Thursday, December 3, 2009

House of Peace (Still)

Dar es Salaam was like a breath of fresh air after Nairobi. Literally, as a breeze blew from the ocean. There were tree-lined boulevards and the traffic was completely tolerable. The Indian Ocean coastal city whose name translates into ‘House of Peace’ from the onset appeared to live up to its meaning. The harbour was protected from the worst outbursts of the sea by being secluded in the middle of the city, surrounded by land from all sides with just a narrow opening to the open water. I was staying with a less aptly named Harbour View Hotel that could only boast a sea view from a handful of rooms on the upper floors. I didn’t really mind, as my room was otherwise more than adequate (never mind the pigeon nest partly blocking my non-harbour view) and the walk to the seaside was rather brief.

On our first afternoon in the city, my travel companion Jed and I went for a long walk on the waterfront. At the pier where the ferries for Zanzibar departed, we were immediate accosted by persistent men who tried to sell us a boat trip to the island. We were only left in peace when we explained that this was our first day in town and that we couldn’t possibly travel immediately again. With the phone number of the most insistent tour promoter in hand, we left the port area. Jed would use their services some days later on a trip to the island. This afternoon we strolled on the lively but not too crowded Sokoine Drive, then up to Kivukoni Road and on to Ocean Road. The traffic was sparse and the sidewalks clean. Well-dressed ladies in colourful African dresses mingled with equally fashionably, but less colourfully dressed Muslim women with their heads demurely covered with scarves. A shoe salesman had spread his selection on the broad pavement in the shade of trees. In front of a white Christian church a choir was singing joyous gospel hymns.

A traditional felucca with its white sails contrasting against the blue sky was silently heading towards the ocean. Seeing the boat I fantasized of the fabled days maybe five centuries ago when Arab and South Asian traders prowled the coast of what is today Tanzania. What a cosmopolitan mix it must have been in the trading posts at that time, where a huge variety of wares, fish, spices and other things were traded. That was the time when Swahili, the lingua franca of most of East Africa, also developed, as the Arabic traders mixed with the native Bantu populations. Indian Ocean has almost a mystic glamour to me.

We entered into the fish market that was almost closing for the day. There were still many fishermen and women selling the morning’s catch of octopi and sleek silvery fish, although their supplies were getting depleted. On the beach behind the market, fishing folks were taking care of their nets and boats, while children were playing in the shallow water.

Further north, in front of the huge grounds of the presidential palace, the strand was wide between the thinly trafficked road and the sea. People were strolling leisurely or lingering in the late Sunday afternoon sun. A family with a child strapped with African cloth to the mother’s back; young couples holding hands exchanging glances; an elderly man with a white Muslim cap on his head sitting on a boulder contemplating the vastness of the ocean. The afternoon mood was tranquil and beautiful.

Unlike in most large cities on the continent, a walk through Dar es Salaam is not to invite trouble. Even two muzungus as clearly from out of town as we were are mostly left alone, except for the few eager trip salesmen around the pier. Not for a single moment did we feel insecure, let alone threatened. Even in the evening after dark when we would walk along Samora Machel Road to find a restaurant to eat dinner we felt no danger, despite the fact that even in the city centre the streets at night are dark and quite deserted.

Amidst all the bad news from Africa, Tanzania seldom grabs international attention. In Tanzania’s case, no news is indeed good news. The country has lived peacefully and rather harmoniously for the decades since its independence. It is a place where people of different cultural and religious backgrounds mingle peacefully. The name itself implies an amalgamation of two separate countries and cultures: Tanganyika and Zanzibar. Tanganyika, before the war a part of the German East Africa, then a British colony, gained independence in 1961 under the leadership of Julius Nyerere. Even the independence struggle was quite peaceful and the transfer of power uneventful compared with, say, neighbouring Kenya. The island of Zanzibar off the coast had in turn been ruled by Arabs for centuries. They had sailed there from Oman with the assistance of the monsoon winds. It too became a British colony but there the overthrow of the colonialists in 1963 was more sudden and not quite as peaceful. That story is told brilliantly by Ryszard Kapuściński who was among the handful of foreign correspondents to reach the island just days after the coup by Abeid Karume, the leader of Zanzibar’s Afro-Shirazi Party representing the black African population on the island. The two newly independent nations merged in 1964 to form the United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar.

Nyerere became the long-term president and TANU (Tanganyika African National Union), the party he had formed in 1954 to oppose the Brits, would be the only one in the country until the mid-1980s. The president was known as Mwalimu or teacher in Swahili, his profession before turning fulltime into politics. A modest man who avoided the excesses of many of the other leaders on the continent, Nyerere made turning Tanzania into a socialist paradise as his priority. For its well-meaning socialist policies, the country became the favourite of ‘progressive’ donor countries, such as the Scandinavians. Taxpayers in the Nordic countries chipped in when Mwalimu launched his disastrous Ujamaa policies. The goal of Ujamaa—‘Familyhood’—was to collectivize farming and to bring about benefits to the community from rounding up the farmers into planned villages. Many a Northern socialist thought this a great idea.

In fact, Nyerere’s worldview had been strongly influenced by Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China. Tanzania sought the support of China, which willingly complied. Luckily while the teacher modelled his nation accordingly, the policies were implemented somewhat half-heartedly. Traditional villages were systematically destroyed and people were herded into the brave new planned settlements. Thousands perished, of course, but Ujamaa never resulted in quite such terror as the Cultural Revolution or mass starvation like another one of Mao’s lunacies, the ‘Great Leap Forward,’ had done in China. Yet, the collective economics continued in Tanzania much after China had abandoned its most extreme social experiments and decided that getting rich was actually glorious. The Tanzanians were to wear Mao-inspired safari suits long after the Chinese themselves has switched to dark business suits and designer silk ties.

