Friday, 20 December 2013

The strange case of the Boeing 747 emergency landing at Heathrow – carrying 390 cows

On 17 January 2012 a Korean Air Boeing 747, en route from Chicago O’Hare Airport to Brussels, made an emergency landing at Heathrow Airport. The plane was carrying 390 cows, and was flying over the Irish Sea when there was a fire warning. After an ‘uneventful’ landing emergency services found no sign of fire or smoke. Crew and cows where unharmed. The crew thought the warning was triggered by the presence of the cows, leading to higher levels of humidity. Here is the report from the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB), which does not mention that the airline was Korean Air.

my really rubbish image of a plane full of cows

It is commonplace for livestock – cows, sheep, goats and pigs – to undergo lengthy intercontinental journeys by air. Surface journeys, on boats, road and rail take far longer so are more impractical and inhumane. But, even though it is routine for livestock to be racking up the air miles, there was something unusual about the Boeing 747 full of cows that made the emergency landing at Heathrow - the number of cows on board - 390. Camille Allaz, author of A History of Air Cargo and Airmail, writes that between 120-220 cows can fit on board a Boeing 747, turning the plane into what he describes as a ‘flying cattle truck’. AirBridgeCargo, an airline which specialises in air freighting animals, flew 316 cows from Linz in Austria to Yakutsk in Russia in 2008. But they were not all crammed into a single plane, they were carried on two Boeing 747s. After a trade deal between the US and Kazakhstan governments, more than 2,600 cows were flown from Fargo to Astana in 2010-11 in Boeing 747s. About 200 cattle were carried per flight.

So why were there 390 cows on the Boeing 747 that had to make an emergency landing at Heathrow? The plane carried a much higher number of cows than is the usual practice. It was fortunate that Heathrow could handle the emergency landing, but the lives of the crew and people under the flightpath and at the airport could have been at risk.

The only other instance of more than about 200 cows being flown on a Boeing 747 that I have heard of is for a Kazakhstan government programme to import breeding cattle from Australia. In September and October 2013, five Boeing 747 flights, each carrying over 300 cows, took place, without reaching the ‘reportable mortality level’, which I presume is a small number of fatalities that occasionally occur during long flights. But the sixth flight, on 23rd October, carrying 321 cows from Melbourne to Almaty, was disastrous. On landing at Almaty, it was discovered that 49 of the cows had died on the flight.

Kazakh authorities reported that the air conditioning system had malfunctioned and the cows were deprived of sufficient levels of oxygen. Levels of ammonia from the cows’ waste built up, and the animals died of asphyxiation. Apparently, the cows were carried  in a ‘bi-level configuration in special boxes’ and the cows that died were on the upper level. The cows were not supplied with food or water for the 17 hour flight, which called in at Singapore Airport for refuelling.Within a week of the incident, it was reported that another 928 cows were to be flown from Australia to Almaty, and it appeared that particular attention was being paid to the required 30 day quarantine period to ensure that the cows are well before the journey.

The incident also raises the question of why entire herds of animals are undergoing long journeys, by air or surface modes of transport, in the first place. There are campaign groups calling for an end to live exports, including Ban Live Exports in Australia, the world’s biggest exporter of live cattle, sheep and goats. The group exposes many cases of animals being kept in appalling conditions and abused.

Sending herds of livestock around the world on jumbo jets also adds to the greenhouse gas emissions from passenger flights. There is alternative that can be implemented immediately, even within the insanities of global food supply chains, with multiple legs of transportation criss-crossing the globe before food finally ends up on people’s plates. Small vials of embryos and semen can be transported by air instead. In the US, USDA is recommending this as a replacement for air freighting livestock. It would be one small, but significant step towards a sustainable food system.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Britain’s brutal charter flight deportation programme

On 29th November, Britain’s attempt to deport an asylum seeker demonstrated the brutality of its immigration programme. In the Huffpost, Matt Carr described the incident as ‘A Study in Barbarism’. Isa Muazu, who is Nigerian and had been in the UK since 2007, had outstayed his visa and his claim for asylum was denied. His deportation was fast-tracked and he flown to Nigeria on a chartered private jet (at an estimated cost of £180,000) Yet his doctor had declared he was not fit to fly. He had been on hunger strike for 100 days because of his fear that his return would mean certain persecution, and probable murder, by the militant Islamic group Boko Haram. He was unable to stand up or see. The Home Office was in no doubt over the severity of his health, and had prepared an ‘end of life plan’ and he was carried onto the plane on a stretcher.

