of the Sarajevo road for 3 hours, we eventually caught a ride back to Belgrade with the people that had picked us up on our way to Sarajevo. Given our next destination was meant to be Dubrovnik, this made little sense. In fact, we had turned down a lift going almost all the way to the Croatian town. What happened?

Throughout our trip, our intention had been to go from Sarajevo to Dubrovnik, perhaps via Mostar. This made sense. However, we were also keen to meet up with PEDAL, a group of people (some of whom were our friends) attempting to cycle from the UK to the West Bank promoting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign (http://www.bdsmovement.net/) amongst various other things. Frustratingly, this idea seemed less and less likely as although we were going to be in the same places, we weren’t going to be in them at the same times. But then one of our mates in the group suggested we meet them in Prishtine, Kosovo. Lucie somehow persuaded me that this was a good idea. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see them, but rather that it practically made no sense. If you look at our GoogleMap (http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&ll=37.0625,-95.677068&spn=59.249168,135.263672&z=4) and zoom in on the Balkans you’ll almost certainly agree.

So we tried to get there. Having failed to hitch from Sarajevo to Prishtine, instead we headed back to Belgrade where we were met by the father of our CouchHost from before, who offered us home made rakia and seats in front of the tennis – a welcome break from over 12 hours of travelling (or at least trying to travel…). The following day we belatedly arrived in the Kosovan capital, where it started to rain the moment we got out of the car. No matter, we would check our email and surely there would be a message from the PEDAL crew telling us where to meet them as they hadn’t told us where they were going to be after a 2pm meeting in a place with an unfindable address. No email. Perfect. So after attempting to call, email, online text-message and a while of generally waiting around, we checked into a massively over-priced hotel. How the hotel was able to charge that much is beyond me, especially given that Kosovo is the poorest country in Europe.

Eventually we met with PEDAL and they told us all about what they were going to be doing the following day and hoped that we would get involved – we were given directions, buses to catch, and we went off to our separate sleeping places. Unfortunately, we turned up to the agreed meeting point the following day and only 2 of the 20-strong PEDAL crew were there. Turns out that the rest of them had gone to a totally different place. Or at least that’s what we assume happened, no-one’s told us, and the 2 had no idea… The meeting spot (the one we’d gone to anyway) was a community centre run by the Balkan Sunflowers (http://www.balkansunflowers.org/) where Roma children go and are helped with their homework, taught Serbian – which most of them couldn’t speak when they went to school, which is problematic as most are taught in Serbian – and generally entertained. This experience was unexpected, but nonetheless welcome. The Roma community that lives in Kosovo, as we had learned from the end of a film we managed to catch the night before called Never Back Home (http://romawood.wordpress.com/), is pretty screwed, as they are in many other countries. The village that we went to lives in the shadow of a coal-fired power station – they breathe its dust every day which has led to 90% rates of cancer in the inhabitants. Despite the fact that surely this should mean they get compensation, they don’t even get electricity 24 hours a day. Given that we were only there for a few hours, we didn’t get to learn much more, but this was certainly enough.

While we were getting really annoyed by this point, we also learnt that we could have ended up in prison in Dubai for coming in with prescription painkillers (for my knee), as one of the PEDAL crew had been… He told us how he ended up in a Dubai jail for three months for having codeine with a prescription, while others were in for anything from 30kg of heroin to poppy seeds in their chest hair. No joke. Things could always be worse I guess.

So our hopes of meeting up with PEDAL and finding out what they were doing, discussing their ideas, etc, turned into an unexpected education into the suffering of the Roma community in Kosovo, and the stupidities of Dubai border controls, but no PEDAL.

The following day we left, as no-one had been in touch with us at all. It was raining, as it had done throughout our time in Prishtine, we were trying to hitch and no-one was picking us up… This became the absolute last straw. You know you’re at breaking point when sounds come out of your mouth that you’ve never made before, when you want to rip the face off some arsehole who insists on you paying over a pound for 2 minutes of a phone call, or when Lucie almost bursts into tears when the guy on the bus we eventually decided to take offers you both a coffee. It had whipped cream in it…

And so we escaped Kosovo, and probably the worst three days of our trip due to the sheer helpless frustration of the entire experience (with the added knowledge that we could have just gone to Dubrovnik and that would have made a whole lot more sense), were over.

With Marija’s enthusiastic streak for hitch-hiking running through us, we decided to head from Novi Sad to Sarajevo by thumb. Five hitches in, we were only 50km away from our starting point – not good. That’s not even ‘not a good start’, that’s just not good. Luckily, as has occasionally been the case on our trip, we got lucky just when things were looking really crap. We got a lift all the way to Sarajevo, or so we thought. A few hours in, they suggested we take a ‘thirty minute detour’ to Srebrenica. Thirty minutes turned into five hours. Literally. We got so lost at one point that the driver had to genuinely ask the border guard whether we were entering Bosnia or Serbia… Nonetheless, the detour was worth arriving somewhat later than expected.

Before we arrived in Srebrenica, our knowledge about what happened there was severely limited and while that is still the case, we now know a little more. Srebrenica and the area around it is the site of the largest mass murder in Europe since WWII, and one of the UN’s notorious failures. The civilian Muslim community at Srebrenica, fearing ethnic cleansing by Bosnian Serbs, fled their homes and sought refuge at the nearby UN base of Potočari. Having declared a “safe-area” to the besieged Potočari, for some reason still unclear to us, the UN stopped protecting these people, refusing entry to many and kicking others out of the compound. In effect, the UN had helpfully rounded up thousands of Bosnians for the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS). Serb forces were somehow allowed to enter the refugee camps where all of the ‘men’ (some as young as twelve) were separated from the women and children. What followed was the massacre of over 8000 Muslim Bosnian men and boys. They were buried in mass graves which sometimes they had to dig for themselves, and many of which are yet to be discovered. Here is a witness account of the massacre from the Guardian archives – http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/26/ratko-mladic-arrested-srebrenica-massacre

The Memorial and graveyard in Potočari is a hillside covered in thin white headstones. The green markers are for more recently buried bodies. There is an ‘open-plan’ mosque at the entrance, which seems strangely modern and out of place in the countryside. Squares of white marble show thousands of names, and, separated from the rest of the stones is a cross for the only Christian buried at the site. It was quiet, peaceful, difficult to imagine thousands of people clamouring at the entrance to the compound opposite over fifteen years ago.

