Green should mean Red

Green should mean Red

The leader of the Green Party Eamon Ryan has written an article for Village Magazine on the origins and current orientation of his party. I welcome references to seminal influences such as Rachel Carson, whose Silent Spring (1962) drew attention to the environmental damage wrought by industrial farming; and to 1960s ‘systems thinking’, culminating in the Club of Rome, which used the latest information technology to measure future use of resources, thereby showing the finitude of economic growth.

As a lifelong supporter, however, I bridled at his contention that Green economics ‘is not easily categorised on a left/right ideological divide’. In my view Green ideas build on Red for a better world, but with crucial differences.

Left-wing ideology has tended towards over-reliance on narrow socio-economic data, which underplays the wider human experience, and often diminishes empathy. As Isaiah Berlin puts it:

the calm moral arithmetic of cost effectiveness which liberates decent men from qualms, because they no longer think of the entities to which they apply their scientific computations as actual human beings who live the lives and suffer the deaths of concrete individuals.

That is not to diminish the value of carefully-collated statistics, but selective citation of economic data was a recurring failure of the Old Left, as was denial of natural capital, and the value of individual wellbeing.

A problem with Marxist theory, and ‘historical materialism’ more generally, is a view of the progress of man, and his happiness, in isolation from Nature, and divorced from a spiritual life, which Marx castigated as an opiate. The idea of anything being sacred, including Art, is generally dismissed. Thus Terry Eagleton writes: ‘Literature, in the sense of a set of works of assured and unalterable value distinguished by certain shared inherent properties does not exist’.

Communist regimes caused enormous damage to the moral fabric of societies of Central and Eastern Europe. Rather than fostering empathy, they had the opposite effect of incubating materialism, and more selfish behaviour than might otherwise have arisen. The response of people brought up under Communist regimes to the plight of Syrian refugees has been instructive, and a theoretical dislocation from Nature permitted wholescale ecocide, including Chernobyl.

Eamon Ryan makes a valid point that Green ideology: ‘values our quality of life rather than just increases in the quantity of goods that are consumed’; and the pleasure my 85-year-old English friend Richard (pictured above) derives from his life bears out this point.

Richard prefers to spend the summer months living out of doors in a tent, and chooses to wrap up and take plenty of exercise, rather than pay heating bills during the winter months. Having given up driving long ago, he takes public transport or cycles, and has been a Vegan for over thirty years. Despite not flying, he is on holidays much of the time, including a recent four-month stint in the French Alps, where his advanced years gave him a free ski pass! He’s mostly joyful, and in rude health, while living off a meagre income.

While not everyone would accept the perceived privations that Richard happily embraces it has been established that monetary wealth only brings an individual to a fixed point on a graph of happiness. But everyone’s wellbeing, and survival, is now threatened by something far deeper, which is the devastating impact of mostly Western consumption on the planet. Richard himself is outraged and wants to organise a mass march on London to protest against government inaction.

Vast wealth now co-habits with shocking poverty in Ireland, and in fairness to Eamon Ryan he acknowledges this with his criticism of the American economic model. This battle against inequality must be put centre-stage, however, as merely focusing on environmental questions without first addressing social context risks making the party an irrelevance to the majority of the population.

Government parties argue that the population enjoys adequate social supports, notwithstanding the current housing crisis. But this is useless when lives are beset by anxiety over economic status, after sophisticated advertising techniques manipulate our behaviour towards ever-greater consumption. Many luxuries are now seen as necessities – not least owning a car – to the benefit of a declining number of beneficiaries, whose wealth is virtually untouched.

Marxist theory, relying on David Ricardo’s labour surplus theory of value, is correct that a free market leads to accumulation of wealth. That is the important justification for taxation of individuals and companies.

Seen ecologically, we have allowed a situation to develop wherein a small number of individuals are leading the despoliation of the Earth’s resources. Picture humanity as a forest that has spread over most of the biosphere, but within this forest there are certain trees that draw a disproportionate share of the water and minerals that sustain life, like Giant Redwoods towering over the rest, while everyone is running out of resources, and time.

That is not to say there isn’t a role for individuals, like Richard, who minimise their impact on the planet; but we need top-down structural changes to bring the giant interlopers down to a manageable scale.

Much of the power of capital now resides in a capacity to dominate the media space; we can see this in our own country where the white noise of news agendas infects the body politic, producing politics of incoherence and theatrical bile. To Eamon Ryan’s credit he is one of the few politicians who rarely engages in ad hominem attacks, and concentrates on addressing the important issues.

I believe, however, he must go further, and not simply in order to harness the anger over homelessness, and the absence of housing policy. Green politics arises as an extension of Marxist critiques of wealth and power, while acknowledging the limits of natural capital, and a human yearning for meaning through spiritual and artistic practice.

The influence of unchecked capital is evident in the deficiencies in our health system, which does nothing to promote health as opposed to treat diseases. As one general practitioner friend of mine forlornly observed: the health industry is indistinguishable from the wider capitalist economy. It is dominated by avaricious pharmaceutical companies and private insurers that sow fear. Leading Irish oligarchs such as Denis O’Brien (the Beacon) and Larry Goodman (the Blackrock Clinic) have stakes in a sector displaying the same wage disparities as in the wider economy.

Unsurprisingly, the government’s response to the obesity pandemic has been no more than a long-delayed, and tame, tax on soft drinks, which I called for four years ago. Moreover, the Irish Livestock-Industrial Complex has been allowed to dictate dietary recommendations, and the burden of disease grows each year. There is an important role for Green approaches to the health of society, as living Green invariably confers health, as Richard’s example shows.

Today a Neoliberal discourse holds sway which says that a conniving state is inherently inefficient at spending resources. This was articulated by Sunday Times columnist Niall Ferguson in his book Civilization (2011): ‘Private property rights’, he says, ‘are repeatedly violated by governments that seem to have an insatiable appetite for taxing our incomes and our wealth and wasting a large proportion of the proceeds.’

The use of the seductive “our” is revealing: Ferguson is really manipulating the low paid worker into a low-tax alliance with the Super Rich. This is a formula that the Republican party have turned into an art form in the United States. That is not to say that there aren’t serious problems with the way an étatiste elite wields power in Ireland. The salaries of many state officials are still disgracefully high. This is the legacy of the failed policy of the Tiger – boomenomics – and the grave planning failures that concentrated too many jobs in the capital city, driving up property prices as a result.

Green economics would embrace degrowth, and an aggressive response to the consumer economy, focusing initially perhaps on ending the use of plastics made from crude oil. That is a battle requiring more than a consensual approach, but it will be to the ultimate wellbeing of the collective, and Nature.

I share Eamon Ryan’s enthusiasm for a revolution in energy, which will bring an end to the use of fossil fuels, but the understandable worry is that the fruits of any windfall will not be shared evenly. In rural Ireland people don’t feel invested in alternative energy, and continue to fuel their cars with toxic fossil fuels that generate horrendous overseas conflicts, while many continue to extract peat from the precious remaining peatlands.

