Monday, 29 December 2008

Obama supporters post election state...

A stroke of genius from The Onion News Network:

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Al Jazeera - Sapphire Fever

In this documentary for Al Jazeera's People and Power programme, Producer Jasleen Kaur Sethi and Director David Notman Watt explore Ilakaka's sapphire mines, which are said to produce 50% of the world's sapphires.

We explored an industry that draws people from all over the world, often offering more in terms of risks than rewards, met families struggling to survive and went on patrol with a informal night militia armed with machetes who claim to keep the streets safe from bandits but are accused of violence and intimidation themselves.

Part 1

Part 2

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Al Jazeera Documentary: Child Trade

Al Jazeera Madagascar Child Trade - People and Power Part 1

Al Jazeera Madagascar Child Trade - People and Power Part 2

Monday, 1 December 2008

World Aids Day CNN

Images taken by me were incorporated in this CNN news report for World Aids Day today:

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Radio Education

Radio as an Educational Tool in Madagascar.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

The Cost of Shark Fin Soup

Ever since Steven Spielberg’s killer shark Jaws claimed it’s first victim within five minutes of the film’s opening credits, many a happy tourist to tropical shores has stared into the consuming blackness of the ocean and heard in their mind a simple, almost crude alternating pattern of two cello and bass cords, signaling the presence of some menacing unseen danger.

Beginning slowly, that oscar winning two-note score was supposedly written to mimic a shark's heartbeat, rising to a frenzied and shrieking climax as it approaches its prey, leaving viewers considering the film’s tagline and wondering if indeed it Is it safe to go in the water?

In fact golf is a riskier pastime than swimming in the ocean with sharks. More golfers are struck by lightning and killed each year than the total number of shark related deaths. While conservationists claim that 38 million sharks were killed by artisanal fishermen and long line trawlers in 2007, no more than 12 people were killed by sharks in the same time.

The end of sharks in the Indian Ocean is now being predicted by marine conservationists who claim it can be directly linked to demand by Chinese collectors for shark fins to make shark-fin soup. In the 1990s, as sharks and sea cucumbers, an east asian aphrodisic, became rare in Asian waters, traders looked further afield to Africa and the Western Indian Ocean to meet the demand caused by rapid growth of Asian economies for these high end products.

A small bowl of shark-fin soup can cost up to $100 USD in a high-end Hong Kong restaurant. Two pounds of shark fins could set a buyer back just under $1000 USD. Similarly sea cucumbers, a far eastern delicacy with supposed aphrodisiac properties, are also in high demand.

Shark fin soup is used to celebrate important events in the Chinese culture. The cartilaginous fins, when dried, form a texture and shape that are just like noodles. According to tradition, the longer the noodle is, the longer the diner's life will be. Since the soup is thought of as a prestige delicacy, consumption of it has risen along with China's economic growth. Weddings, anniversaries and other occasions often include the soup in a place of honour on menus.

Andrew Cooke a Marine Environmental Specialist based in the indian ocean island of Madagascar claims that within 10 years sharks may have all but disappeared from the coastal waters of Madagascar causing serious environmental and economic problems for the population as well as having global implications. “The intense effort directed towards fishing sharks has led to their decimation along the entire coastline of Madagascar” said Cooke.

While some say educating the fishermen is the answer Dr Man Wai Rabenevanana, head of the Marine science institute in Tulear, southern Madagascar, says that this traditional sensitisation approach overlooks a key part of the problem, namely the impact of poverty on an island where 80% of the population live on less than 2 US dollars a day. “It is difficult when the population is poor and then the Chinese come and show them dollar bills, how can they refuse? So educate the fishermen yes, but you must first educate the consumers of shark fins and sea cucumbers if you want anything to change” said Rabenevanana.

The Vezu are the traditional coastal fishing peoples of Madagascar. These artisanal fishermen only started fishing for sharks in the early 1990s specifically for export to Asian markets. Fishermen would throw back the dead carcass or only eat the meat in times of extreme food scarcity and there is no tradition of eating shark fin in Madagascar. Most of the fishermen who search for this lucrative product have never tasted it.

Migration for work in the mining sector and to escape severe droughts, have caused the population of the South Eastern Madagascan town of Tulear to double in the last 4 years alone. Population pressures have led to overfishing, which is forcing Vezu fishermen in coastal villages like Itampolo, to take their wooden pirogues further out to sea and to dive deeper to the seabed to find fish. Sharks and sea cucumbers are the most lucrative catch possible because of the amounts Chinese collectors will pay for them.

28-year-old Vezu fishing woman Lidine Go, pictured with her son above, can make 100,000 Ariary (£32 GBP) per kilo of dried shark fins. It is the most lucrative thing she sells but she says it is hard to find because months can go by before they have enough to sell. Sharks are only caught every few weeks now whereas just a few years ago they used to get 5 or 6 sharks a week. Depleting stocks are posing a serious economic problem for the Vezu and threatening the continuation of their way of life.

