Saturday, November 20, 2010

India's best export

Arundathi Roy. Photo Wikimedia
Activists fighting private power projects in British Columbia are so absorbed in their local struggle, that we easily forget how much this battle is truly global in nature. That point was carried home back in 2001 in a book by Indian novelist, essayist and activist Arundathi Roy, Power Politics.

The book tells the story of the controversial 400MW Maheshwar hydropower project on the Narmada river in central India's state of Madhya Pradesh, which according to watchdog organization International Rivers will submerge, if completed, the fertile lands and homes of about 100,000 people.

That private project was initially structured as a joint venture between US incineration giant Ogden Energy Group and Indian textile company S. Kumars. Since then it has descended, as so many other projects of its kind, into an investors' nightmare and Ogden has walked away. But the project has managed to survive and is now 80% complete, in spite of fierce resistance by the valley's population, continuous and repeated environmental and contractual violations at every step of the way, legal battles of epic dimensions, and a recent order by the central Indian government to temporarily interrupt construction - an order contemptuously ignored by the developer which has continued construction of the dam with the support of the state government.

Arundathi Roy's book is available at the Vancouver Public Library's central branch (Call # 320.954 R88p) and is worth being read cover to cover, but here are a few passages particularly relevant to our own situation in British Columbia:

The cost of the electricity [produced by this project] at the factory gate will be 13.9 cents per kilowatt hour, which is 26 times more expensive than existing hydroelectric power in the state, 5.5 times more expensive than thermal power, and 4 times more expensive than power from the central grid. (It's worth mentioning here that Madhya Pradesh today generates 1,500 megawatts more power than it can transmit and distribute.)

Though the installed capacity of the Maheshwar project is supposed to be 400 megawatts, studies using 28 years of actual river flow data show that 80% of the electricity will be generated only during the monsoon months, when the river is full. What this means is that most of the supply will be generated when it's least needed.

S. Kumars has no worries on this count. [...] They have an escrow clause in their contract, which guarantees them first call on government funds. This means that however much (or however little) electricity they produce, whether anybody buys it or not, for the next 35 years they are guaranteed a minimum payment from the government of approximately $127 million a year. This money will be paid to them even before employees of the bankrupt State Electricity Board get their salaries. […] 

To date, S. Kumars hasn't even managed to produce a list of project-affected people, let alone land on which they are to be resettled. Yet, construction continues. S. Kumars is so well entrenched with the state government that they don't even need to pretend to cover their tracks. […] 

What they don't realize is that the fight is on. Over the last three years, the struggle against the Maheshwar Dam has grown into a veritable civil disobedience movement, though you wouldn't know it if you read the papers. The mainstream media is hugely dependent on revenue from advertising. S. Kumars sponsors massive advertisements for their blended suitings. After their James Bond campaign with Pierce Brosnan, they've signed India's biggest film star - Hrithik Roshan - as their star campaigner. It's extraordinary how much silent admiration and support a hunk in a blended suit can evoke. […]

Over the last two years, tens of thousands of villagers have captured the dam site several times and halted construction work. Protests in the region forced two companies, Bayernwerk and VEW of Germany, to withdraw from the project.”

The similarities between India's Maheshwar project and our own “run-of-river” schemes are painfully evident, only perhaps a little more extreme in their Indian manifestation. Roy's book demonstrates that there is not only a global agenda of private appropriation of public resources. There is also a proven methodology, a transferable know-how, a reusable template according to which such appropriations are performed. What is being done to our rivers in BC today by the ruling class has been tried and tested and fine-tuned elsewhere in the world many times over.

As such, when fighting our local battles to reclaim our commons from the ruling class, it's simply not good enough to keep it local. Thinking globally while acting locally is a slogan which does not cut it anymore. We must act globally too, constitute a transnational movement of organized political resistance which actively connects like-minded movements worldwide.

Elsewhere in her book, Arundathi Roy writes that what we need is a new kind of politics:

“Not the politics of governance, but the politics of resistance. The politics of opposition. The politics of forcing accountability. The politics of slowing things down. The politics of joining hands across the world and preventing certain destruction. In the present circumstances, I'd say that the only thing worth globalizing is dissent. It's India's best export.”

Such an organized political resistance is indispensable indeed if we are not to constantly reinvent the wheel at every new local battle, and therefore inevitably lose every such battle as we fruitlessly attempt to reinvent its particular rules of engagement.

We all know that the climate summit in Cancun next month will amount to nothing at all in terms of measurable results. Yet it could achieve a lot - possibly even more than Copenhagen, precisely because it will be relieved of the pressure of having to deliver any "results" - in terms of building the global organized political force of resistance that Roy and other leaders are calling for. An organization which will federate and reconcile heterogeneous and often mutually class-antagonistic movements such as climate justice and anti-WTO, landless peasant and indigenous rights, armed insurgencies as in India's northern and eastern regions and classical industrial workers' movements as the ones now emerging in China. A movement which unifies topics and regions under a common struggle to rid the world of the plague of neoliberalism.

In other words - and to shamelessly use some outdated and historically tainted terminology - what we need today is an International.


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

How Marine Harvest stole the fish farms

An enclosed, land-based aquaponics fish farm. Photo
The public overwhelmingly supports Alexandra Morton's campaign to remove open-pen fish farms from BC's waters. In particular, Alex's recent demand that fish farms disclose all their disease-related data since the beginning of their operations is extremely well received in the general public. It is fair to say that, today, the campaign has gained tremendous momentum and could be reaching critical mass. Victory is now a clear and distinct possibility.

