Archive for June 25th, 2011

Of muck and men

Of muck and men

Tracing the spread of agriculture into Europe so many thousands of years after it happened is among the biggest challenges facing archaeologists. But the chemical signature of the manure early farmers spread on their land remains to this day. Amy Bogaard describes how her team found it.

Digging manure (Image: Sharon Kingston/shutterstock images)


Posted 25 June 2011, by Amy Bogaard, Michael Charles, Richard Evershed, Rebecca Fraser, Tim Heaton, Glynis Jones, Amy Styring and Michael Wallace, Planet Earth Online (National Environment Research Council (U.K.)),

As any gardener knows, animal manure does a brilliant job of keeping soils rich in nutrients and easy to work. Though chemical fertilizers are now widely used, manuring still plays a critical role in food production in many parts of the world today. But was it always so important?

The Crop Isotope Project is the first attempt to systematically assess the importance of manuring in early farming communities, dating back thousands of years – and the results have been, well, ground-breaking.

Archaeologists know where and when the ‘ingredients’ of European farming emerged – around 10,500 years ago in the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent – and we have a good grasp of how agriculture then spread into Europe. But what was early farming like? How were crops grown and animals raised? This kind of understanding is crucial for explaining how farming emerged and became established, as well as its long-term consequences.

In the Middle East, growing crops and herding animals emerged at around the same time. Furthermore, the early suite of crops and livestock (wheat and barley, pulses and flax, together with sheep, goats, pigs and cattle) went on to spread together across Europe. This combined crop-and-livestock ‘package’ hints at some sort of mixed farming.

The spread of muck-spreading

Looking at how modern small-scale farmers do things shows that cultivation and herding can be mutually beneficial: crops supplement the animal diet, for example, while livestock provide manure, disturb the soil and regulate crop growth. Importantly, manure has a ‘slow-release’ effect on soils and can be beneficial for years or even decades after application; it implies long-term commitment to cultivated areas.

This kind of long-term investment is at odds with the idea that early European farmers were slash-and-burn cultivators. The analogy with this form of farming, best known today in tropical latitudes, is problematic at best, but it lingers in the archaeological literature and popular imagination. If, instead, early farmers maintained arable land through manuring and other intensive practices, the implications for our understanding of their daily life, material culture and monuments are radical.

The author at an experimental site near Aleppo, Syria.

The image of early farmers carefully tending long-established gardens and fields brings into focus a world-view that gave rise both to spectacular statements of permanence and ancestral rights – such as British and Irish megalithic tombs – but also to brutal conflict. This is reflected, for example, in the ‘mass grave’ of an early farming community at Talheim in Germany, killed by assailants wielding stone axes like those used to clear farmland.

To assess the relevance and extent of manuring among early farmers, we needed to learn to identify it archaeologically. Agricultural soils are rarely preserved, so the primary evidence for ancient cultivation comes from crop remains – grains and inedible plant parts (‘chaff’) preserved mostly through charring, which renders the material biologically inert but preserves its shape.

Food science, a discipline far removed from archaeology, provided the key clue: an approach used to authenticate organic produce! Previous research showed that mineral fertilizer and farmyard manure have different effects on which forms of nitrogen get incorporated into the soil and taken up by crops.

Nitrogen comes in different forms, called ‘isotopes’. Mineral nitrogen is rich in the lighter stable isotope (14N), whereas farmyard manure has more of the heavier form (15N). Food scientists use this contrast to identify fertilizers applied to vegetables, to ensure that only ‘organic’ manures were used on produce that’s labelled organic.

We focused on seed crops grown by farmers of the Neolithic and the Bronze Age periods – and on how manuring affected their isotope ratios. To assess these relationships, we collected modern crop material from experimental stations across Europe, including Rothamsted in Hertfordshire, set up our own experiments – at Sutton Bonington near Nottingham and in Syria, near Aleppo – and visited regions where crops are still grown in traditional ways, including Asturias in Spain, Transylvania in Romania and Evvia in Greece.

Grains of truth

Our results left no doubt. Intensive manuring has a dramatic effect on nitrogen isotope signatures in both grain and chaff of wheat and barley; moderate manuring has a correspondingly modest effect. This means we can tell how much manure was applied, if any, from nitrogen isotopes in cereals. Pulses like peas and lentils work differently: they fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, so manuring has a comparatively slight impact on their isotope ratios.

Since crop material is mostly preserved by charring, a further challenge was to establish how this affects nitrogen isotopes. By experimentally charring and then burying modern cereals and pulses, we have found that the effect is modest and predictable. Finally, to remove contamination in ancient crop material introduced over thousands of years in the soil, we adapted methods used to clean charred plant material before radiocarbon dating.

Amy Styring sampling crops at Rothamsted.

All this set the stage for assessing archaeological crop material. As the results have rolled in, our excitement has grown: archaeological site after archaeological site returned results showing the pervasiveness of manuring in Neolithic farming communities as well as in later, often much more complex, Bronze Age societies.

In prehistory, as today, manure was in short supply, so it had to be used strategically where it could yield the greatest benefit. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the signals we observe are variable – even, for example, in crops that were harvested in a single year before being destroyed by a catastrophic fire in the storehouse of a Bronze Age community in northern Greece. In fact, there’s as much variation as we saw in the villages where we sampled modern crops.

