Tuesday, 14 December 2010

A Royal wedding fit for a recession

Another day, another detail. Since the announcement of the upcoming Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in April 2011, the tabloid media have page after page and thumping great supplements full of photos. The ‘quality’ newspapers also cover the wedding preparations in exhaustive detail, supposedly in an ironic way by reporting the tabloid obsession. The bloggers who are not interested blog about not being interested and how stupid all the fuss is. So there is no escape. The latest trivia is whether David Beckham will get an invite, the hardly earthshattering revelation that Kate might have done her own make-up for the engagement photo shoot, and the media in a navel gazing loop, never happier than publicising itself, with the Telegraph reporting the non-story that BBC anchorman David Dimbleby will be replaced with Huw Edwards. Good luck to Will and Kate, but I’m a republican myself. The Republic website has good information about the true scale of the monarchy’s constitutional powers, and the cost to the British taxpayer.

Royal weddings are usually eye-poppingly lavish occasions, but there is speculation that, for Will and Kate’s do, the usual conspicuous consumption might be toned down in order to show sensitivity to UK citizens who are hard up in these times recession and could do without fitting the bill for a royal wedding. There is a big fuss that Kate Middleton is a commoner, although with millionaire parents she cannot be categorised as average middle class. In marrying a commoner, Prince William, is following in the footsteps of Sweden’s Princess Victoria, who married her personal trainer, earlier this year, on 19th June. Over half of the $2.5 million cost was met by Swedish taxpayers, but there was widespread opposition with membership of the Swedish Republican Association doubling to 6,000 people in the year between the announcement and the actual wedding.

cut flowers
 The Swedish royal wedding was decorated with an abundance of cut flowers. All cargo airline Cargolux flew a Boeing 747 freighter from Colombia to Europe, full of 40,000 flowers from 24 flower farms, including roses, lilies, hydrangeas and carnations. The flowers met the Floraverde label for social and environmental production standards. This is a positive step, but there is a blindness to the post production impacts of the lengthy supply chain from Colombia to Europe. I am not sure of the exact greenhouse gas emission of the flight, but the maximum fuel capacity of the plane is over 216,000 litres. Like heir to the British throne, Prince Charles, Prince William’s dad, the Swedish royal family expresses concern for the environment while wielding a gargantuan carbon footprint with private jets, yachts etc. So, step one for a British royal wedding fit for a recession and with a lower environmental impact, ditch the flown in flowers. It will be spring time in England so they could easily fill up Westminster Abbey with seasonal flowers like tulips, bluebells and daffodils from nearby countryside.

Expenditure on the royal wedding is likely to be presented as a stimulus package for the UK tourism industry. It is argued that the monarchy is a cornerstone of tourism, but this revolves around the claim that the monarchy is at the heart of our culture and heritage. The most recent research that the tourism board, Visit Britain, could come up with to substantiate the claims is that tourists visiting Britain in 1981, nearly 30 years ago, cited Prince Charles and Diana’s wedding in as the main reason for their visit. The places tourists visit, the castles and estates are historical. Apart from the occasional wedding, all the current monarchy does for tourism is attract a small crowd for the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. I was in Paris in 1989 for the 200 year anniversary of the revolution which overthrew the monarchy. The city was buzzing with events and celebrations. I’m not advocating putting the royals under the guillotine to boost tourism, but historical evidence of social change is what proves interesting to future visitors, not preserving the status quo in aspic. The Republic website points out that the royal palaces - Buckingham Palace, Balmoral etc. do not rank highly in attracting tourists, partly because they are largely closed to the public. Windsor Castle attracts fewer visitors than the Legoland down the road.

The royal wedding is anticipated to give the UK economy a boost with related commemorative merchandise, but it will take more than tacky tea towels and mugs to get the UK out of its economic morass. Last month, Pricewaterhouse Coopers estimated that the total UK private and public debts will soar to more than £10 trillion by 2015, driven by property related borrowing and increased lending between financial institutions. Apparently, the royal wedding will lead to increased purchasing of other goods due to some mysterious ‘feel good factor’. Even if this turns out to be the case, it is a risky way to rebuild the economy. Yet again, we are exhorted to buy the world out of recession, our role limited to that of consumers. Then, if we do our duty and buy all this tat, we will be berated for imperilling the economy by going into debt.

When I got married I was organising events at the time, and my now husband put up with me moaning that the preparation was just another conference, minus the flip charts and PowerPoint presentations. I cut a page with a list of supposedly essential items to buy for your wedding out of a newspaper, and crossed about 90 per cent of it out. I figured if it did not mean something to us it was just mindless ritual, bringing unnecessary stress and expense. Yet more and more of these items become embedded in our culture as part of ‘what you do’. So a wedding is supposedly incomplete without themed napkin rings, colour co-ordinated everything, commemorative stationery, matchboxes to place on each table and the dreaded ‘wedding list’ (so inappropriate when most of us are fortunate enough to already have more household goods than we really need) which many of my friends have ditched and invited guests to give to charity instead.

Weddings flowers have proliferated to a myriad of arrangements specific for each attendee and visible surface of the venues. A popular church can host several weddings in a single day. For each wedding the church will fill up with flowers which are thrown away in time to refill the church for the next ceremony. One of the supposed must haves for wedding receptions is ‘centrepieces’ for tables – finicky little vases filled with flowers. In my experience these just get in the way of guests seeing and talking to each other across the table, and frequently get knocked over.

These centrepieces for tables became a point of contention for a New York couple in 2007, who sued a florist for allegedly supplying wedding flowers which were the wrong colour. Apparently, the centerpieces, at $465 a pop, were ‘predominantly pastel pink’ instead of the dark fuchsia, rust and green coloured flowers which the couple had ordered to coordinate with their wedding. The couple had such an over-inflated sense of consumerist entitlement that they sued, not just for the $30,000 cost of the wedding flowers, but for $400,000, claiming that the mismatched flowers had caused them ‘extreme disappointment, distress and embarrassment.’ If a couple are so traumatised by an unexpected flower colour, how will they cope with the serious commitment of marriage, the ‘better for worse’ etc?

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Heathrow fuel leak, could contaminate rivers

Heathrow Airport's website has a section entitled 'Heathrow and the Local Environment'. It's not very informative, there are just a few paragraphs on the airport's goals and procedures on environmental impacts including air quality, waste and biodiversity. The water page states that 'Ensuring that the quality of water that runs off our airport complies with environmental standards is of great importance', goes on to assure that 'Water quality at Heathrow is managed by closely monitoring the levels and substances in water' then states a commitment to 'secure protection of the environment at all times through a responsible and proactive approach to water quality management, and to ensure 100% regulatory compliance in all aspects of water quality management now and in the future.'