If you follow the industrial-looking track on the other side of the road in between old factory buildings, you find yourself in what was the UN compound. Once you have found the man with the key, he will let you into a small room to watch a video about the massacre. Some of the most awfully memorable moments are of the women weeping for joy as the UN makes its (in)famous declaration of safety, and of the general who engineered the massacre (Ratko Mladic) openly stating to a television camera that today would be the day that they would take revenge on the Muslims. One woman talks about how she goes to the various graveyards regularly in the hope of finally finding her husband’s name on a marker. A man explains that he was working in the compound and was forced to tell his own family to leave with everyone else – he hasn’t seen them since.

Afterwards you can walk around inside the empty building, past maps of mass graves, communications between Mladic and his subordinates, and personal items belonging to the victims which are accompanied by descriptions of the people – how their wife remembers them, what they were doing when they were last seen…

It wasn’t what we had been expecting from our day when we started hitching towards Bosnia.

From the harrowing experience of Srebrenica we then got lost for several hours to the point where we were no longer appreciating the ‘scenic’ness, but eventually we reached Sarajevo. Throughout our time there it was hard to forget that over 10,500 Sarajevans died and the city was besieged for months on end – a street was even nicknamed ‘Sniper Alley’ as it provided a prime opportunity for distant shooters to pick off civilians trying to cross to safety. From the fortress that gives a superb view over the whole city you can see various graveyards with the same slim white grave markers all around the town. This somehow makes the majesty of the city even grander, particularly as now the churches and mosques stand side-by-side once again. The bustly, beautiful Old Town has been very well restored, and provides the perfect place to relax in the sunshine and enjoy a ‘Bosnian’ (read: Turkish) coffee complete with Turkish delight. Away from the centre, a path stretches alongside the river where locals rollerblade and people come to lead climb the craggy rockfaces.

Unfortunately, we were only able to spend one full day there as we intended to hitch to Prishtine the following day. This turned out to be an abysmal idea, but we’ll come to that later…

As some of you might have seen in the news over the past few weeks, the verdict from the G20 Climate Camp kettling case was given a few weeks ago. I was asked to write a piece for the Guardian, but it was thought that it would be too radical, so it has ended up with the Index on Censorship http://www.indexoncensorship.org/2011/05/illegal-tactics/. Lucie is also insisting that I mention that she helped write it…

As Hannah McClure and I celebrated our legal victory over the Metropolitan police
[http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/apr/14/kettling-g20-protesters-police-illegal?INTCMP=SRCH] we sımultaneously struggled with the medıa’s emphasis placed on
possible compensation claims [http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/apr/14/sue-police-kettling-g20-protests?INTCMP=SRCH]. Our goal ın brıngıng the case against the Met was not damages. In fact, the idea that serious infringements of protest rights can be properly compensated for with money is pretty offensive. People protest to draw attention to what must change for the benefit of everyone in society. Making a police force’s insurance company hand over money to those whose rights have been compromised changes very little.

Our goal was to brıng the polıce to account. Whıle the polıce have a long hıstory of vıolence agaınst protestors such as Blaır Peach back ın the 1970s [http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/april/23/newsid_2523000/2523959.stm], I found ıt dıstressıng how they were able to detain thousands of climate change protestors and passers by for five hours and then make a orders that force could be used to compress the protest into a much smaller space and ultimately end it. Much of the force used, especially the use of shields as weapons, was filmed and is disturbing to watch even two years on. The court certainly thought so and was highly critical of shield strikes. That senıor polıce offıcers could make these decısıons and hand down these orders wıthout beıng reprımanded was, to me, obscene. Thıs ‘over-zealous’ approach can be seen ın the current Ian Tomlınson ınquest
[http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/series/ian-tomlinson-inquest-live-blog?INTCMP=SRCH].

In response to the questıon “Does your traınıng tell you ıf someone ıs not a threat to you or any other person ıt ıs acceptable to baton them? Is that your traınıng?’” PC Harwood, the offıcer who struck Tomlınson before he dıed, replıed “Yes.” [http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/apr/06/ian-tomlinson-inquest-g20-officer?INTCMP=SRCH]. Thıs kınd of unaccountabılıty had to be challenged. Kettling, a tactıc that has become so much part of the everyday protest experience, similarly had to be challenged.

Our case was not sımply about the G20 camp. It was about protest ın the UK as a whole. The polıce should not be able to treat clımate change protesters, or anyone else, however they wısh and get away wıth ıt. However, Sır Hugh Orde, head of the Association of Chief Police
Officers (ACPO), seems to thınk otherwıse. In early 2011, after prevıously claımıng that the Met had learnt ıts lessons after the G20 Clımate Camp protest, Orde stated that the polıce could use more extreme tactıcs agaınst protesters. He defended kettlıng and claımed
that horse charges could be “very useful”. [http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/jan/27/hugh-orde-police-protest-tactics]. Thıs was ın response to the wave of protests that grıpped the country followıng the savage cuts by the Con-Dem coalıtıon.

