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What the Fur-k? June 23, 2008

Posted by Andreas in Environment, Life, Politics, Society.
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I wrote this for Elle magazine a while ago:

What the Fur-k?

Andreas Späth ponders the continuing debate over fur in fashion: passé or morally reprehensible?

Fur is back. For those of us who hadn’t noticed, Jean-Paul Gaultier’s collection at this year’s Paris Fashion Week was a graphic eye-opener: almost every garment contained some fur, including the bits that even fans of fur may find a little, well …creepy: bushy tails a-dangle and fox heads draped over brows. What a change from the 90’s, when every supermodel worth her admittedly inconsequential weight was eager to pose bareback on billboards the size of small flat blocks shouting “I’d rather go naked than wear fur”.

Is wearing fur in the Noughties simply no longer an ethical issue, because the global fur industry’s PR machine has put owning a mink coat on a par with strapping yourself into a pair of leather boots? Or are we merely witnessing a trend turn-about by the famously fickle fashion industry?

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), the world’s largest animal rights group which has become synonymous with aggressive anti-fur campaigns, remains adamant in its opposition to the fur industry in its entirety. As one of their many evocative slogans puts it, for PETA, “fur is worn by beautiful animals and ugly people”.

There are equally outspoken voices on the opposite end of the debate. According to London-based journalist Brendan O’Neill, “what really lies under the skin of today’s anti-fur hysteria is a discomfort with man’s domination of nature and beast.” He believes that “As a fashion item, an animal acquires significance far beyond its own natural existence. Indeed, the only true ‘purpose’ in the life of a mink or rabbit is that bestowed on it by the hunter, skinner and fur-maker”.

What about those of us who do enjoy the odd fillet and frites, but feel decidedly uncomfortable with O’Neill’s cold calculus of “beast” and “man”? If we are happy to wear dead animal skin as shoes and jackets, but shy away from fur, are we simply hypocrites?

Humans have used furs literally since they figured out how to wield a wooden club. Today the fur trade is a multi-billion dollar global industry that kills 40 to 50 million animals annually. Some 85 percent of all pelts come from fur farms, while the remainder are sold by trappers. Worldwide, the most commonly farmed fur animals are minks, followed by foxes. Others include chinchillas, lynxes, rabbits and even hamsters. Within the last decade, China has become the world’s largest exporter of fur clothing.

Since the late 80’s and 90’s, when the fur trade was in a slump, the industry has worked hard on its tainted image. Today, designers like John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Emanuel Ungaro are using fur without an audible public outcry and celebrity style icons from Kate Moss and the Olsen twins to Snoop Dogg and Kid Rock flaunt fur in public without the fear of being doused in red paint by PETA activists. Global fur sales are up.

The industry’s worldwide PR strategy is aimed at dispelling the moral stigma attached to animal fur. The Fur Council of Canada’s “Fur Is Green” campaign, for example, promotes fur as “the ultimate eco-clothing” that is renewable, durable, recyclable, biodegradable and non-polluting.

At the end of 2006, the International Fur Trade Federation (IFTF) launched a labelling programme to help consumers identify the species of fur they are buying, but opponents assert that the globalisation of the industry has made it impossible to know for sure where many products originate and what species of animal they come from. They insist that while the fur trade may be reasonably well regulated and monitored in Europe and North America, this is not the case elsewhere, especially in China, a country with few legal provisions for animal welfare.

Animals that are farmed for their fur spend their entire lives in the confines of small wire mesh cages that allow for little movement. A family farm in China can have as few as 20 or 30 cages, whereas large commercial operations may involve 20 000 animals. Although the IFTF emphasises that its members adhere to strict codes of practice for animal welfare, undercover investigations by activists and journalists have frequently exposed poor conditions on fur farms across the globe. Prevented from exhibiting their natural behaviour patterns farmed animals frequently exhibit cannibalism, self-injury, such as tail and pelt biting and infanticide.

