Resources Research

Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

An American agency and the evil its men do

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"The hand which inflicts the fatal blow is not more deeply imbrued in blood than his who sits and looks on: neither can he be clear of blood who has countenanced its shedding; nor that man seem other than a participator in murder who gives his applause to the murderer, and calls for prizes in his behalf." - Lactantius, From Epitome 58, translated by Thomas De Quincey

“The hand which inflicts the fatal blow is not more deeply imbrued in blood than his who sits and looks on: neither can he be clear of blood who has countenanced its shedding; nor that man seem other than a participator in murder who gives his applause to the murderer, and calls for prizes in his behalf.” – Lactantius, From Epitome 58, translated by Thomas De Quincey

It has become abundantly clear, with the release of part of the US Senate Intelligence Committee on CIA torture, that the practices and the planning were not confined to a handful of aberrational cases or techniques. This shadowy and sprawling artifice of evil was an officially sanctioned, worldwide regime of torture that had the explicit approval of the top members of both political parties in the US Congress. The evidence for all of this is conclusive and overwhelming. The implications must shake to their core what the American government has so often called “the international community”.

That part of the US Senate Intelligence Committee on CIA torture report which has been released has revealed that torture techniques were approved at the highest levels of the government of the USA and then employed in prisons around the world, that these were and are the CIA ‘black sites’.

"But make real to yourself the vision of every blood-stained page – stand in the presence of the ravening conqueror, the savage tyrant – tread the stones of the dungeon and of the torture-room." - George Gissing, from 'The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft' (1903)

“But make real to yourself the vision of every blood-stained page – stand in the presence of the ravening conqueror, the savage tyrant – tread the stones of the dungeon and of the torture-room.” – George Gissing, from ‘The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft’ (1903)

The mainstream media in the USA – fulfilling their function as the propaganda mechanism of a government that from 2001 onwards paid even less heed to national and international law than during the foregoing century of conflict – for years refused to use the word ‘torture’ to describe any of what the Senate report details. The same media called these same techniques ‘torture’ when used by adversaries of America.

What has been released by the US Senate Intelligence Committee (in part) is the product of four years of work (2009-2013) and the full collection is estimated at running to some 6,000 pages. The released portion, which is a summary, runs to about 600 pages and some of that is redacted: the names of CIA agents participating in the torture, countries which agreed to allow CIA black sites, and other details.

Some of the key documents are posted here, barring the portion of the Senate report that has been released which is too large a file size to upload. Here are: the Senate CIA Torture Report Timeline (pdf, 162KB), the Obama Statement on the Senate CIA Torture Report (pdf, 41KB), the Feinstein Statement on the Senate Torture Report (pdf, 157KB), the Senate CIA Torture Report State Talk Points (pdf, 184KB), Senate CIA Torture Report Additional Views (pdf, 1.87MB), the CIA Response to Torture Report 1 (pdf, 5.39MB), the CIA Response to Torture Report 2 (pdf, 1.17MB, and here), the CIA Response to Torture Report 3 (pdf, 1.63MB and here), and the Globalising Torture report by the Open Society Justice Initiative (pdf, 1.08MB).

"The quelling of the Philippine uprising by the United States, and the British expeditions against the Boers in the Transvaal shocked his sense of justice. 'They are horrible, these wars that the English and Americans are waging in a world in which even schoolchildren condemn war!' he wrote." - Henri Troyat, from 'Tolstoi' (1965), translated by Nancy Amphoux

“The quelling of the Philippine uprising by the United States, and the British expeditions against the Boers in the Transvaal shocked his sense of justice. ‘They are horrible, these wars that the English and Americans are waging in a world in which even schoolchildren condemn war!’ he wrote.” – Henri Troyat, from ‘Tolstoi’ (1965), translated by Nancy Amphoux

What can be read is an account of how the CIA viciously brutalised people, some of them entirely innocent, and described what they were doing as an art and a science. Senate investigators, who had access to millions of pages of original CIA cables and other source material, used most of the released portion to show one example after another of CIA officials doing gruesome things, then telling convenient falsehoods to each other, to their bosses, to the White House, to anyone who questioned them, and to Congress – all to prove to everyone that torture worked.

By mid-2003, the CIA constantly repeated the fiction that “enhanced interrogation tactics” had “saved lives,” “thwarted plots,” and “captured terrorists.” Saying otherwise was like blasphemy. What is most chilling is the complicity of those who have remained offstage by design, and this portion of the released report does in no way exonerate them, the architects.

"America is the land of murders. Day after day in cities and towns and on lonely country roads violent death creeps upon men. Undisciplined and disorderly in their way of life the citizens can do nothing. After each murder they cry out for new laws which, when they are written into the books of laws, the very lawmaker himself breaks." - Sherwood Anderson, from 'The Marching Men' (1916)

“America is the land of murders. Day after day in cities and towns and on lonely country roads violent death creeps upon men. Undisciplined and disorderly in their way of life the citizens can do nothing. After each murder they cry out for new laws which, when they are written into the books of laws, the very lawmaker himself breaks.” – Sherwood Anderson, from ‘The Marching Men’ (1916)

By any standard with which crimes of this nature have been judged throughout the 20th century, all of these individuals and many others involved must be arrested and prosecuted. The crimes documented in the Senate report make those for which Nixon faced impeachment (forcing him to resign) appear insignificant. Yet those who are implicated, far from fearing that they will be held accountable, brazenly defend their actions.