We need more than a technological revolution. A revolution in mindsets is required such that acquisition of monetary wealth ceases to be an overwhelming ambition. This will only come about when we alter a destructive relationship with the natural world, and see wealth in river banks not bank balances. A radical change in the way we ‘do’ education is called for, with far greater focus on human development than non-sensical state exams.

I welcome Eamon Ryan’s acknowledgement that we are losing the battle to save our natural world, including in Ireland, and I believe we cannot concede any more ground on this. The Green Party is primed to take on the Livestock-Industrial Complex and it should not shirk this challenge. To be an extremist in this cause will be a badge of honour to wear before the generations that follow: ‘What did you do in the Great War against Climate Change Grandpa?’

I anticipate a time when the Green movement becomes a mainstream political force committed to ending an exploitative relationship with Earth, and the patriarchal structures that underlie this. For this to occur we must take on the oligarchs, and their drones in mainstream media. We require a mass political movement that reverses the course of the great battle we are facing to save Nature, and humanity.

The rise of Jeremy Corbyn showed that a leader imbued with principle, and poetry, can speak directly to a population when given the opportunity, especially through social media. The Green Party should be ambitious enough to take on the Byzantine political parties that dominate our dysfunctional system. These parties stand for nothing, and as we see this week, can fall out over anything.

Feirme-geddon. Ten reasons why Irish farming as we know it is on the way out.

Feirme-geddon. Ten reasons why Irish farming as we know it is on the way out.

We have already seen two agricultural revolutions in Ireland, now we are set for a third. This presents opportunities to farmers who are willing to adapt.

After the last Ice Age, the agriculturists who arrived in Ireland brought with them a tool kit of grains and domesticated animals that had spread from the Middle East into Europe. Irish conditions could sustain both, with pastoralism more evident in the rainy west. But before mechanization a living off cattle only allowed a semi-nomadic existence, forestalling the development of state structures.

It is said the Romans never colonised Ireland because they could not be sure of taking back a harvest surplus. Nevertheless, the arrival of Christianity coincided with innovations in water milling showing that grain was widely grown – wheat, oats, and rye – especially in the south and east.

Ireland’s first agricultural revolution coincided with the second wave of English colonisation in the seventeenth century. From that point, land ceased to be held as a common patrimony of clan or tribe, and individual ownership and possession – landlord and tenant – became the norm.

Colonisation turned Ireland into a bulk supplier of both grain and livestock for the Empire. But it was the arrival of an ambrosial New World crop, the potato, which was the game changer. Small tenant farmers, even in the rainy west, could survive on miniscule holdings, while much of the better land was devoted to cash crops and cattle for export.

The second Irish agricultural revolution began after the Napoleonic Wars when grain prices collapsed due to renewed European access to the British market, culminating in the Great Irish Famine. Geometric growth in the peasant population brought a monoculture that was susceptible to disease. The potato blight (phytophthora infestans) is reckoned by economic historian Joel Mokyr to have brought the worst famine to afflict any European country in the nineteenth century. Up to a quarter of the population either died, or were forced to emigrate.

Out of the devastation, pastoralism became increasingly dominant. That is an extensive system, however, which depends for profitability on low labour inputs: population in Ireland continued to decline for a century, and has still not reached the heights of the 1840s, which makes Ireland unique in the world for having a higher population then than now.

Membership of the European Community in 1972 fossilised this system, guaranteeing an income even when a farm is losing money, and keeping the price of land artificially high, thereby hindering the development of alternative agriculture, including horticulture. But large cracks are apparent, and a third agricultural revolution is required for the following reasons.

Carbon Emissions: thirty-three percent of the country’s emissions come from agriculture which is overwhelmingly livestock-based. We have the highest proportion of our emissions coming from agriculture of any developed country apart from New Zealand. Hundreds of millions in fines are on the horizon if we don’t hit EU-mandated targets. Overall we are the least Climate-friendly country in the EU. It seems unlikely that the EU will continue to finance a form of farming that is inherently carbon-intensive. Carbon sequestration is the Holy Grail of earnest livestock apologists, but there is little evidence to support this approach, and it seems like a chimera delaying necessary changes to production, and consumption.

Brexit: Ireland is about to lose favourable access to its traditional trading partner, and tariffs may be placed on Irish agricultural products. A weak sterling is already making life difficult

Peak Oil: our mechanized system is utterly dependent on oil and other fossil fuels such as natural gas, which is necessary for the Haber-Bosch process that produces the artificial fertilizers which are intensively used on Irish grasslands. Fracking may have bought some time, but the end of this finite resource will arrive eventually.

Climate Chaos: already we are seeing an increase in catastrophic storms passing over our exposed island. When it comes to defences cities will be the first priority for the state to protect; rural areas will be far more exposed as freakish weather becomes the new normal and oceans rise. Low tree coverage increases susceptibility to flooding.

Food Sovereignty: if we were to rely entirely on Irish products we would face severe food shortages, unless we adopted diets comprised almost entirely of animal products. Little grain is grown for human consumption, and knowledge of a traditional method of harvesting – bindering – in our wet conditions has been lost. The horticulture sector is almost non-existent, meaning most of our fruit and vegetables are imported from countries such as the Netherlands, which has conditions not dissimilar to our own.

Biodiversity Loss: the intensification of agriculture in Ireland is leading to extinctions of numerous native species. Agricultural authorities seem oblivious to the plight of other animals native to the island. Thousands of badgers are exterminated each year for a spurious connection to bovine TB. Loss of biodiversity could lead to ecological breakdowns affecting water and air quality. The present pace of ecocide cannot endure.

Disease Risk: the prophylactic use of antibiotics in Ireland has been documented, but this is not all. In factory farms antibiotics may be used to increase the weight of animals’ carcasses. Over-use of antibiotics in agriculture is a major factor in the emergence of superbugs that have already led to thousands of deaths across Europe, and threaten much worse.

Consumer Preferences: in almost every supermarket in the land there is a ‘free-from’ aisle. In particular the number of vegans is on the rise, which seems to have led the National Dairy Council to market their milk as ‘plant-based’, as if a cow can photosynthesize! Even meat-eaters are becoming increasingly uncomfortable at images of incarcerated animals having parts of their anatomy cut off in industrial farms, and dairy calves being taken from their mothers at just one day old.

Carcinogens: the WHO has defined red meat as a ‘probable’ carcinogenic, and processed meat as simply carcinogenic, which is placing a burden on our beleaguered health system. There is also compelling evidence that adoption of a plant-based diet diminishes the possibility of heart disease, and may actually be better than any pill. Meanwhile the dairy industry insists on the necessity of milk products to our health, despite the advice of the Harvard School of Public Health that dairy is neither the only, nor the best, source of dietary calcium.

Availability of Alternatives: billions are being invested in plant-based alternatives to animal products, including analogue meat and genuinely plant-based ‘milk’, which reduce environmental impact, and can be better for human health, besides avoiding a cruel system of production. The advance of laboratory meat technology also endangers the current model.