The methods used to kill the animals include poisoning, gassing, neck breaking and electrocution. The practice of genital electrocution, deemed “unacceptable” by the American Veterinary Association, for instance, is still used on chinchilla farms. Animals are exposed to an electric current for one to two minutes via clamps attached to an ear and their genitalia. This induces a massive heart attack, but often doesn’t lead to instantaneous death. Animals have been known to wake up while being skinned (see sidebar).

Fur enthusiast Karl Lagerfeld may believe that “as long as we eat meat and wear leather, I don’t even think there is a subject to discuss”, but likening fur farming to the commercial meat and leather industry is disingenuous. Cows and pigs have been domesticated for thousands of years and while most leather is a by-product of meat production, the vast majority of farmed fur animals are grown exclusively for their pelts.

Fur farming is less than 150 years old and none of the animal species in question are domesticated. In the wild, minks, for example, are solitary and territorial, semi-aquatic animals that spend up to 60 percent of their lives in water hunting for prey. On a fur farm they are confined to small cages in close proximity to hundreds of other individuals without access to their natural habitat.

As many as ten million animals are trapped for fur every year, most commonly using so-called leghold traps, the spring-loaded steel jaws of which clamp onto the animal’s leg by biting into the flesh. Caught animals can be stuck for days before dying and up to one in every four escapes by chewing off its own foot. To kill the animals without damaging the fur, trappers typically strangle, stomp or beat them to death. Traps are also notoriously indiscriminate and accidentally kill millions of non-target animals every year.

In the end, there are no easy answers in the ongoing fur debate and we’ll each have to rely on our personal moral compasses to come up with our individual positions on the issue.

This is a shortened eye-witness account from the fur market in a Chinese town called Shangcun published in the Beijing News in 2005:

The wooden club in the woman’s hand swings down onto the [raccoon dog’s] forehead. […] Ten or more minutes later Qin Lao approaches the raccoon dog with a knife. His job is to skin the animals. The raccoon dog is suspended upside down from a hook on the overhead bar of a motor-tricycle and the area around the hind legs and anus is scored with the knife. There is a ripping sound as the skin is torn completely from the hind legs and the animal struggles to turn away, crying out. […] The whole fur is finally ripped from the raccoon dog’s body. The animal is thrown onto the back of the truck, steam rising from its blood-red body. It tries to stand up again, lifting its head and glancing down at its own body. Without blinking it tries once more to turn its head and then falls still“.

Steampunk Magazine June 17, 2008

Posted by Andreas in Uncategorized.
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I’ve been reading issues 1 to 4 of SteamPunk Magazine recently.


If you enjoy China Mieville’s books or Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or Michael Moorcock’s A Nomad of the Timestreams series or even if you’re into cyberpunk, I’m guessing you’d enjoy reading the mag, too. Find out more, order or download here.

USA and China: Re-Colonising Africa? June 13, 2008

Posted by Andreas in Politics, Society, South Africa.
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Another story I wrote for the Big Issue:

Re-Colonising Africa

David Bullard’s opinion notwithstanding, much of Africa’s history has been detrimentally affected by people from outside its shores. It’s nearly impossible today to imagine the brutal hardships centuries of slave trading inflicted on the continent’s population and we are still living with the legacy of the colonial era, when empire-building Europeans carved up the land to better facilitate the extraction of its riches for the benefit of elites from Lisbon and London to Brussels and Paris, all under the pretence of delivering civilisation and Christianity.

Things didn’t improve a whole lot once most of Africa’s countries had nominally liberated themselves from their European masters. The United States and the USSR found the continent a suitable terrain – sufficiently remote from their domestic populations and press – to stage their sometimes overt, but often secret Cold War machinations, propping up agreeable dictators here, deposing of less cooperative ones there and all the while fuelling bloody civil wars with weapons and military aid. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the industrialised world with the US at its helm has continued to treat Africa as both a developmental basket case and a valuable source of raw materials.

None of this is to deny that Africa hasn’t been plagued by many internal problems or that all of its woes can simply be blamed on outsiders. Far from it, but it does make one wonder what the rest of the world has in store for us in the 21st century.

