Posts Tagged 'italy'

Taking on the pigheaded

By Harry van Versendaal

Speak to Sonja Giese and you’ll immediately understand that the dominant belief that has us think Greeks are an object of stereotyping by everyone in Germany is no more than a stereotype itself.

“Since the outbreak of the crisis, Greek people have been portrayed by the German yellow press and many mainstream media as liars, cheaters, lazy bums and parasites,” she says of the bad publicity the debt-wracked nation has received since striking a bailout deal with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund in 2010.

“They have been told to sell their islands, to open ‘gyros’ bank accounts, to leave the eurozone and to go to hell,” she says.

Working at the Press and Communications Unit of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left Group in the European Parliament in Brussels, the 32-year-old German knows a thing or two about media stereotyping and perceived prejudice.

“Stereotyping is a common tool used by the media, in advertising and in politics,” she says.

It’s hard to disagree. The European tabloids have been awash with stories about lazy, feckless, work-shy Greeks often recycling exaggerated or simply false data about the country. Experts and politicians at home and abroad have not exactly helped to debunk the recurring myths about Greece.

Visiting Athens earlier this month, European Central Bank executive board member Joerg Asmussen said it was difficult to convince people in states such as Estonia and Slovakia, where the average wage is 1,000 euros, to lend to a country where the average wage in the state sector is about 3,000 euros. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has in the past suggested Greeks don’t work hard enough and take too much vacation time off. If such hyperbole comes from the lips of high-ranking politicians and bankers, there’s not much one can expect from a sensationalist tabloid in Germany or Britain.

Frustrated with the abuse of Greece and the continent’s other so-called profligate eurozone nations, Giese decided to actually do something to fix some of the damage. Together with Mareike Lambertz, a 24-year-old freelance journalist from Belgium, she is launching a photojournalism project titled “We Are the Pigs: A Road Trip to the Epicenter of the Crisis” — a reference to the unflattering acronym used to describe the troubled economies of the European periphery: Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain.

Between them, the pair have plenty of experience in journalism and the audiovisual field — as well as a soft spot for good old black-and-white photography. And they plan to put it to good use. Setting off from Thessaloniki, northern Greece, in early August, Giese and Lambertz plan to tour the so-called PIIGS countries seeking to collect and record personal stories of ordinary people who have been hit by the economic meltdown — but also of people who have not been affected at all. The idea, Giese says, is to show people’s faces, to visit their favorite hangouts and former working spaces, to meet with their friends and families, to document how they deal with everyday life in times of social and economic crisis. “But there is no ready-made script or agenda. We want to be as open-minded as possible,” Giese says.

“We want to show an alternative view of the Greek people. Using photographs and words, we want to show a small part of a reality that is beyond GDP figures, stock markets and rating agencies,” she explains, warning that to target any individual nation is to undermine the European home at large.

“There is no such thing as ‘The Greeks’ or ‘The Germans.’ Stereotyping Greek people as being lazy and untruthful leads to national prejudices among the people of Europe,” she says.

Instead of relying on commissions, Giese and Lambertz are using Startnext, a German crowdfunding platform, to raise money for their project. The duo have already agreed that various newspapers and magazines will run some of their stories and portraits. The work is scheduled to go on display in Brussels, Berlin and Eupen but the list of shows could grow by the time they wrap up the project.

“We want to show our work to a public that is curious and critical about what is going on in Europe. Our goal is to share information and try to change the way it flows.”

http://www.facebook.com/WePigs

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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.”

Unwanted masses on the move

 

Photo by Natalia Tsoukala

 

By Harry van Versendaal

Unwanted: There is no better word to describe European attitudes toward Roma communities. As France began to flatten some 400 camps hosting Roma migrants and to deport more than 8,000 back to Central Europe, President Nicolas Sarkozy became the latest prominent European figure to personify the continent’s prejudices against those forcibly nomadic people, also known as gypsies.

With his ratings shredded by unpopular pension reforms and budget cuts – a recent poll found that 62 percent of French voters do not want Sarkozy to seek reelection in 2012 – the French president is after a scapegoat. He has done it before. Unrest five years ago in the Parisian banlieues, the troubled suburban housing projects, shook the nation’s perception of itself. Sarkozy’s tough response as interior minister was hailed by conservative voters and was crucial in propelling him to power. Therefore, it was no surprise when after the July riots on the outskirts of Grenoble, Sarkozy replayed the law-and-order card that won him the 2007 election.

“The recent acceleration of expulsions and the fact that expulsions have been made more visible is part of a refocus of French policies on security, and probably an attempt to win votes from the extreme right,” Sophie Kammerer, policy officer for the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), told Athens Plus.

Because the Roma people are widely associated with petty crime, pickpocketing and aggressive begging, a police clampdown has been mostly welcomed by urbanites increasingly worried about public safety.

