Recent writing

This week I had a couple of posts published on the Transition Free Press blog:

  • Real Media conference celebrates independent journalism about the new campaign and network to support and promote independent, ‘public interest’ journalism. As someone passionate about these kinds of publications and platforms, I’m really excited about its potential. Real Media are holding a conference in Manchester on 28 February.
  • Accelerating transition, city by city about the ARTS research project. A study of five European city regions which aims to find out more about what makes some areas hubs for sustainability.

At the Institute of Development Studies, I have been working on three features for the Interactions website, focused on how the project’s key themes: unpaid care work, gender-based violence and urban health of women and girls in low incomes settings, relate to the Sustainable Development Goals. The first article on unpaid care work is now published here.

How to…give your cocktail a green-over

This article first appeared in the Ecologist on 8 May 2012.

Shaken or stirred, recreating the bar experience at home is becoming ever more popular as the economic downturn makes staying in the new going out. But staying in doesn’t necessarily mean green. The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) estimates that the carbon footprint of alcohol consumed in the UK is 1.5 per cent of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions. The life cycle of the product adds to this and needs to be considered when making the green choice.

One of the easiest ways to go green is to go organic. Chris Parker is the owner of the Surrey-based Organic Spirits Company. ‘Normal fertilisers contain a mixture of natural phosphates, which are gradually running out,’ he says. ‘There’s also nitrates which, in terms of pollution, give off nitrous oxide which is 300 times as toxic as carbon dioxide.’ Dr Paul Taylor is a Carbon Trust advisor who specialises in food and drink. He agrees that farming practices are important. ‘If there’s an agricultural component they need to be careful of not using too many fertilisers,’ he says. Parker says that, after winning 36 international medals, the proof of the Organic Spirits Company’s product is in the drinking. ‘Independent judges who are blind tasting have been picking out our products against the world’s best,’ he says. Fans of organic cocktails say they taste smoother and fresher…

Read the full article here at the Ecologist.

The dark side of soya: how one supercrop lost its way

This article was first published in the Ecologist on 1 May 2012.

Once credited with power to prevent cancer and combat high cholesterol, over the last few years, evidence that soya is far from a superfood has begun to emerge. And it’s not just the potentially negative health impact of the bean that has former supporters up in arms: it’s the environmental impact. In the UK we rely heavily on soya, or soy, and it’s not just for vegetarian food. It is a hidden product in many foods and everyday items such as soap. It is a cheap source of protein for people as well as animals and according toGreenpeace, 80 per cent of soya worldwide is used for the livestock industry.  WWF add that the UK consumption alone requires an area the size of Yorkshire to be planted with soya every year. So how did soya go from super crop to super bad?

Deforestation and slavery

Brazil, the second biggest grower and the biggest exporter of soya, is such a big player in the industry that there are major concerns about how this is affecting the Amazon Rainforest. According to Greenpeace, in 2005 around 1.2 million hectares of soya was planted in the Brazilian rainforest. Sarah Shoaka from Greenpeace’s Forest Network says that deforestation has been decreasing on the whole in Brazil since 2008. This is mainly because of the enforcement of a soya moratorium that bans soya produced as a result of deforestation from entering the market place.  However, Shoraka warns that this positive trend may be changing…

Read the full article here at the Ecologist.

World Naked Bike Ride: a protest with a difference

This article first appeared in the Ecologist on 27 April 2012.

A group of naked strangers cycling through a city centre is going to turn heads. Every year across the UK World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR), ‘the world’s biggest naked protest,’ is held to try and get people to notice in the name of oil dependency and pollution, car culture and the vulnerability of cyclists.

The two biggest issues for the naked protesters are our continued dependence on oil dependency and the lack of safe roads and pathways for cyclists, helping us to reduce our dependency on oil. The naked part of the protest symbolises the vulnerability of cyclists as road users.

While the rides themselves are a bold statement, there is debate around whether they are effective in communicating the issues behind them. The organisers of the bike ride say campaigning for better protection  of cyclists and promoting cycling itself is the only reason they do it. ‘But bear in mind that those behind it often have their own angle,’ says a spokesperson for the WNBR.

Bigger environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth see the naked protest as something more amusing than effective. ‘I applaud the bare-faced cheek of those taking part in the naked bike ride. Anything that helps raise awareness of pollution and greener modes of transport is a good thing in my book,’ says Andy Atkins, Executive Director of Friends of the Earth (FOE)…

Read the full article here at the Ecologist.

In season now: what to eat during May

This article first appeared in the Ecologist on 30 April 2012.

Bank holiday weekends are becoming a regular occurrence and with the weather (hopefully) improving, it’s time to get out and explore. For the foodie, this is about more than just enjoying the scenery; there are plenty of treats to be found if you know where to look. But too many of us don’t, says Slow Food UK CEO, Cat Gazzoli, who is adamant that we need to start taking advantage of our ‘forgotten foods’. ‘Eat it or lose it’ is the motto behind Slow Food’s Ark of Taste network, which catalogues forgotten flavours. It currently stands at 700 products from 30 countries. ‘The producers of these foods swim against the tide of intensive production methods to continue the culinary traditions that have been passed down through the generations,’ says Gazzoli. ‘Every product has a fascinating story behind it.’ So what should you be eating this month? Gazzoli has a few unusual ideas.