Many observers believe that the stage is set for a massive period of geopolitical posturing between the USA, currently the planet’s only fully-fledged super power, and the not-so-new kid on the block, China. It seems inevitable that Africa with its wealth of natural resources and continuing trouble spots will play a strategic role in this showdown.

Both countries have upped their involvement in the continent’s affairs in recent times and although their methods and motivations often appear literally worlds apart, the end results may not be all that different. Are we witnessing the beginning of a new era of political and economic colonialism in Africa? Will Africans benefit or suffer from the fallout of the looming power shuffle?

In 2007 the USA caused some controversy in diplomatic circles when it announced that all of its African military interests (with the exception of Egypt) would in future be consolidated under a single new control centre called Africa Command, or AFRICOM. In the past, US military matters in Africa where steered from three separate units: the European, Central and Pacific Commands.

Officially, the main function of the new body is to help Africa “achieve a more stable environment in which political and economic growth can take place” and according to US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Africa, Theresa Whalen, AFRICOM’s mission is to promote economic, humanitarian and diplomatic aid for African countries.

There are, however, several other reasons for establishing AFRICOM which the US government is less vocal about. The new command will help to safeguard continued American access to African natural resources, most crucially oil – Africa is forecast to supply a quarter of all US petroleum imports by 2015. It will also facilitate the continent’s incorporation into America’s “War on Terror” and put the US in a strong position to compete with China in the new scramble for Africa.

Opponents of AFRICOM insist that it needs to be seen within the context of what they call the “militarisation of US policy in Africa”. According to Beth Tuckey, Associate Director of Africa Faith and Justice Network (www.afjn.org), “developments like AFRICOM reveal that the Bush Administration’s national security strategy relies on putting soldiers at the front of nearly all foreign operations”.

In recent years, the USA has established, financed and enlarged military, intelligence and counter-terrorism bases and programs in several African countries, including Djibouti, Mali, Chad, Niger, Mauritania, Ghana, Gabon and Senegal and trained and equipped local troops for peacekeeping activities in numerous others. In 2008, legal commercial sales of military weapons and equipment by US companies in Africa are projected to reach $92 million, an increase of 80 percent from 2006. The oil rich Gulf of Guinea is reported to be under nearly continuous US naval patrol from Angola to Guinea.

That AFRICOM is more than simply a military entity is evident from the fact that it will coordinate the activities carried out by all US governmental agencies, including for example the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which previously operated independently of the army. Marie Clarke, Deputy Director for Africa Action (www.africaaction.org), a Washington-based African affairs organisation, points out that “the projected structure [of AFRICOM] would place humanitarian work under the auspices of the Department of Defense”.

Perhaps the most scathing criticism of AFRICOM has come from the US National Conference of Black Lawyers, which believes that it “infringes on the sovereignty of African States”, is “designed to violate international law standards” and “is also likely to become a device for the foreign domination and exploitation of Africa’s natural resources”. A number of African countries and regional bodies, including South Africa and the Southern African Development Community have expressed concern about AFRICOM and the United States’ growing military footprint on the continent. Despite considerable diplomatic manoeuvring, only Liberia has thus far publicly expressed a willingness to support AFRICOM which is expected to have its temporary headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany for the foreseeable future.

While the United States is significantly beefing up its military activities in Africa, its economic and developmental programme for the continent has been in place without major modifications for some time. On his 2008 state visit of Benin, Ghana, Liberia, Rwanda and Tanzania, President Bush reiterated his country’s commitment to help Africa promote literacy, fight HIV/AIDS, malaria, corruption and “radicals and extremists associated with groups like al-Qaeda” and grow its economy through foreign direct investment, trade, and aid.

For the most part, however, this help has only come within the framework of what has been called the Washington Consensus, an economic doctrine largely administered via international institutions including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation that have been disproportionately influenced by US policymakers. In exchange for financial and material developmental assistance, the governments of African (and other Third World) countries have been required to open their fragile economies to global markets, stop subsidies to domestic industries and agriculture, reduce social spending and privatise public assets. Many believe that rather than predominantly resulting in positive effects, these measures have contributed to the impoverishment of Africa.

