Among the most challenging long-term barriers to agricultural production and sustainability in Africa is poor and degrading soil quality.
According to “Agricultural success from Africa: the case of fertilizer tree systems in southern Africa (Malawi, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe),” a report from the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, simple “Fertilizer Tree Systems” (FTS) can double maize (corn) production in soil that is low in nitrogen, an essential plant nutrient.
A type of agroforestry, FTS incorporate nitrogen-fixing trees and shrubs into agricultural fields, usually inter-planted with food crops. These trees take in atmospheric nitrogen and return it to the soil, where it serves as a nutrient for plants.
Soil analyses by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and others in the 1980s revealed nitrogen to be a limiting factor in many African soils. In response, on-farm studies in the 1990s showed that FTS, with the right species, could increase crop yields with or without mineral fertilizers.
FTS are much cheaper for farmers to implement than buying fertilizer and represent a more holistic approach to soil management. FTS scaling-up programs were broadly implemented about 10 years ago, and in that time the number of small farmers using these techniques has ballooned from a few hundred to more than 250,000 in Malawi, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
FTS have proven most effective for small farmers who are able to devote the necessary labor and land more easily than raise the money needed for commercial fertilizer. By relying on naturally occurring systems rather than imports, agroforestry improves food security, bolsters biodiversity, and reinforces local economies.
The introduction of a wider variety of plants to fields, for example, has been shown to increase diversity of the local ecosystem, which further augments the soil.
According to the report, FTS have generally been successful, but they are subject to regional variation. Some areas have found more suitable native nitrogen-fixers than others, and many regions have had little or no research to identify the best plants to use.
The report also stresses that FTS do not provide all nutrients required by crops, so external inputs are frequently necessary to boost phosphorus and potassium. However, as nitrogen has been shown to be a limiting nutrient in much of southern Africa, sustainable production can be improved through the use of FTS, even without other fertilizers.
Farmers in southern Africa have shown themselves keen to embrace new innovations, like the FTS programs. As research and training continue, more small farmers will be able to produce more food in sustainable ways.
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Nyla Rodgers is one charity official who is fed up with the way nonprofits represent Africa. Too often she sees depictions of AIDS, warfare, famine, hopelessness, desperation, and dependence on a Western hero.
That kind of concern came to the surface when she saw the “Kony 2012” campaign by the advocacy group Invisible Children.
“When I saw the Kony campaign, it made me so mad,” says Ms. Rodgers, founding director of Mama Hope, a San Francisco charity that works in Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda to start farms and build schools, health centers, and other facilities that strengthen communities.
But long before that campaign, her charity started working to create new perceptions of Africa and to show that it is full of capable people with the potential to support themselves. Her nonprofit has released three videos over the past year as part of its “Stop the Pity” campaign, using humor to create a new conversation about the continent and humanize the people who live there.
In the first, published in February 2011, a 9-year-old African boy explains in detail the plot of his favorite movie, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Commando.” In another, Americans and Africans sing along to Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al.”
The video, released on Wednesday, received more than 250,000 views on YouTube in its first day online. Ms. Rodgers takes that as a sign people are ready for a new image of Africa.
“Using images that people can relate to, showing people not at their worst but at their full potential, with creativity, is just as effective,” Ms. Rodgers said.
Donors so expect to see a tragic story from Africa that many people who watched the “Commando” video assumed at first that the boy was a child soldier, Ms. Rodgers said. But as the video continues, it becomes clear that the piece is merely about a 9-year-old boy’s love for his favorite movie.
Ms. Rodgers has faced criticism for showing only relatively wealthy, happy African people in the charity’s videos. But Bernard, a man featured in the “Hollywood Stereotypes” video, was an orphan originally sponsored by Ms. Rodgers’s late mother, who inspired the founding of Mama Hope. His story shows the power of what people can do when they get an education, Ms. Rodgers says.
Ultimately, Ms. Rodgers said she believes the perceptions Americans have about Africa will be shaped by what nonprofits say. Too often, she says, charities figure images of desperation will attract more gifts. But that’s not helping anyone, she says.
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It wasn’t until two years after construction began on the controversial Gibe III dam on the Omo River in Ethiopia that Ikal Angelei learned about the project. She soon realized, however, what the massive project would mean for hundreds of thousands of indigenous Ethiopians and Kenyans who rely on the waters of Lake Turkana, the world’s largest permanent desert lake, which is located downstream.
While the Ethiopian government claims the Gibe III will provide badly needed electricity to one of Africa’s poorest regions, Angelei, a 31-year-old Kenyan who grew up in the Lake Turkana Basin, says it would come at a steep price. The dam – which would be the world’s fourth-largest – is expected to cause the lake’s water level to drop by as much as 33 feet, a shift that would not only devastate fish stocks but trigger increased conflict in a region already troubled by violence over dwindling water resources.
Outraged that the massive dam project was being planned without any input from local communities – and without a comprehensive study into the long-term ecological and social costs – Angelei founded the Friends of Lake Turkana in 2009. In an interview with Yale Environment 360 contributor Christina M. Russo, Angelei describes why the Gibe III project threatens the very survival of the region’s indigenous tribes, what it will take it to stop it, and how she has used public pressure and social media to galvanize local and international opposition to the dam.
“If we let go and say, ‘Build the dam,’ it means we are saying that accountability doesn’t account for anything in this world, and [that] governments can destroy environments and destroy ecosystems in the name of development,” said Angelei, who this month received a 2012 Goldman Environmental Prize.
Yale Environment 360: I wanted to ask you first about Lake Turkana. As the largest desert lake in the world, the area around it is quite harsh – and yet the lake appears to be very soft and beckoning.
Ikal Angelei: The region itself is very harsh. But when you go to the lake and you hear the waves, and you just see the moving of the water.... it is unimaginable. In this very harsh area, you get this cold, nice water. It is just amazing. As you are driving – from the eastern shores or from the western shores – the lake is almost like a mirage. And as you come nearer and nearer, you just see a mass of water. For me, years later, despite being brought up there, that moment is still a magical feeling.
e360: You’ve written that “more than a quarter-million residents from at least 10 tribes have become masters at wresting sustenance from the harsh landscape.” What communities live in the Lake Turkana area?