The airport has failed to meet these legal obligations. On 24th September 2010 Heathrow Hydrant Operating Company Limited (HHOpCo), a fuel supplier to Heathrow, was fined for 'severely polluting groundwater' in the Taplow Gravels underneath the airport, from a leak in a pipeline which was discovered nearly three years ago. HHOpCo reported the leak to the Environment Agency on 29th November 2007. Two bolts on the side of a valve in the supply pipeline to aircraft stands at Heathrow's Terminal 1 had eroded. The valve had been leaking for some time, but it is not known how long. A £7 million leak detection system had been malfunctioning at the time of the leak, and the company failed to install a manual leak detection system in its place. The investigation revealed that the automated leak detection system had not been working for five months. HHOpCo failed to notify the Environment Agency immediately. The firm had discovered the leak nine days earlier, following an unrelated report from BAA of jet fuel odour in a nearby access tunnel. If it were not for this, the leak may have continued undetected.

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The total volume of fuel that was lost is not known. At the time the leak was discovered the pipeline was losing about 7 litres of jet fuel per minute. Boreholes were sunk to extract the fuel and by June 2010 at least 139,391 litres had been recovered. At the time the fine was imposed, between 70 and 100 litres of fuel per week were still being recovered. HHOpCo was fined £40,000 plus Environment Agency costs of approximately £14,000 for this catalogue of failures. The Environment Agency lead officer noted 'extensive pollution of groundwater' but stated that 'Fortunately, to date, we have not seen any major impact to local rivers but jet fuel in groundwater has the potential to seriously harm the environment and water quality'. But contamination from underground fuel leaks is long term, and can slowly permeate into the water table. Under UK safety regulations, jet fuel is categorised among the most toxic hazardous substances, which must be prevented from entering groundwater. The aquifer in the Taplow Gravels groundwater which has been polluted is a source of water to four rivers, the River Crane, the River Colne, Duke of Northumberland’s River and the Longford River. The direction of the flow of groundwater from the site of the incident has yet to be determines, so it is not known which of these rivers might be at risk of contamination. 

BAA, operator of Heathrow, claimed that Heathrow, the biggest airport in the UK, was on its way back to 'its rightful status as the world's leading international airport' when the new Terminal 5 opened in March 2008. Terminal 5 may be swanky looking with a curved roof and packed with posh shops like Tiffany's, gourmet restaurants, whimsical art works and sculptures, and clean water gushing out of fountains on the concourse. But these are superficial distractions from the essential infrastructure which enables the flights. In 2005, Air BP was enthusing about how Terminal 5 Boeing 747s would be refuelled at 7,500 litres per minute, and Airbus A380s at 8,000 litres per minute.

Heathrow Airport's fuel storage and distribution facility, known as a 'fuel farm', is directly above the tunnel through which passenger baggage is transferred between terminals, with a capacity of 4 million litres. The entire fuel supply chain from oilfields through refineries, storage depots, pipelines and tankers to airport brings risks of pollution and fire. In December 2005 an explosion at the Buncefield fuel depot over 30 kilometres north of Heathrow Airport resulted in a fire which raged for five days. At the time of the accident, Buncefield supplied about half of the 21 million litres of fuel used by Heathrow per day. 2,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes and 43 people were injured. At the time of the explosion Buncefield held 35 million litres of fuel, mostly aviation fuel and petrol for vehicles. About a third of this fuel was lost during the incident, most of it consumed in the fire. The Buncefield fire was the biggest in peacetime Europe. 250,000 litres of petrol leaked from a tank and ignited, other tanks caught fire including Tank 12, the largest, which had storage capacity for 19 million litres of aviation fuel. The explosion was audible from over 200 kilometres way and the plumes were visible from space. If the accident had not occurred on a Sunday morning with few people on the site, it would have been highly likely to result in fatalities.

In June 2010 a lengthy and complex corporate criminal trial concluded with five firms found guilty of safety breaches in relation to the Buncefield accident. Total, Hertfordshire Oil Storage Ltd, British Pipeline Agency, Motherwell Control Systems and TAV Engineering were fined a total of £5.5 million. The fine is derisory as the cost of the accident was estimated at £1 billion. This encompasses costs of the emergency response and the investigation, costs to the aviation sector, and costs to local businesses were about £70 million with a few companies forced into liquidation. Hertfordshire Oil Storage Ltd (HSOL) in particular was singled out for criticism, for failing to prevent the accident and limit the effects. At the time of the accident Total owned a 60 per cent stake HOSL. The Health and Safety Executive and Environment Agency said in a statement: "The scale of the explosion and fire at Buncefield was immense and it was miraculous that nobody died. Unless the high hazard industries truly learn the lessons, we may not be that fortunate in future."
You'd assume that Heathrow would tighten up its systems to ensure an impeccable fire record after this serious incident. Yet in 2009 there were two fires at the airport. In April a small fire broke out in the control tower. Then, in July, a significant portion of a Servisair warehouse building caught fire. Servisair provides ground services, and the fire is believed to have started when a gas cylinder exploded. A 400 metre exclusion zone was imposed, and 200 people were evacuated. The operation to extinguish the fire required 100 firefighters and 20 fire engines. Plumes of smoke could be seen nearly 10 kilometres way.

Other parts of the UK have seen recent failures in the aviation fuel supply chain. On 27th January 2009 a freight train carrying fuel to Glasgow Prestwick Airport collided with a pylon while crossing a bridge less than a kilometre south of the Ayrshire town of Stewarton. Six wagons derailed and some fuel caught fire, plumes of back smoke over 15 metres high billowing over the town. In April 2007, nearly 164,000 litres of jet fuel leaked from a pipeline at Mildenhall air base in Suffolk, which was punctured during a drilling operation. A layer of chalk less than a metre below the airfield surface was contaminated, and fuel came to the surface and flowed onto a grass area. The Environment Agency feared jet fuel might pollute a drinking water borehole, but fortunately it did not spread that far. On 30th June 2010 safety at Total's UK aviation related operations failed again. A worker was killed in a fire at Total's Lindsey oil refinery in Humberside, by a fire which started when crude oil that was being processed into jet fuel ignited. 

The British fly more per capita than any other country on earth, and in early days of the LibCon coalition government, Rt Hon Theresa Villiers, Minister of State for Transport, talked of 'better, not bigger' airports. Yet many UK airports continue their expansion plans. Airport Watch is keeping track of airport expansion around the country. Instead of concreting over green space with extending runways, the priority should be ensuring that the safety of essential infrastructure is in order.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Will downpours in Delhi wash away the new face of India?