Although the USA spends billions of dollars in support of African countries it also stands accused of supporting illegitimate and corrupt regimes that are willing to provide preferential access to resources or support for the unpopular “War on Terror”. Examples include military aid supplied to Rwanda, a country that has been involved in armed conflict in the DRC and is alleged to have committed human rights violations directed at Hutus, as well as Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, whom US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has described as a “good friend”, but who observers claim is guilty of electoral fraud, torture and corruption.

China’s activities in Africa are still frequently portrayed in “Yellow Peril” terms by the western media, although the country has long stopped attempting to export its brand of revolutionary communism to the developing world. Even though recent arms shipments to Zimbabwe have reinforced many people’s negative image of Chinese Africa policy, the country’s dealings on the continent, be they in military assistance, trade, investment or aid are still dwarfed by the involvement of the US and Europe.

What clearly has the Americans worried though is the rate at which China has been expanding its influence in Africa. As a relatively resource-poor nation, China is increasingly looking to Africa to supply its burgeoning manufacturing sectors with raw materials and also for new markets for its cheap consumer goods.

Africa already provides 25 percent of China’s oil requirements and overall trade between China and Africa quadrupled to $39 billion from 2000 to 2005. It is expected to reach the $100 billion mark by 2010. Among other projects, China is smelting copper in Zambia, logging rainforest in Gabon, building roads in Kenya, farming in Zimbabwe, mining cobalt in the DRC and producing oil in Sudan, Angola and Nigeria. Unlike the US, however, it has not as yet sought to establish any military footholds on the African continent.

Chinese aid to African countries comes in the form of infrastructure projects such as building schools and hospitals, loans, investment, debt cancellation, trade agreements and scholarships to Chinese universities. Like the United States, China claims that its assistance is aimed at improving human rights and economic development as well as alleviating poverty.

The Chinese government claims to have a strict policy of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs and its aid comes without requirements such as economic reforms or commitments to improving human rights, democracy or environmental affairs. In juxtaposition to the Washington Consensus, these aspects of China’s foreign policy are frequently described as the Beijing Consensus.

Although its hands-off approach is favoured by many African governments, development assistance from China doesn’t come without any strings attached. Chinese aid is often tied to trade and investment agreements and frequently used to negotiate favourable access to natural resources such as fishing rights in Sierra Leone and Gabon, or oil concessions in Sudan and Angola.

Like the USA, China has been strongly criticised for maintaining friendly ties with discredited and authoritarian African leaders such as Mugabe and for not putting enough pressure on the Sudanese government to work towards peace in Darfur. In addition, Chinese construction projects in Africa are often carried out by imported Chinese workers, resulting in neither a transfer of much needed skills or job creation. Chinese logging and mining operations are often accused of showing scant regard for workers’ rights or environmental concerns and in a number of cases cheap Chinese imports have all but destroyed local industries, something the South African clothing and textile industry can attest to.

Clearly both the United States and China are ramping up their involvement in Africa and the continent with its wealth of strategic resources is bound to be caught up in the political brouhaha that will undoubtedly ensue as China challenges the USA’s status as the single dominant global power and the Americans prepare to defend their turf.

The threat of increasingly colonial relationships becoming entrenched between China and the USA on the one hand and African countries on the other is certainly real. Is there any merit in African countries backing either one of the two participants in this contest? Unless they can negotiate truly equitable and mutually beneficial relationships for the first time in history, past experiences and current evidence suggest the choice would merely be one for the better of two evils.

World Hunger Inc. June 2, 2008

Posted by Andreas in Politics, Society, South Africa, Sustainable Living.

Here’s another article I wrote for the Big Issue. A slightly edited version appears in the magazine which is still on sale, so go buy it, please!

World Hunger Inc.

During the devastating famines that ravaged parts of Africa in the 1980s pictures of painfully emaciated, malnourished and starving Ethiopian children confronted well-fed newspaper readers in affluent countries on a daily basis. With their vacant, near-comatose stares, their swollen kwashiorkor bellies and sinewy, stick-like limbs, the very definition of the term “flesh and bones”, these poster children of human misery and the globalised reach of mass media gave rich First Worlders a small but gut-wrenching inkling of what it must feel like to be truly hungry.