Angelei: The indigenous communities around the lake include Samburu, El Molo, Turkana, Rendille, Gabra, and Dassanach – they are in Kenya. When you go into Ethiopia you have the Dassanach of Ethiopia, the Mursi, Nyangatom, Bodi, Hamar...
e360: Before the founding of Friends of Lake Turkana did the communities interact?
Angelei: Actually before the project they were isolated, but it was seasonally based. If you understand the conflicts around the region, we are in conflict about resources.... The identity of the people is the lake. Even if you are trying to look geographically at where they are located, one will say “western shores” or “eastern shores” of the lake.
Economically, because of the changes in climate coupled with the harsh, extreme nature of the climate, people are looking at fishing – not to substitute but to complement pastoralism. So communities who are naturally not fishermen are now going into fishing.
In terms of the water table in the region – it is a dry area. So we really depend on groundwater, because we can’t depend on the rainfall.... With the lake receding, the water table of the lake goes down. It dramatically affects the groundwater across the basin. So even people who are not naturally fishermen or directly depend on the lake, they depend on the groundwater for survival.
The very basic [threat] is that the ecosystem of the lake will change because of the dam project. If you have a reduced inflow from the river you will change the chemical balance of the lake. One, it is going to make the water more saline, so you cannot use it for human or animal consumption. The fish may not be able to sustain themselves in that water, because it becomes too acidic for them. And with the flow downstream of the Omo River, that’s what determines the spawning and the breeding of fish.
e360: Why will the absence of the natural flooding process have such devastating affects on the communities?
Angelei: People always say, “Oh, we are controlling the flooding.” But you cannot alter nature; you cannot fight nature... Lake Turkana doesn’t have an outlet; it is a closed lake. So it depends on that balance of inflow versus evaporation. If you reduce that inflow, the level of evaporation increases. Once you have altered the balance of the lake, you have damaged the ecosystem completely.
They want to let the water flow in the minimum amount downstream. But that totally destroys the way people are living. When we leave the natural flow of the river, it spreads across into areas that are within the Turkana basin. That allows for pasture to grow where various communities are grazing. When you alter that, and water doesn’t flood the region, then communities start to move to where these resources are available, which puts more pressure not only on the environment, it creates more conflict over the scarce resources that are available.
The same [threat] exists in Ethiopia — we cannot ignore that this is an area where communities are also struggling for resources. The communities live a way of life that is like a typical African three-legged stool. They depend on subsistence farming; they depend on fishing; and they depend on pastoralism. If you reduce the floods, it damages their subsistence farming, which is very key to their normal way of life... If you remove one leg, the stool really cannot balance.
e360: The dam construction began in 2006. But you didn’t hear about it immediately. How did you come to understand the project had begun?
Angelei: In late 2008, that is when I met [anthropologist] Richard Leakey. And while interacting with him and starting to work with him at the Turkana Basin Institute, he came up to me one time and gave me a document that he had just received. The document indicated there was a dam being constructed, and a group of scientists and researchers had looked at what was said to be an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) that had just been released — and those scientists and researchers were questioning the facts [about the report].
e360: You had no idea about it until then?
Angelei: No idea about it. And Leakey said, “Yes, even I have just been informed about it.” So I quickly started to talk to my members of parliament to find out if they knew about it. That is when we realized that neither the parliamentarians that represent the region nor the local communities knew about the project.
e360: Did you think this was intentional?
Angelei: We believed it was intentional. Later on, we read in the newspapers that some government officials knew about it. And that’s when we knew that, for them, it was a matter of energy versus the life of people.
e360: How is Kenya supposed to benefit from this dam?
e360: After your discovery about the dam, you launched Friends of Lake Turkana.
Angelei: We officially formed the Friends of Lake Turkana in 2009 because we realized we needed to have a legal body. At first, the other citizens of Kenya — who had very little information about Lake Turkana — just thought we were making noise. Most of them were looking at it as, “We need energy; we are tired of blackouts.” Which was reasonable. And we recognize the efforts of both the Kenyan and Ethiopian governments to source for energy development. But for us, it has always been: At what expense? And what alternatives do we have?
It seemed that originally more people did not know about the project than did. In Kenya, when there is a lot of hiding, we start to suspect something. So people started to question: Why is the government hiding something?
e360: So now what is Kenya’s position on the project?
Angelei: It is quite divided. Half the ministers believe that this project should be stopped. The parliament has passed a motion asking the government to ask for a halt in the project unless a comprehensive and independent Environmental Impact Assessment is done — and an environmental social impact is undertaken. Not only on the dam but also the greater Omo basin.
But our president, our prime minister, and the minister of energy keep insisting that the project should go on. So, then we started to wonder what politics is being played here.
e360: If Kenya decided to halt support for it, would the project stop altogether?
Angelei: I don’t think it could go on without Kenya’s support because the viability of this project is based on Kenya’s purchase [of electricity]. Ethiopia has already enough domestic energy — it has the Gibe I and Gibe II dams, which are sufficient for Ethiopia.
e360: Now the project has been criticized by your organization for not abiding by appropriate international and domestic protocol, including criticisms of the bidding process What has transpired that has made some major organizations back away from supporting the project?
Angelei: For a project this big that seeks international funding — which is basically taxpayer money from all these countries — you have to go through an open, public bidding process. This project did not go through that.
Salini [the Italy-based contractor] approached Ethiopia — and the company was given a direct bid. So the fact is that one company was given a contract of such large magnitude, without advertising and without letting others bid for the project.
e360: You think of this project as a human rights abuse as well as an environmental abuse?