The decades of socialist experimentation did impoverish this beautiful nation, rich in natural resources. According to the United Nations Development Programme, Tanzania ranks 159th in human development out of the 177 countries ranked. Almost 90 percent of its population lives with less than US$2 per day. Tanzania possesses huge wealth by way of gold, diamonds, platinum, uranium, coltan and many other precious minerals. Tanzanite is a precious stone that has only been found in Tanzania and has a higher price by carat than diamonds. The problem is that Tanzania has not been able to develop any industry and all of its valuable raw materials are shipped out in their unprocessed form providing the value added to foreigners from South Africa, Europe and North America.

Another, obvious, source of wealth in Tanzania is its fabulous nature, which holds enormous potential for tourism. Kilimanjaro that rises close to 5,900 metres above the sea level is the highest mountain on the African continent. Its snowy cap shines bright white above the surrounding savannah beckoning climbers from all over the world. World famous game parks like Serengeti with their still abundant wildlife, including lions, giraffes, elephants and other large animals, are also in Tanzanian territory. The crater of Ngorongoro is unique on earth with its stupendous landscape and animal wealth. In 2000 when I was in Serengeti I could observe the different levels of accommodations that had been put up for the safari tourists. Some of them were truly upscale catering to the wealthy foreigners who want to experience their wildlife watching without having to spend the night in conditions lacking adequate facilities. Others were closer to the bush. Either way, visitors would have a wonderful opportunity to experience the dramatic African nature.

The former US ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, has recently produced a film focusing on the positive sides of Africa, choosing Tanzania as the scene for the movie. In my view, Young places far too much trust on tourism and associated services and industries as the saviour of Tanzania. However, commenting on how the wildlife in the park has become accustomed to the four-wheel drives hauling tourists as being just other peaceful animals, the good ambassador makes a sweet point saying that that’s how we all should be approaching Africa, like “just another peace loving animal.”

Unfortunately, environmental challenges are mounting. There has been a prolonged drought that threatens the farming communities. Agricultural production is naturally dependent on the erratic rains and food shortages are looming. It is predicted that there will be famine, at least in some parts of the country, in the coming season. I asked Damian Gabagambi, a senior researcher at a non-governmental centre for research and training on poverty reduction in Dar es Salaam, REPOA, what his thoughts were about the situation. He explained at length the challenges that the agricultural systems have feeding the rapidly growing population. The expansion of agriculture is leading to deforestation and farmers are invading protected areas, like the Kilombero Valley floodplain in the south that has been designated as a protected wetland under the Ramsar Convention. In an attempt to intensify production, the government is promoting the indiscriminate use of inorganic fertilizer, which will have serious environmental consequences.

According to Dr. Gabagambi, the free range of livestock is catastrophic. Especially with progressive land degradation in their traditional homelands, the pastoralists are roaming everywhere, their goats and sheep clearing the land of all vegetation.

One of Tanzania’s greatest challenges when it comes to both economic development and the environment pertains to population. The country today has more than 41 million people and still growing at an estimated rate of just over 2 percent every year. The population is young: the median age is just 18 years and 43 percent of the population is in the 0-14 age bracket. This puts an enormous strain on agricultural land. The limited availability of farm land and decreasing size of holdings forces people to move after better livelihood opportunities.

As people are pushed out of agriculture, small-scale mining has become one of the biggest environmental problems in this country of ample mineral resources. There is a veritable gold rush as people scramble to open up open pits for mining. In several parts of the country these mines have created a landscape pockmarked with unattractive scars. Habitats for plants and animals are destroyed as farmers cut the trees to gain access to the land perceived to contain their future fortunes and to provide fuel for its exploitation. At the same time, the mines are a major health hazard to the miners themselves. Many use mercury and other dangerous chemicals to extract the minerals. Many do not know about the huge risks they are taking for their lives, as the chemicals destroy their health and the heavy metals affect their central nervous system, like in the famous historical mercury pollution case of Minamata in Japan. Others know, but do not care. Like a assistant director in the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs, Servus Amo Sagday remarked when we were discussing the issue: “People don’t worry about the longer-term consequences as they want to make money now.”

Said another official: “Tanzania is committed to environmental conservation, but if a foreign firm now discovered uranium in one of the national parks, many members of parliament would be tempted to grant a concession for a mine.”

Many rural people move to the cities. The population of Dar es Salaam, the largest city in the country, has burgeoned from a medium-sized town of less than half a million inhabitants 30 years ago to the current 3 million. For how long can the city remain as liveable as it still is today? Many of the migrants have a hard time finding jobs. And as Tanzania’s education system has been able to train an increasing number of school leavers unemployment becomes a ticking time bomb.

Since the first democratic elections in 1995, there have been certain tensions. Some of the elections have been contentious and there have been squabbles between the mainland and Zanzibar. One day when we were driving through the city, Jed asked Blandina Chege, our counterpart in the Vice President’s Office, a question about Zanzibar. Her response was revealing: ”They are so much trouble,” she sighed. ”They don’t want independence but they want to be different. All the small islands are troublesome. You go to international meetings and they are always talking as if they were afraid someone annexing them. All the small nations are like that. Not Swaziland, but when you go to African meetings, the Lesotho representatives are always talking endlessly. Same with Uganda and Rwanda and Burundi; they want to have their way.”

Mwalimu, with all his mistakes, demonstrated that he actually was a descent chap by officially retiring from politics in 1990 and keeping to his word that Tanzania would be a democratic country. With this gracious exit from the national politics, he truly achieved the status of an elderly statesman. He continued to be active on the world scene and was the chief mediator in the conflict in Burundi towards the end of his life in the late-1990s.

