Posts Tagged 'china'

A phone that’s not satisfied just with being smart

By Harry van Versendaal

“Every so often you come across some article on Africa’s ‘blood minerals’ or the suicides at Foxconn,” says Nassos Katsamanis in reference to the Taiwanese contract manufacturer whose 1.2 million employees in China assemble consumer products for electronics giants such as Apple, Sony and Nokia.

From his verdant balcony in the central Athens neighborhood of Mets you can see apartment buildings crawling up the slopes of Mount Hymettus. Scattered on the living room floor are his son’s wooden toys. Little Andreas has still not turned 2, but he can already tell rubbish from recycling.

“It’s important to know that what you consume – the way you live your life at the end of the day – is not a burden on another man or the environment,” says the 34-year-old who works as a researcher on voice recognition technologies at the National Technical University of Athens. In his palm, he holds a Fairphone, the world’s first so-called “ethical” mobile device which was recently shipped to him from the Netherlands.

Fairphone came about in response to growing criticism over the fact that mainstream electronics products, including those sleek cell phones, are produced using minerals which are mined in conflict-riven areas in Central Africa. When buying one of these products, consumers also help finance mass killings and rapes in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Meanwhile, these gadgets are assembled in factories with despicable working conditions and environmental standards.

Fairphone, on the other hand, ensures consumers that the tin and tantalum used in its device are conflict-free.

“As soon as I read about the project, I identified with it to some extent,” says Katsamanis, admitting that the effort is still in the early stages. Fairphone, which started out in 2010 as a public awareness campaign concerning conflict minerals in consumer electronics organized by three Dutch NGOs, evolved into a social enterprise three years later.

Fairphone, which like most mainstream companies also manufactures its phone in China, has created a worker-controlled fund which aims at improving employees’ labor conditions and wage levels. For every device produced at the site, the company and the factory each invest 2.50 euros in the fund. Meanwhile, the company tries to be as transparent as possible by releasing a cost breakdown report of where every euro is spent and by regularly publishing social assessment reports on its factory.

The Android-powered device has a micro-USB port (a charger is not provided with the phone; the idea is that there is at least one sitting in one of your drawers at home), dual SIM slots and a removable battery. The phone can be upgraded, repaired (heads-up: if you can’t fix it yourself, you will need to post it to the company’s service department in Holland), and, when the time comes, recycled by Fairphone after it has been shipped to the company free of charge. Everything has been designed with an eye on increasing the handset’s life cycle and reducing waste. It is estimated that about 140 million cell phones end up in rubbish dumps every year in the US alone.

“I like the philosophy behind it. It’s like the old desktop computers which you could open up to switch the motherboard or add some extra memory,” Katsamanis says.

Storytelling device

From the company’s headquarters in Amsterdam, public engagement officer Daria Koreniushkina can’t hide her enthusiasm about the project. Following a successful crowdfunding campaign, the company has sold more than 55,000 handsets in a year and a half. However, “the phone is not the goal itself,” says the Russian, one of Fairphone’s 31 staff from 14 countries.

“It’s more a storytelling device. It talks about the bigger picture, what goes inside the phone and the complicated production processes and the problems related to it.

“Our goal is to create a fairer economy and our example to actually inspire the whole industry to change things and make interventions in the supply chain.”

Legislation signed by the Obama administration in 2010 compels US companies to identify the sources of minerals in their components, while a traceability scheme has been introduced by the United Nations. Firms such as Apple and Samsung have taken some steps in a more sustainable direction, however they claim that certification of origin is not always feasible due to the large number of intermediaries in the production process.

“We realize that we are very tiny at the moment and that alone we cannot bring about change. We would like other brands to join our mission and then we would have fulfilled our mission,” says Koreniushkina.

Would that not make Fairphone, well, redundant?

“We would like it if other companies started to produce their own ‘fair’ phone and then compete with them in terms of fairness rather than market share,” Koreniushkina says, adding that the production of a 100 percent fair phone is practically impossible because there are thousands of standards that could be improved.

“Another issue is, what do you consider fair?” she says.

The company fends off criticism that the Fairphone is a luxury choice aimed exclusive at well-off Western consumers.

“One of the things we would like to prove is that ethical production is not necessarily more expensive. Our phone is not priced as a luxury product,” Koreniushkina says. At 325 euros, the Fairphone is no more expensive than other midrange smartphones.

“Our target group is basically everyone, because nowadays almost everyone has a mobile phone,” she says, although the company stops short of prompting people to get rid of their working phones.

“We always encourage people to keep their phone because we think that the phone you already own, if working, is the most sustainable one. We don’t want to create more waste.”

Back in Athens, Katsamanis says that the stubborn economic crisis is not an obstacle to the success of the Fairphone.

“I do not think things would be any different if people were better off. In fact the crisis could provoke people into thinking that the real cost is not the price of the phone. The point is to think in terms of cause and effect, in a broader context,” he says.

If figures are any guide, few people think that way. Just 21 orders have been placed from Greece to date.

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Documentary festival rolling in Thessaloniki

By Harry van Versendaal

Dancer-turned-filmmaker Bess Kargman’s award-winning “First Position,” a documentary about the toughness of mind and body demanded of young classical ballet dancers, will open this year’s 10-day Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF), which gets under way on March 15.

The film follows a handful of boys and girls from various parts of the world as they train for the Youth America Grand Prix in New York City, a competition that could determine their future in the ballet world. The documentary has picked up numerous accolades, including a Jury Prize at the San Francisco DocFest and audience awards at DOC NYC and the Portland International Film Festival.