Also, gypsies are poor. The large number of 86 percent of Europe’s Roma live below the poverty line. Ivan Ivanov, of the Brussels-based European Roma Information Office, thinks the Roma are being targeted because the French government does not want them to be a burden on the welfare system. Their lifestyle makes them particularly vulnerable. “As Roma come in large groups and tend to live together in barracks, under bridges and in parks, they are more visible and easier to target,” Ivanov, a human rights lawyer, told Athens Plus.

Numbering some 12 million, the dark-skinned Roma are the largest minority group in the European Union. Until the EU’s eastward expansion, most lived outside the contours of the bloc – mostly in Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Seen as originating from northwest India, their European history has been one of slavery and persecution. About half a million Roma are estimated to have perished in the Nazi Holocaust.

Despite European laws on free movement, the expulsions were, technically speaking, legal. Most of the Roma who have been deported are citizens of Romania. As an EU newcomer, Romania  is subject to an interim deal that limits their nationals stay in France to three months, unless they have a work or residence permit.

However, group deportations are restricted by EU law. European Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding originally attacked the Roma expulsions as an act of ethnic profiling and discrimination. “You cannot put a group of people out of a country except if each individual has misbehaved,” she said, drawing parallels to Vichy France’s treatment of Jews in the Second World War that made the French cry foul. Brussels, however, eventually decided to take legal action against France’s perceived failure to incorporate EU rules on free movement across the bloc – not on discrimination. Reding’s admission that there was “no legal proof” probably raised some malign smiles in the corridors of the Elysee.

Do as I do

The truth is France is not alone on this one. Denmark, Austria, Sweden, Belgium and, to a larger scale, Italy have also been deporting Roma immigrants. Apart from working toward stripping racism of any guilt in France – the proud home of liberte, egalite and fraternite – as well as in other nations, the clampdown by Sarkozy threatens to make the expulsion of unloved minorities official policy across the continent. “After France, other countries will try to deport Roma as well, citing all sorts of reasons but mainly the security issue,” Ivanov said. The campaign spells trouble for other minorities as well – if only for tactical reasons. “They might adopt such policies toward other minorities as well to avoid criticism that they are only targeting Roma,” Ivanov said.

Some critics say that there can be little progress unless it is first acknowledged that Roma not only suffer from but also cause problems. Writing for the Guardian, Ivo Petkovski said that higher crime rates among Roma may indeed be due to institutional as well as societal factors, such as poor education but integration into the mainstream “may mean letting go of some historical and cultural practices” – an issue often lost in the haze of political correctness.

It’s hard to disagree that a rigid patriarchal structure and controversial cultural habits, such as early or forced marriages and child labor, are out of tune with modern Western life. But the stereotype of the lawless nomads who want to keep themselves on the fringes of modern society is exaggerated.

“Let’s face it,” Ivanov said. “If the Roma have failed to integrate it is not because they do not want to. Who would choose to live in a miserable ghetto with no running water and infrastructure, such as normal roads, regular transport, shops, pharmacies and schools,” he said.

Integration is a two-way process. “Society should not wait for the Roma to integrate themselves and the Roma should not wait for society to integrate them,” Ivanov said. But although the Roma should follow the rules of mainstream society, he said, this should not take place at the price of their own culture, traditions, lifestyle and language. “Integration should not be confused with forced integration and assimilation. If they have to respect the culture and ethnic specificities of the mainstream society, theirs should be respected as well,” he said.

Kammerer agrees that, like every citizen, Roma have both rights and responsibilities. But the first step, she said, is to ensure that these people are able to fulfill these responsibilities. “If you argue that Roma parents should take responsibility for sending their children to school, you should first ensure that their children have access to school,” she said.

Blackboard politics

Empowerment is key. Roma hardly vote in elections. Education and training is the only way to offset centuries of abuse and exclusion and make sure that the Roma can integrate into the surrounding community and play a meaningful part in local life. “Without proper housing, healthcare or education, it is unsurprising that many people are forced to live a marginal lifestyle,” Nele Meyer, a Roma expert at Amnesty International, told Athens Plus.

Roma are often placed in schools for the mentally challenged – and many are not allowed to attend classes at all. Three primary schools in Thessaloniki, northern Greece, were recently shut down by parents protesting the presence of gypsy pupils in the classroom.

France has tried to persuade its eastern peers to do more to tackle the problem at home before it becomes a French problem. But it has found it hard to motivate their governments, particularly in a Europe without borders. Most rights activists, like Ivanov, are calling for a European Roma strategy. But Roma issues do not win elections – so it’s hard to see how national politicians will be persuaded.

Ivanov does not despair. He says it would be great to one day see Roma travel across the continent not as luckless nomads searching for a better life “but for pleasure, like any other European citizen.”


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