Angelei: Yes, I think it is a human rights abuse and an environmental abuse. You cannot say “development” is telling people that your way of life doesn’t work anymore. People have to develop in the way they see fit. If I don’t want to drive, it doesn’t mean I’m not developed. It means I am living my life in the way I see fit, as long as I am able to achieve my spiritual and basic needs.
e360: Do you think all of Kenya wants to fight to protect Lake Turkana, or do you feel this battle is very isolated?
Angelei: A greater part of Kenya appreciates the importance of environments, and how people live. But there are always the ignorant few who you meet along with way — who for them, having the electricity to play their music, and having lights and not having blackouts is more of a priority than communities and the way of life.
e360: Are you getting more support since your campaign began?
Angelei: Yes. Most people just didn’t understand what the issue was. But with a lot of media coverage and a lot of open discussions and with a lot of information on the website and using social media, there is a lot more interest. And especially after a couple of raids in the region, where we lost about 124 people, Turkana especially... it brought a clear picture of conflict over resources and conflict over water.
e360: Who is mainly in conflict with each other in the area?
Angelei: There’s conflict between the Turkana and Dassanach in Kenya, and the Turkana and the Dassanach across the border... People used to talk about traditional raids. It’s no longer that. People are now well armed and it depends on who has more bullets than the other.
e360: Are the communities in the Lower Omo Valley facing similar issues as you are at Lake Turkana?
Angelei: More or less, they have similar issues. But I think they are more pressured now. They have more pressure on their resources because land is being grabbed for sugarcane plantations and cotton plantations.
e360: I read a report by Survival International that says Ethiopia plans to resettle tribes which “stand in the way” of development plans related to the Gibe III dam. Is this really happening?
Angelei: Yes it is happening. Communities are being forced out of their lands... The government of Ethiopia is coming into the region and forcing communities out, because they have vast land — that’s what allows them to have these lives, to be pastoralists, fish, subsistence farming. So they are being pushed into something like concentration camps — where they are told they will be given education, schools, health care. And then their land is being taken and in turn given to international companies from India, Malaysia, and more developing countries to produce sugar cane, cotton, etc.
e360: What is the Friends of Lake Turkana’s ultimate goal?
Angelei: For us, this campaign will set a precedent. If we let go and say, “Build the dam,” it means we are saying that accountability doesn’t account for anything in this world, and [that] governments can destroy environments and destroy ecosystems in the name of development. So our big goal is to push for a comprehensive, independent environmental and social impact assessments of the entire basin, which would allow us to understand what opportunities we have; what challenges we have, how fragile this ecosystem is; and what sort of development can be done there. And it would allow the communities to be part of this discussion.
e360: To be clear: If this dam project continues, you feel very strongly that people are going to die.
Angelei: Definitely. It’s water. The other day, in Turkana, they discovered oil. The only thing that the local people were saying is: Why can’t you ever discover water?
There’s absolutely no way that dam can go on and the people in Turkana will survive. If it’s not directly, then they’ll kill each other, one by one. People will be fighting every day because it is the only way of survival now. We have very scarce resources. We have very little water. So who will control the water? It will be the strongest person.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christina M. Russo, who conducted this interview for Yale Environment 360, is a freelance public radio producer who has worked at WBUR in Boston and KQED in San Francisco. In 2009, she reported and co-produced a nationally syndicated public radio documentary examining the state of American zoos, called “From Cages to Conservation.”
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Local charities and nonprofits are looking for a few good baby boomers – well, lots of them, actually – to roll up their sleeves to help local schools, soup kitchens, and others in need.
Boomers are attractive volunteers, and it's not just the sheer strength of their numbers – 77 million. They are living longer. They are more educated than previous generations. And, especially appealing: They bring well-honed skills and years of real-world work and life experience.
"This generation, this cohort of Americans, is the healthiest, best-educated generation of Americans across this traditional age of retirement," says Dr. Erwin Tan, who heads the Senior Corps program at the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), a federal agency in Washington. "The question for us is how can we as a country not afford to mobilize this huge source of human capital to meet the vital needs of our communities."
Dr. Tan says nonprofits are retooling to attract more boomers by offering a variety of skills-based opportunities as well as more flexibility, such as nontraditional hours or projects that don't require a trip to the office and can be completed at home.
Mr. Carr retired about a year ago as an accountant for Verizon Communications. Instead of golfing or parking himself on the couch, he volunteers with low-income people and military families, helping them prepare and file their tax returns.
Carr also volunteers as treasurer for a church group and helps people with paperwork for food stamps and unemployment.
"There's so much in the news today that's very negative, and a lot of it I can't do a whole lot about," Carr says. "But at least here in the community that I live in, there are some things that I can do to help others."
About a third of boomers, ages 48 to 66 years, tend to gravitate toward opportunities with a religious underpinning, according to CNCS figures. That was followed by volunteer opportunities in education, 22 percent; social service, 14 percent; and hospitals, 8 percent.
The percentage of boomers volunteering these days, however, is on the decline.
Nearly 22 million baby boomers gave their time in communities across the country in 2010. That's about 28.8 percent of boomers, down slightly from 29.9 percent in 2007 and from 33.5 percent in 2003, according to the community service corporation.
"What I think we're seeing is baby boomers coming out of the period of peak volunteering," says Nathan Dietz, former associate director of research at CNCS and now a senior program manager with the Partnership for Public Service. "They are getting older, and people as they get older volunteer a little less often."
Peak age for volunteering tends to be in the mid-30s and 40s, Mr. Dietz says, when married couples and those with children are more likely to be exposed to situations in which people need volunteers – say, coaching for a child's soccer team or giving time to local scouts or schoolchildren as a mentor or group leader.
Many boomers are also delaying retirement and working into their golden years because their nest eggs have taken a hit in the last few years, giving them less time to volunteer.
An August 2011 Associated Press-National Constitution Center Poll found that 65 percent of baby boomers had done some type of volunteer activities through or for an organization over the past year. That is significantly less than adults younger than boomers. The top reasons baby boomers did not volunteer in the past year were not having the time, 69 percent, and health issues or physical limitations, 19 percent.