Now in its 15th year, the TDF has drawn a big following of movie buffs and filmmakers who make the annual trip to the northern port city for the rich crop of hard-hitting productions and interesting side events.

“Its success is not just measured by the high numbers of people who flock to its theaters every year,” said Konstantinos Aivaliotis, a visual anthropology expert who is currently doing research on the festival.

“The festival is really talked about abroad, ranking in the top five – if not top three – on the European doc fest circuit,” he said.

Despite the financial difficulties, organizers have managed to bring together about 200 films from 45 countries, as well as 58 local productions.

Alongside “First Position,” festival highlights include Kirby Dick’s Oscar-nominated film “The Invisible War,” a shocking account of rape and sexual assault in the US military. Based on more than 100 interviews, the Arizona-born director exposes the systemic cover-up of sexual crimes and the everyday struggle of victims – mostly women but also men – to rebuild their lives and find justice.

In his Sundance winner “Blood Brother,” Pittsburg director Steve Hoover travels to southern India to document his longtime friend’s mission to help children living with HIV and AIDS. The film won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience award for American documentaries at what is the largest independent film festival in the US.

Dutch John Appel’s “Wrong Time, Wrong Place,” billed as a film about “how small, seemingly trivial events can upset the fine balance between life and death,” features discussions with five people who were caught up in the 2011 bomb attack in Oslo and the ensuing shooting spree on the island of Utoya where Norwegian far-right activist Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people and wounded 242.

In “Forbidden Voices,” Swiss director Barbara Miller documents the lives of dissident bloggers in Cuba, China and Iran who use their laptops to fight for free speech and press freedom.

The organizers have also prepared a tribute to Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzman, maker of the classic 260-minute trilogy “The Battle of Chile,” which chronicles the atrocities of the Pinochet regime. The 71-year-old director, who won five-star reviews for his 2010 philosophical cine-essay on history and memory, “Nostalgia for the Light,” has been booked for a workshop in Thessaloniki.

Uncomfortably relevant

Stuck in recession for a sixth year, debt-wracked Greece is struggling with severe austerity measures and sky-high unemployment. It’s a lethal mix that has fueled social turmoil and political polarization as reflected in the meteoric ascent of the country’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party. It all makes the doc fest uncomfortably topical.

“Documentaries can serve as an alternative news source and highlight issues that do not come up in mainstream media,” Aivaliotis said.

He says the crisis has not produced a major shift in subject matter, but at least a few of this year’s 58 movies seem to be influenced by the zeitgeist in one way or another.

“Neo-Nazi, the Holocaust of Memory,” shot by established TV journalist and documentarist Stelios Kouloglou, revisits the country’s path from the German occupation during World War II to the rise of Golden Dawn, which currently controls 18 seats in the Greek Parliament.

“To the Wolf,” a documentary-narrative hybrid shot in the mountains of western Greece by first-time directing duo Christina Koutsospyrou and Britain’s Aran Hughes, follows two shepherd families as they try to survive the Greek crisis. The production earned flattering reviews when it premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February.

Nikos Dayandas, who last year left Thessaloniki with the Film Critics’ Award for his film “Sayome,” returns with “The Little Land” to tell the story of a disaffected young urban couple who decide to try their luck on the remote Aegean island of Icaria.

The Greek economic crisis, which has touched all levels of society, also means that local documentarists – never a spoiled lot – will continue to struggle for funding. But on the other hand, they have technology on their side as digital video is making films cheaper to produce.

“The means [to make a documentary] are more accessible now and the need to cooperate has started to be more obvious, so I think we will continue to see fresh things from Greek creators,” Aivaliotis said.

Approximately 520 films will be available in this year’s Doc Market, including all those screened as part of the official program. Around 60 buyers will be attending from Europe, the USA and Canada.

Building the Rotterdam of the South

A container depot in Aspropyrgos west of Athens. Neglected for decades, the area lies at the core of a grand plan for an economic reboot of the debt-wracked nation. Photo by Harry van Versendaal

By Harry van Versendaal

ASPROPYRGOS – Under the pale winter sun, a yellow cargo truck rumbles by and turns into a narrow road filled with potholes. Nearby, a ragged scarecrow balefully stands guard over a scrubby patch of broccoli. A little further off, an immigrant pushes a supermarket trolley filled with scrap metal next to a herd of sheep grazing by a metal container.

Welcome to Greece’s main logistics hub, the Thriasio Plain. An ugly sprawl sandwiched between three mountains and the pungent Elefsina Bay, the land of Persephone has for decades hosted the bulk of the country’s heavy industry. Now the area — which contains the towns of Elefsina, Aspropyrgos, Mandra and Magoula — lies at the core of a grand plan for an economic reboot of the debt-wracked nation.

After signing a deal with the Greek government in 2010 to run part of Piraeus, the country’s largest port and strategic gateway for bringing Chinese goods into Europe and beyond, the China Ocean Shipping Company, or Cosco, is reportedly interested in acquiring a big chunk of land on the nearby plain of Thriasio to be used as a major freight and logistics center. Loaded with ambition, the project is expected to transform the entire peninsula.

But, alas, the reality on the ground paints a different story. A mishmash of divergent zoning plans — part industrial, part commercial wholesale, part “undefined” — Thriasio is scattered with warehouses, factories, scrapyards and legions of freight containers behind razor-wire fences. Connecting them is a labyrinthine set of unnamed narrow roads that frequently choke up, as cargo trucks must maneuver in limited space while street signs are mostly absent.