Ireland will not have to fall back entirely on its own resources immediately at least in the short term, and contrary to popular notions, becoming a locavore actually has a higher carbon footprint. Nonetheless we need to make our food system sufficiently diverse to withstand the challenges that lie ahead, while adopting best environmental practice.

We should be preparing for a third agricultural revolution on this island which can accommodate enhanced biodiversity through afforestation. We can also harness alternative energies in production. Old-fashioned greenhouses may be one of the best ways of diminishing the Greenhouse Effect. A widespread dietary shift towards plants is both necessary and desirable, for all concerned.


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In Praise of Hemp

In Praise of Hemp

(Published in the Sunday Times, 19/10/14)

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar a marauding mob scour the city for the Emperor’s assassins. They chance upon Cinna the Poet, namesake of one the conspirators. On being asked his name, fatally he replies ‘Cinna’ at which point the First Citizen cries ‘tear him to pieces; he’s a conspirator’.

Understandably vexed Cinna wails: ‘I am Cinna the poet; I am Cinna the poet’. One of the mob responds: ‘It is no matter, his name’s Cinna; pluck but his name out of his heart, and turn him going.’ And that was the end of the unforunate Cinna the poet.

What could we have learned about this indignant chap if the mob had not descended? Perhaps, through his presumably mellifluous verse we would have gained great insight into human nature. Poor Cinna the poet’s crime was to have the wrong name, and he winds up in historical limbo in a box marked ‘fictional potential’.

Alas a similar fate seems to have befallen hemp a crop variety with unrivalled versatility. A guilty name has brought undeserved suspicion. Hemp’s failing is that it comes from the Cannabis family, varieties of which are strongly associated with loafer students and malcontent adolescents.

Innocent Hemp with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels insufficient to get any kind of Rasta party started was caught in the hysteria against reefer madness. Farmers are effectively prohibited from growing it in the United States, and a certain taboo might exist here too. Our UK neighbours are not so wary: commercial growing began in earnest in the 1990s, and one farm in Northern Ireland has grown it since the seventeenth century.

This wonder crop offers an incredible array of uses: serving as a nutritious foodstuff, a fibre for rope, clothing and other materials; a building material that produces concrete-like blocks; an alternative to petroleum-based plastics (BMW among others are now using it in their cars). It can also be made into paper: ironically, the US declaration of independence was signed on it. Its US opponents should put that in their pipes and smoke it, so to speak.

The nutritional potential of hemp is impressive as it contains a full profile of the essential amino acids. It can also be rendered into a milk, prepared as a tea and its flour can be used in baking – one of the contestants on last year’s the Great British Bake Off used it in a cake mixture. Hemp oil is renowned for its healthy properties, containing 80% essential fatty acids – vital to our health – only a small proportion of which is saturated fat.

The last Teagasc study into Hemp conducted in 2007 concentrated on the oil and the fibre, but not the seed. According to their findings one acre of hemp yields an average of 700 pounds of grain, which can be pressed into 50 gallons of oil and 530 pounds of meal. That same acre will also produce an average of 5,300 of straw which can be transformed into about 1,300 pounds of fibre.

Despite Ireland having a climate suited (and set to become more so with climate change) to the production of this crop none is grown on an industrial scale. The main problem for potential Irish hemp farmers is the absence of a processing plant to dehull the seed in order to get at the inner kernel.

One food producer Deidre Collins of M. D. Dee’s Wholefoods indicated that she is paying €8000 a ton to a German company for hulled organic hempseed. She would be delighted to support local farmers and provide local employment but there is no option of doing so as things stand. Naturally any extra transport costs have to be born by consumers of her healthy meat-free sausages and other plant-based products.

The absence of Irish hemp is symptomatic of a deeper malaise in Irish agriculture which is dangerously reliant on external subsidies that reinforce an environmentally egregious and unsustainable system of food production which keep the cost of healthy plant food for human consumption at unnecessarily high prices.

It strikes me that one solution to the impasse would be to adopt the approach of the French agronomist Parmentier who was responsible for making the humble potato acceptable to his suspicious countrymen and women.

As a prisoner of war of the Prussians in the 1760s he subsisted happily on a diet of potatoes for some time. On being released he was determined to make them acceptable in his native land. His first task was to end the prohibition on cultivation as their consumption had been associated with leprosy. The Paris Faculty of Medicine finally declared them edible in 1772.

Next he began a marketing drive that would impress any contemporary practitioner. First he used product placement to associate them with the rich and famous, his masterstroke however was to have armed guards surround fields of ripe hemp just outside Paris. But the guards were ordered to accept even the slightest bribe to leave their posts. Soon potatoes were all the rage. French cuisine would not be the same without them.

It would seem that hemp needs a similar makeover allowing Irish farmers, food producers and manufactures to avail of this wonder crop, and thereby rescue it from the anonymous fate of Cinna the poet.

Reforming Our Food Culture

Reforming Our Food Culture

Steven Poole declares that ‘Western culture is eating itself stupid’. His book You Aren’t What You Eat (2012) pokes fun at the snobbery, fads and celebrity culture that attend ‘foodie’ culture.
The term ‘foodie’ emerged in the 1980s, but the idea of discussing the enjoyment of food is much older. In France it goes back to the start of the nineteenth century when it became socially acceptable to do so.
We dispense with that ‘gastronomy’: ‘the art and science of delicate eating’, at our peril. Gastronomy enjoins restraint and reflection and is ‘the common bond which unites the nations of the world’, according to Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin one of its prime movers.
A gastronomic sensibility is valuable to our health, motivating us to consume a wide range of nutrients. But there is a challenge to reconcile our enjoyment with considerations of environmental impact and our health. Exploring our pleasure should make us sensitive to those who live with insufficiency.

Stuffed and Starved

In the West we eat too much, and in the South they eat too little. Despite increasing globalization we have not addressed that contradiction. A billion are now overweight or obese in the developed world where, shamefully, 50% of food is wasted. Alas almost that number are undernourished or starving in the developing world.
It should be a straightforward matter of handing over our excess. But with the best will in the world this approach will not work: transport networks, functioning bureaucracies and peaceful conditions are all required, and dumping our surpluses removes income from Third World farmers and an incentive to innovate and improve.
Moreover, much of what gives rise to obesity in the West is connected to over-consumption of junk foods. A world cannot be fed on soft drinks. Our working class neighborhoods are often ‘food deserts’ without access to fresh, healthy and competitively-priced food. There gastronomy cannot take root.
Meanwhile in the Third World, real deserts are expanding as droughts become more prolonged and land resources mismanaged. Exponential population growth and failing states leaves much of sub-Saharan Africa in food insecurity.