Those observations made a recent conversation I participated in all the more distressing.

I was meeting with an old friend at a coffee shop and he introduced me to two of his friends. The conversation rapidly landed on the topic of fish farms. They were both enthusiastically sympathetic to Alex's cause. I was cruising, enjoying the pleasure of finding myself in such friendly territory without even having to work at it. Then one of them said: you know, the problem with farmed salmon is that it tastes awful. The wild salmon has this “gamy” flavor which cannot be replicated in a fish farm.

Whoa, hold it there buddy. I was stupefied by what I had just heard. Is that what we have reduced the wild vs. farmed salmon issue to –  a mere consumer debate?

I told my new acquaintance that if, tomorrow morning, Marine Harvest got its act together, took all of its fish farms out of the ocean and brought them inland into properly contained systems, I would applaud loudly. That, moreover, if Marine Harvest took the additional steps of rendering its farming operations sustainable by (a) finding alternative feed sources to ocean fishing by-catch and (b) ensuring the proper recycling of its waste – I would become Marine Harvest's most faithful customer.

As for the actual taste of salmon, I told him, I couldn't care less.

I love the taste of sockeye, don't get me wrong. It's one of my most intense and rewarding culinary pleasures in life. But I would give it up without hesitation if that could save this magnificent species from extinction. Hell, I've already done that! I have hardly eaten any sockeye in the past 3 years because of collapsing runs. In 2010, I have feasted on sockeye knowing full well that I may have to renounce it for good as early as next year. Because – no matter how tasty the flesh of a sockeye is – it does not come close to the transformative experience of watching the sockeye return to its river to spawn.

Why in the world did I have to remind this well-intentioned person of such basic and self-evident truisms about wild and farmed salmon? How did we ever get here?

It made me realize that Marine Harvest's impact goes further than just the potential eradication of the wild salmon itself. Another secondary and far reaching impact is that, through its operations, this corporation is instilling in people a deep and long lasting hatred for fish farming in general. The problem is that if we start hating fish farms, we and the oceans are in deep, deep trouble indeed.

Fish farms were supposed to be a positive and workable solution to the awful plague of ocean overfishing. High-tech farms, that is: farms which are enclosed, running in a closed cycle, producing their own feed through a combination of plants, worms, non-carnivorous fish, and predator fish (a technique sometimes known as aquaponics). Farms which do not overcrowd their fish or replicate in the ocean the scourge of land-based factory farming.

In our ongoing struggle to save our wild salmon, it appears that we are – once again! – fighting on the terms set by the corporations rather than our own. We are asked to choose between two impossible evils: destructive, overcrowded, ridiculously low-tech operations consisting literally of a net thrown in the ocean which the industry has the nerve to call “fish farms”. Or, the continuation of mindless overfishing of the ocean, down to the very last wild fish. Are we learning anything yet? We must reject both alternatives and proudly advance our own progressive agenda, our own solution to the tragic depletion of our oceans: fish farms!

In that regard, we must listen to Alex Morton's core message more carefully. She is and has always been a fervent advocate of contained land-based fish farms, provided that they are run under sustainable conditions. We need to ensure that we remain focused on that message and that we communicate it clearly to the general public. We LOVE fish farms and we WANT them, and Marine Harvest's operations DO NOT constitute fish farms.

As such, any part of our campaign that depreciates farmed salmon (e.g. popular slogans such as “farmed salmon sucks”, “tastes awful”, is a “freak of nature”, “has two heads”, etc.) is misplaced and actually counterproductive. We should instead glorify this magnificent animal, the Atlantic salmon, and recognize it as our objective ally in the battle to save its brother the Pacific salmon. Atlantic salmon are good! They taste good! They could taste even better with the proper application of technology and know-how! Contained, high-tech fish farming is good! The overfishing of wild salmon is evil! Marine Harvest's usurpation of the term “fish farm” to describe its nets in the water is evil!

Perhaps a more progressive, although slightly more complex, slogan for the general public would be something along the lines that “We want to reclaim fish farms from Marine Harvest”.

As I indicated at the beginning of this post, there is a distinct and reasonable probability of us actually winning this campaign. This poses the practical question of what happens after we win.

1. Will we win on time? Will it give the wild salmon a chance to rebound, recover, and adapt to other threats such as overfishing, loss of habitat, and (perhaps) climate change?

2. What will be the cost of this victory to the reputation of aquaculture and fish farming in general? A key question indeed, given that we need fish farms to save our oceans and, therefore, our wild salmon.

Once Marine Harvest has been forced to remove its despicable open-pen fish operations from our waters, do we just mindlessly go back to overfishing the ocean and eradicating our wild salmon through criminal mismanagement, DFO-style? No, of course not! From there, we move on to fish farms. Real fish farms, enclosed, high-tech, sustainable ones.

By denigrating fish farms as we sometimes do, we are cutting the branch we are sitting on. We are contributing to bankrupting in advance any chance of establishing viable commercial aquaculture operations as an alternative to killing our oceans. Yes, we need to - and we will - get Marine Harvest's factory nets out of the water. But we also need to stop undermining fish farms. Now.