“It’s a joke. We call it an industrial zone, but there’s nothing that resembles one. When foreign investors visit the place, we turn red. There’s no roads, there’s no names, how can you expect to be taken seriously?” says Vassilis Argyrakis, a man in his early 40s who runs a family business that makes food products.

A black-and-white portrait of his grandfather who founded the company in the early 1920s hangs on the wall behind his desk. In 1980 the company moved from Piraeus to Aspropyrgos. “This was supposed to be a prime location, in close proximity to the the port, the capital, the railways and the national road,” he says at his office on the mezzanine of a gray cement building. More than 30 years later, Argyrakis tells a story of promises unfulfilled.

“For the past 30 years, no government ever took this place seriously. The state dumped all kinds of stuff here,” he says. Oil refineries, cement plants, steel factories and shipyards found a home here. Repeated environmental studies have found this to be one of Greece’s most heavily polluted areas. No surprise local newspapers regularly refer to Thriasio as Athens’s dumping ground.

Poor access is having an impact on the cost of services. Argyrakis says the cost of carrying goods from Piraeus to his company is higher than shipping goods from anywhere in the world to Greece. “It’s a waste of time, a waste of money. It’s totally counterproductive,” he says. His neighbors are not much help either. One of them keeps sending the police because noise from the factory interrupts his afternoon siesta, Argyrakis says with a smile. The police officer shrugs his shoulders, unable to do anything about it.

Bring the warehouses

Warehouses mushroomed along the northern side of the Attiki Odos ring road built here in 2003 to connect the capital with the coastal town of Elefsina providing a shortcut for northbound traffic.

“It was like they struck gold,” Andreas Papadakis, a young businessman, says of local landowners. “The price of land went up 1,500 percent almost overnight,” he says, as the area’s status was switched to “undefined,” giving the green light for the construction of warehouses.

As co-owner of a document storage firm, Papadakis has been renting one of those warehouses for the past six years. Thousands of cardboard boxes filled with A4 documents are stacked on rows and rows of metal shelving nearly to the top of the 20-meter-high structure. A forklift truck puts boxes into place as a company employee feeds data into a laptop computer. Sitting at the company’s headquarters at the foot of Mount Parnitha, he says running a business here has demanded a great deal of patience and adaptation. “We had to wait for six months to get a telephone line and even longer for a proper Internet connection,” he says. It took repeated calls to the local municipality before they eventually placed trash containers outside the company HQ, but a postman is yet to be seen.

Another problem is gangs stealing metal from the structures of the buildings, or even removing street drains, that they can then sell it on to one of the dozen of scrap merchants around here. Locals complain that burglars will break into a house just to take down the switchboard.

Beating the Leviathan

Municipal officials admit there are problems with the road network and anarchic construction. But they refuse to take any responsibility. Stelios Albandis is deputy mayor of Aspropyrgos which, thanks to the large number of businesses, is one of the wealthiest municipalities in the country. “The rot starts from the top down,” he says, blaming the mess on Greece’s Leviathan bureaucratic state that holds local government to ransom.

A blueprint to regulate development in Attica, also known as the Athens Regulatory Plan, which includes plans to construct new highways, has suffered numerous setbacks. Albandis says that giving greater jurisdiction to the municipalities would save time and accelerate growth. “Zoning plans for every single town, from Alexandroupoli to Gavdos, has to go through the central government in Athens. This is extremely time-consuming. Getting a formal approval could take up to 15 years,” he says.

Looking down from the slopes of Mount Parnitha to the south, you can see the mammoth orange warehouse, property of the Hellenic Railways Organization (OSE), and the space that is to host the new logistics center. On a clear day you can see the Bay of Elefsina and all the way to the island of Salamina, where in 480 BC the ancient Greeks beat the invading Persian fleet.

A notch to the east, on Pier 2 of Piraeus port, the Chinese mega-cranes are working at full throttle, like huge blue monsters bending their necks to lift blue, red and yellow lego bricks below. Last year saw a rise in container traffic in Piraeus, making this Cosco’s biggest container terminal in Europe and second only to Suez among the company’s biggest transatlantic terminals. Figures went up 73.5 percent in 2011, reaching a record 1,188,100 TEU against 684,900 TEU the previous year. The way of doing business here has radically changed. A local businessman, who wished to remain unnamed, describes how truck drivers used to bribe port officials at the gates and then again inside the loading area. “Or they would be kept waiting at the end of the line for hours,” he says. The Chinese have changed all that. “Truck drivers now simply swipe their access card to enter the dock, load the cargo and leave the place.”

Cash-strapped Greece, which currently depends on bailout loans from foreign creditors to stay afloat, craves the deep pockets of the Chinese, while for the Chinese Greece allows them to hasten east-west trade while getting a foot in the continental door. It is estimated that Piraeus saves them about a week of travel compared to the ports of Rotterdam, one of the world’s biggest, or Hamburg.

“Of all the southern ports, the one in Piraeus has the best potential for growth, situated in a country that the Chinese believe can be manipulated and controlled, with proximity to Central and Eastern Europe, and Turkey, which is growing faster than most northern and central EU countries,” says Nasos Mihalakas, a Washington-based foreign affairs analyst.