Our results suggest that, while early farming practice was geared towards sustainability, the ‘long-term investment’ of manuring encouraged families to claim ownership of land, with social consequences culminating in the fixed inequalities of some hierarchical Bronze Age societies.

The story doesn’t end there. The very isotope ratios in crops that are affected by manuring will, in turn, affect the long-term formation of nitrogen isotope signatures in the tissues of human and animals that eat them. Stable nitrogen (along with carbon) isotope ratios are routinely extracted from ancient bone to determine the nature of the diet.

Particularly relevant here, differences in nitrogen isotope ratios between humans and associated animal remains are generally interpreted as evidence of their relative position in the food chain – the heavier (15N) isotope gets more common as you move up from prey to predators. The plants people eat, and their livestock or hunted prey, are normally assumed to be isotopically identical, but our modern crop results suggest this is unlikely, for two reasons.

First, manuring creates a disparity between the nitrogen isotopes of crops and those of unmanured wild vegetation. Second, we found systematic differences in isotope values between grain and chaff and other plant parts, which are inedible to humans but can be fed to livestock.

In fact, people and livestock feeding on the same cereal crops but consuming grain and chaff, respectively, would seem to sit around one step apart in the food chain, the grain giving the humans who eat it higher 15N values.

Isotopic analysis of archaeological plant remains alongside those of humans and animals would let us reconstruct ancient diets much more reliably. To do this, we are working to integrate botanical, animal and human isotope values from selected archaeological sites.

We have already discovered that early farmers ‘invested’ in their plots through manuring. This technologically simple but labour-intensive practice bound cultivation and herding together in resilient forms of small-scale mixed farming. This sustainable kind of agriculture made possible the decisive and irrevocable shift away from hunting and gathering.

By the end of our project, we hope to have transformed our understanding of how our ancestors farmed, ate and lived. But there’s still a huge amount to learn about early farming and the role of manuring. Can we discern distinctive regional trajectories in the way agriculture interacted with ecological and social factors over the long term? Were early elites linked with change in agricultural techniques or was there a continuing reliance on small-scale mixed farming, including manuring? We now have the ‘toolkit’ of methods to find out.

Dr Amy Bogaard is a lecturer in Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeology at the University of Oxford. Email:

Pi’s Forest: Permaculture Put into Practice in India

Pi’s Forest: Permaculture Put into Practice in India

Posted 19 June 2011, by Courtney Algeo née Davison, Minneapolis College of Art and Design, MCAD Sustainable Design,

Hand image courtesy of Flickr CC @Meanest Indian.

Nestled into the southeastern coast of India there is something amazing happening: permaculture with a conservation purpose. Since 2003, an eclectic group of volunteers and permaculture super-stars have been working and living together in a planned, sustainable community called Sadhana Forest on the outskirts of the city of Pondicherry (or Puducherry). Pondicherry was put on the mental maps of many North Americans as the hometown of the main character in The Life of Pi written by Canadian author Yann Martel, 2011.

Sadhana is used colloquially by yogis to mean “spiritual practice” but, perhaps more fitting in this example, the word in Sanscrit means “an effort exercised towards the achievement of purpose”. The Sadhana Forest project has an admirable yet daunting purpose: to rebuild the surrounding forest and get the land back into beautiful, working condition. When Sadhana Forest founders, Yorit and Aviram Rozin, first moved onto the barren 70 acres of land eight years ago (almost to the day!), their goal was clear: rebuild the indigenous Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest (TDEF) out of what was ostensibly nothing, and at the same time teach as many like-minded people how to live in a sustainable and eco-friendly manner. The intention of the project is to draw attention to the endangered TDEF ecosystem and put forward the case for its conservation.

A healthy TDEF forest contains many types of trees, shrubs, climbing plants, and thousands of animal and insect species. Though the forest that the members of Sadhana build and grow will never match the original indigenous forest – for reasons far beyond their control, such as the lack of larger, predatory animals integral to the natural eco-system, chased away by humans long ago – the forest they build will be a reasonable facsimile, and designed with the local population of humans in mind. In this way, hopefully the forest and its natural inhabitants will be more adaptable to the growing, and changing world.

The rebuilding requires that the residents plant new vegetation, work to increase the water table, develop a system with which to foster the re-population of near-extinct animal species to the region, the education of humans in the area about sustainable living, veganism, and respect for the environment. One of the main activities that the residents and volunteers of the Sadhana Forest spend their time on is the planting and nurturing of the indigenous plants that will grow, and repopulate the vegetative landscape of the forest. These plants include mainly evergreen plants such as Atalentia monophyllia, a hardwood tree with beautiful green, waxy leaves, and many medicinal properties. By applying permaculture principles, the Sadhana Forest project will thrive and grow, and help to alleviate poverty in the area by offering villagers a place to cultivate their food and prevent the all too common exodus to nearby slums.

Some full-time residents and many volunteers, who come from all over the world in order to learn how to live sustainably and share new experiences with a multinational community, populate the Sadhana Forest. Currently, the Sadhana Forest is developing a daughter site in Haiti, to pass along lessons learned and to help empower locals to help themselves. Volunteers are welcome at the Sadhana Forest at almost any time, for almost any duration, and will receive lodging and certain other amenities in exchange for a 25 hour work week, and a few rounds on the “exercise bike” that helps to provide energy on cloudy days when the solar panels aren’t getting enough light.