In the course of these protests there were multıple examples of unreasonable uses of polıce force, accompanıed by an apparent belıef on the part of the polıce ın theır own ımmunıty. In December 2010, Jodı McIntyre, a cerebral palsy sufferer, was dragged
from hıs wheelchaır by polıce offıcers on two occasions [http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/dec/15/jody-mcintyre-protester-dragged-from-wheelchair?INTCMP=SRCH]. An offıcer justıfıed havıng done so, claımıng that ıt was “for
[Jody’s] own safety’”[http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/dec/16/wheelchair-protester-investigation-ipcc?INTCMP=SRCH]. The prevıous month had seen tuıtıon fee protestors, as well as chıldren and pregnant women, charged by polıce on horseback. Despıte the Met’s claıms to the contrary, a vıdeo was posted on Youtube clearly verıfyıng that the crowd had been charged [http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/nov/26/student-protests-police-under-fire?INTCMP=SRCH].
.

After the Kıngsnorth Clımate Camp ın 2009, ministers claimed that 70 police had sustained injuries at the hands of protestors and used this evidence to justify the operation. It later emerged from polıce records that the injuries comprısed sun stroke, bee stıngs and gettıng hands stuck ın car doors. In realıty, four polıce offıcers were ınjured through contact with clımate change protestors, categorised at the lowest level of seriousness. [http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/dec/16/kingsnorth-environment-police-inquiry-injuries]. Subsequently, parts of the police operation at Kingsnorth were found by the courts to have been unlawful [http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/jan/12/climate-camp-police-unlawful?INTCMP=SRCH].

Durıng protests, polıce do not and wıll not act ın the ınterests of the people. They are there to maıntaın the status quo. To do thıs, the polıce wıll use and manıpulate any power they are gıven to ıts very lımıts. The polıce may claım to have ‘learnt theır lesson’, but such
statements are undermıned by the fact that they have already decıded to appeal thıs most recent judgment [http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/apr/14/kettling-g20-protesters-police-illegal]. The polıce learn theır lessons not out of choıce, but because they are forced to do so. Thıs ıs why I was part of the team whıch took out thıs case agaınst them.

Dubai…

As mıght have been detected by prevıous blogs, leavıng Indıa was not somethıng we shed tears over. However, whıle most people know about Dubai’s reputatıon, we were not prepared for what we saw.

Our host Ramez told us he lıved ın ‘New’ Dubaı, but referrıng to ‘new’ and ‘old’ Dubaı ıs rather mısleadıng as Dubaı dıd not really exıst untıl the 19th Century. But ıt was not untıl 1966 and the dıscovery of oıl that Dubaı as we know ıt came to be. Sınce then Dubaı has ıncreasıng done stuff bıg. Really bıg.

The tallest buıldıng, the hıghest fountaıns whıch do a nıghtly dısplay outsıde the world’s largest shoppıng mall, the bıggest hotel whıch ıs also one of the only 7 star hotels ın the world (and also probably the most expensıve – presumably when you have 7 stars there’s someone to wıpe your arse for you), as well as the largest aquarıum and the only ındoor skııng resort. It probably also has the most 4by4s and ıt certaınly has the rıchest people.

Interestıngly, the unıty of the workıng class ıs weakened by the fact that most people who do ‘low-end’ jobs are generally from Indıa or the Phıllıpınes (40% of Dubaı’s populatıon ıs Indıan) – often they come ın as manual labourers on fıxed term contracts and are then deported when these contracts end. Our host Ramez explaıned to us that he belıeved that thıs transıtory nature of the Dubaı workıng class helped to explaın why Dubaı/UAE had not been ınvolved ın the uprısıngs of the Mıddle East. Add to thıs, he saıd, the fact that the government has the money to keep the tıny UAE-born populatıon of the country happy wıth benefıts etc, and you have somewhere that ıs not lıkely to rıse up…

The only reason why we had plunged ourselves ınto thıs decadent cıty was because a Palestınıan frıend of ours who we met ın Nepal had ınvıted us to stay at hıs house. Unfortunately he had hıs work vısa rejected and had to leave for Iraq before we arrıved – he had hıs lıfe overturned as he ıs a ‘resıdent of Palestıne’ (unable to return but unable to stay anywhere else), and we suddenly also had nowhere to stay. Hıs brother reassured us that the North of Iraq ıs actually quıte safe at the moment, but we stıll feel pretty bad for hım…

CouchSurfıng saved us from 70dollars a nıght accommodatıon, whıch was good (Mohammed’s brother Husseın had offered to sort us out wıth ‘somewhere cheap’ whıch turned out to be ‘somewhere for under 50 pounds a nıght’…), and we had the pleasure of stayıng on the 25th floor of 28 wıth Ramez. There was an outdoor swımmıng pool on the 1st floor wıth a vıew of many other skyscrapers! Wısh we’d taken photos.

Whıle ın thıs extremely expensıve town, we trıed to do as much as we could for free or at least cheap. Dubaı has an ınterestıng ‘old town’ whıch ıs clearly made of concrete and made to look ‘authentıc’ whıch ıs bızarre, although there are lots of free art exhıbıtıons ın the buıldıngs. Publıc transport ıs pretty cheap, and gettıng a boat across the rıver ıs 1Dhr (20pence). There ıs a park whıch ıs eerıly empty on weekdays, that’s cheap too. Whıle ıt may seem to suck money out of you by osmosıs, goıng ınto the world’s largest mall and wonderıng at thıs temple to consumerısm ıs free. Spendıng entıre days ın the mall ıs facılıtated by havıng prayer rooms avaılable, or maybe you can wash away the sıns of consumerısm..?

One day we went to the beach, and were surprısed to fınd that the skyscrapers came rıght up to the sand.

It was an experıence, put ıt that way.