Some of Muaza’s supporters blocked access to Harmondsworth detention centre, outside Heathrow Airport, and there have been other protests including a candlelit vigil outside the Home Office. It is heartening that so many come out to show support for people as their deportation date approaches. Nigerian authorities refused to let the plane land, for reasons that are as yet unclear, and Muazu was returned to the UK via Malta. Now he is in the medical wing at Harmondsworth. But there is no sign that Muazu’s ordeal is over. No mercy is being granted even when he could be at the edge of death. Nigeria has given permission for planes to land if the Home Office deports an asylum seeker and the UK officials are working with the Nigerian government to secure his removal.

While Muazu was enduring this ordeal, I was reading an important report Collective Expulsion: The case against Britain’s mass deportation charter flights, which was published by Corporate Watch in September. It is a damning indictment of the UK’s forced deportation charter flights programme, which is a major plank of the UK’s approach to immigration. The authors are Phil Miller of Stop Deportation and Shiar Youssef of Corporate Watch. Research was conducted through FOI (Freedom of Information) requests, statistical analysis and case studies, working to counter the lack of transparency of the government bodies and agencies involved.

'Collective Expulsion' report by Corporate Watch & Stop Deportation
‘Collective Expulsion’ describes how charter flight deportations ‘on an industrial scale’ began in 2001, under the Labour government led by Tony Blair and enforced by the UKBA (UK Border Agency), to demonstrate a tough stance on immigration. A ‘target’ of 50,000 deportations per year was set. A deportation programme driven by arbitrary numerical targets undermines the consideration of an individual’s circumstances, and changes in the situation with conflict and other crises in the countries that people are deported to.

One justification of the charter flights is deportees’ supposed ‘disruptive behaviour’ but no data was supplied on instances of such behaviour. Furthermore, the deportation charter flights, and wider immigration policy, pander to a right wing tabloid narrative that asylum seekers are a risk to society, a danger to public order or national security. Yet a full 80 per cent of people who were removed had not committed any criminal offence. Racists’ attempts to associate asylum seekers with criminality is without foundation; foreign prisoners were less likely than British inmates to be convicted of a violent offence, and no more likely for a sexual offence. The high rate of deportations of nationalities with only a negligible population in prison, such as Afghanistan, suggests that people are being targeted on the basis of a biased political agenda.

Charter flight deportations are used to deter potential immigrants, and to intimidate communities who have settled in the UK. The UKBA actively encourages media coverage to ram the message home, that migrants are not wanted. For example, when 48 Roma were deported to the Czech Republic, film crews were invited with the expectation that it would be shown on one of the Czech Republic’s major television stations. The high profile of the deportations draws attention to the people in the country they are returned to, putting them at even greater risk of persecution and harm. Charter flights are becoming the standard way of carrying out forced deportations to a growing number of countries, ‘almost exclusively’ countries where the UK has active foreign policy interests and where people are at risk of persecution and violence. There is compelling evidence that countries are chosen on the basis of a political agenda, when the sole criterion should be the unique circumstances of each individuals’ asylum claim. There has been a disproportionately high number of deportations to Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo, bolstering the government’s claims that these countries are safer due to British military intervention. Charter flight deportation flights to Pakistan began on 24 November 2011, the same day that UK Home Secretary Theresa May landed in the country and held a press conference announcing increased bilateral ties. Since February 2012, there have been monthly charter flights deporting between 50 and 85 people.

A brief series of deportee charter flights to Sri Lanka began in 2009, when the war against the Tamil Tigers was escalating shortly before the ceasefire ended the conflict. The Conservative- Liberal Democrat coalition government reported that it resumed mass expulsion of Tamil refugees in February 2012, in spite of ‘persistent’ allegations that returned asylum seekers were being ill-treated and tortured. The allegations turned out to be true, but UK officials denied the evidence and the flights did not cease until February 2013. Throughout this period, the UK had strengthened its trade and investment with Sri Lanka. Scottish police forces trained the Sri Lankan police force and a UK firm carried out the country’s first successful oil drilling operation. Subsequently, a court case revealed collusion between UK and Sri Lankan officials who had organised the deportations. To my mind, this indicates that people at serious risk of serious harm had been used as bargaining chips in bilateral negotiations.

Arrangements for charter flights obstruct the accessing of adequate legal representation, right to appeal and judicial review. Procedural details impede access to justice and there is a fundamental lack of communication with the people being removed. Communication for legal advice and representation is particularly difficult for detainees being held in Immigrant Removal Centres immediately before charter flights, at the time when it is most crucial. Indeed, recent cuts to legal aid have made it ‘practically impossible for most people facing removal from the UK to seek a judicial review of their removal decision’. Legal aid firms are under so much pressure they frequently cannot provide an adequate service. Often it is impossible for a person served with a removal notice to find a lawyer to advise them in the time frame available. The minimum notice period for charter flight deportees is just five working days. When cases do get before a judge, they are overwhelmed with insufficient time to consider each case so can’t challenge deportation decisions. It has become standard practice not to consider last minute applications for a judicial review.