The nailbiting countdown to the Delhi Commonwealth Games beginning on 3rd October continues. The event, the biggest sporting event India has ever hosted, was supposed to highlight a new India, modern, industrialised, technologically advanced, a major global player. But preparations have been plagued with problems, the construction programme fell behind schedule and concerns over substandard work came to a head when a footbridge collapsed and 23 labourers were injured. This was just one day after part of a false ceiling collapsed in the weight lifting arena. The accommodation facilities for athletes were described as 'filthy' and for a few days it seemed the event might be cancelled. But there has been a last minute rush to get ready to host the spectacle, with extra workers brought in. Here in the UK, the media is reporting everything that tarnishes the image of India that the event was supposed to project, including athletes deciding not to attend and sex trafficking fears.

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The Games Village for the athlete's accommodation, and other construction sites, have had to contend with a heavy monsoon, bringing leaking buildings and water in basements. This map shows the site of the Games Village on the eastern bank of the Yamuna River, an ecologically sensitive area in the path of the flood plains. Construction was suspended in August, after the river rose above the danger mark, which it has done repeatedly ever since, threatening the embankment built between the river and the Games Village. The high water mark follows the heaviest monsoon rains in 30 years, but is not really surprising, as the area floods every ten years or so. The area around the Games Village has been inundated with water and hundreds of people in low lying areas have been sent to relief camps. Mahima Kaul is making a documentary about the development of the Games Village site. People have put up with the the city being a 'complete construction zone, with rubble everywhere, and the capital programme has been disorganised with a host of different government bodies and contractors involved, with no body to oversee the operation, so all are 'passing the buck' for the problems. The fall out from the Games is likely to include corruption allegations, which are already surfacing. There are suspicions around how permission was granted to build the Games Village on the flood prone-site.

A wonderful article by Amita Baviskar, back in 2007, in the early days of preparations, raised doubts about the benefits of the Games for Delhi's people anticpating that the event would present merely a 'mirage of a world class city'. Delhi hosted the 1982 Asian Games with the same hopes of creating a world class city from the infrastructure, raised profile and tourism of the event. The stadiums and other buildings have become dilapidated white elephants. The legacy of the event was not vital infrastructure for Delhi's citizens but the conversion of public green space, including chunks of the Siri Forest, to private property. The article raised  concerns about siting the Games Village on the banks of the Yamuna River. The flood plain is needed to accommodate monsoon swells and to replenish groundwater supplies, but the games organisers chose to displace slums rather than undertake the complex land acquisition process for more suitable sites including unused industrial sites or an abandoned airfield. The main beneficiaries of the preparations for the Commonwealth games appeared to be the construction companies. The destruction of green space for roadworks, flyovers and tunnels appeared to be gratuitous, and there were credible allegations of corruption emerging even then, with indications of a 'feeding frenzy' of inflated contracts and under the table payments to get projects sanctioned.

An article in InfoChange India, picks up on these issues in the build up to the Games in June. Who gains from the games? covers the release of a report by the Housing and Land Rights Network, The 2010 Commonwealth Games: Whose Wealth, Whose Commons? Laws relating to planning, environmental protection and labour rights were suspended for the 'hysterical development activity'. The whole process was shrouded in secrecy, with a lack of government accountability. Many people in India are questioning the $422 million budget for an event lasting just 12 days, with the final figure likely to escalate to five times this amount. The glitzy event is being staged whilst India languishes at 134 on the Human Development Index, as it has done for the last 15 years. The event has been criticised as another war against the poor who are cleared from the site. This typically accompanies global sporting events, including the most recent FIFA World Cup in South Africa and the Olympics in Beijing. Many have lost their livelihoods from the construction for the games in Delhi, such as street vendors and rickshaw carriers, and people have been arrested for begging.

Many athletes will not be attending the games because of fears over the accommodation conditions, but it is luxurious compared to the living conditions of the 100,000 families who have been evicted from slums on the site. The majority are now living in even worse conditions as they have been resettled in an area where there are few services such as schools and hospitals, and few jobs. Others do not even have a makeshift dwelling and are living under flyovers.

Even in its current state, some of it dilapidated before it is opened, the athletes' accommodation is far superior to the living conditions of many of the 400,000 migrant labourers who worked on the construction programme. A monitoring panel presented a report to Delhi High Court documented poor working conditions with many incidences of squalid workers' camps with no electricity and poor sanitation, wages paid at less than minimum rates, up to 12 hour days with no weekly day off, no childcare so children have been on the construction sites and exposed to all the risks. There was also a lack of safety equipment, many unreported accidents with 40 people killed, and many of the workers had no access medical care or compensation.

The plan is that the migrant workers will appear to vanish once the visitors arrive for the games. Bamboo screens have been planted to hide slums. This is part of a broader programme of beautification, a thin veneer of greenery to hide the reality of India's poverty and the aftermath of heavy construction. In June 2010, it was announced that about 200,000 trees would be planted this year in the areas where tourists will be visiting for the Games. Landfill sites are being made less visible, with waste dumped on one side of site and levelled. Soil excavated from construction has been dumped over landfill sites, then thousands of trees have been planted to obscure the view and reduce the foul smell. Even the flyovers where many displaced people now huddle for shelter have been encompassed by the manic planting for an event that is more about appearance than reality. In April a programme to beautify all of the city's flyovers with flowers and ornamental plants was announced. Some of the planting programmes have not been completed, holes were dug for millions of pot plants to adorn the sites for the event, but many were left empty and filled with stagnant water. This is likely to be a contributory factor to an outbreak of dengue fever, which is spread by mosquitoes.

The Games triggered another enormous instant gardens project, in the final stage of the construction programme for the swanky new Terminal 3 at Delhi airport, which opened on 3rd July 2010. Gardens both inside and outside the terminal  hide the enormity of concrete. A Hong Kong landscaping firm was brought in for the planting programme which encompassed 922,000 trees, shrubs, cacti, other types of plants and lush green lawns. In all, 300 varieties of plants have been used. Some of the most prominent plants are imported, including palm trees from Mexico and orchids from Thailand. 800 planters were imported from Germany.

If you look at where the materials for the new terminal were sourced from, it is more symbolic of globalisation than a new India. In contrast with the delays of the Games construction, Terminal 3 is designed to handle 34 million passengers per year, doubling the airport's passenger capacity. It took just 37 months to build, even less than Beijing's new terminal for the 2008 Olympics. It was opened by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who said 'A good airport would signal the arrival of a new India'. Terminal 3, along with the new runway, was described by Kiran Grandhi of Delhi Airport operator GMR as India's 'new gateway to the world'. The runway is over 2 metres thick and required 2.3 million cubic metres of earthworks and 2.5m million tonnes of aggregated filling 500 trucks per day. Some of the heavy construction equipment was imported equipment from Germany including 8 Vibratory Soil Compactors with 18 tonne capacity for building embankments and stabilizing the base soil of the runway, and 10 Electronic Sensor Pavers for laying the surface.