What Not to Wear

Josh tells me that thıs ıs a rant – ‘A more ıntellectual rant than some of mıne, but stıll a rant’, he says. I meant ıt to be a mullıng-over of somethıng I’ve been thınkıng about ever sınce we began workıng at the Sambhavna Clinic ın Bhopal – ıt’s stıll not really fully formed, and I thınk ıt needs more nuance perhaps, but I would lıke to open thıs one up to debate ıf anyone wants to joın ın..?

What Not to Wear

Durıng our stay ın Indıa there were many thıngs that I found problematıc, and amongst those were the roles and behavıours consıdered approprıate for women. An example of thıs that affected me personally was the ‘need’ for women to cover themselves up ın publıc – not neccassary entırely, but generally upper arms, shoulders, ankles-upwards and some sort of flap over the bum (ıe by wearıng a long top). Thıs wasn’t always the case – dıfferent groups of women wear theır sarıs dıfferently, for ınstance, and what I assume to be a ‘tradıtıonal’ dress ın parts of Karnataka was essentıally a halterneck. But as a general rule, a lot of women’s bodıes were very covered up. Unlıke ın Nepal where there was a real mıxture, ın the majorıty of places we vısıted (apart from Mumbaı), women do not wear western clothes – there ıs a choıce of sarı, salwaar kemeez, or burqa. Whıle clothıng worn by men we met/saw was also not hugely varıed, men seemed to have the opportunıty to be more ‘revealıng’, as ıt were. Partıcularly ın the south, where many men wear mundus whıch are lıke sarongs and can be worn long or half length whıch rıses above the knee.

I do not thınk that walkıng around town ın hot pants and a bıkını top ıs a demonstratıon of lıberatıon for a woman. Rather I see that as lınked ınto a whole other type of oppressıon – that of ınternalısıng the objectıfıcatıon of bodıes and women’s bodıes ın partıcular whıch comes hand ın hand wıth Western advertısıng, standards of beauty, celebrıty culture, etc. I take ıssue wıth men who do not shave theır own, when they tell me to shave my legs. I am much happıer ın a bıg T-shırt than ın a crop top. My clothes tend to cover me. However, I don’t agree wıth the cultural enforcement of coverıng up, whether ıt be haır or knees or the whole of your body. I thınk that ıt suggests a whole bunch of thıngs about both women and men  wıth whıch I fundamentally dısagree. I thınk ıt suggests that women can easıly be reduced to theır bodıes, that thıs ıs the overwhelmıng element of a female self, and ıf uncovered would be the only thıng notıceable. It also suggests that theır bodıes are objects of temptatıon – ıt remınds me of a medıeval text a read at unıversıty that descrıbed female sexualıty as a pıt of horror and pustulatıon ınto whıch men fall. Wıth regards to men, ıf ıt ıs ‘neccessary’ for women to cover themselves then one can ınfer that men are uncontrollably drıven by theır sexual desıres when encoutered by female flesh. My ıssues wıth  heteronormatıvıty asıde (men only desıre women?), ıf ıt ıs women who have to cover themselves, and not men who have to conscıously check thıs lecherous and ‘ınherently male’ behavıour, then ıt must be women who are the guılty partıes.

All of thıs ıs nonsense, and whılst I have no fıgures to back thıs up, I assume that growıng up ın an area whıch ımplants all these prejudıces ın one’s mınd could even lead to more actıons whıch confırm them, lıke gettıng groped on a traın. The ‘women only’ carrıages on traıns ın Indıa seem to suggest that thıs ıs more lıkely. After only a couple of weeks, even I found myself starıng at the bums of women who weren’t wearıng long tops or sarıs (whıch were very few). But whether ıt ıs true or not that growıng up ın such areas leads to prejudıces and whether those prejudıces affect people’s actıons, ıt defınıtely undermınes a sense of equalıty between genders.

So when people say that as a woman you should cover your shoulders/ankles/bum when ın Indıa so as to ‘respect the the culture’, I sımply cannot agree. Ignorıng my questıons about ‘homogenous’ culture, I do not have respect for a mındset whıch I belıeve oppresses both men and women. Thıs doesn’t mean that I don’t respect ındıvıduals who follow these rules, but I have no desıre to ‘ show respect’ for a cultural element whıch I don’t respect…

Of course, ıt’s not just about ‘culture’, but also about relıgıon – ıt ıs part of certaın relıgıons to dress ın certaın ways – but I wısh to challenge thıs as well. Just because ıt ıs supported or enforced by a relıgıon or an ınterpretatıon of a relıgıous text doesn’t stop ıt from beıng a set of values. Why should they not be challenged lıke any other set of values?

When we were ın very conservatıve Bhopal, I had less problem wıth coverıng up because we were workıng ın a medıcal clınıc and challenges to one’s sense of proprıety are, I should ımagıne, not conducıve to comfortable and healıng surroundıngs. So I would tıe a shırt around my waıst and wear a baggy t-shırt. But elsewhere I felt less desıre to do so, sımply out of prıncıple. Whıle ın the UK, I wear baggy clothes ın part as a response to the form of oppressıon whıch suggests that to ‘be a woman’ you should show your fıgure and skın, ın the Indıa the opposıte ıs true whıch compels me to dress dıfferently.

It would be possıble to argue that ıt’s not my place to make thıs sort of challenge as I am an outsıder to the country and ‘the culture’, but I am not suggestıng that anyone forcıbly ımpose my value system (as can be seen ın France wıth theır headscarf ban whıch I personally thınk ıs completely stupıd – battlıng the oppressıon of women by crımınalısıng them? Please…), nor am I suggestıng that I am a ‘lone femınıst crusader ın a land of oppressıon’ by wearıng a sleeveless top. I would also lıke to poınt out that I would defend the rıght of anyone to wear what they lıke, whether ıt be headscarf or crop top, whılst sımultaneously defendıng my own rıght to questıon why they do so.