"We all have to give back," says Ms. Herrala, who retired four years ago from her longtime job recruiting volunteers for Marquette County. "A part of paying for our spot on Earth is to help those who need help."
Herrala is volunteering as part of an American Red Cross team dispatched to disasters. She also now has time to turn to a great passion of hers: health care.
Herrala says she's seen too many people in desperate need of health care, so she began volunteering with a program called the Medical Care Access Coalition. It provides medical care to low-income people without insurance.
One experience Herrala says she'll never forget was the day a woman without dental care came to her with dentures that didn't fit properly. Every time the woman needed to talk, she had to take out her teeth so she could speak. Herrala tried to help her find a dentist.
"It gives me a sense of satisfaction knowing you can do something to help someone else," Herrala says.
• Associated Press News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.
Do you love your neighborhood? Or do you dream about moving away?
When I was younger, my neighborhood was my life. My family didn't have much money, so it wasn't a white-picket-fence, manicured-lawn type of neighborhood, but to me, it was home. I knew every tree and crack in the pavement. The other kids who lived there were my built-in community, and we spent every possible minute playing outside together.
Fast forward 20 years, and I can't tell you the last time I had a conversation with a neighbor. In fact, I don't know a single one of them by their first name.
I use my busy life as an excuse, but the truth is, we're just not as invested in our neighborhoods as we used to be. We may complain about things like potholes, vacant lots, and a lack of bike lanes, but do we take action? Rarely. Often, we wait for the local government to solve these problems for us, and when they don't, we complain some more. All the while, we're drifting farther away from those neighborly connections that used to be so important.
Neighborland, a New Orleans-based start up focused on citizen participation and city planning, hopes that its unique twist on social networking will help bring people back together.
By signing up for an Neighborland account, people can share ideas and insights for their city, support ideas suggested by their neighbors, and connect with people who share similar interests. It all starts by answering a simple question: "I want ____ in my neighborhood."
Once an idea has gathered some steam, the Neighborland community identifies achievable goals and fuels a discussion about how to accomplish them. "We are providing residents, neighborhood organizations, economic development groups, and municipalities with a powerfully simple platform to connect and make good things happen," writes the team. "A healthy neighborhood is a connected neighborhood."
Since Neighborland was born in New Orleans, it got to test its concept in the parishes of the Big Easy. Community groups already working on important neighborhood improvement projects found it a useful tool for collecting support and making public leaders aware of the community's desires. In the last few months, Neighborland has helped New Orleans citizens demonstrate broad public support for Open Data, extending the streetcar, and the reform of Food Truck laws.
Neighborland also has huge potential for opening lines of communication between city planners and the people who actually live in the neighborhoods they're working on. Instead leaving each party to wonder what the other is thinking, Neighborland provides an easy-to-use online platform that encourages citizen participation and an open exchange of ideas.
"We want to bring more people into the development process, help them understand it, and work with community and municipal leaders to make better places," said co-founders Dan Parham, Tee Parham, and Candy Chang. "Our job is to connect residents with the resources they need to make their ideas happen."
The young company is currently operational in three cities: Boulder, Colo.; Houston; and New Orleans, with plans to add at least 17 more over the next year. Currently, the company is funded by an Urban Innovation Challenge from Tulane University and the Rockefeller Foundation, but it is actively seeking community partners, from passionate nonprofit and economic development groups to redevelopment projects, or city governments. Those interested in bringing Neighborland to their city should contact the company directly.
A while back, Dowser wrote about Bellingham, Wash., a town that is consciously developing its local economy in order to withstand the global recession. Across the world, communities are forming around principles of sustainable, locally based living, with awareness that natural resources – like oil – are finite, and an understanding that sustainability is more than a choice in a grocery store; it’s a way of life.
One example of such communities is the Transition Towns Network. This global network is focused on transitioning out of a reliance on increasingly less cheap petroleum. Resilience, according to Transition Town philosophy, is one step further than sustainability – it asks us not only to change what we consume or reduce our impact on the planet, but to actually prepare ourselves for a radically different system of production and consumption. The key is self-sufficiency.
There are now 320 Transition Town initiatives in 14 countries, according to a video made by Rob Hopkins, an ecological designer who founded the Network in 2005. In most cases, the towns in the Network engaged in specific initiatives and workshops, as well as potluck events and meetings where people can connect around issues related to resilience – such as neighborhood leadership, permaculture, or alternative currency.
Arguably, much of what goes on in the Transition Network is happening already, in cities everywhere: urban agriculture, crowdfunding, and other kinds of social enterprises are aligned with principles of resilience. But the Transition Network offers a support base, as well as a handbook to the Transition Town design model, a 12-step guide to organizing a community toward nonreliance on oil.
Los Angeles resident Joanne Poyourow was already focused on the oil question and the problem of climate change when she first learned about Rob Hopkins and Transition Towns in 2004. In December of 2008, trainers from Britain’s Transition Town movement came to Los Angeles, and, Poyourow told Dowser, she and others in L.A. “embraced the Transition Town branding onto what we were already doing." By linking up with the network, they created more name recognition for their work.
“People read about Transition Towns in the news and they say, oh wow, I wonder if that's going on around here, and the name helps them find it where they are,” explained Poyourow. “[Transition Towns] have developed resources that help with communication within and across groups. Within the network, ideas spread about events and initiatives.”
The L.A. Transition Town branch is now focused on food-growing initiatives – community gardening above all, and lawn renewal. They are also launching a monthly discussion series focused on creating social enterprises that help with transitioning away from oil. Additionally, there is discussion about the health-care industry: “Our health-care system is very dependent on oil – extractions of medicine, high-powered surgery – so we are looking at what kinds of medicines are more sustainable and how we can connect people with those. The mainstream says 'alternative practitioners,' but we've identified them as low-impact,” said Poyourow.
L.A.’s branch operates with very little funding. While elsewhere, Transition Town initiatives are formalized into 501 C-3s, the L.A. group sees advantages to avoiding that.