More than two decades later, it is hunger itself that has been globalised as poor countries in Africa, South America and Asia are experiencing the first pangs of a growing worldwide food crisis. According to the World Bank, global food prices have risen by 83 percent in the last three years, affecting such staples as rice, maize, wheat, beans, cooking oil and soya. Within the last 12 months the price of wheat increased by 130 percent, that of soya by 87 percent and the market price for rice has doubled over the last few months alone.

The United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has warned that world grain supplies are at their lowest since the 1980s. Josette Sheeran, the Executive Director of the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), who talks of a “silent tsunami” of hunger sweeping across the planet’s poorest nations, recently told the European Parliament that her organisation’s ability to deliver food aid to developing countries is increasingly being affected by the crisis. In Southern Africa, the WFP estimates that more than 35% of the populations of Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Madagascar and Angola and over 36.5 million people in the region as a whole are now undernourished.

South African’s are also starting to feel the pinch. Reserve Bank Governor Tito Mboweni has cited the continuing rise in the cost of food staples including bread and rice as a key driver behind further interest rate hikes and Trevor Manuel has called on people “to plant every piece of arable land”.

From Senegal and Egypt to Bolivia, Uzbekistan, Indonesia and Yemen, desperate and starving people have taken to the streets in protest against skyrocketing food prices. Food riots in more than a dozen countries have met with a brutal police response, leading to a number of fatalities and hundreds of injured.

Although children, the elderly and women in poor countries that are net importers of staple foods are most vulnerable to the crisis, industrialised countries are no longer immune. High world food prices are starting to bite in Japan, a country that imports more than half of its food requirements, and in the USA there have been reports of people hoarding stocks of grains, while some major retailers have limited purchases of rice, cooking oil and flour. In the UK, the Daily Mail reports that food prices are rising at 15.5 percent annually, more than six times the official rate.

Quite suddenly, it seems, the global food crisis has joined climate change, the rising oil price and the looming prospect of a worldwide financial meltdown as perhaps the most immediate major issue facing humanity. But what are the reasons for the shortages and ballooning prices of food?

Many commentators blame what they call a “perfect storm”, an unfortunate coincidence of a number of apparently unrelated causes with cumulative and disastrous consequences. These include the current boom in biofuel production, global warming, world population growth, the high oil price, increasing rates of food consumption, particularly in populous China and India, and a reduction in investments in agriculture.

Bio-ethanol and biodiesel are being massively promoted as supposedly eco-friendly alternatives to petroleum-based fuels. In the last five years, worldwide biofuel production has more than doubled to over 37 billion litres per year and new laws require US biofuel production to be ramped up dramatically to nearly 57 billion litres per annum by 2015. Encouraged by government subsidies and tax breaks, the rush to plant maize for bio-ethanol in the US Midwest has been likened to a new gold rush.

The dilemma is that large-scale biofuel production reduces the acreage of land available for food cultivation and contributes to inflated crop prices. Lester Brown, the President of the Earth Policy Institute (www.earth-policy.org), calculates that the amount of grain required to make enough bio-ethanol to fill the tank of an SUV would be sufficient to feed a person for a whole.

Biofuel advocates counter that the negative hype is exaggerated and that biofuels have become a convenient scapegoat for high crop prices. The FAO and the International Food Policy Research Institute, however, estimate that they have contributed between 10 and 33 percent to recent price increases and the EU is now reassessing its 2010 target for 10 percent biofuel use in transportation.

The rising oil price has been identified as another culprit for the upward spiralling cost of food, because much of modern agriculture is a strictly industrial affair, heavily dependent on vast amounts of petroleum products from diesel and petrol for tractors and harvesters to synthetic fertilisers. The fact that food production these days is a long-distance international business that involves many miles of transport and long periods of storage and refrigeration only adds to these costs.

The effects of global climate change are also starting to take their toll. In Australia, for example, more than five years of drought have decimated the country’s wheat output and cut its rice crop by 98 percent. Flooding and dry spells in Malaysia and Indonesia have reduced South East Asian supplies of palm and soya oil, which are major sources of calories in the region. In addition, palm oil is increasingly being diverted towards biodiesel production and prices have jumped by nearly 70 percent in the past year.