The administration of American president number 44 has already ruled out any action in response to the Senate report. On Tuesday, Barack Obama released a prepared written statement repeating the position of his administration that there will be no accountability for these crimes. “Rather than another reason to refight old arguments,” he wrote, “I hope that today’s report can help us leave these techniques where they belong — in the past.” What he left unsaid was that the idea of accountability for such criminality would, insofar as this administration will attempt, remain only an idea.

The CIA torture programme, and the designed inability to hold anyone accountable exposes the breakdown of constitutional forms of rule in the USA. Crimes have been committed and exposed before the world, and, within the framework of official political channels, absolutely nothing can or will be done about it. That the USA was in the grip of a gigantic military-intelligence apparatus that acts outside of any legal restraint began to be known a generation ago. The sequential ‘wars on terror’, the NSA spying on the world and now the CIA torture have provided further damning and deeply frightening proof.

Written by makanaka

December 11, 2014 at 20:14

Sizing up city life

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Close ranks of tall residential towers signal a new township on the outskirts of Beijing, P R China.

Close ranks of tall residential towers signal a new township on the outskirts of Beijing, P R China.

Some two years ago, it was calculated, the world firmly entered the urban age, for the available evidence pointed to a startling truth: more people now live in cities than outside them. The balance between urban and rural populations differs between countries, at times considerably. Chad and Congo have about the same number of people living in cities, 2.95 million and 2.96, but these urban populations are 22% of the total population for Chad and 65% of the total population for Congo.

Overall, the balance between urban and rural populations is thought, conventionally, to directly describe whether a country is likely to be in the high income or low income groups of countries. The Department of Economic and Social Affairs – a specialist agency of the United Nations – entrusts such calculations to its Population Division whose ‘World Urbanization Prospects’ found, in its 2014 revision, that the proportion of urban populations for high income countries was 80% while that for low income countries was 30%. This seems to lend weight to the conventional wisdom that it is cities that galvanise the creation of the sort of wealth which gross domestic product (GDP) growth depends on.

Cities are seen to harbour dynamism and vitality. For those who live in such cities, this is largely true. Residents of cities like Seoul (Korea), Lima (Peru), Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad (all India), Bogotá (Colombia), Nagoya (Japan), Johannesburg (South Africa), Bangkok (Thailand) and Chicago (USA) are very likely to agree that living and working in their respective cities has brought tham prosperity, and are less likely to ponder about this group of cities being the top ten in the world with populations under 10 million in 2014 (there are 28 cities worldwide with populations of at least 10 million).

RG_CN_Beijing_201405_01_bwThere is however another aspect to the formation of cities. In 1927, the film Metropolis, conceived by Fritz Lang and delivered as an artfully stylised cinematic message, described the strains and dangers of the power that cities had already come to have over their residents. For Metropolis was a futuristic city where a cultured utopia existed above a bleak underworld populated by mistreated workers. Just over 50 years later, another film, Blade Runner (1982), blended science fiction with a disturbing portrait of a dystopian and dangerous cityscape that was both gigantic and technology-centric, through which the human element struggled to find meaning.

If Metropolis represented the post-industrial revolution European cityscape, then Blade Runner depicted the flagship of what has been called the Asian century, for its mesmerising and frightening urban backdrop was Tokyo then, and could well be China now. The Japanese capital remains in 2014 the world’s largest city with an agglomeration of 38 million inhabitants, followed by New Delhi with 25 million, Shanghai with 23 million, and Mexico City, Mumbai and São Paulo, each with around 21 million inhabitants. By 2030, so the projections say, the world will have 41 mega-cities of more than 10 million inhabitants.

For all their celebrated roles as centres of wealth, innovation and culture, these mega-cities and their smaller counterparts exert dreadful pressures on natural resources and the environment. These are already either unmanageable or uneconomical to deal with, more so in the rapidly growing urban centres of Asia and Africa. Despite the lengthening list of urban problems – most caused by rural folk flocking to cities faster than urban governance structures can cope with existing needs – demographers foresee that today’s trend will add 2.5 billion people to the world’s urban population by 2050. India, China and Nigeria are together expected to account for 37% of the projected growth of the world’s urban population between this year and 2050. It is there that the idea of the city, which so fascinated Fritz Lang, will be sorely tested.

South Asia’s boring club

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RG_SAARC_old_maps_201411_india3Next year will be the 30th since the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation was formed. Its career as an association has since the mid-eighties been neither distinguished nor even promising. The countries of the region, viewing the emerging tides of multi-lateralism elsewhere (especially in Latin America) and viewing the debris of the non-aligned movement, shuffled together to form SAARC. The group has all the equipment – a secretariat, various centres that profess to tackle common subjects, a stable of professionals who advise bored officials, and so on – but has produced little.

Some of the blame for such a desultory career must lie with the relations between Pakistan and India, which every other month swing between ‘hostile’ and ‘concerned’ but rarely tread any other territory. Still, that ought not to have weighed so heavily on the other members of SAARC – Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Bhutan. The accoutrements of SAARC should have served them just as well, but have simply not been used.

RG_SAARC_old_maps_201411_bangladesh_bhutan3This is the greyish and uninspiring background to the 18th SAARC summit this week in Kathmandu, Nepal. The script of this one, as with so many others before it, has followed the same desultory trajectory. The leaders of Pakistan and India say they will meet cordially, formally and informally, and dutifully repeat all that has been said (but not done) from the previous 17 summits and numerous non-summit SAARC meetings.

RG_SAARC_old_maps_201411_ceylon3Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan announced that peace and stability is what the region needs, that the summit participants want to make SAARC a strong trading and economic bloc, and that the region will prosper through better security and economic cooperation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India announced that the development of close relations with neighbouring countries is a key priority for his government, that greater regional integration at all levels of socio-economic development is important, and that the participants would seek concrete outcomes.