“Nonprofits are not always a sustainable model – relying on grants in these times can be difficult. We've been saying, how much can we do with next-to-nothing? The answer is a lot: So we do things in partnership with local organizations, creating coalitions, and receiving in-kind donations, too," explained Poyourow.
The partnership-based, low-budget approach that L.A. Transition Town is undertaking echoes the work of sociologist Juliet Schor, author of Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth (2009). Schor argues that the US financial collapse in 2008 signals the end of growth-based capitalism. She sees this as the beginning of a new economy (“plenitude,” she dubs it), where people invest time and energy in local production and social networks.
On the East Coast, Tina Clarke became involved in Transition Towns after many decades working as an activist focused on environmental racism and poverty. Her efforts now are directed toward bringing low-income communities of color in inner-city Pittsburgh and New Haven, Conn., into the network. She is doing this by leading workshops, alongside her co-trainer Fred Brown in Pittsburgh. When Clarke and Brown led their first workshop in Pittsburgh, they expected no more than 15 people to attend. But they were in for a surprise.
“These people don't have jobs, they're losing their homes, there's gang violence – but 52 people came to our workshop,” Clarke told Dowser. “And they really understand what transition is all about. They know what it's like to be on the dirty side of the industrial economy because the trash gets dumped in their neighborhoods.”
The workshop focused on relationship-building and practical actions, and Brown and Clarke were blown away at how enthusiastic the participants were.
“You have to take everyone's needs into account if you're going to have a transition. And there's no top-down enforcement of this idea, but people believe in inclusion. And in this country, you can't do that without going to the most low-income communities and thinking about what rising oil prices mean to them,” said Clarke.
Coming up, the Transition Town Network is offering a “Spring of Sustainability,” a three-month, free online event packed with webinars on creating a more sustainable world.
Another example of an innovative, community-based approach to sustainability is Project Nuevo Mundo. This project is a collection of eco-villages based in Central America, with hopes to expand globally, where participants can learn skills such as permaculture that they bring back to their home communities and share with others.
Sean Penn no longer lives in a tent, surrounded by some 40,000 desperate people camped on a muddy golf course. And he no longer rushes about the capital with a Glock pistol tucked in his waistband, hefting bags of donated rice and warning darkly of a worsening humanitarian crisis.
But the actor who stormed onto the scene of one of the worst natural disasters in history has certainly not lost interest. Defying skeptics, he has put down roots in Haiti, a country he hadn't even visited before the January 2010 earthquake, and has become a major figure in the effort to rebuild.
"At the beginning, we thought he was going to be like one of the celebrities who don't spend the night," said Maryse Kedar, president of an education foundation who has worked alongside Penn. "I can tell you that Sean surprised a lot of people here. Haiti became his second home."
Penn's role has evolved over the two years of Haiti's meandering recovery. He started as the head of a band of volunteers, morphed into the unofficial mayor of the golf course-turned-homeless camp, and became a member of what passes for Haiti's establishment – a part of the president's circle who addresses investors at aid conferences and represents this tumbledown Caribbean country to the world.
He is now an ambassador-at-large for President Michel Martelly, the first non-Haitian to receive the designation, and the CEO of the J/P Haitian Relief Organization, a rapidly growing and increasingly prominent aid group. The actor, who is being honored for his work in Haiti April 25 with the 2012 Peace Summit Award at the 12th World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in Chicago, has yoked himself to an unlikely cause: helping a country that has lurched from one calamity to another.
"This country is finally getting out of the hole," he said in an interview with The Associated Press at a house in the Haitian capital that serves as his NGO's crash pad, with rooms divided by plywood and a sign in the kitchen saying no seconds until everyone has had a chance to eat.
It's strange to see a celebrity of his stature in these surroundings. He brings glamor to a country that has none, where the streets are largely dirt and most people don't have indoor plumbing, not to mention any kind of steady job. His leftist politics don't seem like a match for right-of-center President Martelly, and his leadership of an aid group partially funded by the United Nations doesn't square with his contempt for foreign NGOs. His salty language is not exactly diplomatic.
But maybe there is a kind of weird logic to Penn's adventure in Haiti. He is an actor whose most famous roles are underdogs and whose politics frequently put him at odds with the US government, embracing the likes of Venezuela's socialist President Hugo Chavez. Haiti is a land of contrasts and contradictions, a poor country in the shadow of the United States, a place of inspiration and despair.
Or maybe he just wanted to help, says Bichat Laroque, a 26-year-old who lives with his mother in the displaced persons camp managed by Penn's NGO: "He married Madonna and he made a lot of money, and after a terrible earthquake he says, 'Let's do good things in Haiti.'"
When not at home in Los Angeles, Penn spends about half his time in Haiti, and public sightings are common. On a recent morning at the camp his group manages, at the Petionville Club, he lumbered through wearing faded jeans, a plaid button-down shirt and aviator sunglasses, greeted by residents in English ("Sean, my friend!") and Creole ("Bonjou, Sean!")
He sat down on the terrace of the house overlooking the tarp-covered shanties and talked for more than an hour because the subject was Haiti, a topic he riffs on with a passionate, sometimes rambling intensity, sprinkled with the obscenities. When it comes to the mission of his outfit, he veers toward grandiose, even choking up at times.
"My job is to help people get the future they want to have," he said.
The Haiti that Penn saw when he arrived in the country for the first time, about a week after the earthquake, was apocalyptic, a tableau of death and destruction that shocked the world.
Port-au-Prince, the densely packed capital with an estimated 3 million people, was shaken by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010, which flattened thousands of schools filled with students and offices filled with workers. Officials estimated the death toll at more than 300,000, an equal number injured, and at least 1.5 million homeless. The government was crippled; aid groups were swamped.
Benjamin Krause, the country director for Penn's group, said the quake resonated with the actor in part because his son, Hopper, had recently recovered from a skateboarding accident that caused a serious head injury.
"Sean turns on the television and sees parents next to children holding their hands as they are having surgeries in the streets with no pain medication whatsoever," he said. "It moved him to call up all the people he could to get pain medication lined up and as many medical professionals as possible."