Spielberg’s opening scene and his equally gruesome finale are both memorable scenes in cinema despite the fact that the mechanical shark doesn’t even always convince. The terror of those screeching notes is sufficient but for sharks, it is no longer safe to go in the water. Unfortunately for them, there seem to be nowhere else to go, and nowhere to hide.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Sunday, 31 August 2008

The End Of Sharks in the Indian Ocean?

To make this film I spent time with the Vezu fishing communities of southern Madagascar, national and international environmentalists to find out what effects shark depletion is having in the Indian Ocean. As always feel free to leave feedback!

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Palin Palin Palin...

A little update.. post election....

I think this video is an important historical portrait of a changing society...

I'm sure like many people my first thought was to tap Sarah Palin into google and find out what she stands for.

I really wanted to support at least notionally the US following European, South American, African and Asian examples of successful and infamous female heads of state. Most women try to believe gender isn't an issue anymore wherever they can. The presence of women in high level politics is reassuring because we believe they have made it there being judged on their policies and strengths. Usually we infer that they must be exceptional to have made it that far, negotiating battles their male couterparts are spared.

Certainly the job I do and the life I lead running around the world with a camera leaves me in constant debt to women who fought to open doors and then graciously left them open for me to glide through and be judged on the quality of my work and not the circumstances of my birth.

They fought wars so I only have to negotiate small battles so I was inclined to think McCain's was a positive if not transparently calculated move. But alas this seems to be at once a frightening and condescending development for women all over the world. I had some respect for John McCain before this. I've collected some quotes from articles out this morning to explain why that is now gone. I no longer believe that the upcoming US election offers two different kinds of change and hope. Now more that ever I am hoping the US can see clearly why the rest of the world is so excited by the prospect of Obama!

Ann Friedman quotes some interesting analysis from TAPPED about how condescending this pick is to women's rights:

The pick of Palin is dripping with transparent condescension, the notion that the enthusiasm behind Hillary was simply the result of her gender, that it had nothing to do with what she actually stood for, and in that sense it's equally sexist. Palin is essentially a hard right ideologue, and therefore nothing like Hillary as far as substance is concerned. The conservative media reaction has already engaged in paternalistic language, with FOX News reporting on television that "McCain broke the glass ceiling," implying in fact, that the pick had nothing to do with Palin or her qualifications, but merely her gender.

It's fitting that the party positing affirmative action as a program that picks people exclusively based on race or gender rather than qualification should do something similar given an opportunity for political advancement. While Obama is promising change through policy, not simply through the circumstances of his birth, the McCain campaign thinks his appeal is simply visual and demographic, and therefore something they can exploit.

On her views to Gay marriage and civil rights I quote Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese.

"America may not know much about Sarah Palin, but based on what our community has seen of her, we know enough. Sarah Palin not only supported the 1998 Alaska constitutional amendment banning marriage equality but, in her less than two years as Governor, even expressed the extreme position of supporting stripping away domestic partner benefits for state workers. When you can't even support giving our community the rights to health insurance and pension benefits, it's a frightening window into where she stands on equality."

Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said that John McCain's selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate is further evidence that a McCain presidency will be just another four years of the same old Bush-style anti-choice policies. Just like McCain, Palin opposes a woman's right to choose. Palin has also stated her opposition to abortion even in cases of rape or incest.

"John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate proves just how rigid and extreme his administration would be when it comes to a woman's right to choose," Keenan said. "For 25 years, McCain has opposed a woman's right to choose, and we know that he will continue to push anti-choice policies in the White House. McCain's pick of anti-choice Sarah Palin is further evidence that his White House will be just another four years of Bush-style policies. Any remaining doubts about McCain's extreme anti-choice position should be put to rest when voters learn about the combined anti-choice records of Sarah Palin and John McCain."

In addition to further associating McCain with the Republican culture of corruption, the Palin pick undermines one of his main anti-Obama narratives. Perhaps It's now laughable to hear McCain assail Obama's supposed lack of experience after naming the first-term governor, only one-and-a-half years into her term, of the 47th largest state with a smaller population than a major US city, to be his running mate.

Another US blogger says here:
"Palin lacks any foreign policy experience, and is bereft of even the two core areas of policy expertise that governors are supposed to bring to a ticket, agricultural policy (Alaska doesn't have much in the way of traditional agriculture) and urban affairs (Anchorage is the 65th largest city in the US, behind giants such as Corpus Christi). She's easily the least experienced running mate in recent memory, which is pretty scary, given McCain's age and his history of cancer."

What does everyone else think?