To learn more about permaculture, consider taking Permaculture and Design, a 5-week, fully online course offered by MCAD’s Sustainable Design Program over the summer. Permaculture design uses holistic principles to design living systems that yield benefits without depleting resources. Students will learn the Holmgren Principles of permaculture design and build examples following each. Students will map the environmental relationships and ecological requirements of their lifestyle resulting in more opportunities for self-sustaining permaculture design.

Courtney Algeo is a freelance writer working in Minneapolis, in addition to her work as an Administrative Assistant in the Online Learning department at MCAD where she saves the day for the Sustainable Design Program nearly on a daily basis. Check out the various Sustainable Design Program offerings designed to cater to the distinct needs of busy working professionals: 30-credit Post-Baccalaureate Certificate, 18-credit Professional Certificate, and 9-credit Topic Series offered in Sustainable Design. Courtney is always happy to help!

“Pacha’s Pajamas” eBook Debuts in Support of Controversial Nature’s Rights Initiative

“Pacha’s Pajamas” eBook Debuts in Support of Controversial Nature’s Rights Initiative

New urban fairy tale aims to build youth movement despite Fox News’ attacks on the cause

Posted 25 June 2011, by Staff, PRWeb (Vocus, Inc.),

“Pacha’s Pajamas: A Story Written by Nature”, part of an unprecedented edutainment platform that connects ecology and entertainment, debuted its eBook today. The innovative children’s story, considered a modern-day “Jungle Book”, details a city girl’s dream in which animals and plants from her pajamas come alive to defend Mother Earth. Already garnering critical praise from leading environmental advocates and authors, the “Pacha’s Pajamas” eBook is the first in a series of products from BALANCE Edutainment, which seeks to build a strong youth movement in support of a universal Nature’s Rights initiative at the center of a Fox News heated controversy.

The success of such films as “Avatar” demonstrates that audiences worldwide are interested in media with an environmental message. It can be difficult to imagine how this creative children’s tale might be found controversial, yet it’s in the middle of a firestorm as Fox News has accused Nature’s Rights’ proponents of advocating for a new “radical regime of global environmental law.” Huge numbers of citizens across the globe oppose Fox News’ anti-environmental stance as they believe major changes to environmental law are critically needed. Thousands of animals and plants around the world are facing extinction, with species currently disappearing at a rate of up to 1,000 times higher than normal—representing the first major die-off in 65 million years.

Vandana Shiva, Adviser for the International Forum on Globalization, writes in the book’s foreword, “’Pacha’s Pajamas’ presents unheard voices, songs and stories of nature, calling forth empathy for all beings and engaging young people in a conversation about the future.” Acclaimed author and environmentalist Julia Butterfly Hill says, “To inspire and re-inspire all people—of all ages—to care for the Earth, each other and all life is vital for our human species to not only survive, but to thrive. Creativity like ‘Pacha’s Pajamas’ plays an important role in this, our collective story.”

The “Pacha’s Pajamas” eBook, along with an animated short and music single, is available at and through It will be downloadable this month on eReaders and mobile devices in both English and Spanish. Interactive apps and an illustrated audiobook are forthcoming.

BALANCE Edutainment is an Oakland, Calif.,-based social enterprise that is creating a series of edutainment platforms to “crank up the volume” on the unheard voices of nature. Through its partnerships and “Pacha’s Pajamas” products, including an eBook, interactive apps, audiobook, live performance and film, BALANCE Edutainment intends to reach 100 million young people and their families over the next four years, helping to change the course of social and environmental history and popularizing the global acceptance of Nature’s Rights. A large percentage of profits will be donated to aligned charities.

Media Contact:
Dave Room, BALANCE Edutainment

The Seduction of Power


The Seduction of Power


Posted 24 June 2011, by Raúl Pierri, Inter Press  Service (IPS),

MONTEVIDEO, Jun 24, 2011 (IPS) – The governments and big private media groups in Latin America are waging a war to win over public opinion, the ultimate arbiter of legitimacy, and the only solution would appear to be to strike up an alliance.

“Battle” was the most oft-repeated term in the seminar on “Communication, pluralism and the role of new technologies; the Latin American scenario: looking towards the future”, organised Friday Jun 24 by the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency with the support of the World Bank and the Uruguayan government.

Journalists and editors of public and private media outlets, representatives of civil society and governments, and experts on communication from the region took part in the seminar.

The battle between the State and private media for control of news management has come to the forefront in recent years in Latin America, as left-of-centre governments have been elected in most countries in the region and have found themselves embroiled in confrontations with powerful media interests.

Left-wing governments have had to negotiate peaceful coexistence with the economic elites, but at the same time they have sought to transform communications, attempting to democratise the media, by passing news laws for example, said Fábio Zanini, international editor at the Brazilian daily Folha de Sao Paulo.

Zanini cited the example of former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011), who in order to be elected “had to build a strategic media-savvy political movement to show the banks, ‘big capital’ and the large landowners that he was trustworthy and reliable, and to draw right-wing parties into his coalition.”

Basically, leftist governments, and right-wing administrations like the government of Sebastián Piñera in Chile as well, have recognised the vital importance of the media, with which “they have a conflict-ridden relationship,” Zanini said.