In 2009, the Ibrahim Prize was not delivered. The news hit the stands while I was in Tanzania. In 2007 Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese-born business mogul and founder of Celtel, established the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. The prize is awarded to a “democratically elected former African Executive Head of State or Government who has served their term in office within the limits set by the country's constitution and has left office in the last three years.” The selection committee is chaired by Kofi Annan, the past UN Secretary-General, and consists of such luminaries as the former president of Finland Martti Ahtisaari (who was awared the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize), Mary Robinson (the former president of Ireland and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights), Mohamed El Baradei (the high profile head of the International Atomic Energy Agency) and others. This year the committee refused to nominate anyone for the prize. This is sad testimony to the fact that in recent times no African leader can claim to have the qualities required to actually deserve such a prize. What is it with these people that makes them—allows them!—go against people’s will year after year, often decade after decade?

On my last day in town when there was a drizzling rain, Blandina, Jed and I searched for a place to have lunch. We entered a simple establishment with a few tables and coal grill visible from the dining area. Its name, Al Basha, and the menu suggested Middle Eastern specialties. We sat at a wooden table and after a while were approached by a large Tanzanian waiter with a friendly smile on his face. We said that we were a bit in a hurry and wanted to know what items could be served rather fast. The bearlike waiter slowly explained that, because the food was prepared on the premises, it would all take some time and it would be difficult to rush. There were no other customers in the restaurant. Three cooks were visible loitering around the grill. Deciding to try some other place—there were several in the vicinity—we got up to go, when a young Lebanese woman rushed from behind a counter and asked us to please sit down again. She was apparently the proprietor of the venue and had witnessed our interaction with the kind but inefficient employee. She immediately told us what would be fast and what to combine for a fulfilling lunch. In 30 seconds or so she virtually told us what to order and we were soon sitting contented with glasses of fresh mango juice in front of us. I couldn’t but help to wonder whether the lack of urgency displayed by the Tanzanian staff was not another legacy of Nyerere’s socialist experiment.

Still today Dar es Salaam remains a pleasant place, but one must be concerned about its future, as well as the future of the entire country. Coping with the challenges of a youthful and rapidly growing population, environmental degradation and climatic variability will require that the economy will be able to expand to absorb all the new entrants into the modern sector. Otherwise, the enviably harmonious lifestyle in the House of Peace will be threatened. It is up to the Tanzanians to create the conditions for such economic development that will provide opportunities and incentives for

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Good Intentions All the Way Down

Over the weekend I saw a new low-budget film by two young American filmmakers, Landon van Soest and Jeremy Levine. The movie that was shown as part of the Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival here in New York City was called ‘Good Fortune’ and it depicted the story of two separate and very different development projects in Kenya. While the projects were indeed different in both their genesis and execution, they had one thing in common: they were both failing and faced strong opposition from the local population.

One of the projects was a government initiative supported by UN-Habitat to ‘upgrade’ the huge slum, Kibera, on the edge of Nairobi. Kibera houses the poorest third of the city’s over three million inhabitants. They are mostly people from the countryside who have moved there in search of jobs. Kibera is an enormous shantytown with no communal services, running water or sewage. The improvised shacks are hooked up to electricity through impromptu connections to the grid by the inhabitants themselves. The place is enormously densely populated and dirty with muddy roads. As the well-intentioned young UN-Habitat programme officer, Sara, declares in the beginning of the film: Kibera should not exist!

Yet it does. And it provides shelter and livelihood opportunities to the poor people who otherwise would not have a place where they could afford to stay in the city. And despite all the problems, there still are many more opportunities to earn an income in the city than in the impoverished countryside. The film follows the struggle of Silva, a midwife, and her family as the ‘housing improvement’ project slowly but surely threatens the place they call home, the place that has allowed Silva and her husband to earn a decent living.

There had been earlier projects to provide housing to the inhabitants of Kibera, but few had benefited them. The flats in High Rise, a project built near Kibera with European aid, had been sold on the market by the Kenyan First Lady. Another project stood empty, as it turned out that the politician who had been the developer had embezzled millions of shillings from the government during construction. Having seen it all, the denizens of Kibera were naturally sceptical. But the government was pushing for the slum removal with the help of the UN. I felt somewhat sorry for the young Italian UN official, who came across as hapless and naïve in the film. At one point she did raise concerns about what to do about the people who had to be removed while the slum was being erased and new housing would be built. But she, like everyone else, had no answers.

The other project—and the conflict around it—was unfolding in the western part of the country, where an American-owned firm, Dominion Farms, had leased 2,300 hectares to be developed into a huge rice farm. The founder and owner of Dominion Group of Companies, Calvin Burgess, was interviewed telling how the goal was to transform the area and the people’s lives—in fact, their entire worldview—into something modern, so that they could live like people in America. All that was needed was resources, hard work and a change in the mindset so that, with the help of God, this “worst part of Africa” would be turned into a Garden of Eden. With its grand ambition, Dominion proceeded to dam the Yala River, thus flooding the area the firm had purchased, alongside most of the adjacent land that they hadn’t, where farming families had been living for ages. With the flooding, the families lost the crops they had planted and their cows and goats died because of the inundation of the grazing lands. The Dominion Farms manager suggested that the farmers should just think differently and change their livelihoods from cattle and become fishermen instead.

The film depicted the struggle of Jackson, a school teacher whose parents had come to the Yala area in Siaya forty years ago. Jackson lost his crops and cattle to the flood, but he decided to fight back. He started mobilizing his neighbours and was determined to remain a thorn in the side of Dominion Farms as long as there was life in him.

