Rubber barons are robbing Cambodia and Laos

This post was originally published on the New Internationalist website on 13 May 2013…

A new report from campaigning NGO Global Witness has revealed how big-name financial institutions, International Finance Corporation (IFC) and Deutsche Bank are subsidizing Vietnamese land grabs in Cambodia and Laos.

‘Rubber Barons’, published alongside a short film on Monday 13 May, is critical of a culture of secrecy around plantation investments. Two of Vietnam’s largest companies, Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL) and the state-owned Vietnam Rubber Group (VRG) have acquired more than 200,000 hectares of land through deals with the Cambodian and Laos governments. Deutsche Bank has significant holdings in both companies, while the IFC invests in HAGL.

Cambodia and Laos have seen more than 3.7 million hectares of land handed over to companies since 2000, 40 per cent of which is for rubber plantations. The report explains a culture of corporate secrecy and shady connections with élites which mean that companies like HAGL and VRG get away with breaking the rules.

Land grabbing has accelerated in Cambodia over recent years, and so has the violence that surrounds it. By the end of 2012, 2.6 million hectares of land had been leased by the government, 20 per cent of which Global Witness says has been allocated to five of Cambodia’s powerful tycoons.

Laos has experienced a growing economy over the last decade that has attracted attention from foreign agribusiness looking to cash in on the quantity of arable land and cheap labour available. According to Global Witness, almost 20 per cent of all villages in Laos have been affected by at least one land grab. Forests are disappearing, along with journalists and activists who speak out.

Megan MacInnes, who heads the Land Team at Global Witness says that HAGL and VRG are adding to the human rights threat in the region: ‘Often, the first time people learn of a plantation is when the company bulldozers arrive to clear their farms,’ she adds.

Local people have complained of increased food and water shortages, loss of livelihood without compensation and poor employment conditions. Indigenous communities have lost burial grounds and sacred forests. Those who protest say they face violence, intimidation and arrest. ‘Rubber Barons’ outlines non-payment of compensation and routine use of armed security forces to guard plantations in HAGL and VRG’s operations.

The environmental impacts are also significant; the report accuses both companies of involvement in illegal forest clearance, beyond their concession boundaries.

‘Rubber Barons’ says that HAGL and VRG’s financial involvement lies behind an intricate web of shell companies, which allows them to disguise the fact that they have exceeded Cambodia’s legal limit on land holdings. Global Witness is calling for HAGL and VRG to be prosecuted for their illegal activities and for their plantation concessions to be cancelled.

‘Until governments bring in and enforce regulations to end the culture of secrecy and impunity that is driving the global land-grabbing crisis, international banks and financial institutions will continue to turn a blind eye to the human rights abuses and deforestation they are bankrolling,’ says MacInnes.

Podcast: Why is housing in such a state?

April’s New Internationalist podcast looks at the state of shelter – from Europe to the Philippines.

My most recent New Internationalist podcast features co-editor Dinyar Godrej in the Netherlands and Iris Gonzales in the Philippines.

Dinyar Godrej chatted with me about the causes of the global housing crisis, ‘generation rent’ and a worldwide wave of homelessness – as well as the need to rethink the dream of property ownership.

I also spoke to regular New Internationalist contributor Iris Gonzales who discusses the forced, and often violent, evictions of the residents of informal settlements in the Philippines. She explained what can happen to these displaced communities once they are removed, and how people are taking direct action for better housing rights.

If you’re interested in any of the issues around housing, why not take a listen here at the New Internationalist website?

Interactive timeline: 40 years of New Internationalist

One of my latest projects at New Internationalist has been an interactive timeline, covering 40 years of highlights…

New Internationalist is 40 in 2013 so we thought we would pull together some of our milestones into an online timeline.

40 years of New Internationalist

Click through to the full timeline here.

It was great to be able to look back over such an impressive history of independent journalism as it documented some monumental social movements.

Thanks to Charlie Harvey who used Timeline.JS to build a really easy to use template for me to put the editorial content into.

Taking on the benefits blame game

This post was originally published on New Internationalist on 3 April 2013.

It may have been April Fool’s day but while Twitter announced it was going to begin charging for the use of vowels and Virgin launched a glass bottomed plane, big changes to the British welfare system began to bite in what is far from a comical prank.

One of the most high profile of these changes, which began to kick in on Monday 1 April, is the bedroom tax. If a claimant’s house is defined as having one spare bedroom or more they will lose 14 to 25 per cent of their benefit money. 660,000 people face losing hundreds of pounds a year and the threat of eviction if they can’t pay the rent. Two thirds of people hit by the tax are disabled, and single parents and foster families will also be among the hardest hit.

Opposition has been vocal: MP Frank Field has called for landlords to brick up windows and doors or knock down walls to help tenants facing the tax which he describes as ‘grossly unfair.’ Bedroom tax protests have already been held across the country and UK Uncut has promised ‘mass civil disobedience’ on Saturday 13 April, ‘bringing the cuts home to millionaire misery-makers.’

Also part of the welfare overhaul is the scrapping of Disability Living Allowance and major changes to legal aid which means thousands may lose access to legal services and be forced to represent themselves in court.

On 15 April the welfare benefit cap will be introduced to four London boroughs and is expected to be rolled out nationwide by the end of September. It is predicted that 80,000 households will be made homeless as expensive cities like London see a deepening of social cleansing.

There are now more billionaires across the world than before the global financial crash. But while the ‘feral rich’ get wealthier, 20 per cent of children in Britain already live in poverty and families increasingly need to use foodbanks to sustain themselves.