He also may have been in search of a cause. A 2010 Vanity Fair profile suggested as much, saying he had been rudderless, despite his movie success, following the death of his brother, Chris, in 2006 and the divorce from Robin Wright Penn in 2009.
Penn and Diana Jenkins, a Southern California philanthropist, put together a planeload of supplies and volunteers – seven doctors and 23 relief workers. They called themselves the Jenkins/Penn Haitian Relief Organization, which changed to J/P HRO after her involvement waned.
The actor, who carried a gun in the chaotic early days, landed with his coterie at the Petionville Club, where they found a contingent from the US Army's 82nd Airborne Division. Penn embedded with the military, and his involvement grew from there.
He soon started showing up at meetings of aid officials trying to coordinate the disparate relief efforts. "He would sit down like everyone else and listen," said Giovanni Cassani of the International Organization for Migration.
Former U. President Bill Clinton, a UN special envoy to Haiti, was among those impressed with Penn's efforts.
"He was not a drive-by celebrity," Clinton said in a recent interview. "He went into those camps and he was actually solving their water problems, solving their sanitation problems."
J/P HRO now operates out of airy office space in a former school, has a fleet of trucks and heavy equipment, a staff of 300, and hires so many laborers to clear rubble that on some days it's the largest employer in Petionville, one of several cities that make up the capital region.
The irony is that Penn has been a critic of foreign nongovernmental organizations in Haiti, so plentiful that the country has been ridiculed as the "Republic of NGOs."
He still tells the story of a "very reputable" NGO whose actions after the quake were "akin to the worst of Hollywood ambition." Penn's group had donated a shipment of painkillers, but distribution was delayed, he said, so the organization that would hand out the drugs could affix stickers on the boxes and get credit.
"What's wrong with NGOs goes much deeper in terms of development and in terms of emergency relief and the lack of coordination of the two," Penn said. "Everybody waits for somebody to demonstrate that something's going to be impressive to donors to steal the idea from the person that actually did it and then try to sell it as their thing until that gains or loses popularity."
He ridiculed what he sees as the typical "NGO person" or "UN person" as out of touch and ineffective. "It's Lance Armstrong on a stationary bike saying, 'I'll get there as soon as the corruption is over,' " he said.
Penn and his staff say their mission evolved as new challenges surfaced. They started managing the camp, then took over the clinic when the Army pulled out, and did the same with the schools, allowing other groups, including Save the Children, to focus elsewhere.
To move people off the club's steeply sloping golf course and make room for them outside the camp, they cleared 250,000 cubic meters (8.8 million cubic feet) of rubble, provided rental assistance, repaired damaged homes, and subsidized a local bakery to create jobs. Outside the country club, they run a community center and two clinics, treating 2,000 patients a week, and are building a new school.
"I always describe us an airplane that built itself after takeoff," Penn said.
In the camp, conditions have improved. There are about 18,000 still on the golf course and nearby property, down more than half from the peak. There is a police substation and the classrooms are clean and orderly. The club's putting green and tennis courts have reopened.
J/P HRO's budget has swelled from $200,000 a month in early 2011 to more than $1 million a month today, said Krause. The bulk comes from grants and contracts that include $6.2 million from the UN for rubble removal and demolition; $2.25 million from the World Bank; and a USAID subcontract worth $1.5 million.
Asked if Penn can't just write a check, Krause laughed. "I have no idea how much money Sean has," he said. "But suffice it to say that if we are spending more than a million dollars every month we would bankrupt Sean very quickly."
Penn and J/P HRO have a good reputation in Haiti, but there have been bumps. He was criticized for encouraging thousands of people from his camp to move to Corail-Cesselesse, a desolate field about 15 kilometers (10 miles) north of Port-au-Prince.
The Haitians who moved said they were promised factory jobs and houses. But there were no real jobs in the area, and many of the tent-like shelters collapsed in the first hard rain. When Rolling Stone magazine mentioned the controversy in an article critical of Haitian relief efforts, Penn bristled in a letter to the editor that ran more than 7,000 words. "What those not in the field do not know is that 100 or more tents go down in EVERY camp with EVERY harsh rain," he wrote.
While Penn's social activism occasionally makes the news, he is known mostly as an intense portrayer of complex, dark characters on screen, such as a death-row inmate in "Dead Man Walking," or the South Boston father bent on finding his daughter's killer in "Mystic River," a role that won him an Oscar.
Later this year, he will appear in "Gangster Squad," a period movie about the Los Angeles Police Department's fight against mobsters with a cast that includes Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, and Josh Brolin.
He scoffs when asked if the earthquake was a life-altering experience.
"One of my limitations in life is that I can't claim much change since about 16 years old, I think," he said. "I don't know that I have changed is the truth of it."
At 51, he has a surfer's body, bulging forearms, and a workout machine in the backyard of his Haiti house. Yet he smokes constantly and has the heavy-lidded look of someone who has just crawled out of bed.
He took out a full-page ad in The Washington Post in 2003 to condemn the Iraq invasion, visited Iran in 2005 and wrote about it for The San Francisco Chronicle, and has met with Fidel and Raul Castro.
To critics, Penn is naive, a gadfly. But he, in turn, sees many in the US as duped by propaganda. "We are a country that's become increasingly gullible to the demonizing of foreign states and leaders," he said in a video interview for The Nation, a US magazine, in 2008.
A recent sweep through South America was supposed to be a diplomatic mission for Haiti but turned into vintage Penn. In Bolivia, he sported a multicolored poncho and miner's hat for an encounter with President Evo Morales, another leader hostile to the US. In Uruguay, he infuriated Britain by defending Argentina's claim to the Falkland Islands weeks before the 30th anniversary of their war. And in Venezuela, he attended a medical school graduation with President Chavez, who chose the event to call his presidential opponent a "low-life pig."
As he smoked American Natural Spirits back-to-back, stubbing them out on the tile floor, Penn said he has the diplomatic skills to help Haiti get more foreign aid and win over investors.