Ultımately, when ıt came down to the practıcalıtıes of lıvıng ın Indıa, I wasn’t sure I wanted to draw anymore attentıon to myself than I already dıd by beıng whıte and havıng blonde haır. Despıte the heat, I dıd not wear vest-tops, although I dıdn’t wear dresses or kemeezes to gıve my bum a second layer of cover. Call ıt a compromıse…

IranianVisa.com

While I can’t imagine that anyone’s particularly eager to plunge into the Middle East at the moment, if anyone is planning on heading to Iran, we would both recommend that you consider researching other companies than IranianVisa.com – they’ve had some good reviews, but our experience was pretty bad.

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From our experience If you need a visa for Iran, think twice before using iranianvisa.com.

We needed a visa and were already out of our home country. We’d heard mixed things about iranianvisa.com from the thorntree forum, but decided to use them anyway.

When we initially contacted them, they were very friendly and responded almost immediately. This encouraged us to use them. However, once we had made our payment, communication became very poor.

To start with, they charged us more than they state as their exchange rate from Euros to pounds isn’t at the current (at the time) rate, so we ended up paying almost an extra ten pounds between the two of us.

When we applied, we were told that we would receive our visa code (which you take to the embassy) within 15 working days. When 15 working days had passed, we got in contact with iranianvisa and they apologised, saying there had been “some difficulties” – of course, everything has been kicking off in the Middle East, so that’s understandable, but they hadn’t contacted us at all. They also told us that some people’s codes had been sent to them already and that it was looking good for us.

Another two weeks later, we still had not heard anything from them. So we emailed again, and this time we were told that “there must be a misunderstanding”, and that it is normal not to receive your visa code until 10 days before you intend to pick it up. That leaves you ten days to book transport into the country! Good luck getting anything cheap! We hadn’t been told this at the start, in fact we were told the opposite, as above.

We only heard back from them 2 days after we were meant to pick up our visa and we had been rejected, which isn’t their fault in the slightest but we should have heard back long before then.

While this may be totally out of the ordinary due to the political situation in Iran, it suggests to us that it would be worth investigating other companies.

 

Have you ever met a reactionary, nihilist, self-centred, ignorant and spiritual primitivist anarcho-capitalist? Last week I would have answered no as well. Today I have the misfortune of sleeping under the roof of one.

WWOOFing (the Worldwide Organisation of Organic Farming) is a mixed kettle of fish. While there are almost always many positives, they normally come with negatives. Unfortunately, one of the more consistent negatives is the hosts. It seems the majority of the people that host wwoofers either come from the minority perspective of simply seeing this as an opportunity to get free labour. The other group are more complex, but are basically fallen lefties. They normally come from an anarchist school and due to lack of coherent and sophisticated theory have become disillusioned and retreat to “living outside the system” and often find spirituality on the way.

Before departing on the trip, Lucie and I excitedly decided upon a farm in Kerala which we would work on in order to save money, meet people and learn more about agriculture and farming (not in that order of importance). While we may have saved some money, we have met no-one really (the farm only has one guest room), and I have learnt very little past the initial basics of picking coffee. This is bearable, however. What is not is working for a man who believes that “capitalism is the best system, it is people that are the problem”, that “any problem an individual may have is their own lookout”, that “if you are sick or if you are healthy, it is down to karma”, that “life is a transition from [unspecified] place to place”, that “all political parties are the same” whether this be the fascist Front National or the Socialist Party in France (all parties are racist apparently). A man who believes that “ideology means nothing, the only thing that matters is practice” (which is why we should except his ideology) whilst simultaneously dismissing any practical examples I offer as to why his ridiculous beliefs are wrong; that “nothing ever changes” and , best of all, that “all Muslims are the same”. Oh yes, and that the Poll Tax riots were organised by a bunch of foreign anarchists and culminated in things burning in Trafalgar Square.

When we first arrived, I remember telling Lucie how excited I was to work here – I had just spoken to Bruno (our boss)’s brother Pierre (who is very interesting), who had told me that they had both lived in a squat in London during the Poll Tax riots. This excitement was extinguished faster than a match in a hurricane when Bruno told me that “it doesn’t matter what happens in Egypt, it will not change a thing”.

At first, we simply believed that he was a fallen anarchist who, disillusioned, had turned to India and nature for solace. Having struggled to remember the name of the group with which he was involved in the UK – Class War – he proudly told us how he used to be an anarchist, how he’d been on the barricades teaching the stupid English how to make a Molotov cocktail… At this point I almost looked forward to talking to him –  I saw this as an opportunity to put my theory into practice. To test my belief  that without an adequate theory you will eventually fall.

I had spoken too often to people about how if you do not understand the nature of the State, the nature of power, if you do not understand what the USSR, China etc truly was (ie State capitalist), your perceptions would be skewed and your determination hindered. This analysis is almost certainly still the case with Bruno, but Bruno as a “fallen anarchist” quickly turned in my mind into Bruno as a reactionary conservative, followed shortly after by my current view of him. This man is a walking contradiction. He is like an angsty thirteen year old boy who is more concerned with winning an argument than with coming out with anything coherent. He is amusing in a tragic sort of way, and not tragedy in a Shakespearean sense – he has no noble tragic flaw, just a total lack of analysis and coherence.