RG_SAARC_old_maps_201411_pakistan3Few, other than the most committed followers of South Asian diplomatic prose, pay much attention. The economic globalisation of the last decade especially has linked countries – within South Asia and outside – with bilateral agreements rather than through multi-lateral fora like SAARC. Even where the association has invested some collective funds (in the creation of specialist centres for example, and the endowment of study and research programmes meant to benefit neighbours) the outcomes have been close to invisible.

RG_SAARC_old_maps_201411_smThis poor showing has not deterred the countries from announcing yet another new SAARC centre which will merge four existing regional centres – the SAARC Disaster Management Centre (in India), the SAARC Coastal Zone Management Centre (in the Maldives), the SAARC Meteorological Research Centre (in Bangladesh) and the SAARC Forestry Centre (in Bhutan). The suspicion, not unfounded, is that SAARC and its colourless apparatus exists to provide convenient sinecures for ex-diplomats from the eight countries and their colleagues.

Of course, the “meetings on the sidelines”, over which some mild interest is mustered pertaining to SAARC, may lead to a front page headline or two, but in the balance, that occasional fillip is hardly worth the expense of maintaining the club.

[Sections from maps are, top to bottom, (1) From ‘Madras, Mysore and Goa’, in Constable’s 1893 Hand Atlas; (2) from ‘India, Afghanistan, Belochistan, Burmah, and Siam’ by John Bartholomew; from ‘Zell’s Descriptive Hand Atlas of the World’, Philadelphia, 1873; (3) from ‘Southern India and Ceylon’ in ‘Letts’s Popular Atlas’ 1883; (4) from ‘India’ by Edward Weller, for the Weekly Dispatch Magazine, 1859. Click here for a sheet of them all (jpg, 772kb).]

The cities and their multitudes

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The 166 Indian cities in the UN population list. What do the colours mean? Dark blue is for city populations up to 250,000; light blue is 250,000-500,000; pink is 500,000 to 1 million; orange is 1 million to 5 million; red is 5 million and above. The source for the data is 'World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision', from the United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division.

The 166 Indian cities in the UN population list. What do the colours mean? Dark blue is for city populations up to 250,000; light blue is 250,000-500,000; pink is 500,000 to 1 million; orange is 1 million to 5 million; red is 5 million and above. The source for the data is ‘World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision’, from the United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division.

Bigger cities growing at a rate faster in the last decade than earlier decades. This is what the image shows us. These are 166 cities of India whose populations in 2014 were 300,000 and above. The jagged swatches of colour that seem to march diagonally across the image describe tiers of population, for the table is arranged according to the populations of these cities in 2015, with the annual series beginning in 1985 and extending (as a forecast) until 2030.

The populations of four cities will cross 0.5 million in 2015: Jalgaon (Maharashtra, whose population will be 506,000 in 2015), Patiala (Punjab, 510,000), Thoothukudi (Tamil Nadu, 514,000) and Imphal (Manipur, 518,000). They will join a group of cities which in 2014 crossed the 0.5 million mark: Gaya (Bihar, 508,000 in 2015), Rajahmundry (Andhra Pradesh, 511,000), Udaipur (Rajasthan, 517,000), Bilaspur (Chhattisgarh, 518,000), Kayamkulam (Kerala, 533,000) and Agartala (Tripura, 550,000).

Just ahead of these are Vellore (Tamil Nadu, whose population in 2015 will be 528,000 and which crossed 0.5 million in 2013), Mathura (Uttar Pradesh, 529,000 and 2014), Tirunelveli (Tamil Nadu, 530,000 and 2011), Sangli (Maharashtra, 545,000 and 2009), Tirupati (Andhra Pradesh, 550,000 and 2013), Ujjain (Madhya Pradesh, 556,000 and 2009), Kurnool (Andhra Pradesh, 567,000 and 2012), Muzaffarnagar (Uttar Pradesh, 587,000 and 2011), Erode (Tamil Nadu, 590,000 and 2010) and Cherthala (Kerala, 593,000 and 2013).

To make this chart I have used the data from ‘World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision’, from the United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. The 166 cities of India are extracted from the main table, ‘Annual Population of Urban Agglomerations with 300,000 Inhabitants or More in 2014, by Country, 1950-2030′.

Visiting our total household food budget

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RG_pvt_final_cons_exp

Twice as much over the 11 years until 2009-10, and three times as much over the 10 years until 2012-13. That has been the increase in rupee expenditure for this basket of foods.

The data is from the private final consumption series, calculated by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) of the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MoSPI). The totals (left scale of the chart) is in thousand crore rupees.

In this chart I have shown the expenditure (in current rupees) for: Cereals and Bread, Pulses, Sugar and Gur, Oils and Oilseeds, Fruits and Vegetables, Milk and Milk Products, and Meat Egg and Fish. These totals also indicate the size in rupees of the food industry – but do not include the processed and packaged food industry.

The rise in consumption expenditure expressed in rupees is a money measure alone, and not a quantity or volume measure. We can see that the portion of milk and milk products in this group has gone up from just over 18% to 25% over 14 years, and the portion of meat, eggs and fish has gone up from just under 9% to 12.5% over the same period.

From 2006 the rising trend of expenditure on fruits and vegetables became steeper than the rising trend of cereals and bread. In 2005-06 the portion spent on fruit and vegetables in this group was just over 26% and that has risen slightly to 28% in 2012-13. In contrast for cereals and bread, the portion of 27.5% in 2005-06 has dropped to just over 21% in 2012-13.