When deportees are moved to airport for charter flights it is common practice to take additional people, ‘reserves’, who may or may not, on that occasion, be deported. The rationale is that reserves will take the place of other deportees, in the event that one or more of them is removed from the flight as a result of last-minute legal representations. The extensive use of ‘reserves’ inflicts additional stress on people undergoing deportation. This procedure has been institutionalised, with no regard for the cruelty and psychological damage of being subjected to several stages of the removal procedure, only to be returned to a detention centre to anticipate the likelihood of undergoing the same traumatic process again, at an unspecified later date.

Human rights are paramount, and must trump financial considerations. But the irony is that the charter flights are also enormously expensive, far more so than deporting people on commercial flights, due to the cost of hiring aircraft (typically private jets used by the super-rich) and the fact that such flights are harder to organise. The report’s findings contradict authorities’ claims that charter flights are used because there are no commercial flights to destination airports. Since 2002, the cost of the charter flights is in excess of £50 million. The cost of the charter flights increased dramatically in the time frame covered by the report. In 2002-3 the average cost of removing one person by charter flight was £575. By 2011/12 this had escalated almost eightfold to £4,799. This price increase is far higher than the increase in aviation costs, of both scheduled and charter flights, over the period. The UKBA claims that charter flights are better value for taxpayers because a lower ration of escorts is required per person being deported. Yet it is not unusual for two, or even three, times more security staff than deportees to be on board the charter flight planes.

There is no doubt that the UK’s charter flight mass expulsion programme is draconian, abusive and cruel, and the ‘Collective Expulsion’ report poses questions as to the legality of the deportation charter flights. The two main legal issues highlighted by the report are prohibition of expulsion of people to countries where there is a risk of death or ill-treatment, and prohibition of discrimination and arbitrariness in deportation rulings and procedures. Cases must be decided on the basis of objective examination of the circumstances of each individual case and people should not be deported collectively, en masse, based on their nationality or being members of specific racial or ethnic groups.

Conveniently, there are no other passengers on charter flights to witness what is happening to the deportees, the brutality of how people are treated, the restraint techniques that are used. This was not the case when, in October 2010, deportee Jimmy Mabenga died on board a British Airways flight to Angola. He died after being ‘restrained’ by three G4S escorts in full view of other passengers. Very few charter flights had inspectors on board, and reports from those flights were alarming. Inspectors observing staff witnessed racist language, overtly sexual language about women, swearing and abusive behaviour. It was evident that some escorts had no accredited training in the use of force in the confined space of an aircraft. I agree with the report’s authors that forced deportation is inherently abusive, and this ill treatment adds to the inhumanity of the charter flight programme.

‘Collective Expulsion’ is a comprehensive report, but it is notable that some aspects of the deportation programme which the authors wished to analyse remain shrouded in mystery. Investigation of the charter flights was hampered by the fact that, regarding some aspects of procedures, there were no review documents, even though statements had been made that reviews were being conducted or were ongoing. Corporate Watch, Stop Deportation and many other groups are doing vital, brilliant work to expose the brutality of the UK’s deportation programme, and to end it.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Airport land grab in India, and the resistance

Last week I wrote an article for The Ecologist website about aggressive acquisition of farmland for new airports, and airport expansion, all over India. It is part of a bigger picture of aggressive land grab for industrialisation such as mining, dams, power plants and manufacturing. In a great many instances, compensation for land acquisition is far below its value. Rehabilitation is similarly inadequate, often dumping people in miserable dwellings without any means of making a living or health and education facilities. This blogpost is supplementary information about some of the sites mentioned in the article, and some other projects. Also included are four important videos, an opportunity to hear the voices of just a few people affected by the airport land acquisition. These are the only videos I have found that are either in English, or with English subtitles.

Expansion of Imphal Airport has displaced over 100 settlements since 1960. Yet much of the land remains unutilised inside the airport fence. In May 2008, agitation by affected villagers culminated in pitch battles with police. Four months later, protestors blocked the road to the airport and burned effigies of the government officials driving the land acquisition, only to be met with teargas and stun grenades. This February 2012 video by Achungmei Kamei for Video Volunteers (a fantastic resource which helps disadvantaged communities all over the world, for the most part ignored by the mainstream media, to report their stories) was made while forcible eviction of 17 families for expansion of the airport was taking place. Compensation is a fraction of the land’s value, and they have to start their lives all over again in a new location with no infrastructure such as roads or electricity, and no social fabric, not even a school.

This second video, below, about Imphal Airport expansion, made a month later, by Mercy Kamie, includes testimony from villagers already evicted and relocated three times, facing being moved yet again. They have been moved from farmland where they made an income from their produce to a barren area with no facilities at all, no school or hospital or even water supply. Development commences without the consent, or even consultation, of affected people or the legally required Environmental Impact Assessment. Their democratic right to protest is being eroded, and people who speak out against the airport expansion have been imprisoned.