Read the full article here at the Ecologist.

Corruption: The Planet’s Most Talked About Issue

First appeared on Ctrl.Alt.Shift on Monday April 18 2011.

Corrupt governments, institutions and businesses make people angry and are often a major catalyst in getting them to take action. We are continually being told to behave ourselves and follow the rules, but when the people in power don’t do the same it can seem unfair.

Concerns about corruption around the world are reflected in a recent poll commissioned by the BBC, which states that corruption is the world’s most talked about issue. The World Speaks poll asked over 13, 000 people across 26 countries what issues they had been talking about most, and what were the problems they faced which they saw as most important.

While corruption was the most talked about issue, the people polled saw the most serious challenge facing them as extreme poverty. Corruption was the second most important challenge facing people. This was especially clear in countries including Brazil, Egypt, Colombia and Kenya.

The issue of corruption was one of the biggest triggers for the recent uprisings in Egypt, with the former president Hosni Mubarak being detained over corruption charges last week.

In Colombia corruption is often associated with widespread abuses of human rights, and journalists and lawyers who try to defend human rights are frequently stigmatised, threatened or murdered.

The world is facing uncertain and tough times economically, and climate change seems to be taking a back seat, despite the threat being as real as ever and a massive contributor to global poverty. According the World Speaks poll, public concern about the issue has lowered significantly in major industrialised nations since 2009, partly due to the disastrous Copenhagen summit in 2009.

Apathy towards climate change could also be because people in industrialised countries are not as yet affected by it, unlike people in developing countries. However, in emerging economies like Brazil and India people now see climate change as a serious problem, with deforestation, pollution and natural disasters being among the symptoms.

Unsurprisingly, the most discussed issue in Britain was the state of the global economy, with the perceived seriousness of this problem increasing significantly since 2009, as unemployment and public sector cuts begin to bite hard.

Public services are also a concern in Mexico, the only country to rank education as the most talked about issue. Although Mexico has almost achieved universal primary education, the education system has been described as corrupt, with only 45% of Mexicans finishing secondary school.

GlobeScan Research Director Sam Mountford said: “We shouldn’t be surprised that people are venting their frustration about a problem that often stops governments getting to grips with the raft of other serious challenges that they are now seen to be facing.”

People are feeling stretched in all directions and more clear links need to be made between issues. Corruption and climate change will increase poverty, as will unemployment. Educational problems are often symptoms of poverty and corruption. Working across areas of expertise and in solidarity with people across the globe will be the best way to combat these multiple issues: it seems the world is getting smaller, and more people than ever are opening their eyes to what’s happening to their planet.

Bangladesh, And The Aftermath Of Cyclone Aila

First appeared on Ctrl.Alt.Shift on 26 January 2011

Amy Hall finds out from Christian Aid’s Gen Lomax how the nation is getting on after the devastation of Cyclone Aila in May 2009, as well as what help has been provided by our partner organisation, Shushilan…
When Cyclone Aila hit coastal areas of Bangladesh in May 2009 it caused massive devastation. Nearly 300 people were killed and thousands of others displaced in one of Bangladesh’s worst cyclones in recent years.

It is now nearly two years on and the affects are still being felt, including in one of the worst hit areas, the Satkhira district. Many people have had livelihoods disrupted or destroyed but some positive links have been formed as families try and pick up the pieces.

Gen Lomax is a Communications and Development Officer for Christian Aid and has recently visited Bangladesh talking to people in the Satkhira district, one of the areas worst affected by the cyclone. During her trip she learnt about the work of Christian Aid partner organisation Shushilan.

The cyclone, combined with issues like lack of infrastructure and increasing climate change, has had a profound affect on communities. In Bangladesh about 830, 000 hectares of cultivable land has been damaged by saline (salt) water intrusion. This is a problem which has been worsened by the cyclone and is linked to climate change.
However, crabs can survive in this kind of environment so Shushilan has been training people in crab rearing as a more sustainable way of supporting themselves and their families.

Asha (a name meaning hope) is 28. She and her husband, Shonteshi (35), work side by side fattening crabs. As well as helping them provide for their family Asha said that this work has also brought them closer together:
“Before Aila my husband was involved in crab fattening, but now I am involved more too. I feed the crabs, catch them and then sell them in the market.”

Mofazzal Kagzi is 69, in Bangladesh the life expectancy for a man is 67 I am using the figure 66 based on (UNSD, 2008). He is a fisherman but when Cyclone Aila hit his village his pond was destroyed and all his fish escaped. He has been supported in rebuilding his pond replenishing his stocks with fish better adapted to the highly salinated water.

Mofazzal is forward thinking. When asked about the changes he has seen in his lifetime he said, “The positive changes I have seen are in relation to women. Before women never used to go out. Now they go out, they ride bicycles, and they are able to work outside of the home.”

On the more negative side, Mofazzal has also noticed changes to the climate: “Before we used to have six seasons”, he explains. “Everything was going well. But now there are changes. Too much rain, then drought, then heat.”