Uruguayan presidential secretary Alberto Breccia preferred to describe the relationship between the left and the press as “schizophrenic,” and urged the participants to help make it healthier.

Zanini underscored the efforts of governments to expand their means of communication, by establishing or overhauling public TV and radio stations, but he expressed doubts as to whether they were truly impartial, and warned that they could end up serving merely as government propaganda tools.

Alberto Medina, co-director of news at the private Caracol TV station of Colombia, said there was “a war over information between the public and private sectors.

“I’m not convinced that governments open up their channels to all of the different sectors” and points of view, he said.

“I am a bit sceptical of these public media stations that are supposedly so democratic. I don’t see spaces made available to the opposition on the public stations. They are channels that defend the positions of the government of the day,” he said.

In the midst of this confrontation, the mission of community stations “is to make the fight for freedom of expression a general demand,” María Pía Matta, president of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC), told IPS.

“We do not want to be turned into agents of the government de jure either,” she said. “I think the debate has to focus more on freedoms in general, and freedom of speech in particular, and on why the State has distanced itself so much from these freedoms.”

In this region, “the State has always been considered a natural predator of freedom of speech, an idea that has taken root,” she added.

The director of the left-leaning private Uruguayan newspaper La República, Federico Fasano, said there were not only two parties to the battle, but three: the state, the media, and society as a whole.

“Information is a public good, a public asset. And although it is subject to private appropriation, because of the way the system is set up, it is important to discourage monopolies and foment pluralism,” he said.

Fasano, who is also director of the AM Libre radio station and the TV Libre television station, said the mere existence of various media outlets with different owners does not necessarily mean there is media pluralism in a country. “If there is only one hegemonic way of thinking, even if they are different media outlets, it is a quasi-monopoly,” he maintained.

The seminar was followed in real time over the Internet, and dozens of people chatted about the content and sent the panellists questions.

Among the issues discussed by the on-line participants was the role played by social networking sites like Twitter in the Arab uprisings and the 15M social protest movement in Spain.

In the seminar, the Salvadoran government’s director of communications, David Rivas, defended measures his country has taken to control information and eliminate programming that, he said, was “psychologically harmful.”

“We removed programmes that previous governments had left in the public media which had a heavy ideological bent, portraying society as a world divided between the wealthy and the ‘bad guys’, denigrating women, and showing things that bordered on criminal behaviour,” he said.

Rivas also insisted that “we have to lose our fear of regulation” of content and of laws “that ensure greater public access to the media.

“There is no absolute right, not even the right to freedom of expression. Those who told us that ‘the best law is no law’ have been deceiving us all along,” he said.

That phrase was cited months ago by the seminar’s keynote speaker, Uruguayan President José Mujica, who spoke out at the time against a proposal to legislate the media in this country, set forth, ironically, by members of his own party.

Mujica did not repeat the phrase in the seminar, but urged the participants to wage a “permanent struggle” for freedom.

“Although the modern, contemporary media are capable of offering us unimaginable resources for communicating, they can also be the most formidable instruments of oppression, of denial of freedom, that mankind has known,” he said.

“This means that the question of how and for what purposes technological progress is used is a central, almost desperate battle,” he added.

Miguel Wiñazki, chief editor of the Clarín newspaper in Argentina, said that because public opinion is “a collective that grants power,” political forces and the media struggle to seduce it.

“Understanding the predominant beliefs, prejudices and ideologies of public opinion, governments as well as political forces and the private media tend to ignore the value of information in and of itself, in order to give public opinion the plot lines it believes,” said Wiñazki.

“The real journalistic work is the day-to-day battle of press workers to make information win out over the news people want,” and over propaganda, he said.

Workers Bear Brunt of Nuke Clean-up


Workers Bear Brunt of Nuke Clean-up


Posted 24 June 2011, by Suvendrini Kakuchi, Inter Press Service, IPS,

TOKYO, Jun 24, 2011 (IPS) – Twenty-eight-year-old Yushi Sato washes cars for a living, but they are no ordinary cars. Every day, Sato hoses down vehicles contaminated with radiation from the Fukushima Nuclear Power plant that was damaged by the earthquake and tsunami that hit north-east Japan Mar 11.

Sato, who has worked at the Fukushima plant for the past five years, used to be a welder, but after the disaster struck he was assigned the job of washing the plant’s various vehicles. “We wash on average around 200 vehicles that show higher than normal radiation levels,” he told IPS.

Wearing heavy protective gear and checked daily for radiation exposure, Sato says he worries about the effects of radiation on his health but is determined to keep working.

“The main workers are battling heavier risks than myself so I try not to think of the risks I face,” he explained, pointing to colleagues working directly on the repair of the Fukushima reactors.

Radiation monitoring indicates Sato is exposed to around 20 microsieverts daily, roughly the same amount of radiation emitted by a single X-ray, and far less than the official danger limit of one millimetre which is equivalent to 100 microsieverts. But Sato acknowledges the threat posed by accumulated exposure to radiation.

Analysts say workers like Sato represent the commitment now shouldered by workers of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) at the Fukushima reactors as well as in the company’s other subsidiaries. These workers have committed to repairing the damaged plant and stopping radiation leaks.

“They face huge pressure mentally and physically,” explained Professor Takeshi Tanigawa, an expert on social medicine at Ehime University who has been spearheading advocacy for better working conditions for TEPCO employees in Fukushima.

