27 January, 2014

THE END OF MAIZE



I was at a small Newari town in the Kathmandu Valley at the beginning of the New Year. The hotel where I stayed at was perched on top of a hillock, and as the cold wind blew through the Himalayas I nestled up to the fire which an elderly woman was feeding with corn cobs. People in Kathmandu these days chuck wood frames painted with synthetic paints and inhale this dangerous fumes without a thought, so I was glad this woman, who turned out to the be the wife of the hotelier, still had some corn cobs to feed her fire.

“How much corn did you plant this year?” I asked.

The woman, who was in her Sixties, shook her head. “Its no longer worth it,” she said. “I’m going to let it fallow next year.” She picked up a cob, about a feet long, and showed it to me. “To produce this cob, we need to spend about thirty rupees on seeds, pesticides and fertilizers. Otherwise it won’t grow. Its getting too expensive. My son wants to turn the land into a fish pond and farm fish.”

Even till last year, though, she said, they got about 50 to 60 dokos of maize from that few ropanis. They ate it all through the winter. But now, she said, the cost had become too high, with new hybrid seeds which had to be bought, and agricultural workers who she had to give money to to keep the fields tended. “We go to the krishi office and get our seeds from there. That’s why it is so expensive. It is no longer viable for us to plant corn anymore.”

I asked her if they kept their own seeds, but she uttered these dreaded words: “Masiyo.” Our seed stock has gone extinct.

A few days later, I was at a mill buying oil and grains, when this polite gentleman who looked like a government beaureaucrat walked in. The mill owner asked him whether he was interested in this or that—here’s the local dal, and here’s the imported seeds, et cetera. Then he pointed to the corn and said, rather dryly: “We are lucky these days. We get to have our makai (corn) exported from Argentina. Would you like to take some?” The gentleman, who’d made a number of careful purchases, picked up the packet, weighted it in his hand, then declined.

“Gau kai mitho huncha,” he said. Our local maize is better. “I get our maize from the village. This is not so tasty. Yo ta kay ho kay ho, khaeko jastai lagdaina.” Then he went to talk about how delicious the maize back in his village was. “You didn’t even think about rice when you had some fresh cornmeal with chicken (kukhura ko jhol.) It is just something else,” he said. I asked him where he was from, and he mentioned a mid hill district. I asked if people kept their own maize seeds, and he shook his head. “Now we plant the hybrid seeds. We had those black and red kinds of maize that were delicious,” he said. “Abha masiyo.” Now those seeds are extinct.

Then a day or so ago, we got some visitors from the Terai. These men are farmers who live off the land, they know their crops with great acuity. I asked the old farmer, who’s been planting his rice and corn for a lifetime: “Do you still plant corn?”

Abha makai sidhiyo,” he said. Now the maize is finished.

Abha sabai ukhu, ukhu, ukhu cha.” Now its all sugarcane, sugarcane, sugarcane. “We still plant some wheat and rice,” he said. “That’s our winter crop. But the maize is gone. People plant sugarcane in its place.” I assume the sugarcane is a cash crop, bought by the sugar mills down in the valley. I ask if the rice and wheat seed stock is still their own, and he says they still keep their own stock. As for the maize, he again uttered these dreaded words: “Biu masiyo,” he said. The seed has gone extinct.

“We still plant a little bit of it from hybrid seeds,” he said. “But it is not so tasty. Its mostly used for chicken feed.”

It appears the maize, which was brought to Nepal from the Americas, has been decimated roughly about 500 years after its introduction by people from the same continent. Monsanto and its army are out and about, introducing new seeds that they think people will continue to buy and eat. But of course, people are versatile and adaptable. If maize seed becomes too expensive to plant and grow, people merely move on and eat something else instead.

It is entirely possible that Monsanto, with the help of local businessmen, is trying to decimate every known strain of seeds of food stock known to mankind. Lets call this the ultimate apocalyptic scenario. If the seeds of all known food grains are wiped out and people have to buy all seeds from the “krishi office” (and I would bet this is Monsanto’s ultimate aim, boosted by people like Bill Gates), what do people eat then?  Because despite Monsanto’s wishful thinking that people will be forced to buy its seeds despite its high cost of production, it appears to me that people simply drop the crop when it becomes economically unfeasible to keep planting.

