That was the stark headline on a news story put out at the end of last week by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. All it takes is some simple math, and suddenly the immensity of the global hunger problem is as clear as a line in the sand: five of us stand on this side, one of us on the other. Continue reading →
Is it a popular artist’s responsibility to speak out about important issues?
That’s the question that was posed to us last Sunday at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tennessee. As part of Oxfam America’s presence at the festival, I had the pleasure of being a panelist at a discussion about the intersection of activism and music. The panel took place on the Solar Stage, an earth-friendly performance area.
The panelist to my right happened to be Will Sheff from Okkervil River, a band I admire greatly. Before the panel, Sheff and I killed a little time in the “Green Room” tent adjacent to the stage by talking about his band’s efforts to “green” their own tours and to encourage fans to ride bikes to their gigs to slash gig-related carbon footprints. Sheff mentioned that they didn’t start those initiatives because of any particular movement or campaign, but rather because they personally just felt that the by-products of touring were wasteful. (Performer Ben Sollee may be one of the few musicians to complete a full tour on a bike, when he pedaled 330 miles to Bonnaroo with his cello.)
That’s why I wasn’t surprised to hear Sheff’s response to the panel’s question. He said, in essence: “I don’t think it’s an artist’s responsibility to do the right thing; I think it’s a human’s responsibility to do the right thing.” Who could argue with that?
At one point we passed a contingent of heavily armed men. Father Arana whipped out his phone and called his office to report their location. The men were elite police officers, he explained to me after he’d hung up, part of a DINOES unit (Dirección Nacional de Operativos Especiales, sort of like a SWAT team). They are used to quell violence that occasionally flares up near the Yanacocha gold mine when local farmers and indigenous people protest a lack of water or other problems that they attribute to mining. This type of violence is part of a pattern: indigenous people, farmers—those without sufficient political clout to get their local government to address a problem—sometimes block a road, or seize an oil well, anything to get someone to pay attention. Hopefully their protest will spur an official to come and talk with them, maybe promise to fix a problem, and everyone can go home.
I remember my first encounter with bribery. It took me a little while to register that that’s what was actually happening—a $25 payout for a set of travel papers that would have been mine for a lot less if I had been willing to wait for days for someone—somewhere—to process the request. But by that time, I would have long-missed the flight to my destination. I had to get there and the bureaucrats in charge of the papers probably knew it.
So I forked over the money, as did a friend with whom I was travelling. Our handlers knew the drill well. Before we could even begin to worry about this unexpected outlay, one of them handed us a piece of paper that said “justification for expenses without receipt.” It was stamped with a government seal and the amount recorded at the bottom. Continue reading →
In recent weeks indigenous people in Peru have been protesting against new laws that will allow the government to grant foreign companies access to oil, gas, and mineral resources on their community lands. Indigenous people have the right to be consulted about these sorts of decisions under international law, but the government says the resources belong to the entire country. This past weekend there were violent confrontations between the protesters and the police resulting in 50 deaths. Both sides are accusing the other of human rights violations.
Riding in the back of a taxi the other night, I heard a BBC news story that sounded strangely familiar. After a lawsuit that dragged on for 13 years, the oil giant Royal Dutch Shell agreed to pay a $15.5 million settlement to Nigerian families as compensation for its alleged complicity in past human rights abuses, including the 1994 execution of local leaders who spoke out for the rights of people affected by the oil industry.
The company denied any wrongdoing, but said it welcomed the settlement as part of “a process of reconciliation.” Meanwhile, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs hailed the outcome as a message that “corporations, like individuals, must abide by internationally-recognized human rights standards.” (The case made it all the way to the US courts, based on an old law that allows international human rights cases to be tried here.)
Interesting news: we just heard that our Saving for Change program has broken the 250,000 participant barrier. According to the message we just got from our VP John Ambler, Saving for Change now has “more than 250,000 members, and operates in more than 6,000 villages on three continents.” This makes Saving for Change one of Oxfam America’s largest non-humanitarian programs.
Remember Ben Sollee, the cellist and Oxfam supporter who gave me a very unstable lift on the back of his bike during the South by Southwest festival? Well, he’s just embarked on his official bike ride to the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival next week, with his Oxfam America cello case and 60 pounds of equipment in tow. Regrettably, I won’t be joining him on this particular ride.
Ben’s 300-mile journey passes through his native Kentucky en route to the festival grounds in Tennessee, all with the purpose of spreading the word about Oxfam’s work.
“We’re going to be riding through the heart of these towns and people will have questions. Conversations will take seed,” Ben told the Huffington Post this week. “In the end, the music will bridge any gaps in vernacular and we’ll have a great show. It’s important for me to remember that I’m going to these places on an invitation from the community. Booking agents didn’t book this tour. Rather, the community found places to host us.”
One of our bloggers, Anna Kramer, wrote recently about re-branding the debate on climate change—the urge people on both sides of the issue have to spin the discussion in a way that suits them best. Can coal be clean? Is natural gas green? It all depends on your spin.
But it’s more than words we’re talking about. It’s consequences. Serious ones.
Take the phrase “renewable energy” and its sister, “alternative energy.” A recent New York Times’s story reported that phrases like these are up for grabs. Everyone wants a piece of them —coal companies, the nuclear power industry, waste-to-energy makers—and with good reason. Suddenly, anything labeled “renewable” has become synonymous with money: tax breaks, grants, loans—all the goodies packed into federal initiatives and state quotas that are now blossoming, along with our consciousness, under the heat of global warming. Billions of dollars are at stake, the story says. Who’s going to get them? It may well depend on the definition of squishy words like “renewable” and “alternative.”