The two projects were very different on the surface. Their philosophical starting points also differed considerably. While the Kibera project was based on a concept of the government and the public sector helping the poor, the Yala project was unashamedly construed as a private sector development project. God helps those that help themselves, seemed to be the motto. Dominion Farms made no bones about being in it for a profit (the Oklahoma-based Dominion Group of Companies states on its website that for over 20 years they have “responded to opportunities to privatize governmental functions and projects for which state and federal agencies lacked the funding or flexibility to deliver themselves.”). In both cases, the reformers with lofty goals of transforming the lives of the ‘backward’ unwilling people worked closely together with the corrupt authorities. Dominion Farms was in cahoots with local politicians, many of them MPs from the disadvantaged district, who clearly had a stake in the proceeds. In Kibera, UN-Habitat appeared to have been co-opted by the Kenyan government and Nairobi elites into demolishing what had long been perceived an eyesore.

In neither case, were the affected people consulted regarding what their needs were or what they wanted. Politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats knew better what was good for the people. Yet, it was also obvious that the local people were well informed, resourceful and active in confronting the threats to their livelihoods.

The film struck in the middle of a longstanding and at times heated debate about development and the role of external assistance. Can external interventions transform how societies work and the lives of people? Can the Millennium Development Goals that call for the end of poverty by 2015 be reached if we just have bigger, more comprehensive and visionary programs? If only the citizens of the rich countries would open their hearts and their purse strings to the plight of the poor, we would all be able to share in the abundance of the world! The good citizens in the North are outraged by the poverty and deprivation in the South they see on their TV screens. They demand results from the programs funded with their tax money.

What the film showed was of course nothing new. Like everyone else working in the field, I had witnessed much of the same for decades. When in the late-1980s I was working as rural development consultant in Zambia, the goal of the projects was to create a European way of agricultural production and marketing in the remotest and most inaccessible parts of the country. The rural cooperatives were to transform the lives of the peasants and to modernize the economy, so that subsistence farming would no longer be necessary. At the same time, we wanted to tie the aid to Finnish exports. I had many a fight with the development agency people back in Helsinki as we were shipping out trucks and tractors from Finland to the cooperative that we had established in Mongu in Zambia’s Western Province. I had seen too many of them broken down on the bad roads—or not been able to reach the villages at all—because they were not built to operate in the African bush.

Today the battle lines have been drawn between those who believe that Africa needs a ‘Big Push’ to get out of poverty and the others who argue that master plans brought from the outside just don’t and won’t work. In the first category are politicians, such as those gathered in the 2005 G8 Summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, that promised a doubling of aid to Africa, spurred on by NGOs and incensed celebrities like Bono. Their intellectual leader is Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and a special adviser to the UN Secretary-General. He argues that the only reason why the billions of dollars in aid have not helped Africa is that, well, the money was too little. (Bono actually wrote the foreword to Sachs’ 2005 book The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time). They call for comprehensive solutions that will transform the society—a veritable Marshall Plan for Africa. In a recent US News & World Report (November 2009) interview, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, Judith Rodin, summarizes the approach. According to the article, the foundation has committed $150 million to launch a “full-blown agricultural revolution aimed at lifting millions out of hunger… (and) … has developed a comprehensive plan that includes tackling such disparate challenges as improving degraded soils, opening access to markets, and combating government corruption. ‘A more piecemeal approach,’ says Rodin, ‘will not get at root causes.’”

Others argue that such hubris is reminiscent of the utopian dreams of the 19th century and will not work. Last year, the Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo gained significant publicity through her book Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How there is a Better Way for Africa (see my blog of 22 April 2009). The book was quite simplistic in its fervour but it hit a chord, having actually been written by an African who had experienced the problems firsthand. A more systematic and nuanced argument of why such grandiose top-down schemes to change entire societies with a Big Bang have consistently failed is put forth by the New York University professor William Easterly in The White Man’s Burden: How the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (2006). Unlike Moyo, Easterly does not condemn development aid wholesale. He makes a convincing case for well targeted projects that, based on consultation and feedback, address the actual needs of the poor people they are intended to benefit. Instead of all embracing unattainable ideals, the projects should have measurable outcomes so that they can be evaluated for their results and for learning lessons. Donors should be held accountable to the people who are the intended beneficiaries.

Easterly contrasts the people with the great plans (‘planners’) with ‘searchers’ who find out about local conditions at the bottom, adapt to local conditions, match supply with demand, receive feedback from the ‘client’ (i.e., the people who need the service), and accept responsibility for the results.

An astute observer, albeit not a development professional, the travel writer Paul Theroux in his 2003 book Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town comments on the efforts of aid workers (whom he calls agents of virtue) in Africa:

“It is for someone else, not me, to evaluate the success or failure of charitable efforts in Africa. Offhand, I would say the whole push has been misguided, because it has gone on too long with negligible results. If anyone had asked me to explain, my reasoning would have been: Where are the Africans in all this?”

Building upon people’s own initiatives and empowering them has been at the core of participatory development thinking for decades. Grameen Bank, the ‘bank of the poor’ that provides microcredit against group collateral to tiny enterprises often managed by village women, has been able to demonstrate significant results. The Grameen Bank and the force behind it, the Bangladeshi economist Muhammed Yunus, received the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for "for their efforts to create economic and social development from below.” Such participatory approaches building upon the local people’s own initiatives are unfortunately often missing from the high-flying schemes to change the world in one big swoop.

Inevitably, in the Q&A session with the filmmakers after the screening, the question came: Did you see any aid projects in Kenya that actually worked? Landon, the thoughtful young man who said he had spent virtually his whole adult life in Kenya and studied international development and public health, immediately answered in the affirmative. But he added that the projects that he thought were having positive results were generally small ones, close to the ground, working with local people.

So what happened to Silva and Jackson’s ordeals? Towards the end of the film, Jackson thought he had won, at least temporarily. A major flood had destroyed the dam that Dominion Farms had built and the project was back to square one (there was spontaneous applause in the audience). However, a look at the Dominion Farms website gives the impression that the enterprise is back in full force. The website boasts that:

“Today Dominion Farms is the most celebrated example of technology-based, irrigated agriculture in western Kenya. It is a model for long-range planners who seek to develop the water resources and expand the land under cultivation that is needed to sustain the fast-growing Kenyan population.”