After taking control of the container terminal, Cosco has set its sights on OSE’s 600,000 square meter site in Thriasio where storing goods will be cheaper than on the coast. Tassos Vamvakidis, deputy commercial manager at Cosco’s wholly owned subsidiary, Piraeus Container Terminal (PCT), says the company would have to wait and see what the exact terms of the tender are before making a decision to bid for the project. “But [Cosco] would be interested on principle,” he says.

But some experts insist Thriasio is not necessarily essential in Cosco’s business strategy. “Space will be needed in order to make Piraeus the entry hub that the Chinese have been talking about, but Thriasio cannot be the only available space,” says Mihalakas, an expert on Chinese trade.

This is perhaps why Greek officials are reportedly trying to woo the Chinese with more carrots. A draft law approved last month allows the creation of free trade zones, which would permit the transfer and handling of goods in certain areas without the intervention of customs authorities.

Another crucial step is completing a long-delayed project to connect the port to the logistics hub via rail. The government last promised to complete the project by mid-2012. But according to transport expert Fotis Fotinos, this too is set to fail, putting the completion date “some time in 2013.”

Keep waiting

Repeated tenders for the Thriasio hub have been unsuccessful, as demands were deemed excessive in light of Greece’s economic conundrum. And, of course, there is a lot of government foot-dragging. Even though Athens decided to relaunch the tender in 2009, it took a year before it took place. Then OSE’s real estate arm, Gaiose, caused further delays by twice altering the terms of the tender.

“Precious time has been wasted, especially during the past couple of years. Today, no offers have been made,” says Costis Hatzidakis, who has served at the ministries of transport and development with the conservative New Democracy party, warning that if the logistics center is not operational by June, then Greece may lose crucial EU funding for the project.

Despite the setbacks, Hatzidakis still believes in the project. “The objective,” he says, is no less than “developing Greece into a major logistics hub in the Balkan area and Southeast Europe.”

Back in Aspropyrgos, some people voice similar ambitions. “If the plan came to fruition, this place could become a logistics center for the whole country, perhaps for the entire continent. I believe up to 90 percent of imports would travel through here,” the deputy mayor says. Booming trade, Albandis believes, would have a spillover effect, accelerating the transformation of the whole area, with big new roads and better town planning.

“Since we have nothing else to offer — like cheap labor, R&D or good universities — then we might as well sell our geographical position,” says Papadakis, who is confident the Chinese are here to stay. “Hopefully, this will one day become the Rotterdam of the south,” he says.

Until that happens, entrepreneurs will have to put up with the grim reality. At the Aspropyrgos food company, Argyrakis jokes how a group of German inspectors had to spend the night at a dodgy love motel after failing to locate his business.

Thriasio, he says, will not change before Greece’s bankrupt state does. “The civil servants who make up the state mechanism are never subjected to any assessment. Our politicians are elected whereas our civil servants are permanent. The former hesitate to take any measures because they do not want displease the latter,” says Argyrakis. “It’s the same old story. But these things don’t only happen here. Aspropyrgos is just a microcosm of Greece.”

The expensive cost of cheap water

Photo by GenBug/Flickr

By Harry van Versendaal

From drinking to cleaning, from making newspapers to automobiles, water is used in ways that escape our awareness. Water, in other words, is too precious to be wasted, but this is exactly what’s happening, prompting a number of groups to promote ways of conserving it. One way, say some, is raising its price — as the argument goes, cheap water comes with a hefty price tag.

Experts meeting in Madrid late February warned that governments in the northern Mediterranean must phase out irrigation subsidies to farmers or risk a ballooning threat to the environment and food security.

“There are increasing incentives to produce more and to use more irrigation, because there is a very attractive market out there waiting for these same products,” said Kevin Parris, an economist at the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), pointing a finger at developing markets in India and China.

Growing demand, as a result of rising world populations and changing dietary habits, and the climate change wild card are putting a strain on water resources and intensifying the need for more efficient management of this, a precious albeit long-squandered resource.

Data is often fragmented, but the pattern is there. Some 47 percent of the world’s population will live under severe water stress by 2050, the OECD predicts. Meanwhile, farmers will need to produce nearly 50 percent more food up to 2030 and double output by 2050 to match soaring demand, according to the Paris-based organization.

Things will only get worse as a result of global warming. That, most scientists predict, will increase irrigation needs by 26 percent while exacerbating the consequences of desertification, deforestation and soil erosion — especially in the southern hemisphere.

Thirsty farmers

Agriculture is the main user of the world’s freshwater withdrawals, accounting for almost 70 percent. Eight percent goes to urban use. It is often missed that H2O is used to make everything from electricity to automobiles. So industry consumes about 22 percent of resources. Water demand among factories and domestic users has quadrupled over the past 50 years.

Water is a finite resource, which means there is only a certain amount of it out there. It is used, but it is never really used up. Water evaporates from the ground or transpires from foliage to become cloud before falling back to the earth as rain. Although humans have found a way to remove salt from seawater, a practice known as desalination, the technology, which is gaining ground in Spain, Israel and Australia, comes with a poor environmental record. It damages the coastline while using up big chunks of energy which adds to the greenhouse effect.

There is no easy way, it seems, when it comes to protecting the environment.

“There is not much to do on the supply side,” Parris said, adding that efforts should instead focus on curbing demand. And there is no better way to accomplish this, most experts agree, than by introducing a price for water that reflects its true cost.

Most governments provide financial support for irrigation — allowing farmers to pay far below market prices. Policymakers do so to serve social and political objectives, such as food security and regional development in poorer areas, but they remain deaf to the collateral damage caused by underpriced water.