"I have good relationships in South America," he said. "I can sit with both the heads of state and their deputies." In Haiti, Penn's politics have favored the practical.
He was an early backer of right-leaning Martelly, a charismatic pop star who had never held political office. He's no fan of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former president and darling of the international left. And he sounds neutral about Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, the former dictator responsible for the deaths and torture of thousands.
In a January interview on "The Tavis Smiley Show," he said that he met Duvalier, who returned from exile last year, and doesn't think he poses a threat. "It's really not for us as Americans coming in or foreigners coming in to make that moral judgment about whether or not a culture is willing to reintegrate people into it," he said. Penn doesn't dwell much on Haiti's troubled past, though.
"I'm not here to be a historian," he said in the interview. Instead, he wants to focus on the country's present, which he thinks is showing a rare glimpse of promise.
In making Haiti his second home, he said in his signature combative style, he's had many more successes than failures.
"When people say to me, oh you don't speak Creole yet? I say, yeah, 'have you moved 40,000 people?' "
The specter of a North Korean rocket launch may have suspended the promise of food aid, but away from the bluff and the bluster of North Korea’s relations with the outside world one British-based charity has set about trying to resolve a mini food crisis of its own inside the reclusive northeast Asian country.
Manna Mission of Europe Ltd/Love North Korean Children, based in London, has so far built four community bakeries with the humble intention of providing 5,000-plus youngsters with one steamed bun per day. Three are said to be fully operational and meeting their targets.
But the latest, in the city of Sariwon, south of the capital, Pyongyang, has a problem: It can’t start production due to a lack of funds.
Rather than simply providing bread to North Koreans, the charity provides a seedbed to enable local communities to help themselves. Love North Korean Children, a project started in 2001, insists all ingredients are purchased in China and shipped in, ensuring that no money enters the country and that the bread produced reaches its intended recipients.
“We are running bakeries for the supply of staple food,” the organization announces in its campaign literature. “That means to provide self-help, because we do not deliver bread to North Korea. We deliver flour and employ staff in the country. Therefore a strict monitoring is guaranteed.”
The rationale, explains the South Korea-born head of the charity, George Rhee, whose father fled North Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War, is simple.
“Everybody in North Korea receives food supplies from the government to last three months,” Mr. Rhee says. “But people in rural areas only have food for one month. They have to go to the countryside to hunt [for] tree bark or corn. That’s why kids have to have these meals; otherwise, they wouldn’t have anything else to eat.”
There are plans for a total of 26 bakeries spread across North Korea. The charity says agreements are in place with the ruling Kim regime to acquire real estate to house the bakeries free of charge.
Koryo Tours, a British-owned, Beijing-based travel company, has thrown its weight behind the charity’s latest effort, launching an appeal to raise cash for the nascent Sariwon bakery. Estimated monthly running costs, it says, are $9,000. “We would like to raise funds to support this bakery in Sariwon. We know that every single donation goes in full directly towards the project,” the company wrote on its website.
Despite the scepticism that surrounds such dealings with the North, seasoned North Korea watchers in South Korea believe this type of project bears significant merit.
“I don’t think it is possible to be against this kind of project per se, though of course I’d rather see the government perform one less rocket launch in favor of feeding these kids themselves, as would everyone else, I have no doubt,” says Chris Green, international affairs manager at Daily NK, a defector-led online newspaper covering developments on the ground inside North Korea.
“On the probability of success, I think the chances are fairly high. There are a number of bakeries doing this kind of thing in North Korea today, and as far as I know they are mostly left to do their work, with the exception of the standard bureaucratic meddling, which is normal practice in North Korea for everyone and anyone.”
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One Day on Earth founder and director Kyle Ruddick witnessed the power of people coming together from all over the world when he attended the World Festival of Sacred Music at the University of California in Los Angeles.
There were about 40 musicians onstage, Mr. Ruddick says, and they had never rehearsed together. They simply began playing, and somehow, it worked.
“We were all sort of blown away,” Ruddick says. “Somehow they found a groove, they found a rhythm.” As a filmmaker, Ruddick was inspired by the effort and began thinking of an idea of his own. “Cinema has this universal language element like music,” Ruddick says.
Now he and co-founder and executive producer Brandon Litman are heading up One Day on Earth, an organization that on Oct. 10, 2010 (10-10-10), asked people in every country in the world to make a visual record of something they saw where they were living. More than 19,000 people picked up cameras.
The footage, which came in at 3,000 hours including audio in 70 different languages, has been edited down to a single feature film, also titled “One Day on Earth,” which debuts this Sunday, April 22, which is Earth Day. Screenings will take place in more than 160 countries. The movie is the first to contain footage shot in every country in the world on the same day.
To create the film Ruddick and Mr. Litman set up a One Day on Earth website and put out word asking people to get involved. Videos taken on Oct. 10, 2010, along with those that taken the next year, on Nov. 11, 2011 (11-11-11), are available for viewing on the website, along with a geo-tagged video archive that allows website users to find who took a certain video and view the filmmakers' profile.
Through a connection with a neighbor of Litman’s who worked at the United Nations, the two were able to team with the UN, which has pledged to support One Day on Earth through 2015. One Day on Earth, which was largely funded by Ruddick and Litman themselves, except for a few grants, gave cameras to more than 95 UN country offices in an effort to allow people to film in countries where it would normally be difficult.
“They've really helped to tell a story of the entire world,” Ruddick says.
By chance, Oct. 10 was the day on which North Korean leader Kim Jong-il publicly endorsed his son as his successor for the first time, Ruddick says. Part of the footage captured by "One Day on Earth" involved speeches delivered by North Korean government officials that were very anti-American. There’s a possibility that “One Day on Earth” will be screened in North Korea, but Ruddick isn't sure what kind of reception it would get.
“We saw a lot of things about North Korea,” he says. “Not all of it good.”
The opportunity to film a country for 24 hours was invaluable, Ruddick says.