Silva and her husband decided to leave Kibera when the bulldozers came. They returned to the countryside to try start anew there. However, the filmmakers were able to report that they were back in Kibera and had fallen onto bad times as the husband had lost his job as a night watchman.

Meanwhile, planners in the capital cities of the world are busy devising ever more ambitious schemes to solve the problems of the developing world. After all, the deadline for reaching the Millennium Development Goals is just six years away and we still have a long way to go to end poverty.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Environment and Poverty in Kenya

The rain started three days ago and it was welcome. For more than three long years Kenya had been suffering from a drought. It still wasn’t much and certainly didn’t reach every part of the country but it did wonders on the Central Highlands. The savannah no longer looked parched and greenery was returning to the landscape. Due to the elevation, the weather was cool although we were on the equator.

Life in the country had seemingly returned to normal since the political violence that followed the flawed presidential elections in December 2007. Now the pressures caused by the lack of rain had been raising tensions. Water was rationed in Nairobi, the modern capital city with a population of more than three million. Large herds of cattle could be seen grazing in empty lots and inside traffic roundabouts close to the centre of the city. I heard rumours about the Maasai, the legendary pastoralists, abandoning their traditional lifestyle and selling large tracts of land in Kajiado south of the capital, as they no longer could survive on the land. According to reports, they had lost most of their cattle which they depend on to the drought. They blamed the agriculturalists who lived upstream for cutting down the forest and polluting the water.

The talk of the town was what was happening in Mau Forest. The mountainous area that was the main source of headwaters in Kenya was being rapidly degraded. Over the past decade and a half, some 20,000 families had encroached upon the slopes and settled into the previously pristine forest. They were cutting down the trees to clear land for agriculture and to burn charcoal that they could sell on the booming market. Some 100,000 hectares or about a fourth of the watershed had been cleared this way. As a result, the forested mountain range that was widely considered the water tower of Kenya could no longer supply water to the rivers that flowed down to irrigate the plains. Apart from the water shortage inconveniencing the city dwellers, the entire Kenyan economy was threatened. There was not enough water in the hydroelectric dams that were being clogged up with all the silt flowing into them due to erosion in the hills. Consequently, the power supply was unreliable and the country had to import increasing amounts of oil in order to compensate for the failing hydropower. At the foot of the mountains, lived the Maasai who were getting increasingly agitated by the farmers and squatters whose activities they believed were robbing them of their cattle and livelihoods. Conflict between the two groups was looming.

In a country whose economy is largely dependent on tourism, this was all bad news. The numbers of visitors to Kenya had already fallen dramatically due to the political violence and insecurity last year. Now the rivers that fed the renowned Masai Mara National Park were drying up. Animals were dying in hordes. The annual migration of the wildebeest over a roaring river that every friend of wildlife everywhere in the world recognized had turned into a much less spectacular hop across a trickling stream by the still large herd of animals. Should things continue downhill, Kenya could kiss goodbye to the safari tourism that was its lifeline.

Quite appropriately, my purpose this time in Kenya was to launch a large worldwide evaluation study of just such linkages between environment and economics, and how the United Nations was able to support governments in the developing countries in the area. We called it the Poverty-Environment Nexus. It truly amazes me that there still are people—in government, private sector, the UN, and ordinary citizens—who fail to see the intrinsic links between economic development and environment. Indeed, some people continue to see them as contradictory, as if environmental preservation and regulation were constraints to development. Yet, it should be clear that sustainable management of the environment and natural resources is absolutely essential for sustained economic development and human wellbeing. Recent UN studies show that especially in many lower income countries the economy is heavily dependent on the environment. The estimated contribution of just a subset of environmental assets—subsoil assets, timber, non-timber forest resources, cropland, pastureland and protected areas—to the country’s total wealth in Kenya is 21 percent.

“We environmentalists have done a really bad job,” said Yolanda. I was travelling with Yolanda Kakabadse, the past president of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and the former minister of environment of Ecuador. Her point was that the environmentalists have failed to make the economic case, often actually advocating against it. Instead of engaging with the private sector, the environmentalists have mostly seen the private sector as the enemy: the evil empire that’s in it only for the money, destroying the environment, screwing the indigenous people, exploiting the poor countries for a profit. Instead, we should have long ago made the case that what is good for the environment is—at least in the longer term—good for business and the economy. Principles of sound business management dictate that one counts in all the productive assets, factors in capital costs and depreciation. A transport business owner discounts the value of his lorry as it gets older because he knows he will sooner or later have to purchase a new one. Unfortunately, environmental costs are considered mere externalities by economists and, therefore, the depreciation of natural resources does not factor in the calculations. Yet, there is no new Earth that can be bought when this old one we have is worn out.

Of course, there are cases where there are trade-offs. But more often than not these are based on differences between short- and long-term needs. Like in the case of the Mau Forest where the conflict was between making a fast shilling now on charcoal and agriculture versus maintaining a healthy environment for continued economic development in the future. Naturally, people must make a living and poverty forces them to utilize every bit of land where they are able to eke out a living. It doesn’t help that Kenya—like many other African countries—has a very young population that is still growing at a hearty rate. The stagnating economy that is hampered by notorious red tape and rampant corruption is not able to provide jobs for the large numbers of school leavers every year. They thus don’t have a choice and must rely on the land that has been rendered increasingly fragile by the intensified use during the drying climate. Poverty and environmental degradation are inextricably linked through a two-way street where poverty forces people to destroy their environment for immediate survival, while reducing the essential support that a healthy environment brings for longer term development.