Food seems to be one of his favourite subjects. “In Europe they eat sheet” he told us almost every day. The irony of this was that he eats 2 meals a day, one at 11am (this being 5 hours after he woke up and 3 hours after he started doing manual labour) and at 9pm (one hour before going to bed). On top of this, his diet (and ours while we were there) consisted almost exclusively of carbs. The first meal would be Indian bread of some kind, butter and what can best be described as veg stew, followed by a curd drink and dinner would probably be the same, replacing the curd drink with rice pudding (ie rice cooked in milk and sugar). He rarely drank water, instead filling himself with coffee. So for him to claim that “in the west they eat sheet” seemed quite ironic. The other irony was that he never mentioned the diet of Indians, which seems odd given India has the highest level of diabetes in the world. When I asked him why he thought people in the west eat “sheet” he would say “because they like it” and when I asked him why he thought it was that as a general rule the richer you become in the west the better your diet he would respond “because they are rich”.  This incoherence was a consistent feature of our week there. Social movements apparently changed nothing, but when I asked him how all the positive social changes in the C20th had occurred he would say “through popular movements obviously”.

I could go on, but as a friend of mine said, this man matters very little, and come the revolution, his opinion might even change. So, with this relationship failing, we cut our 17 day farming experience down to 8 days, taking refuge in the hills of Tamil Nadu.

This one isn’t really an interview as such, more a QandA session where a big group of people chatted and we wrote down what they said. Again this was a farming community in Orissa, west of Bhubaneswar.

Due to the nature of the discussion, this article may seem disjointed – this is because the meeting was disjointed…

“GM seeds create negative impacts. More than this, they cross-pollinate with traditional varieties and so destroy them.”

“Once you start hybrid farming, it isn’t easy to go back. It is much easier to shift to hybrid than away from it. Farmers for commerical purposes (big farmers) are interested in traditional seeds, but marginal farmers are. It is these farmers who are the direct victims of climate change.”

How they organise

The group explained how they organise demos and rallies at Block level (a Block is local self-governance in tribal belt areas of small marginalised farmers. Leaders are both male and female and there are approx. 170,000 people in each Block. Communities in the area are approx. 80% Adivasi). Through this they have been successful enough to get a national consultation on Bt brinjal (aubergine). Due to the pressure, the Environment Minister of India has written a letter stating that he will not introduce Bt.

Bt seeds vs. traditional varieties

Officially, all farmers in Orissa do not grow Bt Cotton. Before Bt was unofficially banned through the letter, packets had to be labelled. Now there is no such label. It is unknown whether this is because it is no longer used (which is unlikely) or because it doesn’t need to be labelled because it isn’t supposed to be there.

Traditional varieties of seed are promoted by the group. They have seed exchanges in villages at district and Block level. At the last one, there were 123 varieties of paddy (rice), veg and pulses exchanged. Since 2006, there has been an emphasis in the group on organic farming and traditional seeds. At the last seed fair, the seeds were 70% organic, 30% mixed and none exclusively intensive.

Because of popular mobilisation and knowledge transfer, farmers have agreed that Bt seeds should not be sold in the local market.

Perceived dangers of hybrid seeds

Through eating hybrid crops, people have perceived health hazards and diseases. They believe that hybrid crops increase likelihood of cancer, TB, malaria, skin diseases, stomach problems, diabetes and blood pressure. Traditionally these types of diseases occurred in cities and not villages, this is now changing. Immune systems are also being affected. Antibiotics are not as effective as crops are now full of them.

Hybrid crops also kill useful insects such as earthworms which are beneficial to farming. This reduces soil fertility.

How to fight

The struggle over seeds and farming is different from other struggles such as land grabs and water privitisation. When a mining corporation rips up your land, you know who the enemy is. But with seeds you cannot see the enemy.

While there is support coming from the rest of the world, ultimately change must come from the farmers. They must realise that intensive farming isn’t good for them or the environment.

Reasons gathered from the group as to why they farm in an organic way

1. Their ancestors did it.

2. They couldn’t meet the costs of hybrid farming.

3. They learnt about the negative impacts of chemical fertilisers and intensive farming methods from meetings and so started organic farming.

Further privatisation

The government is interested in registering traditional organic seeds through scientists linked to MNCs. There is a plan to document all seeds which is very dangerous as it allows others to take control of the seeds. Farmers have the right to this information, not governments and MNCs. Let them document their own seeds!

Comments from individual farmers

The individuals we interviewed have been farmers for 10-50 years. Their ages ranged from the 30s to the 60s. They grew a variety of things from paddy to millet and pulses. Some had previously used hybrid methods, others had used traditional methods their whole lives. They all agreed that there are not many difficulties with traditional farming, especially when compared with intensive methods. They were also all of the belief that while intensive methods generally produce high yields in the first couple of years, the returns reduced as the years went by – as soil fertility decreases, useful insects are killed and bad pests become resistant to the pesticides.

“The first year was good, the second year was okay, and the third year was bad. The soil required more fertiliser, and the beds became dry and rocky – the plough could not work as well. This is why I went back to traditional methods.” – RK

Is this a battle you are winning?

“I hope so. I hope by arguments can win. Lots of people are joining. I strongly believe we can win this battle.” – GD

What are the best tactics?

“The unity of farmers through mass organisation. We must motivate, have seed fairs, have hope and meetings. And we shouldn’t purchase any seeds from the market.” – GD

Why do people turn away from traditional farming?

“Farms want to use modern agricultural practices because it yields more, but they are not analysing the cost/effectiveness of the crop properly. They analyse for one year, but if they compare for 2 or 5 years, they will see the negative impacts of modern farming”. – RK

Does the government support your struggle?

“There is no government support promoting traditional organic agricultural methods” – KD

Resistance is Fertile – Vol. 2

We agreed with all the people that we interviewed that we would send them drafts of what they said before official publication (STOP GM). So, what is here will be a paraphrasing of the main points, plus we won’t use their full names.

Interview with N.S.