Undercharging for irrigation water, Chris Charles, project manager of Global Subsidies Initiative (GSI), told the Madrid conference, has dire environmental and economic repercussions such as groundwater depletion and pollution, as it encourages intensively farmed and pesticide-intensive crops, while at the same time distorting international markets.

No transparency

A recent study by the GSI, which is a chapter of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) found that Spain spends an estimated 1 billion euros a year on irrigation subsidies. Other countries in the northern Mediterranean — Greece, Italy, France and Portugal — the report said, also provide generous aid but the true magnitude is hard to determine as governments are wary of sharing too much information.

“That money could be better used in other parts of the economy,” said Charles of the Geneva-based outfit set up to monitor government subsidies and their impact on sustainable development.

In most cases, farmers only pay for the operation and maintenance costs for water, while shunning their due share of capital costs for hydro projects like dams and canals.

On top of discouraging the switch to water-wise technologies such as surge flow irrigation, low pressure sprinklers, drip-irrigation and moisture sensors, subsidies is the thick wall obstructing the eco-signal. “There is no scarcity message in the price of water,” Nuria Hernandez-Mora, president of the New Water Culture Foundation (FNCA), a Spanish non-governmental organization, told the conference.

Advocates of subsidies say that slashing state support is going to push up commodity prices for consumers and drive many farmers out of business. But those concerns, critics say, are not backed up by evidence. “The rise in water prices does not increase food prices at the supermarket,” Parris said, drawing on past experience in Australia and Israel.

Some people argue that the out-of-whack economics of the EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP), a system based on mammoth subsidies and artificially cheap exports, has not helped much toward conservation either. “Most aids go to intensive farming systems,” said Eva Hernandez of WWF Spain’s freshwater program.

CAP subsidies gobble up over 40 billion euros a year, i.e. more than 40 percent of the bloc’s budget. The biggest chunks of aid, Parris said, go to the richest farmers in the north who produce more water-intensive goods such as dairy, sugar beets and beef. “In the EU the richest farmers get the bulk of the subsidies. It’s bizarre and unfair,” Parris said.

Tampering with subsidies, of course, is always a tricky one for politicians who are wary of disaffecting their voters. Aid is systematically used as a tool to benefit specific groups of people which is why governments can be quite laconic about the allocation of handouts.

“Subsidies themselves create a pool of money out of which recipients can influence the very political process that channels money to them in the first place,” a recent GSI report notes. The problem is that, particularly in the southern European world of corruption-prone politicians, petulant unions and vested interests, government aid has come to be seen as natural. “Subsidies thus metamorphosize into entitlements and any attempt to curb them becomes politically hazardous,” the report says.

Greeks know a thing or two about entitlements. Local farmers have repeatedly blocked major highways with their tractors to press with their demands — and they have in most cases gotten away with it as governments pay the price for the salience of patron-client relations. This scene was repeated in early February when hundreds of farmers, from northern and central Greece, threatened to block the border with Bulgaria in a bid to pressure the socialist government into giving them tax-free gasoline, compensation and subsidies.

Know your rights

In recent years, alternative concepts have been put forward to improve water management. One of these plans is water trading, whereby users buy and sell water rights. The idea is to direct water toward high-value uses, and the scheme has found success in Australia where water rights are in some places transferred on a temporary or permanent basis between stakeholders. The recycling of water also holds promise, but low water prices do not make recycling very interesting to farmers.

Others advocate the introduction of a water footprint to track the amount of water that goes in the production of each good. According to calculations by Water Footprint Network, a Dutch-based non-profit foundation, an apple requires 70 liters of water, one glass of beer 75 liters, and one hamburger 2,400 liters. But numbers like these are unlikely to change our increasingly demanding dietary habits, especially as more and more people around the world rise into the middle class (2 billion people currently stand on the threshold, according to a recent Economist report). “Times have changed. My daughter these days wants to eat strawberries in midwinter,” Parris said.

To make things a bit more complicated, some people hold that water is a natural right and should thus be provided free of cost. That’s a cultural, economic and, perhaps, philosophical question. But even if water came from god, the standard counter-argument goes, it did so without the dams and the water pipes.

Those wasteful Greeks

Agriculture in Greece uses 87 percent of water resources — a staggering figure that is close to the average in developing countries. Low water prices have made local farmers shy of technological innovation (outdated sprinkler systems, often seen wetting neighboring plots of land or the asphalt road, are still very widespread) while encouraging water-intensive crops such as cotton.

Cotton farmers in Greece, one of the main beneficiaries of EU funds, have in the past been subsidized by up to four times the market value of their crop, but CAP reforms over the previous year have made things harder for freeloaders.

Management has never been the Greeks’ forte and management of water, too, leaves a lot to be desired. Agriculture is heavily dependent on groundwater and access is often ensured via illegal wells. Due to overpumping of groundwater, withdrawals are being extracted faster than they are recharged.

The excessive use of water is evident in the heavily farmed plain of Thessaly. A controversial project to divert the country’s second-longest river, the Acheloos, from Western Greece to the area was recently suspended by Greece’s highest administrative court citing environmental concerns.

An OECD report published last year put total subsidies for Greece over 141 million euros. “No significant effort has yet been made to make farmers pay for the important rehabilitation and maintenance costs,” the report said. The country’s landscape and the economic significance of the agricultural sector (the contribution to Greek GNP is one of the highest in Europe), it said, “are factors which explain the delay in implementing water pricing reforms.”