The Green Revolution

The seemingly limitless supply of food we have in the West can be explained by the so-called Green Revolution which occurred in agriculture after World War II. It involved the deployment of high-yielding strains of common cereals in combination with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides derived from fossil fuels. A hectare of wheat which previously yielded two tons can now yield eight. Similar feats were achieved with other common grains.
Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug is regarded as its instigator. He and his collaborators corrected a structural deficiency in the stalk of wheat which could not support heavy grains. Previously the most fruitful plants collapsed under the weight of their own seeds before maturity. Borlaug’s group developed dwarf strains that could stand up to the weight of bulbous grains, thereby doubling yields. Today, almost every kernel of wheat consumed by man and beast is derived from Borlaug’s selective breeding.
But the resulting monocultures have increased vulnerability to disease; according to the authors Fraser and Rimas in Empires of Food: ‘Today our landscape is a lot like that of Ireland and Sri Lanka immediately before the famines. We devote much of our earth to a very small number of crops’. Borlaug strains depend on polluting and finite fossil fuel to survive.
Much of our increased yields are fed to livestock; only 20% of US corn is eaten directly by humans. The Green Revolution has made animal products affordable but the cost of maintaining this in terms of global warming and energy use is becoming apparent.
Last year’s disastrous corn harvest in America is bringing the issue into sharp focus. A choice is unfolding between maintaining the affordability of two icons of American life: the hamburger and the motor car. The livestock industry are petitioning to weaken or abolish the ‘ethanol mandate’, requirements Congress set on the use of corn as automotive fuel, on grounds that it could bring about a collapse in meat production.

Pre-domesticated Varieties

Research conducted by Unilever may have revealed the nutrition of the future. Many pre-domesticated varieties of plants reveal significantly higher levels of nutrients than varieties currently grown. An older variety of apple, the Egremont Russet, has up to 10 times more of a phytonutrient than some modern varieties. The researchers hypothesise that this finding will be just one example of older plant varieties being richer in nutrients and fibre.
Dr Mark Berry, who led the research said: ‘The plants we eat today like fruits and vegetables have often been bred and selected on their weight-based yield per acre of land, and not necessarily on the nutrient content of the produce.’ He adds: ‘Perhaps a better strategy for human health, not to mention sustainable agriculture, would be to buy plants not based on their weight, but on their nutrient content.’
This view reflects research into pre-domesticated cereal grains which have strikingly more protein content compared to modern cultivars.
A gastronomic sensibility prizes this variety. Instead of artificially manipulating conditions with synthetic inputs, we can isolate a wide variety of strains deemed suitable to particular locations. Different regions can express distinctive terroir from carefully selected crops.
This diversity will make our crops more resilient. Biodiversity can even be harnessed to increase productivity through permacultures and forest-gardening.
These varieties can even play a role in addressing the obesity epidemic. The decreased nutritional-value of many foodstuffs is affecting satiety levels. We can consume hundreds of calories of sugar in a soft drink without the hormone ghrelin being released which lets our brain know we’ve had enough. Foods richer in nutrients and fibre confer greater satisfaction.
By shifting away from the production of animal product which requires far greater use of land, energy and water resources we can easily find room for lower-yielding, nutrient-dense varieties. With a raised gastronomic awareness we might waste less.

Food Sovereignty

But how can the cultivation of lower-yielding strains have any relevance for developing countries which confront the challenge of scarcity?
Many scientists argue that GMO technology offers solutions and are attempting to develop biological nitrogen fixation in crops such as wheat which would allow them to survive without synthetic fertilizers. They dangle the prospect of decreased energy dependency and pollution, but admit successful adaptation is many decades away, and may never be achieved. But the advance of GMO also decreases diversity and could have unforeseen effects.
A more sensible approach is for farmers to develop a wide variety of strains suited to different conditions. Lower-yielding varieties might prove more bountiful as the ensuing diversity would be less susceptible to disease and less dependent on polluting inputs derived from fossil fuels. Decrying a prevailing ‘industrial’ model of development in the Third World, Concern Worldwide argue: ‘smart site-specific agroecological approaches that increase production, conserve natural resources and are tailored to specific human and environmental conditions should be favoured’.
It may be that in the Third World raising education levels, gender equality and increasing access to the internet will bring great rewards to farmers there. Indigenous development can occur rather than the familiar story of Europeans bringing progress.

Shifting Diets

Complete self-sufficiency for most countries based on a wide variety of pre-domesticated and native crop varieties would be difficult to achieve, but increasing diversity could benefit our agriculture and improve nutrition.
A global community must retain surpluses to confront shortages. By shifting away from livestock production in the developed world we can produce more food and improve its nutritional quality. A reduction in the consumption of animal products should bring health benefits.
A shift in global diets is required to confront the challenges of obesity, global warming, peak oil and growing populations. A gastronomic sensibility can help inform our choices.

Peasant Food Myths

Peasant Food Myths

(Spectator Scoff, January 2010)

If you are reading this article the likelihood is that you are university educated, your parents owned the home you grew up in and you’ve travelled extensively. Food enthusiasts fall into a cohort of the population that is, undoubtedly, the antithesis of the Chav, and his successful cousin Mondeo Man.

We have to face up to the close association between the food we eat and the class we aspire to, whether it be trustafarian bo-ho, haute bourgeois or plain aristocrat. Just as many of us wouldn’t be seen dead in a football strip, likewise, we cringe at the thought of enjoying the proletarian flavour of char-grilled burgers bought from chip vans or, worse still, the suburban lull of ham and pineapple on take-out pizza.

Yes indeed, food snobbery is alive and well, and I must say I do succumb to it myself, closely surveying the tawdry purchases of the hoi polloi on the rare occasions I venture into large supermarkets.

Equally, I grow weary at the nonsense spouted by food enthusiasts. My latest bugbear is the elevated status accorded to ‘peasant food’ which is now closely associated with the ideals of a lost agrarian authenticity. The difficulty I have with this depiction is that it ignores the ‘nasty, brutish and short’ realities of a peasant life characterised by food shortages, even famine, and petty paternalism.

Devotees, such as Rick Stein, bemoan a mythical lost heritage where agricultural workers enjoyed a diet of Cornish pasties, Bakewell tarts, Melton Mowbray pork pies and Cumberland sausages washed down with lashings of Real Ale. This picture is, of course, far from accurate. As Stephen Mennell author of All Manners of Food, the classic rendering of the divergence between French and English culinary traditions, tells us, pies, puddings and conserves were the food of the gentry, rarely eaten by the lower orders.

Instead, as with the rest of Europe, until the nineteenth century at the earliest, the food of the great bulk of the population was soups, stews or porridge cooked in one pot over an open fire, or worse: Sir Frederick Eden’s 1797 publication The State of the Poor shows how labourers in the south of England were ‘habituated to the unvarying meal of dry bread and cheese from week’s end to week’s end’.

The kind of ‘traditional’ English food that I encounter invariably contains meat, yet, this constituted only a tiny part of that diet: as recently as a century ago, the average annual consumption per capita in England was 25 kilos, a figure that has risen to 80 kilos today. This carnality is connected to urbanisation, leading Carolyn Steele to the conclusion that ‘the inexorable rise of burgher and burger go hand in hand’.