N.S. has a farm 40km east of Bhubaneswar. He grows predominantly rice, also pulses, veg and fruit. He grows all of these organically. He has also collected 350 varieties of indigenous paddy (rice) and promotes the use of these.

Orissa, he says, is the birthplace of rice. Before the first Green Revolution there were 35,000 different varieties in Orissa. In India, there were 1.5lakhs (150,000). During the Green Revolution, farmers were persuaded to use hybrid seeds, reducing the amount of variety. In 5-10 years, all indigenous rice was basically wiped out.

Propaganda

GM is a threat to the survival of farming and of the farmer. It is claimed that with an ever-increasing population GM is needed to feed the people, but it is a myth that indigenous seeds do not yield more [NOTE: it is useful to remember that between 1958 and 2008, the number of people on the planet rose from 2.5billion to 6.7billion. In the same period food production grew from 631million tonnes, to 6834million tonnes -3 times faster. The problem is not production!].

Seed companies propagate the myth that their seeds are good for you. They reduce eye problems, infant mortality, malnutrition. The reality is that it takes 1kg of hybrid “Golden rice” to provide the same amount of vitamin A (good for eyes) as can be found in 100g of sago or amaranth.

The pit-falls of intensive farming techniques

Chemical farming needs lots of external imput. It needs chemical fertiliser, pesticides, and large quantities of water. Farming becomes costly and small marginal (poor) farmers cannot afford this.

Hybrid rice seeds tend to take 10-20 days longer than traditional seeds to mature. Rice usually take 70-140 days. But hybrid take 140-160 days. This affects the duration of your second crop, so with hybrid varieties, you can only sow your second harvest 10-20 days later than with traditional seeds. Thus, you are unable to sow a 3rd harvest and gain more crop which is often possible with traditional varieties.

Hybrid techniques also make the land hard, reducing water retention capacity. The soil cannot hold the water, and the water runs away.

The farmer invests in GM but problems occur such as cyclones, pests, rains, droughts. Farmers will have had to take out loans to supplement their costs [NOTE: on average, micro-loan companies charge 30-70% interest, but this can be as high as 130%] and when their crops fail, they cannot pay back. These farmers often commit suicide.

Bt cotton is the main culprit in relation to farmer suicides. The State and central government are not interested in compensating the families. They always blame something else – they all place an emphasis on family disputes and disruptions. Even if this was the case, why are these families disrupted? It is because their crops are failing. Their crops are failing because of the weaknesses of GM and hybrid seeds.

Displacement

For those farmers who do not take such drastic measures as suicide, many  sell their land and move to cities, where they inevitably end up in slums [NOTE: 60% of Mumbai’s population are slum-dwellers. It is the largest slum in the world]. In their place, multi-national corporations (MNCs) buy their land. MNCs want to throw away labour – small famers, marginal farmers. They say, “Give up farming, you are not profitable”, but where are these people supposed to go? In America, a farmer owns between 1-5000hectares of land. This is not a farmer, this is a agro-business man. And this is what MNCs want.

Future of GM

For MNCs the future looks very encouraging. For us it is very dangerous. In the US, they are growing GM corn. The Rockies in Western America used to have vast corn fields, now these lands are barren. Not even grass grows there.

Re1sistance

Traditional organic farming allows the farmers to keep the seeds and so not have to buy from the market. They can reuse seeds, plough their fields with bullocks and use the dung for fertililser. Plus traditional varieties of paddy need 20-30% less water than hybrid.

Every farmer more than 60 years of age, is as good as an agri-scientist who grows veg/fruit in their labs, with their note- and textbooks. Our knowledge is scientific because it is based on experience. It gets results.

Good tactics to tackle GM and hybrid seeds are to show results in the field. This provides a challenge and alternative. Traditional farming methods have survived for the last 10,000 years. We also have protests, seminars and workshops.

The importance of seed

Seed is the most important input into agriculture, it is the wealth of the farmer. A farmer in control of seeds controls agriculture. If the seeds belong to MNCs, then agriculture belongs to MNCs. Today they offer free seeds, free fertiliser and more and more, until one day you will have no choice. MNCs will own the farms. This is the ultimate aim of GM.

subramanian.m@fullertonindia.com

Fact sheet on Monsanto

Monsanto is by no means the only criminal mulitnational corporation in relation to agriculture around the world, but it is certainly the biggest. Here’s a bit of an introduction to the history of Monsanto and its impact on Indian agriculture, courtesy of Living Farms. The following is from Kavitha Kuruganthi and Aishwarya Madineni, Monsanto-ising Indian Agriculture (2010).

“No food shall be grown that we don’t own” – reported objective of Monsanto

Monsanto is an American agri-business corporation which is today the world’s largest seed company. It is also one of the world’s largest agri-chemical corporations. Their seed sales were nearly US$5bn in 2007, constituting 23% of the global proprietary seeds market (the non-proprietary seed market around the world is now only 18% of the world seed market). Monsanto is also the world’s fifth largest agri-chemical company with sales worth nearly US$3.6bn in 2007, which constitutes 9% of the world agri-chemical market share. In 2009, Monsanto’s global net sales were US$11.72 billion.

Monsanto has grown into the largest seed company in the world by aggressive market maneuvers including 60 acquisitions, taking stakes in 14 companies and divesting from 17, between 1985 and 2009.

Monsanto’s history of human rights violations, lies and omissions

For decades, Monsanto dumped highly toxic PCBs in Anniston, Alabama, and then spent years covering up the dumping. On February 22nd, 2002, Monsanto was found guilty of poisoning the town. They were convicted of suppression of the truth, nuisance, trespass and outrage. The residents of Anniston, whose blood levels contained toxic PCBs 100s or 1000s of times the average were given US$700million in compensation from Monsanto.