The EU water framework directive, launched about a decade ago, was designed to reform water pricing and financing policies toward full cost recovery. But it has yet to make an impact on Greece, where, according to an assessment published by the Greek environment ministry in 2008, the cost recovery level ranges between 1.78 and 56.25 percent.

Current trends are clearly unsustainable, but little can be achieved unless we all come to realize the true price of water. “If you ask how much a liter of gas costs, most people will know,” said Parris. “If you ask them the price of water, nobody knows.”

Pandora in Kosovo

Photo by Matt Lutton

By Harry van Versendaal

A ruling by the United Nation’s highest court last week on Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008 prompted frustration in Belgrade and triumphalism in Pristina but legal experts remain uncertain about the exact meaning and the implications of the decision for the divided region and beyond.

The much-anticipated decision by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague, which was passed in a 10-to-4 vote by the judges, had a Delphic quality: While saying that the declaration of independence was not in violation of international law, it stopped short of stating that Kosovo is a legal state.

“The ruling in fact has very little real meaning. In fact, we are not clearer on whether Kosovo’s secession is legal than we were before. The court simply said that the declaration of independence as a statement did not infringe any international laws. Anyone can declare independence, in other words. What matters is the act of recognition – an issue that the court steered well away from,” James Ker-Lindsay, a Balkan expert at the London School of Economics (LSE), told Athens Plus.

Lack of clarity did not stop Pristina from hailing the decision, which is non-binding, as a victory. Serbs, their fortune and confidence tarnished by a series of lost wars in the 1990s, reacted angrily at the prospect of giving up this chunk of land traditionally seen as the nation’s historic heartland. Lawmakers this week passed a resolution that their country will never recognize Kosovo as an independent state, while the government launched a diplomatic marathon to halt further recognitions by foreign states. Kosovo, which has been under UN administration since a NATO air raid in 1999 ended a Serb crackdown on independence-seeking ethnic Albanians, has so far been recognized by 69 states, including the US and most EU governments – but not Greece. It has a population of 2 million, 90 percent of whom are ethnic Albanians.

Pandora’s box

Analysts had warned that a pro-independence ruling would have a Pandora’s box effect, emboldening separatist movements in areas such as Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Somaliland and northern Cyprus. In a nod to such concerns, shared by states like China, Russia, Spain, Romania, Cyprus and Greece, the court deftly fought shy of a political decision.

“The ruling has very little effect on separatist movements – and that is where the judges have been particularly shrewd. Again, anyone can declare independence. It is whether it is recognized that matters,” Ker-Lindsay said.

For Stefan Wolff, professor of international security at the University of Birmingham, the ICJ did not rule on whether the declaration of independence had any legal implications, which is essentially what other secessionist movements would need to make Kosovo’s case a precedent. But legal technicalities, he warns, will not be enough to stop the trend. “There is little doubt in my mind that secessionists elsewhere will interpret the court opinion in their favor,” Wolff said.

Might is right

Does Cyprus have reasons to worry? Ker-Lindsay says that the ICJ ruling will have no immediate effect on Cyprus, as the unilateral declaration of independence by the Turkish Cypriots was in fact explicitly declared to be illegal by the UN Security Council. “Had it happened today, we could be dealing with a very different situation. But it didn’t and we aren’t,” he said.

Despite successive UN resolutions, Turkish troops continue to occupy the northern third of the island since 1974. During a visit to Nicosia last week, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle was at pains to reassure Cyprus.

“This was very specific expertise, it has nothing to do with any other cases in the world… It’s a unique decision, in a unique situation with a unique historical background,” he said.

LSE historian Svetozar Rajak is more skeptical, suggesting that a lot depends on your friends. “As the case of Kosovo has shown, if there is enough backing from the international community, any situation, in existence today or in the future, including Cyprus, may end up before the ICJ,” he said.

What next for Serbia?

Analysts agree that instead of wasting time and energy on what seems to be a lost cause, Belgrade should engage in practical cooperation that will allow it to one day join the EU.

But a pragmatic shift won’t come naturally. Reacting to the ruling of the ICJ earlier this week, Belgrade said that it will not change its policy of treating Kosovo as its territory, while it vowed to continue its fight to reopen status negotiations at the UN’s General Assembly.

Fortunately, this time war is not in the cards. Rebuffing nationalist calls for a military response, Serb President Boris Tadic this week said Belgrade will seek a compromise. “We are in a very difficult situation… but we won’t beat the war drums,” he said. “We cannot protect our interests in Kosovo without integration into the European Union and good relations with the United States, Russia and China.”

That does not mean that Belgrade will not be tempted to block Kosovo’s membership of regional organizations and even block the free movement of people and goods. But it’s hard to see how it will stick with a policy that undermines its EU hopes for too long.

“Given the catastrophic economic situation Serbia is in and obvious inability of the government in Belgrade to offer solutions, it may be tempted to accept any and every carrot from the EU, in exchange for the recognition of Kosovo independence,” Rajak said, adding that there seems to be little effective opposition from the existing political factors at home.

Some observers, including Rajak, are rather concerned about Pristina’s unilateral action in northern Kosovo. “I am afraid that the ICJ decision may encourage some in Pristina to contemplate forceful reintegration of the territories north of the Ibar River,” he said of the ethnic-Serb-dominated region that has effectively been under Belgrade’s control.