Geographically, the central areas dominate Kenya both economically and politically. “While 80 percent of Kenya falls within the arid and semiarid lands category, the government policy reads as if everything was like here in the agricultural highlands,” said Philip Dobie, a long-time Africa hand and an expert who heads the UN Drylands Development Centre and Poverty-Environment Facility based in Nairobi. “The government sees the ASAL, as they are called, only as a drain on resources,” Phil continued, “but with proper management they could be a highly productive part of the country.” Indeed, the dry north towards Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia is widely neglected by the Kenyan government and left to the nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes herding goats. During the worst periods of drought, they receive support from the centre, but developmentally they lack behind. The country is thus not living up to its full potential.

That night there was a short but heavy downpour after which the air was particularly fresh. Through the open window I could hear the crickets and the sounds of night birds singing in the trees outside of my guesthouse. As I fell asleep, I thought about how the nature would be blooming in the morning when I’d wake up. I also hoped that the sudden powerful rain would not wash out the dry earth causing further erosion that was a constant worry even here in the wetter central part of the country.

On Kenyatta Day—a national holiday to celebrate the founding president of independent Kenya, Mzee (Old Man) Jomo Kenyatta—we headed out of Nairobi, northwest towards Lake Nakuru. My companions were Yolanda and Jed Shilling, a former World Banker turned environmentalist who now chairs the Millennium Institute. We constituted the core group studying the UN’s work on the poverty-environment nexus. On this free day of ours, we wanted to take it easy and see some of Kenya’s famous wildlife. Years ago, the easiest thing to do when you just had a day to spare was to drive to the Nairobi National Park just outside of the capital. I myself had seen cheetahs and other big animals—or ‘charismatic mega-fauna’ as it is known in conservation lingo—there in the past. But the days when the famous photographs of lions against the backdrop of the rising Nairobi skyline that decorated the face of many a postcard were gone. The city was expanding rapidly and squatters were settling in the park. If one now wanted to observe any big fauna it meant a three or four hour car ride to the Lake Nakuru National Park.

The morning didn’t look promising. As we departed the city at 7 am there was a thick fog and a drizzle dotted the windshield of our vehicle. As we continued out of town and the road climbed to the ridge alongside the East African Rift Valley we actually drove into the low-hanging clouds. It was impossible to see even a metre beyond the edge of the road and the great geological formation opening to our left was entirely obscured by the thick grey blanket of wet air. Our driver, Bob, was not optimistic about the weather clearing up anytime soon. This was going to be one expensive luncheon outing, I said to Yolanda only half jokingly. We had paid good money for the trip and Bob’s services for the entire day.

But the day did clear up. By the time the road was descending towards the rift, we could already see the shallow Lake Naivasha down in the valley. There was a flock of flamingos wading in it. Although there were still plenty of these pink birds, even their numbers have dwindled. I remembered when I first took this road in the early-1980s when as a student from the University of Helsinki geography department I was visiting the sister department at the University of Nairobi. As we then descended towards Lake Nakuru, the next in a row of the Rift Valley soda lakes, I and my fellow graduate students were stunned speechless at the astonishing sight in front of us: the entire lake appeared pink because of the huge flock of flamingos carpeting the surface.

Down at the bottom of the valley the weather was clear and a bright sun shone from a hazy blue sky. We stopped in Nakuru, the main city in the Rift Valley and the fourth largest in the country. Nakuru is a bustling trading post, quite different from the capital or the two cities at the opposite ends of the country: the heavily Muslim influenced Swahili port of Mombasa on the Indian Ocean coast and the fishing industry centre of Kisumu on Lake Victoria, the world’s second largest lake. The dusty Nakuru town appears to be booming. Even on this national holiday the market was in full swing and the streets were crowded with people. Several modern buildings with steel and glass fronts had risen in the centre since my last visit (which admittedly was a couple of decades ago). We did not linger (after it became evident that there was no place where the internet was working) but continued towards the national park.

This, too, had changed. Years ago, there was open access to the lakeside but now the entrance to the Lake Nakuru National Park was tightly controlled and one had to pay a handsome fee to enter. Close to the gate, a group of park rangers—men and women—were milling about their sturdy green Land Rover. They themselves looked professionally efficient in their green military-style fatigues. The professionalism of the Kenya Wildlife Service had received a major boost under its former boss, Richard Leakey, the son of the legendary anthropologist Mary Leakey. Richard’s determination and uncompromising attitude in favour of the wildlife had ruffled feathers (no pun intended) in Kenya. He lost his legs in a small aeroplane crash while cruising over one of his beloved parks, but this did not slow him down. He later moved on as the anti-corruption tsar for the Kenyan government, a position in which his single-minded fervour gained him equally few friends.

We visitors and the rangers were not the only primates hanging around the gate. There were numerous baboons and monkeys in the trees and on the ground around us. A passenger vehicle was parked next to our van while the owners, a rather elegant young African couple, went to pay for the entrance fee. They had made the mistake of leaving the car window open and I soon saw a small monkey enter the car through it. It immediately found a bag on the backseat and started rummaging through the contents. The curious creature made a quick exit as the legitimate occupants were returning. The good people took it all in a stride, the pretty woman laughing heartily at the audacity of the hairy little fellow and their own thoughtlessness of encouraging it by not locking the windows.

The entry to the park passes through a small forest, which looked very dry. The river to the lake was but a trickle. As we exited from the shade of the canopy, a lone tree stood tall by the stream and on its crown perched a single marabou stork. A few ibises waded in the dwindling creek. We made a turn towards the plain, our robust vehicle shaking through the ruts where the mud had dried months ago. I wondered how the young couple who had been visited by the monkey would fare in their small Toyota.

The landscape in front of us was completely flat and treeless. We were driving on what had formerly been the lakebed. In the past decades, prolonged droughts had reduced the size of the shallow waterbody to a fraction of its original extent. Now the reduced flow from the Mau Escarpment had further affected the drying lake. Herds of zebras were grazing on the sparse grass that was now growing on it. We soon saw a pair of white rhinoceros ruminating at a distance undisturbed by the passing vehicles.