In anguish at the loss of ‘tradition’ in this country, food enthusiasts have sought rifugio in Italian cuisine, which is generally portrayed as being suckled on the teat of Mother Nature herself.

But a recent publication Delizia – The Epic History of Italian Food by John Dickie, explodes many of the myths surrounding Italian food: Marco Polo did not bring pasta to Italy from China, and there is no evidence for the contention that Catarina de’ Medici brought about the export of Italian culinary expertise to France.

Dickie contends that ‘Italian food is city food’ and says that ‘until the middle of the twentieth century ordinary people in the Italian countryside ate very badly – countless documents tell us as much’. He supports this by recalling a number of popular sayings; among my favourites were: When the peasant eats a chicken either the peasant is ill or the chicken is, and Don’t tell the peasants how good cheese is with pears.

Yet, as Dickie tells us, Italians now embrace the idea of ‘peasant’ food wholeheartedly: ‘the surest way to get a product moving off the supermarket shelves is by putting “peasant tradition” on the packet’.

This contemporary ‘peasant’ food is, however, far distant from the gruel of yesteryear. Until recently, even pasta, that most identifiable of Italian foods, formed only a minor part in the Italian diet compared to polenta (yellow maize) especially in the north of Italy. So in the 1950s each Italian man, woman and child was eating 60 grams of polenta per day, but by the 1980s the figure was too small to register statistically.

The point often forgotten about so-called peasant food is that food preparation for the peasant was, for the most part, a question of careful husbandry of scarce resources. There were no food fads, just survival. To quote Mennell again: ‘Judged in relation to basic physiological needs, virtually the whole history of cookery would have to be considered a study of luxury’.

An Enduring Legacy – Lessons from the Great Famine

(Published in Village Magazine, November 2012)

Who was to blame for the Great Famine? This thorny question rears its head with the recent publication of the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine by Cork University Press. We may accept the detached assessment of the American economic historian Joel Mokyr expressed some years ago that ‘Ireland was considered by Britain as an alien and even hostile country… the British simply abandoned the Irish and let them parish’; but we should not ignore how many Irish Catholics profited from this great rupture in our history which led to a population reduction of over two million due to starvation and emigration. The enduring legacy must be explored.

Irish people at the time were treated as second class citizens by their government; relief for desperate hungry victims was not a statutory right under the Irish Poor Law, as it was under its English equivalent. Successive failures of the potato crop 1845-50 caused by the blight phytophtera infestans did not lead to market intervention that occurred where grain harvests failed in England. Irish grain continued to be exported and insufficient cheap maize was purchased on the international market at key points. Moreover, the infamous Gregory clause of the Irish Poor Law denied relief to tenants holding more than a quarter acre unless they surrendered their tenancy which turned it into a charter for land clearance and consolidation.

But in emphasising the inaction of remote authorities in Westminster we overlook the gains made by Catholic Irish farmers holding substantial farms above 20 acres. In one contribution to the Atlas Kerby A. Miller writes: ‘an unknown but surely very large proportion of Famine sufferers were not evicted by Protestant landlords but by Catholic strong and middling farmers, who drove off their subtenants and cottiers, and dismissed their labourers and servants, both to save themselves from ruin and to consolidate their own properties.’

A commitment to laissez faire, as well as a sense of providentialism that cast natural occurrences as part of a divine plan, informed the thinking of the leading British policy-makers at the time, foremost the Assistant Secretary to the Treasury Charles Trevelyan who was responsible for relief measures. He concluded afterwards: ‘The result in Ireland has been to introduce other better kinds of food, and to raise the people, through much suffering, to a higher standard of subsistence.’ To the enduring chagrin of Irish nationalist he was knighted for his services in 1848.

The response of British authorities can be situated within a larger context of a shift in Imperial policy and an ongoing Agricultural Revolution whereby: ‘Farming changed from being an occupation primarily concerned with extraction from the soil into one involving the purchase of raw materials which were processed to produce a saleable product.’

The repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 was the great triumph of laissez faire. In contrast to most European states where protection was extended to farmers, agriculture in the British Isles was thrown open to the free market.
Those who derived wealth from industry rather than land would henceforth guide British policy. Free trade would drive down the cost of food in the ‘workshop of the world’. Henceforth regions of the Empire would specialise in the production of particular foodstuff for sale on the international market, with the development of steamships making this possible. In contrast, in the same period in France a high proportion of production continued to be consumed on the farm or within the locality.

Politically, the occasionally benign paternalism of the landed aristocracy would no longer hold sway. The first editor of The Economist James Wilson, answered Irish pleas for public assistance with the claim that ‘it is no man’s business to provide for another’.

Within this constellation Ireland would supply beef and dairy for its near neighbour; tillage and horticulture, particularly carried out by peasants at a subsistence level, should be abandoned. By 1900 pastoral farming dominated as never before. It hardly mattered that a succession of Land Acts (1869-1904) had transferred ownership to former tenants. Those independent farmers would continue to generate ‘saleable products’ for the market.

An old way of life died for good as a result of the Great Famine. Subsistence communities, known as Clachan, were wiped out. Granted, Irish peasants were unwitting architects of their demise: plentiful potatoes allowed for early weaning which generated exponential population growth; almost 9 million in 1845.

Parts of Ireland had some of the world’s highest population densities, but according to Mokyr was not overpopulated on the eve of the Great Famine. It was the switch to pasture that made it so. Fernand Braudel observes: If the choices of a society are determined solely by adding up calories, agriculture on a given surface areas will always have the advantage over stock-raising; one way or another it feeds ten to twenty times as many people.’

Perhaps improvement in education levels, especially with the advent of free primary education in 1831, could have encouraged family planning and improved employment prospects. A more ordered transition to modernity might have occurred instead of the fearful flight to cities such as Liverpool, Glasgow and New York. But this would have required a government committed to the welfare of the population, and a settlement of the land question whereby gross inequalities, the legacy of seventeenth century conquest, were extinguished. However, Kerby observes that even: ‘Catholic nationalist (wealthy farmers and townsmen) as well as the overwhelming majority of the Catholic clergymen were much too conservative to countenance a peasant assault on Irish property relationships.’

A genuine revolution in land-ownership might have achieved this, but the demise of smallholders made the Land War of the 1880s a battle for the spoils of the Great Famine.

Exploring these ‘what ifs’ is counterfactual history, but it is important to recognise that the Great Famine was not inevitable and that the system of land-usage dominated by livestock for the international market that endures to this day is a recent innovation. One Protestant landowner referring in the 1850s to this shift said: ‘the extermination of humans and the substitution of brute animals for the human race on the soil of Ireland, is not an improvement grateful to my mind.’

Prior to the Great Famine Irish peasants were comparatively healthy. Irishmen’s heights were greater than those of equivalent Englishmen in a variety of occupations and situations and life expectancy was greater than most other Europeans except those of Denmark and England.