A considerable number of Serbs live on territory controlled by Pristina, in the south, in enclaves like Strpce near the border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Gracanica, a suburb of Pristina. Analysts agree that the court ruling has not reduced the need to discuss the future of these populations — it’s just that the rules of the game have changed. “After the ICJ opinion, Serbia is no longer in a position to dictate terms and should approach Kosovo as an equal partner,” Marko Prelec, an expert of the International Crisis Group, told Athens Plus.

It may sound unbearably cliche when it comes to the Balkans but experts urge both sides to set their differences aside and look ahead.

“In the end, both Serbia and Kosovo want to join the EU and neither can really have an interest in mutual hostility,” Wolff said. “It is important that leaders on both sides calm down now, make a realistic assessment of the situation and figure out a way forward.”

Seven years in Tibet

By Harry van Versendaal

Seven years in the making, Dirk Simon’s controversial film “When the Dragon Swallowed the Sun” made its international premiere this week at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.

Based on 800 hours of footage shot in India, Beijing and Chinese-occupied Lhasa, the German-born director deftly unfolds the story-within-the-story of Tibet’s liberation movement: a damaging split between followers of the Dalai Lama’s nonviolent, middle-way policy and Tibetan radicals who have come to see violence as the only way to shake off Chinese domination. Beijing claims Tibet is part of China.

With the countdown to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and the Olympic Torch route fiasco as a backdrop, Simon presents exclusive interviews, rare archival material and breathtaking imagery – all wrapped up in a super soundtrack crafted by Philip Glass, Thom Yorke and Damien Rice. The morning after his movie earned the thunderous applause of the Thessaloniki audience, the Colorado-based filmmaker spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about the making of and his expectations for this groundbreaking project.

Why did it take seven years to complete this movie?

I never intended to spend seven years making this film. First, it was a question of budget: From the beginning, I knew I wanted a movie that would be intriguing from a cinematographic and a musical point of view, and I knew this was not going to come cheap. Then it was the story and the research. For every answer, we would find ourselves with three more questions. For three or four years, the story just became bigger and more complicated.

How did things work out for you in terms of funding?

We didn’t get any support really. We applied for funding in the USA but we didn’t get any. Nor did we get any in Germany, part of the reason being that you have to spend some of that money in the country. We talked to a few German production companies but for them it was too expensive and too political. So we borrowed the money we didn’t have.

What other problems did you have to overcome?

There were many logistical problems. We had a lot of overseas shooting, remote locations, and getting the equipment on top of a mountain was a challenge.

Of course, shooting in China and Tibet was a big question mark. We couldn’t apply for any permits; just mentioning the name of Tibet would raise enough flags in China. Once you put yourself out there with a project like this, you risk jeopardizing the entire project. They might not give you visas or could even try to stop you from doing anything at all.

So you opted to lay low.

Yes, we tried to keep a low profile but also to gain the trust of individuals and support groups. I believe we were the only media group, if you like, who knew that the protest on San Francisco’s Golden Gate would take place and that’s how we were able to put a helicopter on standby [to film the protest]. Gaining their trust was a process of several years. Obviously, they had to be very secretive and gaining their trust was not easy.

The movie features no statements by Chinese officials. Does that not affect the neutrality of the movie?

No, I don’t think so. It’s almost like a general rule: “You have to have all sides in there.” In the beginning, I wanted to [include them] but then I realized that it wasn’t going to help the project and wasn’t going to help the Chinese either. They weren’t going to look better. They were only going to look worse.

But there must be Chinese intellectuals or activists who object to the official line.

This is true. After the uprising of March 2008 [the 49th anniversary of the failed uprising against Beijing in 1959] there was a group of about 20 intellectuals and dissidents who wrote an open letter to their government and some got arrested over that. But it was risky. I was trying to contact one well-known person but we kept missing each other. We had to be very secretive, it was like an undercover operation. It all happened in Beijing during the Olympics; she was watched constantly and we had to assume that we were too. Rather than have some Chinese showing that they are compassionate to the Tibetans, I tried a different approach, which was showing these contemporary artists, basically showing Chinese who also care about humanity and freedom. I did not want to make it a one-dimensional movie, so to speak. I wanted it to have many facets.

You take a clear stand on the China-Tibet standoff but you don’t take an equally clear stance on the division within the Tibet liberation movement. Was that done on purpose, was it because you had not made up your mind, or did you want the audience to draw their own conclusions?

All of the above, in a way. I knew I was not going to find the final answer, so it was more important to raise the right questions. For me personally, it’s very hard to make a decision as to which is the right way. I have a personal history of growing up under communism and escaping. I can see myself picking up a stone at some point and throwing it.

Even so, I intellectually understand the concept of nonviolence and that this should be the right way. I feel torn too. I think the only way to come to a solution is to discuss, but not in the way that it has been done over the past 20 years, where people just keep going back and forth. [Tibetans need] leadership and inspiration and to become united again. The real Achilles heel for the Tibetan movement right now is that lack of unity and that lack of leadership. They haven’t gone anywhere for 20 years.

Did growing up in a divided Germany influence you in making this movie?

Absolutely. I was a teenager when this started to affect me, this growing desire for freedom. And I started to realize that something was wrong in my own country, which eventually led me to leave everything behind, family, friends, all belongings. Freedom has ever since been a very important topic to me.

Has making this movie made you more or less upbeat about a solution?

It’s a roller-coaster ride, really. [After the San Francisco Torch fiasco], everyone was celebrating that the party didn’t happen and they were so happy. What I felt was actually sadness. After all this shouting and yelling, I felt there will never be a dialogue; it’s impossible. They are so entrenched and there is so much hatred, it seemed like they will never overcome it. All we saw was a huge triumph for the Chinese government. At the end, we all joined in and we clapped our hands and said that this was such an amazing opening ceremony. But there is not much hope left.