Plans for a second airport for the tourist magnet city of Goa, at Pernem, Mopa, threatens 15,000 people from five villages - Mopa, Chandel, Ambrem, Varkhand and Casarvarnem - with loss of their land and livelihood. The site is on a plateau with 4 million cashew nut trees. This 2011 video by Devidas Gaonkar for Video Volunteers interviews farmers in the project site, cultivating coconuts, groundnuts and other crops, and facing loss of their land with little compensation and nowhere to resettle.

Resistance to the Mopa airport project continues. In September 2013, 150 residents of Varkhand village slammed the Mopa airport compensation offer as ‘peanuts’ and the rehabilitation plan as totally inadequate. They stated their commitment to safeguarding their village both through the courts and taking to the streets.

In Kerala, three greenfield airports (on undeveloped sites) are planned at Aranmula, Wayanad and Anakkara, on sites of approximately 200 hectares of prime farmland (1 hectare is about the size of a football pitch). If the airports are built thousands of villagers will be displaced and land will be irrevocably removed from food production. Check out the websites for the campaign groups attempting to prevent the construction of greenfield airports, in Aranmula, and the Save Anakkara Forum.

Also in Kerala, a greenfield airport is already under construction at Kannur. As with all airports, the requisite road network also takes up land. Surveying for a greenfield road to the airport site was suspended in mid-2012, due to agitation culminating in a road blockade by 700 people. This October, the Action Committee opposing the road stated that any attempt to resume surveying for the project would meet with similar protests.

Traffic projections for Kerala’s greenfield airports are dubious. There are no capacity constraints in the state, which already has three international airports: Cochin, Trivandrum and Karipur. All three of these airports are attempting to expand. Cochin Airport recently invited tenders for a new terminal. People from seven villages who lost land to the airport 12 years ago are still fighting for justice in land compensation and rehabilitation. In August, 700 people held an all-party rally. Trivandrum Airport’s plans to expand its domestic passenger terminal would demolish a temple and 130 families are fighting against eviction. The current phase of expansion of Karipur Airport is opposed by the panchayats (assemblies) of all three affected villages. A school, church, temple and several houses have been earmarked for demolition, triggering a series of protests.

In Ranchi, agitation against Birsa Munda Airport’s expansion over fertile land has involved hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people since 2007. In 2009, a  considerable armed police deployment failed to 800 villagers blocking the entrance and exit to the airport for an hour. The villagers demanding withdrawal of notice of land acquisition, disputes over previous land acquisition unresolved.
This is a shocking video of protests against forceful eviction for expansion of the airport, in March 2011. People from villages adjoining the airport protested against forceful land acquisition and smashed up vehicles on the airport road.

Villagers blocked the road, and attacked vehicles, again in July 2012. Three months later, security could not prevent a small group of displaced villagers from entering the site with cattle and ploughs. They dug up plots of land they claimed still belonged to them. 

Land acquisition seems inexorable. Once a site is earmarked for airport development there are a great many clearances before construction actually begins, but projects tend to be delayed, or stalled, rather than downright cancelled. But protest can and does work. A proposed greenfield airport in Bellary was stopped in its tracks when a petition to the Karnataka High Court, by 70 farmers, was successful and land acquisition notices were quashed. Landowners in three villages have prevented Gaya Airport, Bihar, from extending its runway for over 10 years. 

In Pune, Chakan villagers have resisted acquisition of 25 square kilometres of land for an airport for ten years. Four-fifths of the land is irrigated, and the project threatened 1,200 farmers from seven villages with loss of their land. The latest news is that the Chakan project has been abandoned because of the opposition from villagers. But, as is often the case, an alternative site has been selected, putting other communities at risk of being wiped off the map. The alternative site for the new Pune airport is at Khed. The site includes land that farmers have a 75 per cent share in and the government’s proposed change in utilisation of the land happened suddenly without consultation. Two organisations, Anti-Khed SEZ Airport and Anti-Khed Developers Limited Save Farmers Action Committee are opposing the use of their land for the airport, and held a protest on 19th November.

This blogpost and the Ecologist piece cover just a few instances of aviation expansion in India, and the predominantly rural communities facing displacement. I am aware of about 50 sites in India where rural communities are fighting against displacement for aviation expansion and aim to share information and work with campaigns concerned with land rights and social justice. More soon.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Planning debate on supermarket in Slaithwaite

On 17th October I attended the Kirklees Council Planning Committee to voice my opposition to a planning application for a large ALDI supermarket, with a car park with spaces for 90 vehicles, in the village of Slaithwaite in the Colne Valley. About 2,000 people have registered their objection to the proposal, about double the number of people supporting it. I was one of 19 residents speaking against the proposal, with eight people speaking in favour of it. Residents opposing the planning application made a compelling case that the road network is not suitable for the traffic that the supermarket would generate. Narrow roads, steep in some sections, would be unable to cope with the projected traffic increase and heavy delivery lorries. Pavements, already narrow, would be made even narrower in some places, making Slaithwaite unpleasant and unsafe for pedestrians, in particular parents with buggies and the elderly and disabled who have difficulty walking.