In other words, it becomes “masiyo.” It goes extinct.

To me, this genetically modified seed invasion doesn’t seem like a saintly campaign to eradicate poverty. This appears to me a very dangerous trend towards eradicating a basic food crop that had given sustenance to people in hilly areas where no other crops can grow. I think hunger is going to soar in food deficit areas which depended upon this crop for months of food. I think about the Chepangs who hang off their steep hillsides and stick the maize seed into the hills with their tongues. What will these folks do once their seed is decimated? They are going to migrate to the cities, perhaps. Or else they are going to go back to foraging wild roots and plants, just as they did before the maize made its appearance in South Asia. To me, this seems like a rollback, not a forward movement, towards a more humane world.

Perhaps it is time for the international community to think about whether wiping out people’s seed stock counts as a crime towards humanity. Genetically modified seeds, and those that don’t grow again, directly attacks people’s—especially poor people’s--food security. If so, what action should be taken against the companies that are promoting these technologies without people’s knowledge?

Bill Gates: Saint of Poverty Reduction, or frightening Apocalyptic Capitalist?




Bill Gates may be the second (or is he now the third?) richest man in the world. 

But despite his wealth, something tells me he may not be the happiest man in the world at the present moment.

Primarily because about 7 billion people--minus the 50,000 who are hacking into computers and networks--are all looking at him and wondering: why on earth did we trust this college dropout?

Granted, the story was cool. College dropout starts amazing technological innovation (wait, I think that was Steve Jobs, but never mind) and becomes richest man in the world. Lets revise that-college dropout markets tech toy invented by another college dropout, and become a global force in marketing. Transforms everything, from education to banking to medicine to every known interaction mankind makes with each other.

Cool. Awesome, in fact.

Unfortunately, anything that gets described as “awesome” should have been taken with a grain of salt. But somehow humanity forgot to do it this time around. Around thirty years after the Big Bang of the computer’s ascent, it seems it is finally coming to rest to earth. With people wondering: why on earth did we ever put every single important and precious data in a box this easily broken, hacked and tampered with?

Seriously. Lets think about this. Was there some mass delusion and hysteria that hit people around 1973-2013, in which people simply didn’t notice that they were putting all their most precious data in some of the most leaky, untrustworthy and easily-wiped out technology on earth? What is it about American triumphantalist rhetoric that makes people ignore common sense?

Right around the time the World Trade Centers came down, George Dubya Bush went on record to boastfully say he was going to bomb Afganisthan “back to the Stone Age.” Now the more you think about it, the more the Stone Age appears a golden age of resilient humanity. All people needed to survive was, well, stones. They hunted with stone implements. They took only what they needed. They sat around the fire and told stories at night, and made some great art. They probably looked at the stars and the constellations and had some notions of divinity, and no doubt they followed rites and rituals which gave them a sense of calendrical regularity. They died at a good age, without having to face the senilities of old age or the horrors of modern allopathic pharmaceuticals.

Then along comes the Post-technological age, or the Digital Age. Now what do you get? You get one electricity blackout in New York City on a hot summer day and everything—I mean everything--closes down. Traffic lights, ATMS, fridges, TVs, radios, trains. The world stops functioning because technology failed and the lights went off. Doesn’t it seem the more “developed” humanity gets, the less resilient and less able to survive it becomes?

Then there’s the hypothetical scenario of one smart thirteen year old who decides to create a computer virus and let it loose on the world, and suddenly everything from Bill Gates to Wall Street will be shitting bricks. This is a hypothetical scenario, folks—but I would bet there’s quite a few teenagers out there who are on the cutting edge of creating “neat and cool” computer programs that can just do a whole lot of damage.

So here we sit, in the post-industrial age, looking at this giant mess we got ourselves into, wondering: WT...?

Well, lets get back to the Stone Age. Stone Age folks were using stone implements to dig out their yams. They got their yams and they ate it, without having to worry some college dropout would one day wipe out their storehouse of food by tampering with their genetic blueprints. Because now Mr. Gates is course on to the next cool thing--inserting viruses into perfectly healthy food plants. This process goes by the “awesome” moniker of “genetic modification,” and everyone’s keen to invest in it.