He told IPS that his recent surveys show workers grappling with high levels of stress as a result of tough working conditions that include long shifts and poor living standards. Other indicators point to simmering personal guilt for the radiation contamination the plant inflicted on residents of surrounding areas.

“The evidence I have collected has pressured TEPCO to ease some of the workers’ difficulties such as providing them with fresh vegetables and better bedding to help them have a good night’s rest. There is also a doctor on call to provide them with medical counselling,” he said.

The plight of Japan’s nuclear workers has grabbed the public limelight this past month, and they have been portrayed as symbols of national resilience, on the one hand, and also evidence of the downside of the country’s post-war economic miracle, on the other.

This week, the Labour Ministry reported that 102 workers have been exposed to more radiation—over 250 millisieverts—than the limits stipulated by the government, leading to the recall of these men from the plant.

TEPCO is now reporting a shortage of workers in Fukushima; more than 2,000 employees currently work in the reactors. High radiation inside the buildings has severely hampered rehabilitation efforts with workers permitted to enter for stints of as short as 15 minutes.

Professor Katsuhiko Ishibashi, a seismologist from Kobe University, has long been an advocate against Japan’s nuclear power policy, which he describes as a “doctrine.” Ishibashi said, “The alarming situation in Fukushima has finally revealed that all nuclear plants in Japan are built on fault lines and thus have the possibility of ending up with a major accident due to tsunami.”

Other experts also point to root causes that brought about the policy, exposing a fundamentally flawed system based on the close collaboration among bureaucrats, power companies and politicians who have resisted opposition to the national nuclear policy. “Building nuclear power plants was considered a pillar of Japan’s post-war economic growth and was facilitated by powerful elites…who gained most from the policy. Everybody else just had to fall in line,” said Shigeaki Koga, author of the bestselling book “The Collapse of Japan’s Central Administration”.

In a press briefing this week, Koga noted that Fukushima is a rallying point for reforms and underscores the need for Japan to foster healthy, transparent competition among independent entities, if Japan is to develop as a safer and richer country.

Still, critics acknowledge that pursuing change is not easy in Japan where the disaster has caused a political stalemate. Prime Minister Naoto Kan is set to resign this summer amid increasing political bickering between parties, with the electorate divided between yearning for a strong leadership and calls for a major overhaul of the system.

In the meantime, volunteers are stepping up to help address the nuclear problem. A case in point is the growing popularity of the so-called “suicide corps” formed by retired engineer Yasuteru Yamada and composed of men over 60 years old who are willing to work in the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant.

More than 300 people have signed up, Yamada told IPS. His group, he said, “is ready to work in any job whether inside the contaminated plant, or clearing debris in the area. We need to help out the country at the moment,” he said.

New Yorkers Occupy Streets to Protest Budget Cuts


New Yorkers Occupy Streets to Protest Budget Cuts


Posted 25 June 2011, by Elizabeth Whitman, Inter Press Service, IPS,

NEW YORK, Jun 25, 2011 (IPS) – They have taken over a strip of the sidewalk at Park Place and Broadway, handing out flyers to passersby and taping posters to the ground and to the metal crossbars of the scaffolding that shelters them from the rain.

They sleep here too, on the sidewalk, and hold assembly meetings twice daily for people to raise concerns and plan events. Their bottom line: no budget cuts.

Calling their takeover and sleep-in Bloombergville – an allusion to the infamous shanty towns known as Hoovervilles that sprung up during the Great Depression – they are New Yorkers Against the Budget Cuts (NYABC), a coalition of different groups and individuals united by their opposition to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed budget for next year and their determination to press the City Council not to adopt it.

Bloomberg, citing debt and decreases in state and federal aid, proposed to cut funding for public services including higher education, libraries, and child care as part of his approximately 65- billion-dollar budget for the fiscal year 2012 (Jul. 1, 2011 through Jun. 30, 2012). He also wants to eliminate jobs for over 6,000 teachers – 4,100 through lay-offs and 2,000 through attrition – and close 20 firehouses.

Negotiations on the mayor’s proposal are ongoing in the City Council, which must adopt a budget by Jun. 30, although it “may change budget priorities and add ‘terms and conditions’ on the expenditure of appropriated city funds,” according to the City Council website.

Since Jun. 15, Bloombergville and NYABC have been staging their sleep-in or, as several participants deemed it, “occupation”, to protest the cuts and lay-offs and are currently in their sixth location, having moved due to rain and police.

Their assemblies usually average 30 to 50 people, and 70 people spent the first night.

“Bloombergville is an encampment to intensify and strengthen the struggle against austerity in New York City,” reads the Bloombergville Declaration. “We are in active solidarity with those refusing any and all cuts.”

During the day, members participate in rallies, marches, and other forms of public action to spread awareness of the budget issue and garner attention to their cause. In the mornings and evenings, they gather in assembly meetings to plan these events and to discuss issues that anyone might raise.

“Definitely not enough people” are aware of the circumstances surrounding the budget cuts, Emily Turonis, the only member who has slept at the encampment every night, told IPS. She says people’s involvement and awareness reflects how much they believe they’ll be affected by the budget cuts. Moreover, “people don’t know the severity” of the cuts, she added.

“Every basic social service in this city is going to get hit,” said Yotam Marom, one of the leaders of the coalition.