The new terminal is bigger than new terminals at Hyderabad, Mumbai and Bangalore airports combined, and used 600,000 cubic metres of concrete and 200,000 tonnes of reinforced steel. A lot of the materials were imported, including 110 square metres of granite from Bahrain for the floor and 100,000 square metres of curtains from China, wielding a heavy ecological footprint and not fulfilling the promise that infrastructure for the games would boost support India's economy. It would have been a bit tragic if what is believed to be the world's biggest single commercial carpet order, for such a symbolic building, was not sourced from within India, considering the country's history in carpet making stretching back at least to 500 BC. The gigantic carpet is of Indian proveneance, and was manufactured in Mulshi, in Maharashtra. It covers about 170,000 square metres, about the size of 24 football fields, and was made by UK based Brintons. 320 workers worked on the carpet for four months using 20 weaving machines. The carpet then had its own incredible journey to Delhi in 85 containers, each nearly 10 metres long. The design depicts Delhi's Connaught Place business district, as seen by GoogleEarth.

It would be a shame if the new terminal flooded, the wonderful carpet would be ruined. Part of Delhi Airport's domestic terminal flooded on 21st August 2009, and part of the roof collapsed, although, fortunately nobody was injured. This occurred during what the Met Department described as 'normal monsoon showers'.

Many of India's airports are unable to withstand normal flooding patterns, never mind the worsening floods likely with climate change. One of Mumbai Airport's runways is partially built over the Mithi River, and construction of the other runway involved diverting the river. In June 2010 the airport was forced to close for 5 hours as water logging caused flooding and disruptions in power supply. There were concerns that this occurred in moderate rain, so the airport might not be prepared for downpours in the monsoon season. Chennai Airport departure and arrival halls were inundated with water following heavy rains in 2005. Chennai's second runway is built over the Aydar River, and in an attempt to prevent future flooding it was built 2 metres over the 2005 flood level, with a wall to keep water out of airport grounds. But the water has to go somewhere, and, following a downpour in November 2008, villages sandwiched between the airport and the river were flooded.

It appears that Delhi will maange to pull of this event, and the new buildings might appear formidably strong, but are fragile in the face of nature's power. The impermeable surfaces of intensive urban development, particularly airports with vast asphalt runways and aprons and enormous concrete terminals, remove the absorption and natural buffer provided by green space and flood plains. So the flow of water is concentrated making flooding worse, although when and where it will occur becomes harder to predict.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Other oil spills

Oil slick in Gulf of Mexico, 24th May
Finally, five months after exploding, killing 11 workers and beginning to pour oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig has been sealed. Yet the effects of the spill will be long term, and Bruce Ritchie's Florida Environments blog is an excellent resource for information on the impacts on communities, the environment and wildlife, and the responses of BP, the owners of the oil well, government agencies and community organisations. This interesting post is about a book which was published in June 2010, a compilation of 38 essays by writers who warned of the risks of offshore drilling before the Deepwater Horizon incident, when the ban against offshore drilling was lifted.

Now, it is likely that the media will move on from coverage of oil spills, yet they are commonplace, all over the world. Below are just a few examples of oil spills which occurred within a few weeks of the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.

On 25th May 2010 several thousand barrels of crude oil spilled into a containment area at the Delta Junction pump station, about 100 miles south of Fairbanks, on the Alaska pipeline, which, since it opened in 1977, has moved 15 billion barrels of crude oil from the North Slope oilfields a distance of 800 miles to the port of Valdez. Ironically, the incident occurred whilst valve leak testing was underway. An open valve overflowed into a tank when a battery failed to control it. Fortunately the oil did not escape outside the containment area, which has a capacity of about 104,500 barrels, and no injuries were reported.

On the next day, on 26th May, a tanker collided with a bulk carrier 13 kilometres to the southeast Changi in Singapore, the world's biggest container port. About 18,325 barrels of oil were spilled, which amounts to about three days of leakage from the Deepwater Horizon well, or enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. By the next day patches of oil were washed up affecting a ferry terminal, sailing club, golf course and naval base on the shoreline.

In China, a serious oil spill began on 15th July 2010, when a pipeline at Dalian port exploded, spilling oil into the Yellow Sea. Within five days the size of the spill had doubled covering 430 square kilometres, and fishing in the area was banned. The workers attempting to clean up the spill with straw mats only had rubber gloves for protection, and the thick, sticky oil was getting into their skin. One worker, a firefighter, drowned and his body was found covered in crude oil. Two months later officials estimated that about 1,360 tonnes of oil had poured into the sea, but Greenpeace warned that the figure could be 60 times higher, making it one of the 30 worst oil spills in history.

With the world's media focussing on the Gulf of Mexico, it is important to shine a spotlight on other big oil companies. The True Cost of Chevron published an Alternative Annual Report for 2009 which documents the firm's lamentable record of leaks from operations around the world, including Alaska, California, Canada, the Philippines, Angola and Barrow Island off the coast of Australia.

Shell operates in 100 countries, and about 40 per cent of its oil spills have been in Nigeria. Oil and environmental experts estimate that between 9 and 13 million barrels of oil have been spilled in the Niger delta over the past 50 years, which is equivalent to a Valdez every year. Previous to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Valdez was the worst oil spill in the US, after the Exxon-Valdez oil tanker collided with rocks off Prince William Sound in Alaska in 1989. The effects of the contamination from the oil spill on wildlife and fishing are still evident today.

In recent weeks there have been two small oil spills from ships off the coast of India. While the scale of these is relatively small compared to the volumes of the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, there is considerable environmental damage and peoples livelihoods can be destroyed. Traffic and fishing were suspended after ship two Panama cargo ships, collided nearly 10 kilometres offshore from Mumbai harbour on 7th August 2010. One of the ships, the MSC Chittra, tilted 80 degrees and 300 containers carrying oil tumbled into the sea. Three days after the accident the oil spill was estimated to amount to nearly 50 tonnes and a thick oil slick was spotted 2-3 kilometres from the vessel.

Local people began bringing birds covered in oil into the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals hospital at Parel for treatment. In September there were signs of a long term effect on marine life with reports of dead wildlife including a masked booby, a migratory bird, and a dolphin lying in sand contaminated with oil. On 14th August India's Environment Jairam Ramesh stated that it was the biggest oil spill ever to occur in India.