 At the heart of GM technology seems to be this interesting little process--inserting a virus into something perfectly healthy (BT cotton, anyone?) and screwing with it. Maybe somebody with some power and authority to stop unbrindled capitalism should scratch their heads right around now and say: Pray, Mr. Gates, why would you want to do that?

Just as we said “Awesome!” when Bill Gates started to market us a little old box that promised to do everything from computational calculations to photography, we also said “Awesome!” when he just sold us this notion of the genetically modified yam (delicately, his Foundation leaves out the “controversial” word GM in his address to his adoring followers in 2013). Apparently this yam is now curing hunger in Africa.

So that’s the next neat and cool invention embraced by the Great Mr. Gates—who not only owns a rather good chunk of Monsanto stock, but also seems to be out and about forcing this technology on the people of Africa, and no doubt sneakily in places like South Asia. The mainstream press presents these activities as those of an enlightened philanthropist who aims to wipe out world hunger.

Or perhaps just to market the next great invention onto a captive world? The Davos crowd of course have wasted no time painting Bill Gates as the Saint of Poverty Reduction. It seems they are less keen to examine where exactly this saintly humanitarian philanthropist may have more commercial motives at stake.

I was in a small little mountain town in the Kathmandu Valley for Maghay Sankranti—a calendrical festival that celebrates the shift of the stars. This festival has no doubt been celebrated since the Stone Age. What interested me was the thirteen different kinds of yams I saw being sold in the market. And then I heard these words from a standing bystander, and it sent a shiver down my back: “But the bikasay yam still has to ripen.” The bikasay (“developed”) yam? Anything with the term “bikasay” probably hides the horrors of new, unexamined technology that are being spread around the world with the speed of light and with the intent to enslave people to the grand old God of Profit. Introduce a virulent new GM yam to an unsuspecting mountain town in Nepal under the guise of “technical co-operation” or “support from the embassy,” and it could probably cause all of our thirteen different varieties of yam to become sterile and not propogate the next season.

Let me be upfront here—my blog post is not primarily about computers, or the frightening commercial greed of Bill Gates (or the stupidity of people who gave him that immense power to shape the world), but about what may be humanity’s even greater error than the blind embrace of digital technology thirty years in the past. Mainly, the power to screw with our food, which people with the apocalyptic power of unbrindled capitalism can now push on everyone.

With genetically modified seeds being seen as the next “frontier” of profit, and the free market ruling the world, humanity must do some quick thinking before we find all of our seeds have been wiped out by a few smart college dropouts. Mainly, humanity needs to learn that rich men are not always right, and that we should step in with the international judicial system to stop them before they destroy our food base.



24 January, 2014

THE CHINESE CENTURY



A number of anxious, paranoid articles recently written by Americans suggesting “we don’t need to worry about China, we’re still the biggest and the best,” made me wonder: are we still in the American century?
Christopher Matthews “China’s Economy Could be bigger than America’s,” in TIME.com, is an anxious look at this theme, along with this “let’s be good losers” consolation:  

The upshot is that the Chinese economy could already be bigger than our own. Does this knowledge make you feel any different? No? Well, it shouldn’t. That’s because, fortunately, economics isn’t about competition. It’s about collaboration.  Americans should hope for the Chinese economy to grow because that means there will be a larger market for the goods and services we create here in the U.S.”

Of course, half the articles that come up on the Internet is propaganda for one country or another, each suggesting their economy is doing fabulously well, and the other one’s economy is down in the dumps. However, there’s always a few indicators of what the real state of affairs might be. For instance, the BBC article here states that:
China has claimed that it is "very likely" that it overtook the US as the world's top trading nation, a title the US has held for decades.

According to the latest data, China's total trade grew at an annual rate of 7.6% to $4.16tn (£2.5tn) last year.

The US is yet to release it full-year figures, but its trade for the first 11 months of 2013 totalled $3.5tn.