I am actually happy but also surprised that audiences have said they found the movie “inspiring.” People truly understand that what I really meant to say is: “This is about to fail. We are on the verge of failure. The most famous nonviolent movement is on the verge of failure and not just because China is so dominant but also because we are not supporting it; we are allowing the Chinese to do what they want.”

Near the end of the movie, an interviewee draws a comparison between Nazi Germany’s extermination of the Jews and China’s crackdown on the Tibetans. Don’t you think that statement was over the top?

That is probably the point we discussed the most in the 15-month editing process. I knew it was provocative in many ways. We discussed it with many people. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the Americans found it bold but accepted it, it was easy to get the image. Germans were very, very nervous. They thought we were crossing a line here. But my concern was also the Jewish community, how they would feel if we allowed the Tibetans to say this on film. And, of course, I was concerned about the Chinese, because the film also reaches out to them. In the end, we left the statement because I felt “What if he is right?” I mean, imagine if someone at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin had made a film predicting the Holocaust.

Even if we might not experience a Holocaust like that of the last century, what we are seeing is a society that is not even hiding its aspiration for dominance and one that is going not just for Asia but global domination. It is not even hiding it. We all believe that Tibet is something far, far away while the Chinese are, politically speaking, already knocking very heavily on our door.

Click here to watch the official video.

Fortune cookies

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

Google “democracy” and “China” and you get Google. Following a series of highly sophisticated, government-guided attacks on its network, the world’s largest search engine has indicated that it might pull out of the world’s fastest-growing market. The Chinese may not quite have succeeded in nailing jello to a wall, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, but a shutdown of Google.cn would nevertheless be a setback for cyber-optimists who think that digital technology can increase the power of individuals fighting against authoritative regimes.

Google entered the Chinese market in 2006 on the condition it would accept official censorship. Google, of course, is a corporation; and corporations do not behave philanthropically. Nevertheless, the company’s decision was seen as being, at least partially, driven by its “don’t be evil” motto – an overriding belief in the liberalizing effect of information. Some evil, its owners suggested at the time, was unavoidable – or at least necessary if Google were to become the west’s Trojan horse behind China’s so-called Great Fire Wall.

The assumption was typical enlightenment optimism fanned by a faith in universal human progress powered by science and reason. More sober observers have denounced such dreamy optimism as an illusion – what British philosopher John Gray calls “the Prozac of the thinking classes.” Modernity has made us more effective, but it has not made us better humans.

The fact is technology is neutral. History is full of applications that have been used for benign as well as evil purposes – nuclear power, biotechnology, drugs and, now, the Web. The Internet carries in it neither despotism nor freedom. The unprecedented expressive capability and subversive potential of self-documenting bloggers and free-rights activists has come hand-in-hand with unprecedented state power to document, filter and identify dissidents as they leave their digital fingerprints throughout cyberspace.

But even pessimists should agree that although the experience of Iran, Burma and China has exposed the weaknesses of twitter revolutionaries in the face of a ruthless regime, the mere crushing of these cyber-driven protests and enhanced reporting across the globe has exposed the cracks in official depictions of reality. Iran’s mullahs are feeling the heat.

Google’s purportedly ethical concerns in the China standoff have prompted praise as well as skepticism. “Google’s motives may be mixed, but it has, at last, done the right thing,” an editorial in UK’s Guardian noted, while John Gapper, a business writer for the Financial Times, said that “it takes some guts to walk away from the world’s largest potential market.”

With only some 17 percent of search queries and 33 percent of revenue, Google’s share was dwarfed by that of home-grown rival Baidu. Doing business in China, some analysts insist, was simply not worth it.

Like Sarah Lacy, a columnist for TechCrunch, a Silicon Valley site. “I’ll give Google this much: They’re taking a bad situation and making something good out of it, both from a human and business point of view. I’m not saying human rights didn’t play into the decision, but this was as much about business,” she said. For Bill Thompson of the BBC, Google’s decision is inconsequential. “Threatening to pull out of China is like threatening to spit on a whale,” he said.

What many commentators seem to miss is that, in a capitalist world, economic and moral arguments often coincide. Even if Google is not interested in democratization per se, it still has a stake in the free flow of information. Google’s objective – providing easy and fast access to comprehensive and unbiased information – is best served in an open, uncensored environment. “Openness for China is a means to an end – prosperity and development – but not a value,” wrote Roger Cohen in The New York Times. It’s pretty much the same for Google.

Another point lost in the haze of China-bashing is that, again much like China, Google is itself a greedy, monopolistic behemoth, an egregious privacy-violator. For every term or phrase fired into its search box, the company will keep track of time, date, cookie ID, Internet IP address, and search terms (hence the rise of so-called “interest-based advertising”). Benevolent as the current owners of Google are, or claim to be, no one can be certain what the future holds – and not just for the simple reason that the company, like any company, may change hands. Technology is by nature unpredictable. The Industrial Revolution destroyed Britain’s social fabric but also provided the tools of Empire.

The unprecedented level of interaction makes the Internet the most powerful of media. Gloomy futurists have often warned against an Orwellian-type digital dystopia. What they, and Orwell, probably never imagined is that we would one day voluntarily feed Big Brother with our private information. As one of the Party slogans flashing on the walls of 1984’s Ministry of Truth noted, “Ignorance is strength.”


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