In Europe, a vote for the right to keep GM out

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The 'no' vote has given the European Parliament an excellent chance to improve EU legislation and give member states genuine tools to protect the environment and promote genuinely sustainable farming. Image: Friends of the Earth Europe

The ‘no’ vote has given the European Parliament an excellent chance to improve EU legislation and give member states genuine tools to protect the environment and promote genuinely sustainable farming. Image: Friends of the Earth Europe

Members of the European Parliament have defeated a European Commission proposal to prevent member states from banning genetically modified crops on health and/or environmental grounds. The result of this vote means that national bans on GM crops, for environmental or health reasons, are allowed even if the EU approves genetically modified (GM) crops for cultivation.

The European Food and Safety Authority had approved GM for use in the EU, but a number of countries opposed to GM (like France) demanded the right to block crops under a principle known as ‘subsidiarity’, or devolution to individual countries.

The Greens/European Free Alliance has said that the vote by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) strengthens the grounds on which EU member countries could opt out from GMO authorisations under the proposed new system.

In a statement the Greens/European Free Alliance said: “No must mean no: countries wanting to opt out of GM authorisations must have a totally legally watertight framework for doing so. MEPs have also voted for the inclusion of mandatory measures to prevent the contamination of non-GM crops, with the myriad of issues this raises. The committee also rejected a proposal from EU governments, which would have obliged member states to directly request that corporations take them out of the scope of their GMO applications, before being allowed to opt out.”

However, the Greens are still very concerned that the new opt out scheme is a slippery slope for easing EU GMO authorisations and does not fundamentally change the flawed EU approval process in itself. Organisations, scientists, academics, political fronts and citizens’ alliances who do not want GM crop or food in their regions and countries nonetheless see an urgent need to reform the EU’s GMO authorisation process. On 03 November 2014, signatures from more than 160,000 European citizens were presented to the vice-chair of the Environment Committee calling on him to close these loopholes.

Eight EU countries have banned the cultivation of GM crops (others have not commercially grown such crops). The only crop permitted, Monsanto's GM maize, is restricted to some areas of Spain and four other countries. Image: Friends of the Earth Europe

Eight EU countries have banned the cultivation of GM crops (others have not commercially grown such crops). The only crop permitted, Monsanto’s GM maize, is restricted to some areas of Spain and four other countries. Image: Friends of the Earth Europe

Currently, authorisations proceed in spite of flawed risk assessments and the consistent opposition of a majority of EU member states in Council and, importantly, a clear majority of EU citizens. They have warned against a trade-off of easier EU authorisations against easier national bans. For the EU, the next step must be an EU-wide total ban and total rejection of GM crop, food, seed and technology in all its forms, otherwise the new proposal for EU GMO approvals is a Trojan horse which risks finally opening the door to GMOs despite citizens’ opposition, and which will keep open the route for GM/biotech companies to appeal against such bans (a route that European Greens and the many groups that have rejected GM want to shut once and for all).

Such a next step – which is the logical and moral next step for the European Parliament to take – is necessary to overturn completely the current arrangement which treats biotech companies and corporations at the same level as governments. Under the arrangement that existed till now (the ramifications of this week’s ‘no’ vote must still be examined) an EU member country which does not want GMO to be grown on its territory must request the biotech company (through the European Commission) that its territory be excluded from the geographical scope of the EU authorisation. Only if the country has applied for a ‘territorial exemption’ and been refused by the company is the country allowed to then implement a ban on GMO on its territory.

How utterly contemptuous of a country’s sovereign rights this arrangement was, and how it found its way into procedure illustrates dramatically the power and influence that the GM and biotech industry has come to wield in the EU – the decision of the geographical scope of an EU authorisation gave more weight to biotech/GM companies than to governments!

In the debate about GM crops, the argument that the biotech industry and their supporters always fall back on is that whether we like it or not, we are going to need them to feed the world. Genetic modification has, they assure us, the potential to produce crops with all sorts of wonderful traits: tolerance of drought, cold, salinity and flooding, resistance to insect pests, extra nutritional value, and more.

“But for the last 20 years, GM has singularly failed to convert that potential into reality,” the Institute for Science in Society has explained. “Almost all the GM crops grown have been modified to have one of two traits: tolerance of glyphosate-based herbicides and the ability to produce a Bt-toxin that can kill corn- and cotton pests. In the meantime, conventional breeding, often employing modern techniques such as marker-assisted breeding, has continued to deliver the goods. If our real goal is to feed the world, we should be taking resources away from GM and devoting them to other agricultural research that is less glamorous-sounding but more effective.”

Why the FAO food index is also an oil gauge

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The revealing relationship between the FAO cereals price sub-index, the OPEC Reference Basket price of a barrel of crude oil, and the Baltic Dry Index (right scale).

The revealing relationship between the FAO cereals price sub-index, the OPEC Reference Basket price of a barrel of crude oil, and the Baltic Dry Index (right scale).

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN has released its food price index data and commentary for 2014 October. This would be of considerable interest if only the index described the tendencies of food prices as experienced by consumers. Alas FAO’s food price index, as we have remarked upon several times in the past, pays no attention to the true cost of food staples.

Of what use is the FAO index, which is used as a reference by any government (and UN member state) to judge the value of its food exports (or to judge whether when importing grain it is paying what seems to be a fair price)? In the first place, the index (which itself is composed of separately calculated cereal, vegetable oil, dairy, meat and sugar indices) is not a consumer food price index.

The FAO food price index and its component sub-indices for the period 2012 January to 2014 October. A general downward trend, says the FAO, but this is the picture for international food trade and not consumer food retail price.