Now is this real, or a bit of boosted up data from China? Well, from my own personal experience, I’d say that China’s trade has probably overshot the USA’s a while back. I think back to the last time I bought a piece of American manufactured clothing or goods. The Apple Mac I was bought in Thailand in 2010 was assembled in China-I hope Steve Jobs got a tiny percentage of royalty just before he died. Even the last Coca-Cola I drank was probably in 2005 or 2006-when I was in a remote area of Nepal and there was no clean water. The last Hollywood movie I watched in a theatre was The Titanic, in 1998.

Other than that, I give a great deal of money to the Chinese economy. I wear Chinese shoes, jeans, and even underwear. I buy fake North Face jackets from Khasa. Despite my best attempts to buy local, I hazard a guess all the sweaters, skirts, leather shoes and glass baubles I bought in my trips to Italy, Spain and France were made in China.  I am certain even the” Hmong village” I visited in Chiang Mai, where one lone woman sits ingeniously knitting an indigenous bag, is filled with Hmong inspired goods made in a factory in Guangzhou. 

Something tells me much of the goods in Bangkok’s markets are probably made in China. All Hollywood movies I watch are on DVD, pirated in China. Even the oatmeal we eat is made in China. 

The Chinese have also started to do this ingenious trade where they will take the nice, spicy ginger and tasty local garlic from Nepal for a cheap price, then send us watery, tasteless ginger and garlic, probably doused with chemicals and pesticides, from China for a high price. How can they not be doing good trade, with this sort of ability to bargain and negotiate?

Then there’s the fact that China keeps cordial relationships with all of the Muslim world; has never invaded a Middle Eastern country or tried to impose sanctions on an entire population; has never tried to assassinate Latin American leaders with cancer; builds, instead of destroys, nice highways and hospitals for everyone from the Nepalese to Africans (whether we want them or not); has never tried to use its foreign aid program to wipe out people’s seed stock with genetically modified seeds; doesn’t operate a drone program; has to people’s knowledge never kept political dissidents awake with secret sleep deprivation torture; and in general behaves politely and with great restraint in other people’s countries. This really helps to maintain trade relationships. 

Clearly, the Chinese have been following the “Art of War” by Sun Tzu to the letter, while the Americans let Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” fall by the wayside. Guess who’s the better student here?

Unlike America, which preaches about freedom and democracy on the outside, while supporting a 54 billion dollar national security apparatus that has effectively separated from any chain of command and is running around the world secretly persecuting people in ways the ordinary American has no idea about, China has made some strum and drang about oppressing Tibet overtly, while secretly building trade links with all the Tibetans on the inside. Or as my Tibetan friend said to me a while back: “They may appear to protest China, but on the inside almost all the Tibetans are trading and working with the Chinese businessmen now.”   Richard Gere would be distressed to know the extent of the collaboration.

It is not a matter of “When China will overtake the American economy.” It is now a question of: “How much has it already overtaken the American economy?” While the Americans waste their time on stocks and bonds, and keep playing with illusory numbers, and bad Hollywood movies, China has been quietly and humbly making, and selling real objects, with real hard cash, since the beginning of this century, or possibly even a decade before that. It has changed the lives of people (whether we wanted it to change, or not.) Everyone now has warm clothes, and basic electric gadgets, and household items of use, because of China. 

China’s economic growth is unclear in terms of numbers, no doubt. But the Americans may be erring on the side of too much caution by thinking the Chinese are hiding their losses. In fact, it is equally possible they may be hiding a lot of economic activity and profit that even the Chinese government may have no idea about. 

The question now is  not: Is China bigger than America? The question is: how much bigger is it? And to answer that question you’d need more data than that generated by government surveys and tax forms.

An Austrian girl I met recently told me scornfully: "The Chinese go on these one week European trips where they run from one European capital to the other, hitting the main tourist hotspots. What do they expect to see in this strange way?"

These may be the lower middle class tourists who do their once-in-a-lifetime European tour in this manner. What I noticed in Oxford in the summer of 2012 was this—buses full of Chinese tourists who were bringing their children on a summer tour. They were literally hundreds of Chinese on the streets of Oxford. And these were not the poor Chinese. These were the rich ones, toting giant cameras that Europeans may not be able to afford now there’s an economic crisis, chatting and laughing and drinking coffee in throwaway cups. This is a China that the West has yet to notice.