They had a sparse diet relying primarily but not exclusively on the potato; it actually constituted only one third of the land under tillage in the 1840s. They also consumed oats, especially in Ulster, vegetables, wheat and barley, butter milk, and whatever could be foraged in the form of seaweed, shellfish, berries and nuts. For most meat was a rarity. With a settlement of the land question diets would have become more varied based on the locally-sourced ingredients enumerated with less reliance on the potato.

The second half of the nineteenth century saw a dramatic shift in diet away from what was produced locally; beef and dairy were only for the tables of the well-off in Ireland. Between 1859 and 1904 sugar consumption rose tenfold and with it came increasing mortality from diabetes. Baker’s bread became the staple, and sugary tea the succour of the poor. This was Trevelyan’s idea of a ‘higher standard of subsistence’.

In an article written in 1913 George Russell (A.E.) observed of the transition: ‘There is no doubt that the vitality of the Irish people has seriously diminished, and that the change has come about with a change in the character of the food consumed. When people lived with porridge, brown bread and milk as the main ingredients in the diet, the vitality and energy of the people was noticeable, though they were much poorer than they are now… When one looks at an Irish crowd one could almost tell the diet of most of them. These anaemic girls have tea running in their veins instead of blood. These weakly looking boys have been fed on white bread’.

It is worth considering the effect of colonisation on the eating habits of the Irish who transitioned to a diet that was a product of colonisation, a trend that has continued. As Homi Bhaba puts it: ‘Although colonised subjects endeavour to imitate or mimic the behaviour of the coloniser, the mimicry is always imperfect – almost the same but never quite’.’

In response to colonisation we invented sporting codes, but because our colonisers had a stunted gastronomic culture we did not invent one for ourselves. But as this emerged in Britain in recent times there has emerged a pallid mimicry: our versions of Nigella and Jamie are neither as sultry nor as charming.

A self-respecting Irish gastronomy might hark back to the tradition of the Clachan, instead of the present models of taste that favour the livestock produce of land clearances. The food of the Clochan was light, wholesome and ecologically sensible. It should appeal to the contemporary gastronome.
Moreover, recent research by Goodland and Anhang has shown that up to 51% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions emanate from livestock farming. It may be a sad irony of history that Irish livestock-farming will indirectly contribute to famines in the Third World as climate change brings drought and ecological catastrophes.


The Environmental Origins of Ebola

(Published in the Irish Times Oct 27, 2015)

A new study explores the environmental factors that give rise to outbreaks of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD). Jointly undertaken by the Environmental Foundation for Africa and the ERM Foundation it posits a connection between rainforest fragmentation and this zoonotic disease. This is hypothesised to occur through increased contact between species that normally do not come into contact with each other or with humans. These include various bat species hypothesised to play a role in the transmission of the virus to humans.
As the recent West African epidemic which began in December 2013 subsides the burning question in the region and beyond is: how do we prevent this nightmare from recurring? [A timely reminder of the effect of this terrible disease is provided by the tragic case of Scottish nurse Pauline Cafferkey who contracted the illness in the line of duty].
So far there have been over 11,000 reported mortalities with twice that number of survivors who are both physically traumatised and socially stigmatised by the disease. Moreover as of October 2014 the World Bank estimated that the economies of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone could lose US $1.6 billion in economic activity during 2015.
More than this, the epidemic has generated existential fears which I encountered on a visit to Sierra Leone last May. In societies where tactile behaviour is deeply rooted prescriptions against physical contact impose uncomfortable limitations. Bans on public gatherings also distort important social rituals. Further, the increased security measures leave the potential for abuse of power.
The international community including governments and NGOs devoted considerable resources in medical assistance to prevent the spread of the epidemic. To some extent self-interest on the part of the international community was a motivation: malaria and respiratory infections continue to be far greater killers in what remain some of the world’s poorest countries. Nonetheless EVD’s terrifying symptoms that include unexplained haemorrhaging, its high mortality rate and the risk of wider contagion demanded a response.
Correctly, recovery plans for the region emphasise strengthening healthcare systems as a primary objective, but as the authors of the study point out the prevailing approach is “to treat the next outbreak as “inevitable”.” Moreover, economic recovery plans focus on a “business as usual” approach that fails to take the environmental impact of economic activities into account adequately. Thus, the regional organisation of the three state’s the Mano River Union in their post-EVD recovery plan makes no direct reference to ways of reducing the risk of future outbreaks, or for any environmental protection measures that could support this.
The study contends that: “forest loss or fragmentation, accompanied by hunting and the trade in bushmeat drive contact between humans and wild reservoirs and lead to infections.” It is not certain whether fruit bats are indeed the reservoir host of EVD that give rise to the transmission of the disease to a human being: “They may be part of a more complex chain of reservoirs and transmission chains between wild reservoirs and humans.” Forest fragmentation which changes the behaviour of bats could have repercussions elsewhere. The bats altered behaviour may be stressing other species that leads to a rare zoonotic occurrence.
The index case for the latest outbreak is believed to have been an unfortunate 2-year-old boy from Méliandou in Guinea who came into contact with an infected bat while playing in the hollow of a tree. In that region local land use is dominated by a pattern of subsistence farming commonly referred to as slash and burn agriculture.
Although mature trees are usually not a farmer’s first choice to clear, when aided by mechanization used in industrial logging or mining this task becomes a lot easier. Relatively few large blocks of forest in that region of Guinea “have not been subjected to significant, recent human manipulation” according to the authors. Indeed only a tiny proportion of the wider Upper Guinea rainforest belt remains unexploited, a process of deforestation that has accelerated considerably in recent decades. This has caused significant disturbance to bat populations creating the pre-conditions it appears for an outbreak.
The study uses time lapse satellite imagery to compare the outbreak in Guinea with others in Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and South Sudan. They observer similar environmental patterns of forest fragmentation that are assumed to alter the mix of wild species in a given location, including bats, affecting their stress levels and potentially reducing immunological resistance levels. The data connecting forest fragmentation with an outbreak is not definitive but the circumstantial evidence is compelling.
Based on this evidence donors should ensure that the environmental impact of economic activities including agriculture, mining and logging are assessed. People must be equipped with the skills and resources to produce food, energy and other goods without damaging their environments.
Confronting it as simply a medical issue without reference to the environmental context is insufficient. Rolling out a vaccine is important but we have no way of knowing the type or the severity of the next virus that emerges.
The authors warn against demonizing and eradicating animals that could harbour EVD. Quite apart from the morality of this, rainforests are highly complex ecosystems. Any such measures could have unintended, dire consequences. Further, the identity of the reservoir host remains unclear and seems likely to be so for some time.
The study argues that donors and the authorities in the region should incorporate natural resource management and environment impact as core evaluation criteria into their programmes “and not treat them as box ticking exercises, or consider their job done by funding an isolated, sector specific ‘forest and wild management’ project.”
Moreover, as the recent publication of the UN’s Sustainability Goals remind us, biodiversity is essential for human flourishing. The limits of natural capital must be taken into account if economic activity is to be sustainable, and that is especially important for feeding populations. The recent EVD outbreak highlights these crucial interdependencies, and the potentially catastrophic consequences of another outbreak are such that the burden is shared by us all.