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Madagascar's Paralympic hopefuls

I made this film about Madagascar's disabled athletes competing in the Beijing Paralympic games. Please take a look! They were truly wonderful people.

Saturday, 28 June 2008

RadioActive The Movie

In December 2007 I travelled to Nepal to make a film for a charity called RadioActive. This film follows the two week installation of a new community Radio station based in Kathmandu.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Comoros: 'Love Bombing' in the Never Ending Revolution.

Ok hands up who wants an education? 

Boats left the tiny island of Moheli at dawn on Tuesday 24th carrying 1300 African Union troops to back up the Comorian army. The opposition Anjouan forces numbered just 500, so why the need for so much backup? Well these 500 heavily armed rebels had successfully fought of the Comorian National army at least twice before in recent history. When the federal government attempted to invade in 1997 after Anjouan actually declared itself independent what followed was four tumultuous years of coup and counter coup, with the iconic presence of Colonel Mohamed Bacar, a French trained former gendarme, as the leader of the Anjouan people.

Local legends say that the three troubled islands that form this fragile union were born out of a massive under sea explosion when molten lava from the volcano Karthala spat out rebellious brother Anjouan and then little Moheli. Some even say the explosion was caused by a diamond, carried by a messenger from King Solomon to the Queen of Sheeba. The messenger dropped the jewel into the sea and from the passion it symbolised the volcano was created and so the crescent moon shaped archipelago was born, and has remained restless and volatile since.

Now we are told that the 300,000 population danced in the streets to welcome the invading or perhaps liberating AU forces, as Bacar supposedly fled clothed as a woman to escape via fishing boat to Mayotte.

I have to say I find the idea of him fleeing dressed as a woman a little hard to believe. This is not the sort of Islamic country where women walk around in Burkas. In Anjouan, especially the poor mountain villages, women wear lambas, a simple wrap of cloth, bright, colourful and wrapped around the body like a sarong. Not really much to hide under. But seeeing as the source quoted for this is the federal goverment's own spokesman, also the peacetime minister of education, I suppose it rubs salt in the wound of Bacar's defeat and serves as a handy way of removing any legacy of heroic opposition to an oppressive regime. How seriously will a military leader of an Islamic country be taken if the enduring image is of him hiding in a canoe wearing a dress. How seriously would we take Brown or good old Sarko if we were to be presented with the same picture.    

"Anjouan island is under total control of the army," Major Ahmed Sidi declared within hours of the invasion. It made me chuckle a bit when they heroically claimed possession of the island's airport. Anjouan's airport is a grass roof held up by sticks. It doesn't even have walls. Well the little restaurant next door has walls I suppose, but anyway.. Technically speaking fighting continues guerilla style in small pockets, but it is taken as read that the year long standoff is over and the big island has won.

It is hard to tell what this latest changeover in the corridors of power will mean for the population of Anjouan who seem to have been held hostage to rich men's ambitions for decades. What revenge will the big island exact on it's small rebellious brother? It doesn't seem likley that Bacar had no local support, though after the island was carpet bombed with love letters from President Sambi's camp advising them on how to behave until the rescue mission was complete, it seems people paid attention and stayed hidden away in their homes until it was safe to come out and celebrate.

These are people whos perseverence is astonishing. Civil servants work for a few hours a day to keep things ticking along, knowing that they might have to wait two or three years before the EU or some other foreign body steps in to actually pay them.

In country where almost everything is imported and therefore sold at prices out of the reach of most, somehow everyone finds a way to survive. Amidst this kind of poverty, you can go leave your wallet on a table in a small roadside cafe, realise a few minutes later, run back to find it still there. People are proud and kind and helpful. On the whole crimes happen in the corridors of power. That isn't to say this is a paradise of virtue. One of the first stories I ever covered in the Indian Ocean was the extent of abuse against young women, especially in the poorer mountain villages. The girls were so accustomed to being used that it almost wasn't shocking anymore. Their faces were hard and expressionless as they told me their stories, but their hands were shaking.

I met a 13 year old girl who had been raped twice and had become pregnant. She asked for the help of Fatima Bacar who runs the Cellule d'Ecoute, a children's safe house on Anjuoan. She wasn't hoping for justice, just someone to help her tell her mother, but Fatima is a formidable woman and has devoted her life to getting prison sentences for rapists or at least financial support for the girl. The later sounds like poor compensation but circumstances mean women worry more about survival than justice. About feeding the new little mouth than punishing the abuser. The more noise Fatima can make about the subject the more likely it is that this will change, still the ever present and overbearing burden of poverty seems to thwart everyones efforts to make a lasting difference.