Meanwhile the ‘workers and shirkers’ demonization of benefit claimants, immigrants and disabled people by the government and the media has taken hold among those who feel that while they are working as hard as ever and getting less in return, somebody should be made to pay.

A 2012 poll by the Trades Union Congress found that while people mistakenly thought that 27 per cent of the welfare budget is claimed fraudulently (the government’s figure is 0.7 per cent), the most hostility was among those who knew the least about the benefits system.

In this climate, newspapers like the Daily Mail can publish a front page (3 April 2013) calling a man found guilty of the manslaughter of six of his children a ‘product’ of the welfare state and still sell plenty of copies. Claiming benefits does not make people more likely to cause the death of their family.

Where do we go from here? Local and national anti-austerity groups have been campaigning relentlessly across the country – networks like Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC) and UK Uncut have mobilized thousands. Some mainstream media are trying to counteract the propaganda machine. But people need to be presented with more than the facts and protest; they need to be truly convinced that blaming benefit claimants and immigrants for their problems is not helpful, fair, or accurate.

However, the deeper austerity goes, the more people will see those close to them affected. Anti-austerity Britain is growing in size and anger. Over 420,000 people have now signed a petition to challenge Work and Pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith to live on £53 ($80) a week after he said on national radio he thought he could do it while defending cuts to benefits.

What’s key is a cohesive, accessible and communicative groundswell from the grassroots. Party politics is enough to leave people in despair as politicians jump aboard the blame train conducted by UKIP. Initiatives such as the People’s Assembly may be part of this, as long as they reach further than the usual suspects.

We also need to tell people’s stories, not just in the media, but to our friends and family, even when it’s uncomfortable to do so. And while we fight to keep what we have and strengthen community resilience to austerity, we need to show that we will stand by our neighbours when the blame game comes knocking at their door.

PODCAST: 40 years of New Internationalist

The latest New Internationalist podcast…

In this episode I chat to Chris Brazier, New Internationalist’s longest serving co-editor (he’s been at the mag since 1984!) about 40 years of New Internationalist and the progress (and lack of) the world has made in that time. Is the idea of ‘development’ well and truly dead?

Listen to the podcast here at the New Internationalist website and find out more about the latest magazine, ‘What has development done for me?

PODCAST: Vanessa Baird and Owen Jones on the feral rich

January’s New Internationalist podcast looks at how the super rich are gaining from the economic crisis while the poor get the blame…

My latest New Int podcast features co-editor Vanessa Baird, and author and columnist Owen Jones discussing with me their ideas for turning the tables on the super rich and putting a stop to the demonization of the poor.

As the wealth gap grows, despite the economic crisis, January/February’s double magazine explores how the ‘feral rich’ get away with it and what can be done to stop them.

Listen to the podcast and find out more about the magazine at the New Internationalist website.

Student activism, free software and meeting inspiring people

My recent articles on or in New Internationalist

I’ve had a couple of interviews published in the magazine recently, including a Q&A with Man Booker Prize nominee Jeet Thayil, for November (online here), and an interview with the amazing feminist activist Khanum Lateef from the the Kurdistan region of Iraq, published in December’s issue.

On 21 November I went to London for the NUS demo and wrote a couple of blog posts – before and after.

For December’s podcast I spoke to NI’s Hazel Healy and Charlie Harvey. We had an interesting discussion about digital freedoms and non-freedoms, privacy, the practicals of free software and why tech is so dominated by men.

For anyone interested in the free software movement check out this month’s massive web hit, Hazel Healy’s interview with Richard Stallman.

The power of we: Young activists, revolutionary healthcare and the Saleh Family

October was a busy month at newint.org – here’s some of the content I’ve written or produced…

‘The power of we – My post for Blog Action Day 2012: why I think collective action and internationalism are as important as ever.

Natasha Makengo from Save the Congo and Shukri Sultan from Hands Off Somalia – As part of our blog series celebrating young activists I interviewed Natasha and Shukri about how they got involved in campaigning and what inspires them to keep going.

November’s podcast features Professor John Kirk on Cuba’s revolutionary healthcare system. I asked him about Cuba’s foreign medical missions, how they run universal free healthcare at home and spoke to him about some of the criticisms.

And lastly, I wrote a post about my friend Shrouk’s family who had fled Egypt five years ago because of their abusive father with prominent state connections. They had been taken from their home in the early hours of the morning and were eventually sent back to Eqypt despite a massive campaign to keep them in Wales. The campaign to Save the Saleh Family continues – find out more at the Facebook page.

Youth activism, cross-border feminism and climate justice

My latest offerings from the New Internationalist website…

Podcast: Jody McIntyre on youth activism – As part of the lead up to October’s youth issue I made a podcast featuring an interview with guest-editor Jody McIntyre.

‘We were wrong to think the environment could wait’ – Interview with Lidy Nacpil, the inspiring Filipino economic and climate justice campaigner who started out as a student activist against the Marcos regime.

The dos and don’ts of cross border feminism – Last weekend I went to UK Feminista’s Summer School for a day and caught this session on building global solidarity.

Right, I’m off for a little holiday to Gent, Belgium now. Looking forward to catching up on some reading on the bus journey – am finally going to get through Paul Mason’s Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere – better late than never!

New Internationalist podcast

Finally posting about the podcasts I’ve started making at New Internationalist.

The first one, for the September issue of New Internationalist, is on the legalization of drugs. In it I speak to Vanessa Baird, NI co-editor about why she thinks the war on drugs isn’t working.

You can listen to the podcast here. Read more about September’s New Internationalist here.

Today I spoke to Jody McIntyre for October’s episode on youth activism. Here’s a video taster for October’s issue – Youth rising: why apathy is not an option.