Turonis suggested ending tax cuts for the wealthy as a source of possible revenue, noting that the city has a three-billion-dollar surplus even as Bloomberg plans to cut funding for essential public services.

However, Ronnie Lowenstein, director of the nonpartisan Independent Budget Office, said in an interview with WNYC that the term surplus was “misleading” because the amount has already been taken into account for next year’s budget.

“You could use that three billion dollars for something else – you could use it for a tax cut – but you would have to do something else to bring next year into balance, and it’s as simple as that,” he said.

Nevertheless, Bloombergville’s short-term aim “isn’t even radical”, Turonis said. Its participants simply want the city to “stop creating loopholes that allow gross profits” for the wealthy and for large corporations.

The coalition aims to enforce this point and “draw more people” to the cause, said Larry Hales, a founder of NYABC, by maintaining a “constant presence”.

“Bloombergville is yet another example of everyone approaching these budget negotiations with a spirit of ‘shared sacrifice’ except for Mayor Bloomberg,” Laura Banish, coordinator for the City Council Progressive Caucus, told IPS.

“We’re facing some of the worst cuts in decades and being told that there’s no other choice. That’s simply not true. We have options, and cutting vital social services is not one of them,” she added, calling those who participated in the sleep-in inspiring.

A spokesperson for Council Member Jumaane Williams, a Brooklyn Democrat, told IPS that Williams was “staunchly against” the budget cuts.

City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn and Finance Chair Domenic M. Recchia Jr. wrote in the Council’s response to the preliminary budget that “further cuts in critical service areas endanger not only the progress we have made in many areas… but also the welfare and safety of New York City residents.”

In a statement, they also said that the Council had presented several alternate budget proposals that offered savings through cuts in contracts or cuts in city agencies different from what Bloomberg proposed.

But Hales remained sceptical of the steps the Council said it has taken or ideas it has put forward, dismissing it as political rhetoric and empty talk.

Though NYABC members hail from a variety of groups and backgrounds, some seem to share a common vision of what change needs to happen in New York and the United States as a whole, beyond the immediacy of the Bloombergville protests and the passing of next year’s budget. They have infused the structure of Bloombergville with this vision.

The coalition envisioned “democracy in a public space”, said Turonis, and it created that democratic space to reflect the vision that protesters were demanding. The general assemblies provide that space – everyone gathers in a circle and has the chance to voice his or her opinions and ideas, on any matter.

Hales said, “What we need to do is build a people’s movement” and consolidate the organisations with a common aim but varying approaches, while Marom offered a longer-term vision of a movement that would “reclaim space for working people and oppressed people”.

But even with these future visions and aims, ultimately, the budget that the Council will adopt remains to be seen.

Ban Proposed on Export Restrictions that Undermine Food Security

Ban Proposed on Export Restrictions that Undermine Food Security

“You cannot deprive very vulnerable countries of sustenance.” — Egyptian Ambassador Hisham Badr

Posted 24 June 2011, by Isolda Agazzi, Inter Press Service (IPS),

GENEVA, Jun 24 (IPS) – Egypt has initiated a proposal in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to ban export restrictions on farm products to poor countries that are net food importers. The Group of 20 has also exhorted the upcoming WTO ministerial conference to adopt a specific resolution on export restrictions.

After Egypt’s democratic uprising earlier this year, food security has become a main aim in its quest to achieve social justice. Therefore, Cairo has initiated a proposal at the WTO to ban export restrictions of agricultural products to net food importing developing countries (NFIDC).

Some 77 WTO members are regarded as NFIDCs. They comprise all least developed countries (LDCs) plus another 26 developing countries that rely primarily on the import of agricultural products for food security. The proposal was introduced by the NFIDCs, with the support of the African group and the LDCs group.

A recent meeting on food price volatility, organised by the Geneva-based global think tank the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD), discussed the proposal of banning export restrictions on food to countries with vulnerable populations.

Food producers sometimes limit their food exports in favour of serving domestic consumption needs and to keep local prices low.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), global prices of wheat surged by 60 to 80 percent from Jul. to Sep. 2010 following the export ban by Russia, which is not a WTO member but should become one by the end of 2011.

Export restrictions on foodstuffs were one of the key drivers of the food crisis and price spikes during 2007 – 2011. At the beginning of 2011, 21 countries had imposed export control measures. Recently, Ukraine, Macedonia, Moldova and the Kyrgyz Republic, for example, placed export restrictions on different types of grains.

The WTO does not prohibit such measures, but it tries to curb them. “You cannot deprive very vulnerable countries from sustenance by banning exports of food to them,” Hisham Badr, ambassador of Egypt to the WTO, argued in an interview with IPS – especially, he said, “given the international food crisis, the energy crisis, the economic and financial crisis and the fact that the Doha Round seems to be in intensive care”.

Since Jun. 2010, as a result of price increases, the number of extreme poor people has increased by 44 million in low and middle-income countries.

Concretely, Egypt’s proposal foresees exempting NFIDCs from export restrictions on foodstuffs by both developing and industrialised countries. NFIDCs, however, would still be allowed to use such restrictions for their own food security.

The proposal also foresees the ban of export restrictions on food destined for humanitarian assistance delivered by the World Food Programme (WFP).