Monsanto is also known to have covered up toxic contamination of several of its products. In Indonesia, Monsanto gave bribes and questionable payments to at least 140 officials, attempting to get their GM cotton accepted. In 1998, 6 Canadian government scientists testified that documents were stolen from a locked file cabinet in a government office, and that Monsanto offered them a bribe of US$1-2million to pass the drug without further tests.

Monsanto is also known to “routinely falsify data”, especially in relation to glyphosate (Monsanto’s brand of this herbicide is called Roundup). Monsanto’s first mass marketed bio-engineered food product – recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) – was “linked to cancer in humans and serious health problems in cows, including udder infections and reproductive problems”. In the case of GM crops, it was found that Monsanto chose to keep biosafety data away from public scrutiny and has committed scientific fraud by wrongly interpreting its data and classifying a GM product as safe.

Monsanto also has a habit of suing and jailing farmers for… saving their own seeds and resowing! Since 1996, Monsanto has filed 1000s of lawsuits against hundreds of farmers across the world. In the USA, the Centre for Food Safety investigated Monsanto’s anti-farmer behaviour and concluded that “… Monsanto, the world’s leading agricultural biotechnology company, has used heavy-handed investigations and ruthless prosecutions that have fundamentally changed the ways American farmers farm. The result has been nothing less than an assault on the foundations of farming practices and traditions that have endured for centuries in this country, and millennia around the world, including one of the oldest rights to save and replant crop seeds… Monsanto has an annual budget of US$10million and a staff of 75 devoted solely to investigating and prosecuting farmers”. Monsanto is currently being investigated by the Justice Department in the USA for its anti-trust behaviour, based on the unprecedented rise in seed prices that began a decade ago. The seed market in which prices have soared higher in an unprecedented way is dominated by Monsanto. In 2009 the agricultural department (the UCDA) figures show that corn seed prices have risen 135% since 2001, and soy bean prices 108%, whereas the Consumer Price Index rose only 20% in the same period.

Monsanto’s sordid history (from the Centre for Food Safety)

From PCBs to Agent Orange to Roundup, we have many reasons to question the motives of this company that claims to be working to reduce environmental destruction and feed the world with its genetically engineered food crop.

Founded in 1901 in Missouri, Monsanto became the leading manufacturer of sulphuric acid and other industrial chemicals in the 1920s. In the 1930s Monsanto began producing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). PCBs are potent carcinogens and have been implicated in reproductive, developmental and immune system disorders.

The world’s centre of PCB manufacturing was Monsanto’s plant on the outskirts of East St.Louis, Illinois, which has the highest rate of foetal death and immature births in the state. By 1982, nearby Times Beach was found to be so contaminated with dioxin (a product of PCB manufacture) that the government ordered it evacuated. Dioxins are endocrine and immune system disrupters causing congenital birth defects, reproductive and development problems, and an increase of incidence of cancer, heart disease and diabetes in laboratory animals.

By the 1940s, Monsanto began focusing on plastic and synthetic fabrics like polystyrene which is ranked fifth in the EPA’s 1980s list of chemicals whose production generates the most total hazardous waste. During WWII, similar to Dow Chemical (which you now know all about) Monsanto played a significant role in the Manhattan Project to develop the atom bomb. After the war, Monsanto championed the use of chemical pesticides in agriculture and began manufacturing the herbicide 2,4,5-T, which contains dioxin.

The herbicide Agent Orange, used by the US military to maim and murder hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese during the Vietnam war, was a mixture of 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D, and very high concentrations of dioxin. Since the end of the Vietnam war, an estimated 500,000 Vietnamese children have been born with deformities.

In the 1970s, Monsanto began manufacturing the herbicide Roundup, which has been marketed as a “safe general purpose herbicide for widespread commercial and consumer use”, even though its key ingredient is glyphosate (a highly toxic poison). In 1997, Monsanto was forced by the New York State Attorney General to stop claiming that Roundup is biodegradable and environmentally friendly!

In August 2003 Monsanto agreed to pay $600million to settle claims brought by more than 20,000 residents of Anniston, over the sever contamination of ground and water by tones of PCBs dumped in the area from the 1930s to the 1970s. Court documents revealed that Monsanto was aware of the contamination decades earlier.

Monsanto in India

Recent news stories report that Monsanto’s plans to do business in GM material has been okayed by the agriculture ministry which had told the Foreign Investment Promotion Board that Monsanto India should be given the green signal. One financial media report explained that “the FIPB approval is expected to pave way for the Gm giant to bring in its menu of genetically modified food products including GM corn, maize and soya”. Around 95% of the GM crops currently planted worldwide are supposed to have Monsanto’s proprietary traits which also include an in-built market for its herbicide.

In 2006 Monsanto slipped out of the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission inquiry into Bt cotton seed pricing – the costs levied for farmers were exorbitant, particularly comparing them to the price in China and the USA. It is estimated that thousands of crores [WHAT IS A CRORE?] of rupees were paid by Indian farmers as royalty/technology fees. Monsanto claimed another company is the technology provider in India, thus avoiding involvement, but financial statements for Monsanto India show 490 lakhs (49,000,000) of rupees as balance due from that other company.

Monsanto is reported to have tried to use its American influence to ensure that its proprietary technologies are not breached. In an infamous incident in 2005 the US Ambassador to India wrote a letter to the Chief Minister of Gujarat, asking him to curb the illegal trade of Bt seeds in the state. Failure to do so, he warned, would “dampen the transfer of technologies and investments from abroad, including from the United States”.

The government of India allowed Monsanto to direct the future course of agriculture as it is a board member of the Indo-US Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture. The KIA was the deal signed in 2005 by the US and India to usher in the next “Green Revolution” in India.