Further south on India's west coast, there are concerns that an oil spill off the coast of Goa might put people off visiting the beaches, which attract 2.5 million tourists per year. On 1st September 'tar balls' began flowing onto beaches including Colva, Candolim and Calangute. Ships routinely clean fuel tanks and dump the waste at sea, but this ship dumped tonnes of waste oil, much of which has drifted onshore. The oil spill formed 'tar balls', which are half solid lumps of oil, and are deposited up to 15 centimetres deep on beaches. On 17th September tar balls were still flowing onto the beaches.

All around the world there frequent narrow escapes as potential major oil spills are averted. On 4th September a ship carrying about 40,000 litres of diesel sunk during a fierce storm off Phuket. Fortunately no oil spill resulted from the incident. On 7th September four workers slipped off the Sinopec oil rig in the Shengli oilfield of China's northern coast. The rig was tilting at an angle of 45 degrees after a typhoon. 34 men were evacuated from the rig but two of workers who had fallen into the ocean were still missing. On the following day, 8th September, fire broke out in the living quarters of an oil rig 15 kilometres off Cape Virgenes, Patagonia, Chile. The fire was put out but reignited later. The workers were evacuated and the oil wells were successfully shut down and there were no reports of an oil spill.

All these incidents highlight the vulnerability to petrochemical pollution, especially from offshore oil and gas exploration and production, which continues worldwide, from the Arctic to the Antarctic.

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

More monoculture plantations in Indonesia

The deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions of Indonesia’s palm plantations are well known. Indonesia has the world’s most palm plantations at 7 million hectares, and the government plans to nearly triple palm plantations to over 20 million in the next decade. In February 2009 a freeze on palm plantation on peat land was lifted, making about 2 million hectares of peat land eligible for palm plantation. Clearing the peat releases millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. Greenpeace estimates Indonesia’s peat land locks in 37.8 billion tonnes of CO2, mainly in the provinces of Riau, West Sumatra and Jambi. A report sponsored by the World Bank and the UK Department for International Development (DFID) found that up to 84 per cent of Indonesia’s CO2 emissions are from deforestation, forest fires and peat land degradation.

I was surprised to read that nearly half the current 7 million hectares of palm oil plantation is owned by smallholders, as little as two hectares can provide financial security for a family. This is not the picture we imagine when we hear about palm plantations, it is an important social dimension showing a broader importance of palm to the Indonesian economy, but the situation is complex and many small farmers still face losing their land for palm plantations. The World Rainforest Movement documents many recent instances of land grabbing for palm plantations. For example, PR Kresna Duta Agroindo (KDA), a subsidiary of Indonesia’s biggest holdings of palm plantations PT Sinar Mas, has been aggressively expanding, grabbing forest and rubber plantations in the village of Karang Mendapo in Jambi. Six hundred hectares of forest and rubber plantation were illegally cut down for incorporation into a larger palm plantation and ever since the villagers have suffered intimidation by people thought to be acting on behalf of KDA.

The International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of the World Bank, continues to provide loans for palm plantations to Wilmar palm oil trading group, another firm with a record of ignoring social and environmental standards. No less than 19 Indonesian civil society and indigenous peoples’ organisations, have made reports with serious complaints of land grabbing, complicity in serious human rights abuses of communities opposing the firm’s activities, illegal clearing of forest and peat, illegal fires to clear land, failing to conduct environmental impact assessments and failing to honour assurances of areas for smallholders. Wilmar is rapidly growing its land bank towards a target of 1 million hectares of palm plantations in Indonesia and Sarawak. The company’s palm oil plantations are vertically integrated, aligned with ports, shipping facilities and refineries for incorporation into food products, detergents and cosmetics.

French fries
French fries
Now the palm plantations could become more closely integrated with the fast food industry. The Indonesian Agriculture Ministry has designated vast areas in two provinces to grow potatoes for French fries. The programme will start with 3,500 hectares in the Kerinci and Marangin districts of Jambi and South Minahasa district of North Sulawesi, then another 6,000 hectares in Jambi. In the meantime, around 11,000 hectares have been provided in South Manahasa district for the development of the particular potato variety. These areas have been identified as having the potential to be ‘potato production centres’ i.e. French fries monocultures. As is so often the case with monoculture plantations, the crop is an introduced rather than native variety and the seeds will come from foreign investors in Australia and Canada.

One enormous new plantation won’t be feeding anyone. 11,000 hectares of what is claimed by the administration to be neglected land in Pasuruan will be turned into a jatropha plantation to feed a biofuels plant in East Java. The plant will require about 550,000 tonnes of dried jatropha seeds to produce 1 million litres of fuel per year. The Pasuruan administration’s programme for farmers growing jatropha recognises that previous jatropha growing programmes had failed and farmers had lost money on the crop. The East Java jatropha plant could be just the beginning of a massive programme of new biofuel plantations, as it is claimed that Indonesia has 77 million hectares of neglected land, 50 million of which are suitable for growing jatropha.

Jatropha was hailed as the wonder biofuels crop with its black berries yielding up to 40 per cent oil, but crops have been failing around the world. Claims that the inedible plant does not compete with food supplies are crumbling, as instead of growing well on marginal, infertile land the crop is only proving successful on fertile land and requires water and fertilizers. The Action Aid report Meals per gallon: the impact of industrial biofuels on people and global hunger interviewed farmers in many countries including India, Kenya, Senegal and Ghana who have been displaced from their land for jatropha plantations or lost money on the failed jatropha crops which the authorities had encouraged them to grow. The potential rewards of successful large scale plantation of a new ‘black gold’ energy crop, both the revenues from the fuel and the technology for processing it, are sufficient to motivate large scale experiments in growing jatropha. But poor farmers are being exposed to the risks as crop yields and markets are highly uncertain.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

The price of rice

As grain prices rose at the beginning of 2008, triggering the food crisis, India, like many countries, banned rice exports. The ban, which began in April 2008, did not apply to basmati rice, which is long grain, aromatic and fetches about twice the price of non-basmati on export markets. More than 70 per cent is exported to Gulf countries and about 12 per cent to the EU. India raised the minimum export price of basmati rice from $1,1000 to $1,200 per tonne.

Simultaneously, representatives from the Indian Ministry of Commerce and Industry met with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Minister of Economy HE Eng Sultan Bin Saeed Al Mansouri. The goal of the meeting was to strengthen bilateral trade between the two countries, including increased UAE investment in India’s infrastructure including food processing, and an assured supply of basmati rice from India to the UAE, which imports about 300,000 tonnes of basmati rice per year from India, Thailand and Pakistan.

Ever since, UAE has piled on the pressure to cut basmati rice prices. India lowered the minimum export price of basmati to $900 per tonne in September 2009 to compete with lower cost basmati from Pakistan. In the UAE the price of rice plunged by 35 per cent January 2009, then by 15 per cent in the three months to April 2009. Many traders were offering an extra kilogramme of rice for every two purchased, which makes a minimum export price ineffectual.