My personal perspective and reason for opposing the planning application is not as a resident, but as a frequent visitor. I live a few miles away, but am often in the village for business and community meetings in the cafes and also visit for leisure with my family and friends. The village is distinctive with many interesting buildings, and it is the starting point for walks along the canal and up into the hills. An ALDI store, the same prefabricated building as all the other stores, would not be in keeping with the distinctiveness of the local area. Furthermore, trees which provide an important habitat for bats and several species of birds, including skylarks and lapwings. I am surprised that the supermarket is even being considered, as the village is in a designated conservation area.

Green Valley Grocer
The Green Valley Grocer in Slaithwaite sells a great range of fresh produce

There is a cluster of small independent shops in Slaithwaite, and you can buy a good range of groceries at reasonable, competitive prices. For example, the Green Valley Grocer sells a great variety of fresh fruit and vegetables and provides a wide range of locally sourced products. This benefits the local economy, in contrast to major supermarkets’ lengthy supply chains. Indeed, the Green Valley Grocer sells not just local food, but ‘super local’, from within a five-mile radius. The shop is run as a co-operative, putting the long term benefits for its members above short term profits. This is the type of more equitable and sustainable business model, successfully weathering the global financial crisis, that needs to be supported.

E&R Grange Butchers has been in the village since 1990, and all their produce is locally sourced, supporting farms in the area. The Handmade Bakery, with a café, located on the canalside, provides wonderful quality fresh bread, with a policy of sourcing ingredients locally where possible. Bread of this quality is a rarity in the UK, where almost all bread that is available is industrially made using all kinds of additives like preservatives, emulsifiers and flour treatment agents. Like the Green Valley Grocer, the Handmade Bakery is a co-operative, and won a national co-operative award in 2010.

The New Economics Foundation 2005 report, 'Clone Town Britain' showed how the increased domination of large chain stores had hollowed out high streets, leaving them devoid of independent retailers. An update in 2010 found an escalation of these trends, and observed that some major retailers were ‘fair weather friends’, abandoning high street sites to migrate to larger shopping centres. ALDI is the fastest growing food retailer in the UK, where it already has 500 stores. With its rapid expansion it is snapping at the heels of the Big 4 UK retailers – Tesco, ASDA, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons. Advocates for an ALDI store in Slaithwaite cited the benefits of increased competition, but the bigger picture is that competition is reduced as the biggest supermarket chains increase their market share and dominance.

Independent retailers in Slaithwaite are engaged in community events and activities which make the village a lively cultural centre. Slaithwaite is part of Totally Locally, a network of towns and villages leading shop locally movement – promoting and supporting local shops, and organising community events to revitalise the local economy. This summer saw the second street market and Colne Valley local food festival with arts, crafts, dance and music. Many local businesses support the Slaithwaite Moonraking Festival. This biannual event attracts many locals and visitors for story-telling, puppet shows for children, and music and lantern workshops, culminating in a lantern parade lighting up the streets in the dark of a winter’s night. Slaithwaite's Moonraking Festival in 2013 was on the theme of time, these are some of the lovely lanterns handmade by residents.

Moon Raking Procession

 Moonraking event in February 2013

So much is at risk if a large supermarket is built in the area, there are already several within a short distance. Slaithwaite could become another ‘clone town’. I think that, instead, Kirklees Council should support the established local businesses and cooperatives which have worked hard to create a lively village centre. The existing retailers have been loyal to the area and kept going providing vital goods and services throughout the economic downturn. The Council could encourage more small businesses to the area, with support such as providing incubator space and training. This would help develop the established cluster of businesses which is improving the economic vitality and stability of Slaithwaite.

At the Planning Committee meeting, the chair proposed that the number of speakers would be limited to just three opponents and three supports of the planning proposal. Fortunately this proposal was challenged, and people’s democratic right to speak was asserted. After a debate of nearly three hours, the decision was deferred by a considerable majority. I intend to attend the next planning meeting when this application is discussed. After listening to the debate I am convinced that supporting independent retailers will benefit residents and other businesses in Slaithwaite, including job creation, and that this is preferable to a new large supermarket.This is the page on the Kirklees Council website where residents can register their objection, or indeed support, of the planning application, and make comments.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Campaign to save heritage village of Aranmula

This is a map of Aranmula, a heritage village in Kerala, southwest India. At the top of the map, on the bank of the Pampa River, the Aranmula Temple is marked. Below, you can see that the area is mainly fields and forests. This is an ecologically diverse area of wetlands and paddy fields. At the bottom of the map, to the right, is a long, pale brown strip. It has been filled in for construction of an airport. A far larger area has been notified for the airport and an industrial zone. About 3,000 families may face eviction. The negative ecological impacts include loss of biodiversity and depletion of groundwater.