The FAO food price index and its component sub-indices for the period 2012 January to 2014 October. A general downward trend, says the FAO, but this is the picture for international food trade and not consumer food retail price.

The FAO has not claimed it is, but neither has the agency clearly and plainly said it is not. It should, because financial and general interest media all over the world report the ups and downs of this index as if it portrays how local food prices move, and of course it does not.

The FAO index is used by international traders whose business it is to buy and sell food staples (including cereal, vegetable oil, pulses, dairy, meat and sugar). Perhaps some of them use it as a benchmark while others forecast trends from its sub-indices. It may be used to validate the accuracy of a particular kind of agricultural commodity futures index, and help judge whether an investment in the production of food, its movement, its stocking or its trade is going to be a good investment or not. As you can gather, it is not an index that consumers can use, because consumers are local and this is assuredly not.

What pulls the FAO food price index up, down or sideways? There are two important factors at work on the main index. One is the price of petroleum products, the other is the cost of moving grain (or any other food staple). You may assess the short or long-term trend of the food index against the current or projected price of Brent crude (preferred in Europe), West Texas Intermediate (preferred in the USA) or the OPEC reference price (preferred almost everywhere else).

The FAO food price index and its component sub-indices for 2014 till October. The downward trend of the last six months, which the FAO commentary is faintly praising, mirrors the trend of crude oil prices over the same period.

The FAO food price index and its component sub-indices for 2014 till October. The downward trend of the last six months, which the FAO commentary is faintly praising, mirrors the trend of crude oil prices over the same period.

And then you will assess what the food price index describes against the cost of moving a large quantity of the agricultural commodity to be traded across an ocean, for which the Baltic Dry Index will be consulted.

[If you are a trader and want the FAO food price data and movements, go here. The usual commentary can be found: “The FAO Food Price Index averaged 192.3 points in October 2014, marginally (0.2 percent) below the revised September figure but 14.3 points (6.9 percent) short of its corresponding level one year ago” and so on.]

To help determine what the FAO food price index is depicting, I have made charts for the index (and sub-indices) for the period 2012 January to 2014 October; for the index (and sub-indices) for 2014 till October; a chart that shows the FAO cereals sub-index together with the OPEC Reference Basket Price for a barrel of crude oil and the Baltic Dry Index (this is the shipping index most commonly referred to for the movement of dry goods by sea) for the period 2012 January to 2014 October; and a chart that plots the changes (from month to month) in the three indexes taken together (FAO Cereals, OPEC Reference and Baltic Dry).

The FAO food price index and the OPEC Reference Basket price of oil have much more in common than the Baltic Dry Index, which has swung with volatility since 2012 January.

The FAO food price index and the OPEC Reference Basket price of oil have much more in common than the Baltic Dry Index, which has swung with volatility since 2012 January.

What they describe can be found in the captions, but it becomes clear from a glance at the FAO-OPEC-Baltic charts that the food price as calculated by FAO has very much more to do with how energy is used to produce food staples (that is, the use of petroleum products directly, and the use of fossil fuels-derived energy) and how energy is used to transport, store, process, transport it again and retail it.

I see it as an index that describes the energy quotient of industrially produced food staples, and so it has little if anything to do with any other form of agriculture, in particular the smallholder, family-oriented and organic agriculture that the FAO advertises its concern about.

Gorbachev, democracy and the Berlin Wall

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Der Offizier Harald Jäger trifft unter dem Ansturm der Massen am Grenzübergang Bornholmer Straße die Entscheidung seines Lebens: Wir fluten! Foto: Tagesspiegel / EPD

Der Offizier Harald Jäger trifft unter dem Ansturm der Massen am Grenzübergang Bornholmer Straße die Entscheidung seines Lebens: Wir fluten! Foto: Tagesspiegel / EPD

The ‘celebration’ of the bringing down of the Berlin Wall (and the militarised border between the former East and West in Germany) is being held. Germany’s Christian Democrat-led government has marked the anniversary with many events, but the question ought to be: what are they celebrating? Is it the demise of communism? Is it the ‘victory’ of Western democracy? Or is it the fragile success of having steered without serious catastrophe a course that has become more unsustainable with every year for Germany’s 80.6 million?

These are the questions that do not hide behind the marketability of an event such as several thousand lit balloons in Berlin tracing the course of the Wall when it divided the city. The ‘installation’ will bring the tourists in, but little else for a city whose government – brazenly arm-in-arm with reckless property speculators – posed as being “poor but sexy” much to the disgust of Berliners.

It is difficult to slide away from the consequences of history. In the early euphoria following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Germany moved quickly to erase the scars of its Cold War division. “But East Germany’s legacy remains visible in statistics,” the weekly newspaper Die Zeit has commented, showing that German unification left scars that have not yet disappeared.

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Gorbachev: Europe is weakening. Photo: RT.com

An editorial blog post related to the article observed: “The border still exists. Nearly exactly where it existed in reality, Germany is still divided in two. Until today, 25 years after the end of the imposed separation, there is an important demographic and economic imbalance, and there are also very different lifestyle habits.”

In the former eastern part of Germany, the income per capita is still considerably less than in what used to be old Federal Republic (the west), and farms are considerably bigger in the old German Democratic Republic (GDR) than in the old West Germany – the legacy of collective farming. Easterners also put their children in day care, and most get flu shots each year, and the eastern population is older.

Those older residents remember ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’ more readily than do Germans elsewhere in Germany. These were the concept-words employed by Mikhail Gorbachev which made the reunification of Germany possible. The former leader of the Soviet Union (the USSR) returned to Berlin to speak at a forum organised to mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the message he gave was weighed down by his disappointment with the West and was charged by his warning – delivered as clearly and precisely as when he was general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – that the new Cold War is the product of the current thinking of the West.