The AU have scored an easy victory here and earned some international prestige to offset the struggles of its peacekeeping missions in Sudan and Somalia. The tough AU stance on Anjouan also reflects its aversion to any secessionist movements. Sudan and Tanzania certainly have an interest in reinforcing the integrity of their borders from within which might have motivated their involvement.

For once maybe Mbeki has a point. "I think it is very unfortunate that the military action has taken place because it takes the Comoros back to this history of force instead of resolving matters peacefully."

...... more soon...

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Madagascar and Ivan the Terrible

I don’t often tell people this but cyclone season is my favourite time of year. 

For a few months I get to fly around the country in private jets and helicopters, take speedboat journeys up rivers that cut through mountainous tropical rainforests in the east, wade through waist high mud and ride dirt roads in a 4x4 across the flat dry plains of southern Madagascar’s dry deciduous forests, deserts and shrublands.

Last weekend I flew to the North East of Madagascar in a Ukranian helicopter to join a World Food Programme mission to drop food in areas cut off by damage to roads and bridges caused by cyclone Ivan. I was in the same make of helicopter that is currently being used by Grande Comore to invade the rebel island of Anjouan in the neighbouring Union of the Comoros (Union being more a sort of aspirational term for this troubled federation that has suffered 21 coups or attempted coups since independence in the 1970s).

Air operations for this invasion, or rather a series of toe dipping mini invasions (a sort of tedious, costly and long drawn out game of tag you're it!), are continuing under the watchful eyes of a band of Ukranian mercenaries who come thrown in with the hardware. We have some too on this trip but our Ukranians are pleasant and spend most of their time huddled in the cockpit or wandering around muttering and pointing at the bags of grain and cooking oil. 

Robert, the UN emergency specialist in charge of the air operations confirms that these machines and their operators are indeed very versatile and quickly adaptable. 

Ivan the Terrible, the moniker earned by the cyclone's category 4 hurricane winds, destroyed transport routes, killed nearly 100 people and flattened hundreds of thousands of homes. This is where I have to explain why this is my favourite part of being here. This time last year, whilst waist deep in mud with my camera bag on my head, was when I stopped feeling like an imposter and started feeling like a journalist. I got to do something useful, meet people, record their stories and tell the world, or whoever was listening, what was happening to them. 

Overland through the north of Madagascar is a spectacular journey. Most of Madagascar's countryside has been devoured by forest fires. If you were to drive directly south of the capital for 5 or 6 hours you can count the patches of trees you pass on one hand and all there is to see is endless stretches of bare red earth. Driving through the north is where you find Madagascar's last lost Eden of thick green rainforest, mountains, silver winding rivers and deep valleys. It is at once breathtaking and inhospitable. 

The region of Analanjirofo, which literally translates to the forest of cloves, is one of the main growing areas for the girofle tree from which cloves are harvested, primarily for export. 

The man in the top photograph, Benja, is standing in the branches of a girofle tree searching out what remains of his harvest in bunches of dry dead girofle leaves. He will find nothing he can sell. 

Of his three hectare orchard, this is the only tree that remains standing. Even if he can find the money to replant, his orchard will take 4 years to grow trees that can flower and fruit. His vanilla crop, which prior to the cyclone grew in vines that wrapped themselves around the trunks of these tall trees, has also disappeared and will take careful rehabilitation.

Madagascar is the world’s largest exporter of vanilla, producing over half of the world's supply, and second largest producer of cloves after Indonesia. Almost all of the country’s clove and vanilla crops are grown in Analanjirofo and the neighbouring Sava region. They grow litchis and coffee here too which are also valuable cash crops.

The harvest season for cloves lasts just two short months in October and November, but a good crop can bring in 6000 Ariary a kilo or 400,000 Ariary a month which is about $237 US. In a country where most of the population survives on less than $2 US a day this is enough to keep a family going until their litchi or vanilla crop is ready and makes this a relatively wealthy region.

Access to affected areas has been slow and complicated by the country’s varied terrain and limited infrastructure. After Ivan hit with a force comparable to that of Hurricane Katrina which devastated New Orleans in 2005, roads and bridges were destroyed. People walk for miles through the mountains and swim across rivers to reach cities and ports, but bringing in food and supplies to replace those lost has been near impossible.

Despite a recurrent cyclone season lasting from December to April, Madagascar lacks the capacity to reach remote areas even in the dry season. A country larger than France it only has 5000 miles of viable road, viable meaning roads that don’t turn to rivers for half the year, and two working stretches of train line, only one of which can carry passengers and may soon be closed and sold off. The helicopter will be returned to Mozambique in one month. The goal is to have as many roads up and running by then as possible, at least until the next cyclone season starts again.

That's enough rambling for today.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Nepal, Kathmandu

I've tried this blogging business before and it constituted two enthusiastic entries and then silence.... I hope to do better this time. Before I start rambling though, here is a picture - December in Nepal.