Egypt and the African group would like to see this initiative become part and parcel of the proposed “early harvest” of the Doha Round that could be adopted by the WTO ministerial conference in Dec. 2011.

On Jun. 23, the G20 also agreed to remove export restrictions on food destined for non-commercial humanitarian purposes. It also recommended that WTO members adopt a specific resolution on export restrictions at this year’s ministerial conference.

But, given the difficulties of the Doha negotiations, what are the chances of adding export restrictions to the controversial early harvest that some countries contest even for LDCs?

“Many countries sympathise with this initiative from different angles,” Badr replied.

However, according to Bridges Weekly, an ICTSD publication, major agricultural exporters like the U.S., Australia and Brazil would like export restrictions to be seen in the context of other trade distortions in agriculture. They don’t see why it should be singled out while there are large aspects of the Doha Round that are meant to redress those imbalances.

Developed countries like Switzerland and Japan, net food importers themselves, expressed support for the proposal. The Philippines, which doesn’t belong to the NFIDC but whose population has been affected by export restrictions, suggested that the proposal should include non-NFIDC too.

“Our endeavour is part of a greater strategy,” Badr continued. “The Dominican Republic and Egypt will propose another initiative at the WTO General Assembly in Sep. 2011 on food price speculation. And we work closely with FAO on an agriculture market information system to exchange information and effectively address price volatility.”

But he acknowledged that, given the state of the Doha Round, some members are not giving due consideration to the initiative. “We have not had yet countries that are against it. They have rather adopted a position of ‘wait and see’.”

Jonathan Hepburn, agriculture programme manager at ICTSD, told IPS that, “it is an interesting initiative, We have to see where it goes, but clearly export restrictions imposed in the last few years have had an impact on markets and price volatility.

“When markets are already tight, such measures risk worsening supply, especially when the country that adopts it is a major exporter.”

He indicated that WTO members are trying to address export restrictions in different ways. It could be in an “early harvest” of the Doha Round or, alternatively, be a separate decision outside the Doha package.


How Aluminum Cans Can Power a Village

How Aluminum Cans Can Power a Village

Posted 20 June 2011, by Andrew Howley, National Geographic Daily News,

Emerging Explorer T.H. Culhane's innovative set up, using a can of soda and a "joule thief" to power an LED.

For a thrilling week every summer, explorers arrive by the dozen at NG headquarters for the Explorers Symposium, to meet and inspire each other, to share ideas, and to plan how we can help tell their stories over the coming year.

Today was the first day of meetings and it was full of fascinating ideas and great quotes (which you can see featured in tweets from @NatGeoExplorers).

You don’t have to be an explorer to have an influence on this crew though. One of the most mind-blowing moments was when T.H. Culhane walked into the room with a glassfull of soda lighting up a lightbulb. And this didn’t just come out of his head, he got the idea last week when he saw this video, of a kid describing how he turned an aluminum can into a battery:

.H., being a guy focused on finding cheap, accessible sustainable energy solutions that people anywhere can build for themselves saw this and was inspired. The soda can battery itself was fairly low-powered, but he combined it with another innovation he’d heard of, the “joule thief”which nearly instantaneously takes a weak charge, builds it up and then releases the increased energy.

Using the joule thief setup, he was able to use a “dead” AA battery yielding just 1.2 volts to power a 3 volt LED light.

Combining the joule thief and the aluminum can battery, he has a plan to make electric power accessible to people in some of the most rural places on Earth. In Nepal, for example, where he’d just been helping install solar and biogas generators, they have an almost absurd surplus of aluminum cans from the huge tourist industry around Mt. Everest. Filling these cans with water that has run through wood ash and picked up potassium hydroxide and using a simple electrode such as a brillo pad or pencil lead, people can set up multiple batteries, joule thieves, and LEDs and have enough light to fill a room.

Watch T.H. explain his set up:

From a kid’s video on YouTube to a real-world solution to a major problem faced by millions around the world. That’s the kind of innovation that can happen when curious minds get together, online or in person, or both. The fact that it happened on a Monday bodes well for the rest of this week-long Explorers Symposium. Get updates all week here on Nat Geo NewsWatch and on Twitter @NatGeoExplorers.

T.H. Culhane's alternate setup, using aluminum foil and a steel-wool pad separated by paper towels in a glass of water mixed with a tablespoon of drain-cleaner.


The original photo accompanying this post showed a slightly different set up (seen at right), where Culhane had poured the soda into a glass and added aluminum foil, creating the same effect. The new photo above shows the aluminum can set up as described in the text and videos.

Thawed Arctic Could be a Sea of Cooperation, Iceland Minister Says


Thawed Arctic Could be a Sea of Cooperation, Iceland Minister Says


Posted 25 June 2011, by David Braun, National Geographic Daily News,

Opening the Seventh International Congress of Arctic Social Sciences, in Akureyri, Iceland, this week, Iceland’s Minister for the Environment, Svandís Svavarsdóttir, called for cooperation among nations sharing the polar region. “Instead of being a frozen barrier, the Arctic Ocean could become a new Mediterranean Sea at the top of the world,” she told hundreds of social scientists from 30 countries.

The delegates were gathered to discuss a wide range of issues affecting the top of the world in times of sweeping climate and social change. The conference was organized by the International Arctic Social Sciences Association.