After the Berlin Wall was brought down and Germany began its process of reunification, the leaders of the western world were intoxicated with euphoria of triumph, and they adopted anti-Russian policies that eventually led to the current crisis, Gorbachev said.

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Gorbachev: The West claimed monopoly leadership. Photo: RT.com

Taking advantage of Russia’s weakening and a lack of a counterweight, they claimed monopoly leadership and domination in the world. And they refused to heed the word of caution from many of those present here,” he said. “The events of the past months are consequences of short-sighted policies of seeking to impose one’s will and fait accompli while ignoring the interests of one’s partners.”

Gorbachev gave a list of examples of those policies, including the expansion of NATO and the development of an anti-ballistic missile system, military interventions in Yugoslavia and Iraq, the west-backed secession of Kosovo, the crisis in Syria and others. The Ukrainian crisis is a “blister turning into a bleeding, festering wound,” he said.

Western policies toward Russia championed by Washington have led to the current crisis, and if the confrontation continues, Europe will be weakened and become irrelevant, said Gorbachev. “Instead of becoming a leader of change in a global world Europe has turned into an arena of political upheaval, of competition for the spheres of influence, and finally of military conflict. The consequence inevitably is Europe’s weakening at a time when other centres of power and influence are gaining momentum. If this continues, Europe will lose a strong voice in world affairs and gradually become irrelevant,” he said.

The anniversary of Mauerfall – the bringing down of the Berlin Wall and the militarised boundary between East and West Germany – has been employed by Zygmunt Bauman (professor emeritus of Sociology in the Universities of Leeds and Warsaw) to comment on the hopes of 1989 and the realities of 2014.

“We have seen a steady dismantling of the network of institutions intended to defend the victims of the increasingly deregulated greed-driven economy, and a growing public insensitivity to rampant social inequality, coupled with the incapacity of a rising number of citizens, now abandoned (since no longer viewed as a potential danger to capitalist order or a seedbed of social revolution) to fend for themselves as they might on their own glaringly inadequate resources and capabilities.”

Die größte Demonstration der DDR-Geschichte endete am 4. November mit einer Kundgebung auf dem Alexanderplatz. Foto: Tagesspiegel / EPD

Die größte Demonstration der DDR-Geschichte endete am 4. November mit einer Kundgebung auf dem Alexanderplatz. Foto: Tagesspiegel / EPD

This has resulted, Bauman continued, among the actual and prospective stake-holders of democracy, in a steady erosion of trust in the ability of democratic institutions to deliver on their promises: a stark contrast to the high hopes of the heady, optimistic aftermath of the Berlin Wall’s collapse. It has also resulted in an ever-widening gulf and a breakdown of communication between political elites and the man in the street.

“The ostensible triumph of the democratic mode of human co-existence, in practice brought a steady shrinking and fading of public trust in its potential accomplishments. Such unprepossessing and depressing effects struck, though in unequal measure, all member states of the European Union.”

Amongst the many commentaries in Berlin’s newspaper, one from taz – the short form of Die Tageszeitung – explains the cultural gulf between ‘ossis’ (from the east) and ‘wessis’ (from the former West Germany). “East Germans and immigrants were still commonly referred to as ‘foreigners’, both equally outsiders and underdogs in the West German perspective after the fall of the Wall. They dressed differently, had strange habits and foreign dialects and accents. But culturally East Germans had something in common with many immigrants – both came from societies in which the sense of community was very important.”

This was evident in everyday East Germany (the DDR). There were few telephones and not many public places in the GDR, and hence colleagues and friends met in their own flats and apartments. The result was that close neighborliness was well developed in many migrants at that time. They differed in this from the “distant West Germans”, who even 25 years ago preferred to met each other in cafes or restaurants rather than in their homes.

The frontier between Thuringia and Bavaria near Asbach, in 1950. Photo: Die Zeit / Deutsches Bundesarchiv / Otto Donath

The frontier between Thuringia and Bavaria near Asbach, in 1950. Photo: Die Zeit / Deutsches Bundesarchiv / Otto Donath

Twenty-five years after November 1989 what is Germany recalling? There are many unkept promises rued by a society in which the joy of being “wieder ein Volk” (once more a people) has been eroded by the finance politics of austerity and the creeping ruin of corporate control. At the time it looked so very different.

In 1986, in the journal Widersprüche (April 1986), the sociologist Timm Kunstreich commented: “Especially concerning the understanding and productivity in the seemingly petty bourgeois work ethic conceptions, the prominent idea is one of characteristic blocking of the transformation process in the GDR. The consequence of the reduction of the integral state is that the ‘proletarian’ company is pushed into the ground. To many social institutions such a proletarian society appears as ‘Prometheus in chains’, bound by a rigid state-partisan control machinery based on collectivism and planned democracy.”

What has been transformed, what is blocked and what remain cultural differences? Far too many of the German Volk (especially the youth) are a Prometheus bound despite reunification, the so-called free market and the removal of the spectre of communism. Every trait of the DDR/GDR that was reviled is seen again, 25 years later, through the employment of new tools of technology, finance, the marginalisation of local alternatives, the intrusion of the private sector into the domains of the state.