Interview with Tommy Garnett

(Published in Village Magazine June 2015)

Tommy Garnett is a dual citizen of Ireland and Sierra Leone. He founded the Environmental Foundation for Africa (EFA) in 1997 while living in Liberia at the end of the first Sierra Leonean civil war. His organisation currently employs twenty staff all of whom are Sierra Leonean. He lives and works in Freetown.

1. What is your background and why did you found the Environmental Foundation for Africa?

I was born in the Kono district in the eastern province of Sierra Leone in the late 1950s at a time when most of the country’s forests were intact. I remember that our house was on the edge of the forest, so I had a forest backyard at the age of 5 or 6, but by the time I was eighteen and going to university that forest was no longer there. In its place were developments, degraded bush and diamond-mining pits that stretched as far as the eye could see. But that memory of the forest of my childhood stuck with me. When the war started in Sierra Leone in 1991 I was living with my family of three young children in London and we started seeing pictures of devastation: the suffering of people and destroyed landscapes. I also knew that mining had been happening for the best part of five decades and it seemed there was no one talking about what would be done to repair this damage. The focus was exclusively on alleviating human suffering. That is why I decided to start an organisation that would focus on the repair of degraded landscapes, protection of forests and education of people about managing both.

2. Why is environmental protection urgent in west Africa?

Much of western Africa lies within what used to be called the Upper Guinea forest belt, which once stretched south through Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Western Togo. Over the last century this has been reduced to less than ten percent of its original cover. Given the inextricable link between forests and the traditions of the people of this region, many cultures and livelihoods are disappearing.

3. What are the main projects you are running?

We have launched a biodiversity and renewable energy learning centre which is intended as a repository of knowledge and experience of over twenty years working in the field. We hope to use this centre as a place for exhibiting representative samples from the eco-systems of our country and wider region, and create enabling-conditions for people to have a heart connection with nature and the forest. Currently the relationship with the forest is narrowly utilitarian. We want people to fall in love with nature! Then its protection is assured.
We also maintain a wildlife sanctuary on Tiwai island where we promote eco-tourism, motivating local communities around the site by delivering alternative livelihoods and raising awareness of the global significance of its biodiversity. We are also offering renewable energy by installing solar panels to local villages. These projects help people understand that they matter and that there is great value in protecting forests.
We are also involved in supporting research, working with Njala university to find answers to some of the burning questions that help people recognise why they should manage natural resources. For example, we are conducting a joint study with Environmental Resource Management Foundation (a part of the ERM consulting group) to establish a link between Ebola and natural resource management.

4. What organisations support your work?

We are supported by the European Union who are funding a solar energy project in 50 communities. Critical Eco-system Partnership Fund based in the US has also provided support over the years. We also work with the JJ Charitable Trust an arm of the Sainsbury Charitable Trust.

5. Have Irish Aid been supportive?

We have not had any relationship with Irish Aids in recent times though they supported me initially as for the first ten years out here I was an Irish volunteer working for APSO. I used to receive a volunteer’s allowance which allowed me to support my young family while I did my work. They also provided bridging support for Tiwai island when we first completed construction of the facilities in 2006: the only means of maintaining the facility.

6. Do you have other means of fund-raising?

At the moment the only means available for us is to draw income from the usage of the learning centre, but it is not easy to raise money as a result of the Ebola crisis. It is not a good climate for doing meaningful environment work. It is very expensive to do business in this context for a local organisation that wants to deliver the highest standards possible. The cost of utilities is very high. In order to have the desired impact, we have to focus on environmental management meaning we constantly have to find ways of fund-raising, and that includes generating resources from our facilities.

7. What are the principle challenges confronting environmental protection in Sierra Leone?

We have a rapidly growing population of which more than 65% are under the age of 35. Very high levels of unemployment: over 70% of the rural population are dependent on the land which brings a lot of environmental degradation. The economy is driven by the extractive sector, mining particularly and lately we are seeing the establishments of large plantations of palm oil, squeezing other activities. There isn’t a proactive approach by the international development partners towards environmental protection. Everything that occurs is in response to obligations. Usually we respond to crises when it comes to addressing environmental challenges. It is sometimes daunting to know where to start: for example waste management is terrible meaning many of the beaches are littered; then there is the degradation of the hill sides due to soil erosion; up country we still have a lot of slash and burn agriculture with no clear plan of action on how to replace or remedy the destruction to nature. The measures taken are so far comparatively minor: the combined efforts are far smaller than the problems.

8. Do the Sierra Leonean government support your work?

Yes, they have been very supportive. Apart from the fact that they support all the organisations through concessions, the government recognises that we are contributing to the national development plan. But given the financial and human resource constraints even the best intentions are insufficient to have lasting impact when it comes to implementing environmental projects which require long time scales. But NGOs and their partners want immediate results. Changing a culture is a slow process, and very few entities allocate enough time and resources.

9. What additional measures should foreign NGOs take when delivering aid to take care of the environment?

The first thing they should do is recognise that we have all contributed and continue to contribute to the problem. Investing in development aid in the agri-sector means that more forests are cleared to grow rice. Building more latrines involves using materials from the bush. Investing in roads and bridges requires cutting down huge swathes of forest. Every agency has contributed to the problem. The second task is to integrate environmental considerations into the planning and implementation of every project. This means close collaboration with both governmental and civil society organisations. Bigger NGOs with greater resources should develop capacities within their institutions so that it isn’t always an external agency that cleans up adverse environmental impacts. Failure to recognise the ecological basis of all investments is like building on sand. What has just happened with Ebola is a classic example. When it struck it wasn’t long before all the systems collapsed. Yet we know that this zoonotic disease came about in part because of the fragmentation and irresponsible use of forest eco-systems. We were very quickly left to the mercy of the international community.

10. Is it difficult to raise environmental awareness among Sierra Leoneans?

I would rather say it is absolutely necessity to raise awareness. The challenge is to maintain consistency and follow words with deeds. This is why there needs to be greater collaboration between all the actors, so that when people are told that something is not right they are shown suitable and sustainable alternatives. This is what happens when an organisation talks about agricultural sustainability, it wouldn’t take long before people would stop burning the forest. We need to look at this as not a threat to incomes but a wise investment for the sustainable foundation on which all development efforts lie.

11. Shouldn’t we always prioritise aid to people as opposed to the environment?

If you see people as different from the environment then maybe. But if you see the people as being part of the environment then you see it’s a necessity. It’s a false economy to support people at the expense of the environment. That is where the whole world is going wrong.

12. Are you hopeful that environmental conditions will improve in Sierra Leone?

I have to be, otherwise I might as well retire and go travelling adding more CO2 to the atmosphere! I am an eternal optimists. I see the innocence of the children and ask myself what they will be doing in twenty years. When I was their age I had so many dreams and aspirations. Since then much of the forest has disappeared. Peace and quiet is hard to come by, the beaches are dirty most of the time. All of the things that make nature beautiful are under threat. It is all important that we work with the younger generation who will inherit what we have now. There is no other option if we are to avoid future catastrophes. If we are to curb future poverty, then we have to look seriously at this.