Yet UAE demand for non-basmati rice is falling. The main consumers of this cheaper rice are the migrant workers from India and other South Asian countries in camps providing cheap labour for the construction boom. These camps have reduced their provision of free food in order to cut costs. There have been many reports of rates of pay too low to send money home, strikes, deaths from heat and exhaustion, suicides and malnutrition in camps, such as this from The Times in 2007. This photo gallery in the Guardian newspaper gives a glimpse of conditions for migrant labourers in Dubai. Since then, migrant workers have been at the sharp end of the recession. In March 2009 it was reported that some construction firms have cut labourers’ meals from three to one per day. The UAE Ministry of Labour itself reports overcrowding with up to 40 per cent more workers crammed into camps to cut costs, violations of labour law including late payment, reduction in wages, unpaid leave and termination of service without required end of service benefits.

India’s rice yields for 2009 are down, largely because of a weak and late monsoon, the worst monsoon since 1972. India’s ‘year of drought’ may reduce rice yields by about 18 per cent. Bad weather has also affected rice yields in the Philippines and Latin America, which may trigger a surge in prices to record levels. India might import 3 million tonnes of rice in 2010.

Yet India’s basmati rice exports for 2009-2010 are set to surpass the 2,100,000 tonne export target set by the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA), an increase of about a third over the previous year. Basmati rice has coped better with the drought as the crop requires less rain than non-basmati varieties and copes better with late rain. But the crop also benefits from government support in assuring water for irrigation. APEDA Chair Asit Tripathy stated his confidence that exports will unaffected by drought as basmati rice areas benefit from access to underground water sources, and paying for a consultant to conduct an annual satellite survey of basmati rice growing areas.

Yet again, the Indian government’s food export drive takes priority over feeding hungry people, and the countries importing the Indian produce appear to have the upper hand in leveraging lower prices. My previous post about India’s food export drive as 200 million go hungry requires updating, as the estimates are rising. Vandana Shiva, calls India the ‘hunger capital of the world ’ noting that 214 million people, one in four, go hungry in India. And outside India's borders, many of the migrant workers in UAE, about 1.5 million were from India in 2008, are also at risk of hunger.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Storms hit Madeira, and what fate for the levadas?

In Madeira the worst storm for 17 years has brought floods and mudslides which have killed more than 30 people and injured many more. The island popular with tourists, is accustomed to a lot of rain. Were it not for the canals, or levadas, which cover most of the small volcanic island, the rain would plummet straight into the ocean. The levadas slow water run off and regulate water flow, irrigating terraced plots growing all kinds of food from avocadoes, squash, tomatoes and aubergines, fruit trees, all kinds of green leafy vegetables and herbs. The levadas also serve as wonderful paths for walking around the island, although some stretches are narrow with a long sheer drop, so you just have to hope no-one is coming the other way.

Just maintaining the levadas in stable weather conditions is a never ending task undertaken by all the farmers on the small plots. Storms outside the parameters of the normal frequent heavy rainfall are likely to be more frequent and more severe with climate change, and will damage food production and necessitate major repairs. This will be especially difficult as a growing number of smallholders in Madeira have day jobs to supplement their incomes.

Terraced agriculture is a way of working sensitively with nature to make land more fertile and increase food production. Terraces and small canals minimise soil erosion and are also used to make dry land fertile. In Peru stone wall terraces enabled farmers to irrigate steep slopes with canals with minimal rainfall. The Cinque Terra in Italy has protected national park status. Five towns nestle into the steep cliffs and are surrounded by intricate terraces. You can walk along many paths and see the ingredients of many traditional local dishes growing, like olives, basil and fennel, and look out over the Mediterranean.

My own back garden in Yorkshire slopes steeply towards the North West. Were it not for a previous owner putting in three levels, little sunlight would reach the soil. With the terracing, the amount of sunlight between the spring and autumn equinoxes is remarkable and there are microhabitats for many kinds of plants.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

BT brinjal blocked – for now

The aubergine, also known as egg plant, is believed to have originated in India where the vegetable is called brinjal and is a staple ingredient of many dishes including curries. India hosts over 4,000 varieties, some are still found growing wild. There has been an epic campaign all over India against a genetically modified (GM) variety developed by seed firm Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Co (Mahyco). A bacterial gene has been inserted, which prevents certain pests from feeding on the crop. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) approved BT brinjal for commercial production in October 2009, but Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has announced a moratorium on growing the crop, saying that further studies into safety are required. The ruling follows a national consultation tour which was met with lively anti-GM protests often involving people dressing up as aubergines, a National Day of Action, street plays, vehicle stickers and a film. Members of the campaign group Safe Food Alliance thanked the minister in person for his decision. Devinder Sharma’s blog has many articles on the saga, the latest installment welcomed as a ‘triumph of good sense over bad science’.

As with other GM varieties, Mahyco insisted and GEAC approved, that the GM brinjal is ‘substantially equivalent’ to its non-GM counterpart in terms of factors including protein and carbohydrates and its chemical constituents. The biotech firms then try and have it both ways by insisting on intellectual property rights on the basis of the GM variety’s unique properties. GM crops may be resistant to certain pests, but they still require pesticide. Mahyco recommend one or two sprayings of one of its pesticides for the GM brinjal.

There has been intensive genetic research on the solanaceae family of vegetables, which includes aubergines, tomatoes, peppers, chillies and potatoes. Suman Sahai outlines the the lack of safeguards against risks that could ‘awaken a sleeping poison’. Farmers have worked for thousands of years to domestic wild solanaceae plants breeding out toxins. After all, the edible solanaceae plants are related to deadly nightshade. Genetic manipulation could trigger not just new toxins, but the old toxins which were removed by the selective breeding. There is ‘no mechanism to detect unexpected or unintended consequences like new toxic compounds in the cell’. Furthermore, there is no system in place for segregation or labelling so that customers could distinguish between GM and non-GM produce, although Indian government is in favour of mandatory labelling of GM food, and the ministry of health has drafted rules. There is no programme for monitoring the long term impacts, and there is no liability law should there be health damage to consumers or contamination of non-GM crops.

GM crops do escape and contaminate non GM crops. GM cotton has been detected in cotton labelled as organic in Europe and Japan. Just this month, there are widespread reports that around 30 per cent of India's organic cotton exports to Europe are contaminated with GM cotton, which could damage this fast growing export sector. In Thailand, commercial planting of GM crops is banned and only tightly controlled field trials are permitted. Yet farmers’ group Biothai found GM contamination of 17 crop samples including maize, papaya and cotton, and the first ever discoveries of GM chillies which were growing in Chiang Mai and soya in Mae Hong Son.