This has resulted in a stark and saddening contrast to the high hopes of the heady, optimistic aftermath of the Berlin Wall’s collapse. “Twenty five years ago people stormed a barbed-wired wall that epitomised their un-freedom, hoping that once that wall were down, democracy would guarantee them freedom and that freedom would assure their well-being. Twenty-five years after democracy is in a state of unprecedented (and all but unimaginable at that time) crisis,” Bauman has said. The lit balloons that today give Berlin a ghost wall are alas no more than the gaslight of a depression that is palpable, though in unequal measure, in all member states of the European Union.

Written by makanaka

November 8, 2014 at 23:40

The industry of urban empowerment

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RG_Agenda_urban_empowerment_top

The latest issue of the occasional journal Agenda (published by the Centre for Communication and Development Studies) has focused on the subject of urban poverty. A collection of articles brings out the connections between population growth, the governance of cities and urban areas, the sub-populations of the ‘poor’ and how they are identified, the responses of the state to urbanisation and urban residents (links at the end of this post).

My contribution to this issue is titled ‘The industry of ‘empowerment’ in which I have described how the urbanisation of India project is being executed in the name of the ‘urban poor’. But the urban poor themselves are lost in the debate over methodologies to identify and classify them and the thicket of entitlements, provisions and agencies to facilitate their ‘inclusion’ and ‘empowerment’. I have divided my essay into five parts; here is part one:

RG_Agenda_urban_empowerment_K2015 will be the tenth year of India’s largest urban recalibration programme. That decadal anniversary will, for one section of our society, be used as proof that new infrastructure in cities has lowered poverty, that new housing has raised the standard of living for those who need it most, that urban rebuilding capital is focused better through such measures and, because of these and like reasons, that giant programmes such as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) must continue. With or without the name of India’s first prime minister applied to the mission (itself a noun used liberally to impel urgency into a programme), it will continue, enriched with finance and technology.

The JNNURM, a year from now, will be the foremost symbol amongst several that signal to some 415 million Indians (city-dwellers all, for that will be the approximate urban population a year from now) why city life and city lights are what matter.

For another section of society, less inclined because of experience with administrations indifferent or venal, life in India’s (and Bharat’s) 7,935 towns goes on minus the pithy optimism of governments and their supporters in industry and finance. The promise of higher monthly household incomes is somehow expected to compensate for the grinding travails that urban life in India brings, and it is a promise documented inside 50 years of gazettes and government orders, countless circulars and memoranda, hundreds of reports by committees high-powered and technical.

Still the number of villages that are transformed, statistically and temporally into towns (census and statutory) grows from one census to another (and in between), and still the urban agglomerations — some sprawling uncaring from one district into another, consuming agricultural land and watershed — expand, for the instruction of the market is that it is this process of gathering citizens that leads to the growth of gross domestic product (GDP), the prime mechanic in the alleviation of poverty, whose workings in cities are much studied but elude definition.

RG_Agenda_urban_empowerment_RThe density of programmes and schemes that envelop urban-dwellers — those whose households hover above or below a poverty line, those whose informal wage earnings are insufficient to maintain a crumbling housing board tenement — is confusing, inside administrations as much as outside them. The thicket of entitlements and provisions that have been designed, so we are told, to ensure the provision of ‘services’ and ‘amenities’, confounds navigation.

There are economically weaker sections and lower income groups to plan for (provided they remain weaker and lower); there are ‘integrated, reform-driven, fast-track’ sub-missions and components that are aimed at increasing the effectiveness and accountability of urban local bodies, all as part of the ‘Urban Infrastructure and Governance’ standards to be applied under the Urban Infrastructure Development Schemes for Small and Medium Towns (UIDSSMT, which defies any attempt to make acronyms pronounceable) in 65 mission cities.

Prominent within this grand and swelling orchestra of urbanisation are some of the star creations of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty-Alleviation. There is the Basic Services to the Urban Poor (BSUP) and the Integrated Housing and Slum Development Programme (IHSDP) and these round up the gamut of concepts proffered by the urban planning dogma of our times: “integrated development of slums through projects”, “providing for shelter, basic services and other related civic amenities with a view towards providing utilities to the urban poor”, “key pro-poor reforms that include the implementation of the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act”, and “delivery through convergence of other already existing universal services”.

There are public-private partnership templates to guide business (and the odd social entrepreneurship) through this new topology; there are special purpose vehicles formed that mendaciously grey the distinctions between bond and financial markets and the greater public good, but which we are assured will function as the money backstop for public administrations whose clerks peer befuddled at slick online reporting formats (transparency at work, round the clock, accessible through apps on the beneficiaries’ tablet phones).

RG_Agenda_urban_empowerment_GThere is ‘inclusion’ — that most essential salt that flavours the substance of governance today — to be found in every direction. There are plenty of beneficiaries to enlist in this urban social re-engineering that is proceeding on a scale and pace unthinkable a generation ago in our towns (public sector housing colonies and waiting lists for scooters), when ‘income inequality’ was an uncommon topic of discussion and ‘gini coefficient’ had yet to become a society’s alarm bell. The new cadre of GDP engineers is well schooled in the language of human rights and normative justice, and so we have ‘Social Mobilisation and Institution Development’ which attends ‘Employment through Skills Training and Placement’, both of which facilitate ‘empowerment, financial self-reliance, and participation and access to government’.

About 30 years ago, The State of India’s Environment 1984-85 (Centre for Science and Environment) noted in a tone of cautious optimism that “planners are beginning to realise that squatters are economically valuable citizens who add to the gross national product by constructing their own shelter, no matter how makeshift, which saves the government a considerable amount of money”. That was a time when governments still sought to save money and the CSE report went on to explain that squatters “are upwardly mobile citizens in search of economic opportunity and have demonstrated high levels of enterprise, tenacity, and ability to suffer acute hardships; that the informal sector in which a majority of the slum-dwellers are economically active contributes significantly to the city’s overall economic growth; and that they should be helped and not hindered”.