View Larger Map

A great many reputable organisations report that the land acquisition, and filling in of wetlands, is illegal. Supposedly, the new airport will bring in more tourists, but it would destroy much of what is attractive to visitors. Moreover, there are already two airports nearby, one of which, Cochin, is only about 90km away. The project site is very close to Aranmula’s famous temple, and aircraft noise would hardly be conducive to peaceful contemplation. This is the website of the group campaigning to preserve Aranmula. The Aranmula Paithruka Grama Karma Samithy aims to protect Aramnula and its heritage. Below is my letter of support to the campaigners.

To the Aranmula campaign,

It is wonderful to be in contact with your campaign, all the way from England! I support your campaign to save Aranmula from an airport which would concrete over so much of your farmland and community. Thank you for sending me more details of what is happening, which I will study, and I will help to raise awareness of your work.

I have researched aviation policy in India and am astonished by the aggressive land acquisition in Aranmula and all over the country, and the extent of policy support and subsidy which drives expansion, in particular for domestic flights which are the easiest to replace with surface transport. For example, I saw this article which outlines aviation ministry plans for subsidy to increase air traffic to 89 small airports - expecting state government to provide free land, airport infrastructure, waive property tax and reduce fuel tax. 

So many plans for airport expansion, and new airports, threaten to destroy farmland, or wildlife habitats. There are groups opposing similar projects all around the world, so the good news is that a growing number of projects are meeting with strong opposition from local groups, and collaboration between groups is building into a broader movement. Also, non-governmental organisations are challenging the support for aviation expansion in the form of favourable policies and subsidies. We can build on the work of local, national and regional coordination, and build a worldwide movement against unsustainable aviation expansion, and to achieve a shift to surface transport.

I live in northern England and the biggest airport in my region is Manchester. There is a long-term campaign against the airport’s expansion, of freight warehouses and other commercial development, over land designated as ‘greenbelt’, a rare urban green oasis hosting rare species such as newts. See the blog SEMA (Stop Expansion at Manchester Airport).

The biggest airport in the UK is Heathrow, which wants to expand its concrete footprint even further over the southeast of England. It is so enormous that it is like a city in its own right, a noisy and polluting city that blights a wide area. HACAN (Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise) led a campaign which achieved historic victory against a third runway, in 2010, with all major political parties stating they would not support the development. But the UK’s Conservative led coalition government betrayed their pre-election commitment, and it turns out that Heathrow’s plans for a third, or even fourth, runway are dormant rather than dead.

On the south cost of England, Lydd Airport Action Group is fighting a legal battle against Lydd Airport’s runway expansion plan, which would ruin important wildlife habitat in Romney Marshes. There are groups opposing new runways, new terminal terminals and night flights all over the UK. See the Airport Watch website Campaign Community page list. Also, check out Plane Stupid. As well as critique of the aviation industry this group has undertaken direct action such as occupying runways and terminals and a rooftop protest at the House of Commons.

There are effective protests against airport expansion all over Europe. Most of the projects pose the threat of encroachment on farmland and important wildlife habitats. In France, thousands of protestors camping out to demonstrate their opposition to a new airport for the city of Nantes, on farmland in Notre Dame des Landes. Last autumn, the protest camp was removed by police, but this triggered more supporters from all over Europe to flock to the site to help prevent the development. In Germany, every Monday thousands of protestors gather in the terminal at Frankfurt Airport to protest against the new fourth runway, which was built on land which was previously forests hosting a wealth of biodiversity. Plans for a third runway at Munich Airport have been stalled by a citizens’ vote that rejected the proposal, winning the vote with far less resources than the pro-new runway lobby.

It is very exciting in Europe now, as a coordinated movement is gaining strength, sharing knowledge and strategies. Cooperation between the different groups and countries also counters one of the key justifications for expansion - that other, rival, airports are expanding unopposed, and if the airport in your area does not expand, its traffic will not keep up and economic activity will drain from the region. See this report - Sea of Protest, community opposition has led to plans for two new airports in Italy, at Siena and Vicerbo, being cancelled.