Sierra Leone After Ebola

(Published in Village Magazine, June 2015)

In Sierra Leone an amusing assortment of greetings have evolved to replace any ‘pressing of the flesh’ that could give rise to Ebola contagion. From elbow jabs to clasped-hand bows, a gallows humour is derived from the enforced measures.
The reality of Ebola is hidden from visitors, the main reminder the hand-held, infra-red thermometers that assail passers-by at checkpoints that have been set up at regular intervals along most highways. Statements such as ‘Ebola Stops With Me’ are also emblazoned along roadsides, and posters showing symptoms are widely dispersed.
After an estimated 10,000 cases the steady flow has become a trickle, and the country is ready to move on from a disease that made the West shudder at the prospect of a plague that could carry all before all before it. But for Sierra Leoneans, accustomed to other epidemics such as AIDS and ubiquitous malaria, Ebola, while horrific for victims, is nothing new. Throw-in a frightening decade-long civil war that witnessed limb-severing among other horrific punishments, and you find a stoic people familiar with adversity.
Inhabiting temperate north-west Europe it is hard to grasp the challenge of this region’s climate. Throughout the year daytimes are stiflingly hot, rarely dipping below 30 degrees while during the wet season the force and duration of rain is such that at times one marvels at how much moisture the clouds contain.
The territory of Sierra Leone, like the rest of Africa, was framed by European colonisers without regard to its tribal constituents. But well before the ‘Scramble for Africa’ those societies had been destabilised by the arrival of European weapons and extensive raiding for the horrific trans-Atlantic slave trade. Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, like Monrovia in neighbouring Liberia, was established by the British as a colony for freed slaves and the national lingua franca Kreo comes from those first settlers. Sierra Leone became a British protectorate in 1896.
Today the human indicators in Sierra Leone are among the worst in Africa. Up to 40% of the population’s growth has been stunted due to poor nutrition in the womb and infancy. Rates of literacy are low. Above all it is poverty that makes the task of containing Ebola difficult.
Throughout the country electricity is intermittent and internet available only to a privileged few, albeit many of the poorest seem to carry mobile phones. Although there are some decent roads, heavy rains make light work of others. The undulating surfaces are ruinous to vehicles; any driver must be a mechanic.
Commerce is everywhere in Sierra Leone, at any road stop a line of individuals, mostly women and children, greet vehicles usually with vibrant fruits and vegetables. In Freetown and other cities market stalls and small shops line every artery. Money changes hands constantly, transactions negotiated at every turn. As the state provides little or nothing, individuals must carve out niches to survive.
A host of donor countries and NGOs, including Ireland Aid, assist the development of the country. It is said that the Chinese are building a new airport outside Freetown and a road through the north of the country to Liberia. One might question the bona fides of some of this aid which may be motivated by commercial interest, but its continued flow is crucial to raising human wellbeing.
But, unfortunately, environmental considerations rarely register. In time this may prove a grave mistake as Sierra Leone’s is reckoned to be the third most vulnerable country in the world to climate change.
Only a tiny proportion of Sierra Leone’s once abundant forests – part of the wider Upper Guinea belt – survives. Local wisdom has it that a meal is not complete without rice, but the impact of that crop which originated in Asia is apparent in the expanses of charred tree stumps everywhere apparent. This slash and burn agriculture requires a twenty year fallow period which has caused centuries of devastation to accumulate. A shift in dietary preferences towards other carbohydrate staples such as native cassava, plantain and yams that do not exert such a toll would be of great benefit, and would actually improve nutrition. The country’s future food security might depend on this as more and more land is degraded by demographic pressures. At least the presence of pests such as the tetsi fly deters large scale ranching though the goat, the main domesticated ruminant in Sierra Leone, is known in other locations for its impact on recovering forests.
The timber trade is also a leading cause of deforestation, with foreign companies implicated in its acquisition. Moreover, scaffolding for building works mainly comes in the form of bamboo derived from hard-pressed forests. A simple measure would at least require development agencies to import steel scaffolding for their construction projects.
Then there is mining, including of fabled ‘Blood Diamonds’ competition for whose extraction was an underlying cause of the Sierra Leonean civil war. Both rebels and government troops collaborated in their extraction which caused significant deforestation. Today as well as artisanal operations, bigger players including Western companies have moved to extract iron-ore, bauxite as well as diamonds.
The consequences of centuries of exploitation are everywhere apparent. With hillsides denuded of forest cover, top soil turns to suffocating dust in the dry season which is drained away when the rains arrive. Then the sea around Feetown acquires a brownish hue that stretches for miles. Millennia of accumulated humus cannot easily be regained.
The economic value of biodiversity, or natural capital, is increasingly recognised, especially in terms of clean water, food production and climate impact. But more slowly are we recognising its value as a good in and of itself. Unfortunately most Sierra Leoneans are too impoverished to be able to see beyond immediate material considerations but there is a growing appreciation of nature in a region which exhibits extraordinary diversity.
A trip to Tiawa island, situated along the River Moa, brought to mind Joseph Conrad’s description of a similar profusion of life along another African river: ‘Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest.’
Maintaining the integrity of the biodiversity on the island is a delicate balancing act that has required extensive consultation with local villages. An EU project has brought solar power to many nearby. In turn, village elders deter their tribesmen from hunting for the array of primates that populate the site. So-called bush meat is not highly prized by the local communities but poverty and ignorance impels some to seek it out.
Stopping hunting is not merely a sentimental concern. Diseases such as Ebola and Aids are zoonotic in character; that is they spread from one species to another, usually through the consumption of flesh. A species of fruit bat has been isolated as the reservoir host for Ebola while diseased monkey were responsible for AIDS. Curbing the consumption of bush meat is an important component in ending further zoonotic outbreaks.
The challenges involved with instigating projects are considerable in Sierra Leone. Even purchasing property is tricky as the state’s registry may issue more than one deed for the same land. Corruption and nepotism are endemic. This gives rise to a certain despondency as even the highly educated and energetic find advancement difficult. Career frustrations make the option of leaving the country appealing. The considerable environmental challenges are compounded by human intransigence.
Almost anything is available at the right price. Dramatic luxury co-exists with withering poverty. The latest US car models mingle with men dragging large wheelbarrows and women with heavy loads on their heads. With both actual and comparative poverty, it is hardly surprising that individuals should aspire to great wealth should circumstances permit. Inculcating a common interest between people is a serious challenge, and an understanding of the limitations of their natural environment is crucial.
Hope lies with the children who are increasingly literate, improved education and access to information can spur the next generation to re-build the country based on principles of fairness and sustainability. It is also a source of comfort that the sickly violent tide has turned. The developed world must also play its part, and the Ebola crisis exhibits the interconnectivity of the global village. Let us hope that greater cataclysms do not intercede to deter a favourable outcome.