“It's this window of opportunity, to show something to the rest of the world that they didn't have before,” he says of the filmmakers, who all got to keep their cameras. “It inspired them to go deeper into their lives and the issues around them.... it's like throwing them a bottle to send a message [in].”
The finished film features songs by artists like Paul Simon. Some big name musicians were brought in simply by e-mailing their managers, Ruddick says. After Mr. Simon gave the project a song, he says, other artists were willing to do so too.
“We owe him a big debt,” Ruddick says.
One Day on Earth is also hoping to release a film of the Nov. 11, 2011, footage, Ruddick says. And it's planning to attempt the same feat again on Dec. 12, 2012 (12-12-12), compiling that footage into a feature film as well.
One Day on Earth producers are working with a Web platform called Tugg that allows people to request that films come to their local theaters.
““I hope the message is that the world is this enormous, beautiful place that we have to take care of,” Ruddick says, when asked what he hopes people will take away from the movie. “[After] watching, people feel interconnected.”
Money from fundraisers being held by One Day on Earth will go to pay for free screenings. The free showings are something that is important to Ruddick and Litman.
“The world helped us make this movie,” he says. “We do want an opportunity for people to be on the ground, see the film, have a conversation about it.”
For the past year powerful voices around Washington have singled out programs to improve biking and walking as flagrant examples of wasteful government spending.
Since last summer, proposals have flown around the Capitol to strip away all designated transportation funds for biking and walking – even though biking and walking account for 12 percent of all trips across America but receive only 1.6 percent of federal funding.
But on March 29 the US House of Representatives – the hotbed of opposition to bike and walking as well as transit programs – voted to extend the current surface transportation bill for another three months, saving the funding of bike and pedestrian programs. The Senate followed two hours later. (This marks the 9th extension of the existing transportation bill since 2009 and another victory for the growing movement to ensure federal support for biking and walking projects.)
The political forces that want to steer policies back to the 1950s – when cars and highways were seen as the only way to go – have consistently failed to muster enough votes to shift federal transportation funding into reverse. There are several reason for this, but one of the most surprising is the emergence of bicycle advocates – and to a lesser extent pedestrian advocates – as a persuasive political lobby.
Groups like the Alliance for Biking and Walking , the League of American Bicyclists, America Bikes, Bikes Belong, Rails to Trails Conservancy, People for Bikes, America Walks and others emphasize the message that the biking and walking benefit everyone, not just folks who ride and stroll frequently. They've earned the attention of a growing bi-partisan bloc of Congress members, which makes the prospects for continued federal support of bike and pedestrian improvements much more likely than anyone expected last year.
The core of their message is plain common sense: All Americans are better off because biking and walking foster improved public health (and savings in health care expenditures for households, businesses and government), stronger communities and local economies, less congestion, safer streets, lower energy use and a cleaner, safer environment.
While congressional critics belittle bicyclists as a marginal, almost silly special interest group, others herald them as self-reliant citizens who get around without the need of imported oil and mega-highway projects that cost taxpayers billions. Instead of a boondoggle, continued funding to improve biking and walking conditions in the US represents a sound investment that saves taxpayers money now and in the future.
Even if you will never ride a bike in your life, you still see benefits from increased levels of biking. More bicyclists mean less congestion in the streets and less need for expensive road projects that divert government money from other important problems. Off-road paths, bike lanes, sidewalks, and other bike and pedestrian improvements cost a fraction of what it takes to widen streets and highways. It's proven that bicycling and walking increases people's health and reduces obesity, which will translate into huge cost savings for government and a boost for our economy.
Policies that are good for bicyclists actually benefit everyone on the streets. Good conditions for bicycling also create good conditions for pedestrians. And what makes the streets safer for bikes, also makes them safer for motorists.
Higher gas prices (which have topped four bucks for the third time in four years) means more Americans are looking for other ways to get around. Bikes offer people more choices in transportation. This is especially true for people whose communities are not well served by mass transportation or where distances are too far to walk to work or shopping.
Bike advocates are also working hard to dispel the stereotype that all bicyclists are young, white, urban, male ultra athletes in Lycra racing jerseys. Increased investment in safer, more comfortable bike facilities means that more women, children, families, middle-aged and senior citizens, minorities, immigrants, low-income, suburban, and rural people will ride bikes.
The number of Americans who commute primarily by bike leaped 43 percent since 2000, according to census data. The number of overall bike trips rose 25 percent.
But for those numbers to keep climbing – and the benefits for all Americans to continue accumulating – people need to feel safer on their bikes. Seventy-one percent of all Americans report that they would like to bike more than they do now, according to US Highway Safety Administration data. But many of them fear riding on busy streets with speeding traffic.
Sharing is the best way to help these people feel safer. By historical tradition and legal decree, streets are not for the exclusive use of moving and parked cars. They are shared space belonging to everyone.
The Green Lane Project, which will launch in May, is an initiative to reclaim a bit of streets for bicyclists. The goal is to pioneer 21st-century streets in six cities where bike lanes on major routes will be protected from heavy traffic by curbs, posts, parked cars, or paint. This could do for bicyclists what asphalt roads did for cars a century ago.
But it’s important to remember that biking and walking are not strictly an urban way to get around. A new report from the Rails to Trails Conservancy (which I helped write) shows that biking and walking in rural America is far more widespread than most people realize.
The report cites data from the US Department of Transportation showing that rural Americans bike only slightly less than their urban counterparts, and much more than people living in newer suburbs. Here are two particularly surprising findings:
- In towns of 10,000 to 50,000, a higher percentage of overall trips are made by bike than in urban centers.
- In towns of 2,500 to 10,000, twice as many work trips are made by bike than in urban centers.
Federal funding of biking and walking improvements play an important role in helping rural communities attract and retain young people, families, and businesses.
As the CEO of the Billings (Montana) Chamber of Commerce, John Brewer, told a congressional hearing last year: “Talented people are moving to Billings in large part because of our trail system that creates the quality of life they are expecting…. Trails are no longer viewed as community amenities; they’re viewed as essential infrastructure for business recruitment.”