The tomato, another member of the solanaceae family, has been the focus of GM research including the purple tomato. Now, a team led by Dr Asis Datta at the National Institute of Plant Genome research in New Delhi India has created a GM tomato with a longer shelf life, taking 45 days instead of 15 to become soft and shrivelled. The scientists ‘silenced’ two genes which drive ripening in fruit and vegetables. Advocates argue that this genetic engineering process is different from genetic modification, as instead of introducing a new gene to the plant, the target gene is deactivated.

Dr Datta says the genetic engineering could be applied to other key fruit crops, but, leaving aside any unforeseen environmental and health effects, who would benefit from the extended shelf-life if these crops were introduced to the food supply? It is unlikely to be the consumer. With fresh produce, there is a trade off between extending shelf life and the quality. Already, the harder tomato varieties preferred by supermarkets as they can withstand lengthy transportation and storage have far less flavour than the softer varieties. Many types of produce including apples are stored in a controlled atmosphere for several months. Yet the produce only has a few days shelf life once it is available in stores. Extending shelf life enables retailers to store fresh produce for longer, to source from somewhere cheaper further away.

Here in England, an application has been made for a GM trial of potatoes resistant to the cyst nematode pest. A 2008 crop trial was destroyed by protestors, the same fate as most of the GM trials in England. EU law requires GM trial locations to be disclosed, so between EU firms conducted 75 per cent of field trials outside Europe between 2006 and 2008. But the results of a 2009 GM potato trial in Leeds, Yorkshire, with security fencing, CCTV and full time guards led the researchers at University of Leeds to apply for permission for another trial which they intend to start later this year. The John Innes Centre in Norfolk has spent £20,000 on security fence and cameras.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Canada airports to ban books?

New airport security measures in Canada for passengers travelling to the US listed just 13 permitted items which passengers can take into the cabin. There was no surprise that this includes medical devices, canes and laptop computers. But books and magazines are not on the list, leaving Canadian publishers ‘dumbfounded’ as it appears that passengers will only be able to take books bought airside after the security check onto the plane. There is not much to do at airport except read, so if this apparent book ban is implemented, airport book sales will be boosted, and the choice of reading will be narrowed. 

Airport retail benefits from a comparatively wealthy customer base along with lengthy airport dwell times which have increased since 9/11. If there is an airport book ban, I wonder which of these books about aviation would make it to the airport book stores? The History of Air Cargo and Airmail by Camille Allaz, from the first tentative flights of farm animals in a hot air balloon, is informative and fun and positive about the aviation industry, but is only available in hardback so a bit heavy to take on a trip. I doubt that these next three books made it into the airport bookstores when they came out:
Climate Change and Aviation edited by Stephan Gossling and Paul Upham is an authoritative and measured assessment of aviation’s climate change impacts and possible solutions
Ghost Plane by Stephen Grey, this investigation into US and UK complicity in ‘torture flights’ is still bringing information about extraordinary rendition into the public arena
• The Sustainability of Air Transportation by Milan Jani get down to the detail of the environmental impacts of airports, airlines and air traffic control.

Airport book shops typically include an aviation enthusiast section, and, not for the nervous passenger, books about air disasters, averted and otherwise. Books by and about airline executives are often given generous shelf space, like Michael O’Leary of Ryanair expounding on their supposed entrepreneurial spirit. All this conveniently ignores subsidies like tax free aviation fuel and omits to mention that expanding airport retail complexes are a revenue stream that helps keep the cost of flights down. It is extraordinarily effective. Many high streets and malls have gaps where shops have closed down since the recession. Yet, globally, airport retail has continued to grow through the recession with airports including Sydney, Heathrow, Brussels, Seoul and Dubai boosting retail revenues. While the US media was full of headlines shouting that (minor) airlines were going bust, US airport retail spending increased by 20 per cent to $639 million in 2008. Expansion continues, for example Frankfurt Airport is building two new walk through stores.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Where are all the flowers from?

This wonderful animation brings to life the social and ecological impacts of flower farms in East Africa. The workforce is predominantly female, and Women Working Worldwide campaigns to improve poor working conditions, which include forced overtime and sexual harassment. Protection from toxic pesticides is inadequate, and health effects of overexposure can include harm to female reproductive system, which is ironic with sales of flowers about to skyrocket for giving to women to show love on Valentine’s and Mother’s Day.

Pesticide residues pollute water systems which are depleted by the flower farms. A flower is about 90 per cent water, so UK shoppers in indoor malls sheltered from the rain in one of the wettest countries in the world are buying flowers, an inedible and purely ornamental product, from one of the driest. Drought and high food prices led to a World Food Programme appeal for emergency food aid for 3.8 million Kenyan people, where dependency on grain imports is rising. Recent rainfall in the region only promises a late and partial respite from the long standing drought. Thirty enormous flower farms around Lake Naivasha have diverted water from desperately needed food crops and livestock, and drained the lake to half its previous size. Water is even used to clear dust on the loose surface roads along which the flowers are transported to airports for export.

About 80 per cent of Kenya’s flower exports are to Europe, with almost half of this sold in the UK. Kenya is the world’s biggest flower exporter, earnings from horticultural exports more have overtaken earnings from tourism or remittances from working abroad. But the industry is precarious. Kenya’s flower exports are declining, and are expected to be down from a record high of 93,000 tonnes in 2008, to 80,000 tonnes in 2009. While this is a minor decrease compared to the contraction of other industries, flowers can only be so cheap in supermarkets with low pay for farm workers, and lowering social and environmental standards. The effect of price pressure on producers due to supermarket buyer power is evident, as Kenya’s 2008 record volume of flower sales actually brought lower export earnings for Kenya, which fell about 7 per cent to $504.4 million. In the UK and many other European countries, flowers are established as a cheap and cheerful everyday purchase, relatively resilient to recession where people cut back on big-ticket items like expensive electronic products, furniture and holidays.

The entrances of UK supermarkets are, as usual filled with brightly coloured roses. Some of the bouquets are of roses of different colours, some are mixed with other types of flowers, others are bunches of identical roses. Many of the bouquets are labelled as produce of Kenya, but I notice that an increasing proportion are labelled ‘More than one country’, so the customer has no idea where the flowers are from. I can understand this with mixed bouquets where different types of flowers are assembled into bouquets at the main hubs for the world flower trade like Schiphol in the Netherlands, although it makes a mockery of supermarkets’ attempts to place the onus for sustainability on consumer choice enabled by labelling, which in many cases obscures rather than reveals the country of origin and other important aspects of the supply chain. But this is a photo of a bouquet of identical bright pink roses with the ‘More than one country’ label.