The UECNA (European Union Against Aircraft Nuisances) website has information from groups in many countries, and a report from a conference that brought together 250 campaigners, from communities affected by airports. The non-government organisation Transport and Environment (T&E) addresses aviation and related policy at the European level. Greenhouse gas emissions, causing climate change, are growing faster from aviation than from any other transport sector, and currently constitute about 5% of world total emissions, but journeys by plane emit higher levels of greenhouse gases than by road, rail or ship, and the benefits of flying are only enjoyed by a relatively wealthy minority. Also, T&E has calculated the value of subsidies to aviation through tax exemptions, most notably on fuel. In Europe it is estimated at about £33 billion per year. Another issue that is being investigated is state aid to airports and airlines. This has continued even as governments impose austerity on citizens, cutting back on benefits to the ill and unemployed and on vital health and education services.

Peotone was selected as the site for a third airport for the city of Chicago more than 30 years ago. The site is mostly prime quality farmland. Even though air traffic to the city has declined, the new airport is still being pursued and people could face eviction from their homes and farmland. Chicago. This is the website for the campaign group Shut This Airport Nightmare Down (STAND). There is a campaign, Airport2Park, which is campaigning for Santa Monica Airport, in a residential area and used for recreational flying and flight schools, converted into a park. There are lively campaign groups all over the US. Aviation Justice brings together airport communities and campaigners for climate justice. The website has a state by state listing of local airport campaign groups.

In Canada, there is a strong campaign against a third airport for the city of Toronto. The site, in Pickering, is prime quality farmland and the campaign for over 40 years with successive rounds of land expropriation and evictions. The Land Over Landings group has worked tirelessly, aiming to establish a land trust to preserve the land for farming, in perpetuity. In the same city, there is a campaign, NoJetsTO, against expansion of the airport on the waterfront to accommodate larger aircraft. 

I have written a book about aviation, Plane Truth: Aviation’s Real Impact on People and the Environment. It includes a short section on Aranmula and other greenfield airports in India – at various stages of planning, approval and construction, all on farmland and involving aggressive land acquisition, and all meeting with vigorous opposition from predominantly agricultural communities facing displacement and low rates of compensation – in Mopa (second airport for Goa), Andal, Kushinagar and Sriperumbudur. A proposed new airport for Mumbai at Navi would remove mangrove habitat and agricultural land. I would be interested in your views of the new Land Acquisition Bill that has been passed and any effect this might have, if the promise for fair compensation and an end to forcible land acquisition will be upheld. I wonder if there will be an improvement in the protection of farmland against industrialisation. The book is published by Pluto Press later this month.

Yours in solidarity,

Rose Bridger

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Komo - the Forgotten Landslide

This Google Map of Komo airstrip, in the southern highlands of Papua New Guinea, is way out of date. The map shows the airstrip in the centre, a short runway only about 1 kilometre in length. But the runway is a lot bigger now. It is the longest runway in the whole country, longer than the runway of the country’s main airport, Jacksons, at Port Moresby. At 3.2 kilometres long and 45 metres wide it is comparable to a major international airport.

The upgraded airfield will not serve a new mass tourism destination. Residents of the nearby town of Tari and surrounding villages will not by flying off on holiday. Komo is a cargo airport. It was built to accommodate the Antonov An-124, the world's second largest cargo aircraft with capacity for 140 tonnes. The An-124's 73.3 metre wingspan is longer than that of a Boeing 747. Komo airfield was upgraded specifically to serve the ExxonMobil led PNG PNG (liquefied natural gas) project, for delivery of heavyweight equipment to the Hides Gas Conditioning Plant, located 10 kilometres away. PNG LNG is one of the world’s largest LNG projects, an investment of about $16 billion. It is anticipated that over 250 billion cubic meters of gas will be produced. The mountainous terrain means that convoys of trucks take several hours to reach PNG LNG project sites. Highways are steep, narrow and in poor condition. The upgraded Komo airfield speeds up delivery of equipment as PNG LNG approaches its 2014 target date to commence production.

The first Antonov-An-124 flight loaded with equipment for PNG LNG landed at Komo airfield on 3rd May 2013. Flights only cover a short distance, from Port Moresby, and are only planned for a six month period. Flights are only conducted during daylight hours because of the high altitude, at an elevation of 1,475 metres, and frequent fog conditions impeding visibility.

The Komo airfield project required the moving of 10 million cubic metres of earth. Aggregate came from a limestone quarry located high up the steep slope of Gigira mountain. As the airfield was under construction, early in the morning of 24 January of 2012, a chunk of the top of Gigira mountain, from the area immediately to the northwest of the quarry, cascaded downwards. Mud and limestone slabs obliterated the villages of Tumbi and Tumbiago and partially covered the quarry. The 1 kilometre long landslide, consisting of 3 million cubic metres of earth, was one of the worst ever recorded in the country. At least 25 people were buried under the debris. The Red Cross said the death toll could have been as high as 60.