A pack of hyenas was basking in the sun as we drove by. They eyed us suspiciously and soon dispersed. Hyenas are amongst the most misunderstood species in the world. Many people revile them because of their scavenging lifestyle and less than beautiful looks, but hyenas are intelligent animals with an organized societal structure. And they perform a needed function in the ecosystem. This latter was made clear by the many carcasses of buffaloes and other beasts that were scattered around the former lake bottom. This most recent drought had taken a heavy toll on the wildlife and huge numbers of animals had perished. The hyenas survived on their misfortune and cleaned the land.

We caught up with a school bus that was packed with children like sardines. Dark faces sticking out of the windows with big round eyes all turned our direction. The kids seemed more interested in us muzungus than our wild relatives inhabiting the park. We all alighted at the same spot close to the lake shore so that we could get closer to observe the flamingos. The kids all wore bright red jumpers and were led by two teachers. I thought how good it was that the children at least had this chance to observe wildlife that used to be so abundant before. Even in Africa, kids growing up in urban areas have precious little contact with nature. Without that contact and firsthand experience, nature becomes an abstraction and people don’t feel it deep inside themselves. Consequently, its protection is not a priority.

As we approached the lake, the hard-baked soil became gradually wetter and our feet were pressing deeper into the soft mud. There was no wind and the surface of the lake was perfectly still. A few hundred—or probably a few thousand—flamingos stood idly by without moving their long skinny legs knee-deep in the water. They did not stir as we approached. The morning sun was climbing steadily towards zenith. High fluffy clouds were sailing languidly across the sky. Behind the lake and reflected in its mirror-like surface alongside the slow moving clouds stood a dark mountain ridge. The place was perfectly still and the only sound was that of the wind blowing across the open plain. Even the school children were quiet awed by this otherworldly, gorgeous landscape.

We continued inland from the lake, towards a rocky cliff sporting a sparse and dry forest. The top of the hill to which our vehicle climbed following a road of hard red clay was called the Baboon Cliff. From there the view down to the lake was breathtaking. Between the treeless plain and the shadowy ridge on the opposite side, the lake glimmered blue and white mirroring the clouds. The reflections made it difficult to distinguish the lake surface from the sky towards the distant horizon. The beauty of this barren place was startling. Yet, from this vantage point it was possible to see why it was necessary to keep the park fenced off. The growing city of Nakuru could be seen sprawling on the hillsides towards east.

Leaving the lakeside we traversed further through another small wooded area where buffalo, zebra and waterbuck were grazing in the meagre shade of the leafless trees. At a distance we could see a group of giraffes, one of them stretching his neck to see whether we were up to any good. We entered the open savannah where troops of baboons were spending a lazy afternoon grooming each other, cute little babies riding on their mothers’ backs. I couldn’t help but think how close to us these relatives of ours are. I also remembered the lovely and funny book by the Stanford biologist and neurologists, Robert Sapolsky, A Primate’s Memoir, that describe so vividly his years of research and observation amongst the Kenyan baboons.

An impala buck with impressive horns was browsing leisurely, ignoring the half a dozen females belonging to his herd on the other side of the track. The idyll of the savannah was complete with various species living peacefully side by side. A pair of monkeys stood watch where a white rhino slept in the shade of a lone bush-like tree. Thompson’s and Grant’s gazelles mixed company with the zebras while groups of bush pigs hurried along on some business of theirs. From one bush a pair of foxes watched us with alert eyes.

During the peak heat of the day when the equatorial sun hung directly above our heads we lunched at the Sarova Lion Hill Lodge, a comfortable establishment overlooking the lake from its south side. At lunch hour there were lots of people. What struck me as interesting was that so many of the people were South Asians. In fact so many, that the buffet had a specific table for vegetarian Indian fare. After the dusty road it was indeed a pleasure to be guided to a table on the terrace by the lovely maître d’ Betty and order an ice cold—Baridi sana!—Pilsner, to me the crown of the noble line of products by Kenya Breweries.

To many, ecotourism represents the best alternative to providing sustainable livelihoods to people and communities who otherwise would be destroying the environment. Instead of cutting down the trees and killing the animals, you protect them so that the rich urbanites from home and abroad can come and gawk at them. It is called stewardship. Ecotourism certainly is important and has plenty of potential. The definition is broad enough to encompass ‘ecotourism light’ like what we were engaged in on this trip to the Lake Nakuru National Park—observing animals from the safety of our vehicle and lunching in relative luxury at a comfortable lodge—to hard core roughing it in the bush. The lowest common denominator should be the do-no-harm principle and that the benefits accrue to the local communities. Regretfully, it is not easy to see ecotourism as a panacea: to be successful, it requires adequate infrastructure (the ecotourists have to be able to get there and around!) as well as adequate skills. Furthermore, given the finite number of potential ecotourists, it resembles a zero sum game whereby newly established ecotourism sites would necessarily compete with the older ones.

Sadly, not many other alternatives have been invented. The problem is not that different from finding financially viable alternatives for opium and coca growers to switch to (in Afghanistan, cut flowers appeared to be a great opportunity but, alas, the liberally minded Dutch blocked their import to the European Union, thus killing the initiative; in Kenya, the successful cut flower business is controlled by the Dutch).

We returned to Nairobi through the Rift Valley taking the low road across the valley bottom. We stopped at the Lake Naivasha Country Club, just 80 kilometres south of the equator and at an elevation of 1,890 metres above sea level, for late afternoon tea. The club was rather crowded on this holiday afternoon and we were lucky to find a shady table on the extensive lawn. The clientele was mixed. There was a Kenyan couple at the closest table biding the afternoon drinking ample quantities of beer. At the next table sat an American woman with a friend. She had spent six years in Zimbabwe and just recently moved to Kenya. She said that she still preferred Zimbabwe, but her reasoning pertained mostly to the climate. Apparently the brutal disregard for human rights and the near total collapse of the economy under the octogenarian dictator, Robert Mugabe, had not penetrated her sphere of life.