Scientists predict that things will only get worse, with climate change leading to more extreme and unpredictable weather patterns, an increase in weed and pest outbreaks and sea level rise affecting many of the globe’s prime low-lying crop growing centres. While a moderate rise in temperatures could initially result in increased grain yields in high-latitude countries like Russia and Canada and possibly even a net increase in global food production, global warming threatens to cripple agriculture in many regions.

The continued growth of the world’s population, forecast to reach 9.2 billion by 2050, is putting increasing strain on global food supplies. Many analysts point to the growing middle class in China and India and particularly to their changing eating habits. Chinese per capita consumption of meat, especially pork, has grown by more than 150 percent since 1980. Since it takes as much as eight kilograms of grain to make just one kilogram of meat, such a massive increase in meat-rich diets necessitates considerable increases in grain production and China’s growing grain imports have been implicated in helping to push up prices.

It would be unfair to only blame China and India, however. Their role models for profligate consumption are the citizens of the world’s developed countries and the majority of them continue their hedonistic lifestyles heedlessly: the planet’s richest 20 percent consume 16 times more food than its poorest 20 percent.

Clearly, all of the factors outlined above have contributed towards the current global food crisis, but is this “perfect storm” of unrelated causes all there is to the story? What has been largely under-reported in recent press outpourings on this topic is that there are several political and structural causes that may be more fundamental to the problem.

Activists like Raj Patel, the author of “Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World Food System”, argue that the real cause underlying the current crisis is to be found in the way global food production is managed. Fewer and fewer enormously powerful transnational corporations control much of the world’s trade in food: only six companies own 70 percent of the global wheat trade, for example, and as heartless as it sounds, their bottom lines are calculated in profits, not in the number of starving children.

Industrialised countries in Europe and North America have long been criticised by Third World nations for heavily subsidising their agricultural sectors. In many cases, tax breaks and subsidies result in western farmers producing food at costs that are substantially higher than market prices.

Developing countries, on the other hand, have been forced for decades to abandon similar support for their own domestic farming sectors by global financial and trade institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Unable to compete with their state-subsidised First World counterparts on the global food market, they have been “encouraged” to open their economies to cheap imports from the north and to invest in so-called export-led growth, by growing cash crops such as coffee, cocoa, flowers and tobacco.

The result? When world prices for such cash crops dropped through the floor, many Third World nations were left with a dangerously diminished capacity to feed themselves and a dependency on foreign food aid, frequently in the form of subsidised North American or European grain – a vicious cycle that has led to growing poverty and the ever widening chasm between the world’s haves and have-nots.

Ultimately it is this trend towards deepening global impoverishment that lies at the heart of the food crisis. “We are seeing a new face of hunger”, says the WFP’s Sheeran, “we are seeing more urban hunger than ever before. We are seeing food on the shelves but people being unable to afford it”. It is ironic that while the presidents of the World Bank and the IMF, Robert Zoellick and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, have been widely quoted as expressing their concern about the crisis, few reporters have confronted them about their own organisations’ considerable culpability in the disaster.

In April this year, a comprehensive UN-sponsored study of the state of world agriculture confirmed that many of the root causes are systemic and require urgent change. The report notes that while more than 850 million people suffer from hunger, the world actually grows enough food for everyone. It is critical of the role of biofuels and suggests that genetically modified crops, which have in the past been presented as the answer to world hunger, play only a minor role in feeding the poor.

Importantly, the study also points out that our current system of food production and trade has resulted in serious ecological degradation and has contributed to a very unequal distribution of wealth, climate change and the food crisis. It calls for a reform in international trade laws in order to enhance sustainability and food security as well as for a removal of subsidies in developed countries.

In responding to the report, a group of international civil and environmental groups including Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the Third World Network pointed toward some possible solutions: “this is a sobering account of the failure of industrial farming. Small-scale farmers and ecological methods provide the way forward to avert the current food crisis and meet the need of communities”.