Climate change continues to be one of the greatest threats the world faces and is particularly putting poor communities in countries like Bangladesh at risk. Scientists have linked more intense cyclones in the Bay of Bengal with warmer seas linked to global temperature rises. Many people, like those Gen met in Bangladesh, depend on the environment to support themselves and it is these people on the front line that are already hit worst.

Dust From A Distant Sun: Community Spirit And An Explosive Past

First appeared on Ctrl.Alt.Shift on December 20 2010

Boengsangke Village was abandoned until 1998 when 55 year old Voonthouk, the self described village ‘pioneer’, recreated a forward-thinking version of the village he had grown up in.

Accessible down a very rough road, the village is home to people implicated in all sides of Cambodia’s long and complicated conflict. With his one remaining eye full of pride, Voonthouk, a former government soldier, told us how he had gone in search of landless people dispersed around the countryside after the conflict, and taken them back to Boengsangke.

The village set-up is admired by surrounding villagers, who often ask for advice. Community Empowerment Facilitators from the organisation Life With Dignity (LWD) advise and inspire people into organising and helping fund projects such as the community pond. One third of the costs for the pond were raised by the villagers, and the water benefits more than 100 families.

The community spirit is represented by the large pagoda at the heart of the village, a simple open barn that is beautifully decorated with a sea of stunning homemade bunting and decorations. The villagers worship here, but also meet to make plans for the village, tackle any crises and relax. There are charts, maps and pictures on the wall; outside there are colourful flowers and a peaceful stream.

In many ways Boengsangke is a model village: decisions are made as a group through various committees, including a Women’s Committee and Youth Committee which raises awareness about HIV and marriage rights. The villagers told us that due to regular discussions, the levels of domestic violence, a problem prevalent in Cambodia, are now much lower than in other villages.

We were confronted with the hardships that face much of Cambodia’s, mainly agriculturally reliant population when we visited the household of an industrious widow, a lady admired throughout the village for her hard work and determination. It was clear that this was no easy existence: While she owned the land her small house was built on, she did not own any farmland which, in rural Cambodia, means that a family is unlikely to have a sustainable livelihood.

The widow was brought to tears when she talked about her fears for her children’s future as she gets older and is less able to do so much manual labour. Like many Cambodians, her son has migrated to Thailand to work as a construction worker, while her oldest two daughters help her out in the home. Her youngest daughter was lucky enough to be in school, but it was clear this woman had to do a lot to make this happen. It is currently harvest time and she works as a farm worker all day and through much of the evening. She supplements her income by collecting bamboo to sell from the forest, an activity that is incredibly dangerous in an area littered with land mines.

There are three to five million land mines still undiscovered in Cambodia. We met Sysarang, a 39 year old pig farmer who volunteers as a point of contact for the Cambodian Mine Action Centre. When people find mines in the area, Syssrang leads a specialised team to their location. Boengsangke is surrounded by beautiful open space, but the villagers can’t wonder freely without risk of a land mine exploding.

There is a lot we could learn from the village of Boengsangke in Britain: like the importance of community space, and how important it is to tackle issues of stigma and empowerment to make changes in our own communities.

Poverty, lack of education and access to healthcare mean that many villagers face an uncertain future, while land-mines trap the community in a constant state of fear. I was left with the realisation that any way of life is rarely perfect, but we always have something to learn from each other.

Photos thanks to Hannah Henderson

Dust From A Distant Sun: Looking Ahead

First appeared on Ctrl.Alt.Shift on November 29 2010

Cambodia is a beautiful country with a rich culture and history blighted by genocide and violence. An incredible 80% of the population is under 30 years old, as many lost parents, grandparents and older siblings when an estimated 1.7 million died under the violent rule of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s.

20 volunteers will be travelling to Cambodia for two weeks to do on-the-ground reporting for Ctrl.Alt.Shift; visiting various local development organisations, finding out about the work they do and the issues they face. The organisations we will be visiting work in a variety of areas, including HIV/AIDS, women and children’s rights, community organising and violence against women.

We will be visiting the capital Phnom Penh and travelling to Banteay Meanchey, Battambang, Siem Reap, Kampot Cham and the awe inspiring temple Angkor Wat, which has been described as the 9th wonder of the world.

Cambodia descended into violent chaos during the Vietnam War after bombing by the US and a military coup which overthrew the monarch King Norodom Sihanouk. The radical Communist group the Khmer Rouge eventually gained control of the country, led by the notorious Pol Pott. During this time the name of the country was changed to Democratic Kampuchea.

The middle classes, people not of pure Khmer ethnicity, the educated, the disabled, workers for the government and city dwellers were particularly persecuted by the regime, and essentially an entire class was wiped out by this extreme brand of militant communism. Money was abolished and people were forced to live in villages and work in agriculture. Much of the population died of starvation and exhaustion.

Although this tragic history has inevitably had a great effect on the current situation in Cambodia and has shaped the present circumstance of its people, there are still a lot of inspirational stories to be told.

Throughout our trip we will be writing a blog where you can find out more about the kinds of issues we’ll encounter, the people we’ll meet and the things we’ll learn along the way.