Here is an edited version of Svandís Svavarsdóttir’s remarks:

By Svandís Svavarsdóttir,
Minister for the Environment, Iceland

Akureyri, Iceland–It is my pleasure and an honour to welcome you here in Akureyri, which we Icelanders often refer to as “the capital of the North”. By this we mean that Akureyri is the biggest town and a centre of services in the northern part of Iceland, but in recent years this old title has taken on a new meaning.

Here in Akureyri a cluster of Arctic knowledge and institutions has formed, which makes Akureyri a magnet for those working on issues of the High North. The Stefansson Arctic Institute is a government agency to strengthen Iceland’s research efforts and participation in international scientific cooperation in Arctic issues. Secretaries of two Arctic Council working groups are located here, on the conservation of flora and fauna, and on the protection of the marine environment. The University of Akureyri offers a degree in Polar Law and is affiliated with the University of Arctic. These bodies cooperate and support each other and help cement Akureyri’s role as a northern centre.

This conference is a milestone in this regard; it is to the best of my knowledge the biggest scientific conference that has been held in Akureyri. We have participants from some 30 countries with a wide range of expertise. We are thrilled to have the ICASS conference here in Iceland and here in Akureyri, and hope that our capital of the North will be a suitable frame for your ambitious agenda and work. We have even tried to keep the summer temperatures here at a range that will remind you of your geographical scope – and help you to keep a cool head for clear thinking.

The Arctic has always fascinated the outside world as a forbidding white wilderness, a place of epic loneliness, endless nights and heroic adventures of frostbitten explorers. Lately, it has caught the fancy of politicians and the media, as a warming climate makes access to sea lanes and natural resources easier. A race to exploit these potential riches is going on – a modern-day Yukon gold rush. The empty quarter at the top of the world is becoming a geopolitical game board. Or something along these lines, as the story is often presented in the media.

Except the Arctic is not empty. There is a different way to look at the Arctic region – as home. The Arctic is not only spectacular wilderness, but a region where some 2 million people live, or even more, depending on where you draw to the boundaries of the Arctic world. Some inhabitants have been indigenous to the region for millenia, developing unique cultures and a way of life in harmony with the natural riches and challenges of the North. Others have arrived more recently. Contact between the peoples of the Arctic has until recently been minimal, lines of communication have usually been to the south, not to fellow Northerners.

The people, societies, economies and cultures of the Arctic and sub-Arctic region is the subject of study for members of IASSA. It is in many ways a pioneering work, as we have a shortage of comparative data for Arctic and sub-Arctic societies, and a relatively short history of academic cooperation and joint studies. Iceland is proud to have contributed to Arctic social science inter alia through the development of the Arctic Human Development Report. This work was led by the Stefansson Arctic Institute during Iceland’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council 2002-2004. Iceland considers it important that the human dimension is well represented at the Arctic Council. The input of social sciences is highly relevant at the Council – through the development of social and economic indicators, through the updating of the Arctic Human Development Report and through the integration of the social dimension in all its work. Iceland will continue to emphasize the social dimension in the Arctic Council and in its approach to Arctic issues.

The Arctic is undergoing fundamental changes now – political, social and economical. The most profound change may be in the environment, which will affect the entire Arctic ecosystem and all its communities. Climate change is more visible and more acute in the Arctic than in most regions of the world. Sea ice is retreating, glaciers are melting, permafrost is thawing, species are migrating. This change will not only affect the Arctic, but the world. Increased melting of the Greenland ice cap is serious news for people in Bangladesh and Pacific islands. Never before has the world looked so much to the Arctic in search for answers on issues that concern all humankind.

If we do not manage to curb emissions of greenhouse gases we could be looking at an ice-free Arctic Ocean before the end of this century. Instead of being a frozen barrier, the Arctic Ocean could become a new Mediterranean Sea at the top of the world. But the cost of such scenario would be tremendous.

Unchallenged climate change will cause an upheaval in the Arctic and spell a disaster to the world. But we do not need sea ice and glaciers to disappear to remove barriers in cooperation between people in the circumpolar region. We will see rapid change in Arctic societies in the coming years, just like in the environment. We are already seeing this change, an increase in drilling for oil and gas, in shipping, in tourism and so on. All this calls for greater cooperation, with the aim to ensure sustainable development of the Arctic. We need better knowledge, we need to study best practices, we need to learn from each other. We need forums for cooperation such as IASSA, we need conferences such as this one. We can turn the Arctic into a Mediterranean of close cooperation, without doing so in the physical sense.

I have looked at your agenda and I am impressed by the scope of your work and the wide range of studies to be discussed here. I wish you good luck in your work here at this conference and in the future. We who work in policy-making will be looking to you for knowledge, data, ideas and guidance.

Vilhjálmur Stefánsson, the Icelandic-Canadian explorer whom the Stefansson institute is named after, coined the term “the friendly North”; which was contrary to all widely-held ideas of the Arctic in his days. What he meant was that if you know the region as well as the indigenous peoples of the Arctic, it becomes a place where one can not only survive, but live a good life. Nature stops becoming a cold-hearted foe, as it seemed to many early explorers, but starts being a friend and a provider of people’s physical and spiritual needs. All you need is some cool-headed knowledge about the perils and gifts of Mother Nature, and a wisdom in your heart on how to live in harmony with her many moods. This is the work of science and politics and culture, all together.