[Articles in the Agenda issue, Urban Poverty, are: How to make urban governance pro-poor, Counting the urban poor, The industry of ‘empowerment’, Data discrepancies, The feminisation of urban poverty, Making the invisible visible, Minorities at the margins, Housing poverty by social groups, Multidimensional poverty in Pune, Undermining Rajiv Awas Yojana, Resettlement projects as poverty traps, Participatory budgeting, Exclusionary cities.]

The FAO mask slips further

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Family farming is a descriptive phrase that rings well with environmentalists, with anthropologists and ethnologists who have had anything to do with food and its cultivation, with naturalists and especially with the many groups promoting agro-ecological farming all over the world. What could be wrong with recognising and valorising family farming?

The FAO's view of smallholder farming, agri-business and markets, rendered in textbook business school fashion.

The FAO’s view of smallholder farming, agri-business and markets, rendered in textbook business school fashion.

Quite a lot, when it comes through the machinery of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s propaganda mill. The most cited of the FAO’s ‘flagship’ publications, the State of Food and Agriculture in 2014 has as its theme family farming, but this theme carries a passenger, which the FAO has described as ‘Innovation in family farming’. And that is how the mask has slipped further.

[The State of Food and Agriculture, FAO’s major annual flagship publication has as its 2014 theme ‘Innovation in family farming’ (the full report here and a summary here).]

The publication needs to be read not for the assertions of how important smallholder farming is, but for the conceptual machinery that has been assembled so that a technical take-over of small farms can be achieved with limited opposition. This is the scheme of the FAO of 2014, which is sadly a very different agency from what it was even a decade ago.

SOFA 2014 in its prose swings rather schizophrenically between sugary pronouncements about how family farms are “the custodians of about 75 percent of all agricultural resources in the world”, and therefore why they should be the new focus for an innovation that is techno-centric. The publication has made liberal use of terms such as “improved ecological and resource sustainability” and where the word ‘sustainable’ is used ‘vulnerable’ is surely not far behind. It isn’t, and SOFA 2014 goes to some lengths to convince its readers that most family farms are vulnerable in one or many ways.

The spin doctors employed by the FAO have come up with what the publication has called a triple challenge for family farming (challenges are most intimidating when they come in threes). This is: “yield growth to meet the world’s need for food security and better nutrition; environmental sustainability to protect the planet and to secure their own productive capacity; and productivity growth and livelihood diversification to lift themselves out of poverty and hunger”. The answer, according to the machine men of international crop science, is that they must innovate (or, better still, nominally hold the title to the factors of crop production while the innovation is administered by outside agents).

FAO_SOFA_2014_coverThis very brief canning of the publication’s main objective helps to place in context the main messages of this year’s State of Food and Agriculture, which include:

“Family farms are part of the solution for achieving food security and sustainable rural development; the world’s food security and environmental sustainability depend on the more than 500 million family farms that form the backbone of agriculture in most countries.”

Here the device of a very large number, 500 million, is used to reassure the critics that the forces that would control the world’s crop staples are unlikely to homogenise such a number. But indeed it is their number and variety that are being studied carefully in order to find approaches that – to use the acidic terms of the multi-lateral banks – boost investor confidence. Hence the considered advice from FAO: “Family farms are an extremely diverse group, and innovation systems must take this diversity into account.”

There is more on complexity and diversity with specific regard to the institutions for crop science (and for food retail and sales, the porcine twin of formal modern agriculture research). The SOFA has said: “The challenges facing agriculture and the institutional environment for agricultural innovation are far more complex than ever before; the world must create an innovation system that embraces this complexity.” What the FAO means by “more complex than ever before” is the growing opposition to industrial agriculture, agricultural biotechnology and the use of genetic modification techniques. So, the embracing that is called for is one that should sound acceptable, non-threatening, inclusive, participatory and all the other terms that the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal-setters so volubly use.

FAO_SOFA_2014_cover_bwInstitutions cost money, which will come from where exactly? The FAO has a ready answer. “Public investment in agricultural R&D and extension and advisory services should be increased and refocused to emphasise sustainable intensification and closing yield and labour productivity gaps.” That is to say, leave the innovation bit to the private sector, turn your research centres (built and run with public monies) over to us, dismantle your nationalist agricultural extension service but give us the network, and look how we close yield and productivity gaps. That’s the pitch, in a nutshell, ignoring the several blunt cautions raised by other UN agencies (including the previous Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food) that we have quite enough food but far too little equity and fairness concerning how it reaches those who need it.

This publication, the State of Food and Agriculture, is the latest that has been outfitted to serve FAO’s new interest, camouflaged though it is. The usual empowering wordiness that has become so tiresomely characteristic of the UN system is on view here too: family farmers need an enabling environment, good governance, stable macroeconomic conditions, transparent legal and regulatory regimes, secure property rights, risk management tools, market infrastructure, capacity development through investment in education and training, participatory agricultural research, emphasise sustainable intensification, closing the yield and productivity gaps.

Until the next major report, this one will be turned into a mini-curriculum to be referenced by client governments so that a technologically obsessed industrial agriculture and seed industry annexes larger shares of old markets (India and South-East Asia) and totally subordinates small new ones (African countries). ‘Fiat panis’ (let there be bread) is the FAO motto and after a reading of SOFA 2014 one could be excused for considering that this motto be switched with ‘fiat food oligarchs’, for that is the direction the FAO, under Jose Graziano da Silva, is firmly pursuing.

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