Customers in the UK are urged by some development organisations and the DFID (Department for International Development) to buy Kenyan flowers to support the livelihoods of flower farm workers, pretty impossible if there is no country of origin on the label? But the real pressure on Kenyan producers is not fickle consumer preferences. If a retailer stops stocking Kenyan flowers this is more likely to be because they are sourcing similar flowers from a country with lower production costs. Flower farms in Kenya face cut throat competition from other countries, and the 'race to the bottom' for lower production costs is evnident, two major flower farms have recently relocated to Ethiopia due to lower costs there. Ethiopian flowers are sold in the UK, but I have yet to see ‘Produce of Ethiopia’ on flower bouquet labels, so it seems this is not something that retailers wish to highlight.

Going back to the social impact of flower farms, the label states that the roses are guaranteed for 5 days. For other bunches of flowers the guaranteed vase life is longer - 7, 10 or even 14 days. This is longer than the time frame for an assured livelihood for many of the women working on African flower farms, who work on a casual basis with no contract of employment. I’ll get my mother some fair trade chocolate for Mothers’ Day, at least it’s edible rather than useless, and offers some guarantee of fairness to workers in producing countries.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Olives in sunflower oil

When I bought these Kalamata olives I assumed I was buying olives marinated in olive oil, as it said extra virgin olive oil in big print on the label. When I got home I read the label properly. It actually says -

“Olives Kalamata
Marinated in (2%) extra virgin olive oil and oregano”

On the back of the label the ingredients list the second ingredient after the olives is sunflower oil. The 2 per cent extra virgin olive oil is listed after the salt. I imagine the label meets legal requirements, but it is still misleading. Buying in a hurry we make assumptions based on what is customary, the extra virgin olive oil is used to sell the product in big letters on the front of the jar, when it only contains a minimal amount.

You will find sunflower oil lurking high in the ingredients list of many Mediterranean style foods. It is never announced on the front of the packaging, but a look at the ingredients lists shows that it is, entirely or to a large extent, replacing the traditional olive oil in pesto, marinated vegetables like artichokes, sundried tomatoes and jars of olives and capers.

Apart from the misleading labelling there is the problem of lack of information about food processing. Pale, bland tasting sunflower oil is not just the result of pressing sunflower seeds. In his book Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill, which was actually published in 1993, Udo Erasmus, exposes the many stages of processing such as bleaching, de-gumming and deodorising, involving high temperatures and chemical treatments which systematically remove nutrients like vitamin E and lecithin, and alters the molecular structure of oils in order to create a bland oil with long shelf life. Some doubt Erasmus's credibility as he does have a product line of eye-wateringly expensive vegetable oils which have been cold pressed and are sold in small batches with a limited shelf-life (I just eat the seeds containing the beneficial oils). But whatever your view on these products, he has actually done the work to research and expose the hidden processing of vegetable oils and the harmful health effects.

The harmful health effects of trans fats is in the news again today, but the hydrogenation, process which hardens liquid oils for products like margarine which produces these trans fats, is just the tip of the iceberg of vegetable oil processing. It is very difficult to find vegetable oils which have not been processed in this way. If sunflower, or any other, vegetable oil is cold pressed rather than subjected to the usual processing it will be sold as such, prominent on the front of the label and at a premium, like the extra virgin olive oil which is a minor ingredient in this jar of Kalamata olives.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Afghanistan’s escalating fruit exports

In the midst of escalating conflict and worsening hunger in Afghanistan, USAID (United States Agency for International Development) agricultural programmes are increasing fruit exports. Programmes to rehabilitate fruit orchards destroyed by the war, to replace opium crops, are linked with export supply chains complete with transportation, storage, processing, packaging and marketing. Pomegranates are a key crop, and Afghan varieties, with dark red juice and acid taste as well as sweetness, are widely regarded as the best in the world. Pomegranates are hailed as a ‘superfood’ full of antioxidants and fetch a high price in the US, Europe and Middle East and Asia. Afghanistan’s pomegranate exports increased 10 per cent in 2008 compared to 2007, totalling 45,000 tonnes, about half of a total pomegranate crop of 96,000 tonnes.

Pomegranate exports are set to rise further, with the USAID funded Omaid Bahar fruit processing factory in the outskirts of Kabul. The centralised fruit juice factory, a converted textiles factory from the Soviet era, a convergence of military intervention and development aid with a ‘high wall topped with razor wire’, and ‘heavily guarded iron gates’ is hailed in the Independent newspaper as a ‘beacon of hope’ for the future of Afghanistan farming. The key flagship product is pomegranate juice and the factory aims to buy fruit including pomegranates, apples and apricots from 50,000 Afghan farmers. About 5,000 tonnes of fruit were expected to be processed by the end of 2009, with plans for 25,000 tonnes in 2010. The factory has contracts to supply India and several countries in the Middle East, and is negotiating to supply Europe and the US.

The USAID supported Badam Bagh Demonstration Farm in the north of Kabul trains Afghan farmers in ‘modern’ farming methods, such as how to use gas powered insecticide spraying machines and protective equipment when working with poisonous pesticides. The farm does showcase some small scale techniques like different methods of drying fruit, but the emphasis is not on rehabilitating the varied traditional skills of Afghan farmers, but transplanting modern agribusiness into Afghanistan, with all its problems such as fossil fuel dependency, input intensity and large scale infrastructure, such as irrigation with a single 10 cm pipe from Kargha Lake 10 kilometres to the west of Kabul all the way to the farm.

The farm has an export centre with fruit including pomegranates, grapes and apricots flowing in from nearly every province of Afghanistan. An agreement has been made with India to supply 3,000 tonnes of apples from the Wardek and Paktika provinces, with the first shipment delivered in November 2009. The emphasis is on exports, not supplying fresh produce to malnourished Afghans. An article on the USAID website highlights a delivery of produce including watermelons, broccoli and sweetcorn from Badam Bagh farm to refugees in Camp Hilmand in Kabul to 110 families, but this fresh produce was a one-off exception to their usual diet based on bags of flour.

At the time of the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 the US declared that the country would regain its self sufficiency in food by 2007. Yet Afghans are suffering worsening food insecurity due to a complex of factors including the war, drought conditions and high food prices. By 2009 7.4 million people, a third of the Afghan population, are unable to meet their basic food needs, 54 per cent of children suffer stunted growth and the World Food Programme was aiming to feed 8.8 million people. A BBC article highlights people living in Parwan, a relatively peaceful province with fertile land, as particularly badly affected by malnutrition and hunger. Food aid supplies are inadequate, and not reaching the people who need it. Even farm workers in Parwan are suffering from hunger. Yet in a two-week period in July 2009 $110,000 worth of cherries, apricots and melons were exported from the Kandahar, Wardak and Parwan provinces via Badam Bagh farm to India and the UAE.

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