Stanley Mamu, who monitors the PNG LNG project on the blog LNGWatch, was quick to raise the alarm over the response to the landslide. As crucial evidence was lost, a hasty investigation by Papua New Guinea's National Disaster Committee (NDC) identified heavy rainfall as the trigger. But there had been no reports of unusually heavy rain. The villages had been inhabited for 6,000 years, with no previous problem with geological instability. Some community leaders were consulted in the investigation, but not the majority of landowners, and not the surviving relatives of the victims. Villagers’ testimony that blasting has been used at the quarry was denied by ExxonMobil. Landowners thought that the quarry might have loosened the ground, and the flow of two rivers had been blocked, which might have led to a build up of water pressure that eventually gave way. The landslide cannot be dismissed as a ‘natural disaster’. The quarry might have been a contributory factor. The very next day, work resumed in the area and ExxonMobil assured investors that the landslide would not lead to a delay in meeting the target production date.

At the Landslide Blog, Dave Petley, Professor of Hazard and Risk at Durham University, stressed the need for a thorough, independent investigation by an experienced team. He was amazed that the mainstream media did not pursue the matter. The BBC did not follow up after its initial report of the disaster. Catherine Wilson's report for IPS News documented an alarming disregard for the survivors. Proceeding with the LNG project took precedence over helping victims. By 9 March, 3,000 people were in temporary shelters in close proximity to the landslide. Humanitarian aid to victims had not been released. Effort was focused on clearing the road to resume the airfield construction. Bereaved relatives claimed that they were 'placed under duress with threats of repercussions' should they attempt to obstruct clearance of the road so that it could be re-opened. Most of the bodies were not recovered. Homeless people, still with no state assistance, watched as the road was bulldozed on top of the remains of villages and buried bodies.

Dr. Kristian Lasslett of Ulster University, Papua New Guinea Coordinator for the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) was critical of the government response and the investigation. Analysis by natural scientists is insufficient because 'complex social factors mediate these types of events'. Political, social and economic factors make populations more vulnerable to geophysical and climatic hazards. The PNG government's disregard of  local people's intimate knowledge of the landscape and observations of the impacts of the LNG project was unsurprising: 'Too often in Papua New Guinea local knowledge is ignored'. Moreover, the government failed to act as an effective regulator, instead undertaking the role of a business partner supporting ExxonMobil and its contractors. The response to the landslide was just one instance of this perversion of the role of government, which dates back two decades.

In September 2012, ISCI published a report on the landslide, ‘The Forgotten Disaster: Outstanding Issues Arising from the Tumbi Landslide’, with input from Stanley Mamu and Catherine Wilson and testimony from eyewitnesses. The NDC investigation was compromised by collaboration with ExxonMobil and protecting the firm from scrutiny. Examination of documentation uncovered the fact that the project's own Independent Environmental and Social Consultant (ISEC) had flagged up failing safety precautions and risk assessment at the quarry, stating that ‘the Project has circumvented correct procedures in the interests of schedule', driven by the pressure to meet the 2014 target date for starting LNG production. Risk assessment should have factored in any landslide risk from heavy rainfall and geological instability inherent to the area. Any fragility in the surface features of the quarry and surrounding area, making it liable to give way in the event of heavy rainfall, should have been picked up. Dave Petley stated that: ‘My working hypothesis, which needs to be tested, it that the quarry played a role in increasing the increased susceptibility of the slope to failure’.

It was not the first time that unstable ground had led to an accident at the PNG LNG project. A contractor at the Komo airfield site was buried alive in November 2011, when a trench collapsed. There was another fatality on the Komo site less than a month after the landslide, in February 2012. A contractor was run over by a front-end loader. Alertness to the risks of unstable ground should have been raised by a previous mudslide, in November 2010. A dump site blocked water which resulted in overflow of mud from the gas conditioning plant construction site. Mud flowed more than 4 kilometres along Akara Creek. Fish were killed and villagers had to be provided with a fresh water supply.

An independent inquiry into the landslide which destroyed Tumbi and Tumbiago was promised, but never took place. By December 2012 Kristian Lasslett reported that there was not even a memorial plaque honouring the victims. But another major landslide, at the Komo airfield, site marked the anniversary, almost to the day. On 28 January 2013, shortly before the enlarged airfield was scheduled to open, between 5,000 and 7,000 cubic metres of earth material slipped from an area of the airfield under construction. Fortunately no injuries were reported.

An interview with Steve Coll, on Democracy Now,  looks at the Exxon Mobil's level of influence in US politics, taking advantage of melting ice to advance oil exploration north of the Arctic Circle and attempts by 11 villagers in Aceh, Indonesia, to sue the firm for alleged human rights abuses, dating back to 2001. Part two of the interview explores Exxon Mobil's role as a 'corporate state within the American state' and operations in the Niger Delta and Chad. For more information about ExxonMobil's global operations check out Steve Coll's book Private Empire.


free counters