Progress Rumbles Through Your Yard

by bicyclemark 2 Comments

photo by photos lignes tht / flickr

The lower Normandy that I’ve come to know is an amazing world of deep green fields, breathtaking skies, and a silence I have never heard before. The few houses you pass are modest and functional. They can be found between the long stretches of corn and the grazing land where content cows and sheep seem to have all the time in the world to eat and relax.  One of the busiest metropoles in the world is 3 to 4 hours away, but out here it may as well be on another continent. Still,  people here are busy, building things, cleaning things, working the land in one form or another. Some grew up here and continue a family tradition of agricultural work. Others come from different parts of the country, even foreign countries, to live the healthy, calm, and satisfyingly simple life they always wished for.

Looking out over the mystifying landscape one night, a friend shows me with great disappointment, massive new structures on the otherwise beautiful horizon. With their feet planted firmly in concrete, towering high above the corn and fruit orchards, are massive high tension power lines.  “They just put them in, stretching from the power plant that isn’t online yet several hundred kilometers away,” my friend describes with an alarmed tone like someone talking about an oil slick or a forest fire swallowing up his neighbors. “The power company is planning to use these lines to sell electricity to Spain, all the nearby farmers protested, but the company built it anyway.”  He went on to describe the extensive campaign to fight the power company and how they are able to seize land for installing power cables and towers regardless of what the nearby community thinks.

I stepped back from the situation and thought about how often scenario’s like this take place. The massive dam projects in India that displaced thousands of people with little to no consultation. The coal power plant right next door to the city of Ulan Bataar in Mongolia, bringing electricity and horrific air pollution to hundreds of thousands nearby.  Throughout history and including today, projects are pursued for different reasons, some to improve lives, some just for the sake of profit or prestige.  And regardless of their purpose, sometimes those same projects wind up harming the very people they set out to benefit.

These same questions will still be asked about major decisions and risky initiatives long after all of us have left the planet, when is worth it and when is it not worth it? Innovation and development that improves quality of life for more people on this planet – who could argue with that? But innovation and development for the sake of profit for a tiny few while harming a larger part of the population – why should that be acceptable?

A different issue but yet somehow related, I’m reminded of Mario Savio’s speech in 1964: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”

Hospitals and Senior Homes

by bicyclemark 1 Comment

I’ve spent the better part of this summer with senior citizens, especially those living in small town Portugal. They are the generation just barely hanging on, the same people who 20 years ago I would spend much of my summer with.  They were the farmers, the housewives, the seamstresses, and the factory workers. They raised children, they emigrated to countries where there was work and hope, and then they came home to live among their farms and friends for those golden years as they awaited visits from grandchildren and for life to carry on.

As decades flew by, these towns changed dramatically and perhaps the people did too.  Young people kept leaving, and old people kept getting older. The focus shifted to nearby cities and suddenly there were hardly any children in town.  The local school where my mother and so many other children studied, stands empty and closed as the regional government has decided there aren’t enough students. The ruins of houses I used to visit when I was a kid lay everywhere, with their collapsed roofs, broken windows and walls that have crumbled.  In the center of the village there are now only two buses per day to get you to the nearest towns, another sign of a culture that has embraced the car as the ONLY means of transportation, and a community that can hardly walk to the bus stop.

Some of the still mobile seniors still tend to their fields, watering their crops which is mostly just for home consumption.  Several middle aged farmers do the lion’s share of the work, growing pears and grapes, the inconsistent cash crops of the community. Their children go to school and vocational training, their interests lead them away from the farm, towards the much talked about better life that is assumed to exist beyond this dying town.  As days turn into weeks, another beloved member of the community passes away. Their land passes on to a child who lives far away. Their houses lay empty, some strong enough to resist the decay, others not so lucky.  Outside of town there are a few tourism projects that attract visitors with money; wine tourism, people seeking peace and quiet, and those who find the mountains and valleys of agricultural Portugal to be charming.  Inside of town, the mayor wonders out loud about what will happen to his shrinking population when the generation that built the town is completely gone, and then next generations have long moved away.

This story of one particular village that I have known all my life, repeats itself over and over in Portugal.  Cities get bigger. Villages die out.  The elderly disappear while the young follow the promise of a what some say is a better life. Ripe plums and peaches fall from abandoned groves to the point that it smells like wine in the afternoon heat. Down the main road a few minutes there’s a new giant super market chain store that has opened up, they’ve got a sale on peaches and plums.

A West African Journey

by bicyclemark 2 Comments

Yam Farming

When three friends set out on a journey through West Africa, they knew an unpredictable but potentially wonderful adventure awaited them.  And sure enough from Senegal through Mali, BurkinaFaso to Ghana and finally to Togo, they experienced the joy and witnessed the struggles of everyday life there.  As radio journalists and documentary film makers, they observed and reported, but some things even an interview can’t capture properly.

The following conversation was recorded in Berlin just a few days into the New Year. It features Steffi and Phillip, both independent media producers who just returned from Togo.  I asked them about their journey, including the stops en route to Togo, comparisons between countries, and how the experience matched or did not match their expectations and hopes for the journey. We also talk about a documentary about Togolese culture which they are also working on.

Behind the Famine in Somalia

by bicyclemark 13 Comments

Photo by Oxfam Italia

Earlier this year a famine was declared in Somalia. It was not the first time the world had heard about a humanitarian crisis in that struggling country. How did the world respond? How did Somalia get to the state it is in today and who was involved in getting it that way?

As part of a new monthly series, a veteran of the international scene and my good friend Tarak and I sit down here in Amsterdam and talk about the case of a massive under-reported concern with many lives on the line and a lot of money invested or, not invested, as the case may be.  We break down the situation and look at it through a critical and caring lens.