En route to Nairobi we passed camps of internally displaced persons (IDPs) whose privileges could not be compared with those we had just partaken in Naivasha. I asked Bob who these people in the camps were and what ethnic group they belonged to. Bob told they were mainly Kikuyu, the dominant tribe in the Central Highlands, who had been displaced during the post-electoral violence less than two years ago. Tribalism is alive and well in Kenya, and exploited to the hilt by the politicians. It is easy to generate hatred against other tribes—and thus draw attention from one’s own problems and corruption—with incendiary rhetoric; a favourite tool of politicians everywhere in the world where a large segment of the voters is poorly educated and thus easily moved (witness the ‘tea parties’ organized by the Republican Party in America against President Obama’s proposed reforms in late-summer of 2009). The IDP camps lay in the shadow of Mt. Longonok as the sun was setting behind the rift. Mt. Longonok is a huge caldera of an ancient volcano that exploded long ago. Its existence is a reminder of how the entire great East African Rift Valley is a product of intensive seismic activity associated with volcanism.

The low road started its climb back to the top of the ridge. The traffic was moderate with plenty of trucks going both ways. In places the climb was steep and we left the valley rapidly behind us. We passed a small Catholic church that had been constructed on the hillside by the Italian prisoners of war who had been forced to build this road during World War II. East Africa had been one of the, now largely forgotten, fronts of the war. The sun was setting behind the opposite edge of the rift. Its rays were filtered through low-hanging clouds. It was easy to understand why someone would see god’s light shining through the clouds. Continued rain would indeed be a gift from the gods.

Whether or not the prolonged drought that has punished Kenya and many other parts of Africa in the past years is the result of human induced global climate change is a moot point for the people having to live through it. For them, it is a matter of survival: a struggle between what needs to be done now and the longer-term perspective of sustainable development. If manmade climate change is indeed threatening the world as we know it, Africans are the last people who could and should be blamed for it. They certainly have the fewest polluting factories, the smallest number of cars, and by far the lowest amount of energy consumption per capita as compared with any other part of the world. Europeans on the average emit 50-100 times—and Americans 100-200 times—more greenhouse gases per capita than Africans! Yet the Africans are the ones most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and variability because of their reliance on natural resources—and they are also the least able to cope with such impacts.

Today, many people see mitigating climate change as an environmental issue, while adaptation to the impacts of climate change is understood as a development issue. Yet the two are closely linked. When you start from a very low level as Africa does, it is very hard to institute large cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. But instituting early on an energy transition from fossil fuels to clean renewable sources could pre-empt future growth in emissions. And, like Angela Cropper, the deputy executive director of the UN Environment Programme reminded us, adapting to the climate change is not only a development, but importantly an environmental issue. It is true that people and societies must adapt to the impacts of climate change and that requires action on all fronts, from developing better infrastructure to changing to more appropriate agricultural products. At the same time, adaptation will be needed by the non-human parts of the world as well. Climate change will potentially wreak havoc on biological diversity and ecosystems, making life hard for our non-human co-habitants of the planet. In places like Kenya, it is obvious that there is a direct linkage between the two sides.

What then should be done with the people who invaded Mau Forest and are destroying its watershed? Back in Nairobi, I talked with Winston Mathu, a senior Kenyan expert who had thought about these things for a long time. “People used to live in the forest without destroying it,” he said. “We should let them stay, but control their activities so that they are manageable.” He had told that much to the powers that be in the country but, alas, the government had decided instead to remove the people—by force, if necessary. This appeared to have popular support amongst the environmental movement, as well as donors such as the World Bank and the good Scandinavians. What alternatives the removed people, some of whom had stayed on the hills for years and raised their families there, would have afterwards was not clear.

Any solution currently on the table doesn’t seem to be fully addressing the long-term challenges. The majestic concept of sustainable development (which by its nature may well be a contradiction in terms) cannot ignore either side of the coin: the sustainability of people’s livelihoods and that of the environment that provides the entire—and only—basis for our existence.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Koh Samui

For years I had wanted to spend some time resting and rejuvenating in a spa on Koh Samui and finally here I was sitting on the veranda of my wooden bungalow overlooking the peaceful yet constantly changing Gulf of Thailand. I had arrived earlier in the day, flying in from Bangkok together with other tourists, backpackers and Thai families. The 50-minute flight from the capital took us straight south-southwest across the Gulf, landing on Samui airport on the tropical paradise island off the eastern coast of the Kra Peninsula, a long and narrow strip of land that separates the more protected Gulf of Thailand from the Andaman Sea. Because of its fortunate location on this side of the peninsula, Koh Samui had not been affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 that killed so many people and destroyed coastal areas in countries as far apart as Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Somalia. In Thailand, the damage was done only on the west coast of the Kra where resort islands, such as Phuket and Phi Phi Islands suffered immensely. As the plane approached, I watched all the small islands rising from the shining sea. Most looked still quite pristine with densely forested mountain cones in the centre and lined with half moons of white coral sand that glittered in the sun. Yet the pressures from booming tourism and development were mounting, as evidenced by the densely built towns and resorts in the coastal zones.

My own purpose for being here was purely selfish. I had worked hard throughout the spring and summer, actually moving to a new and more demanding position in the organization. I was feeling tense and somewhat stressed out. My wife claimed that one had to tip-toe around me for the past few months. Apparently, I needed some de-stressing. Although my eating habits are normally relatively fine—I do finish my veggies and eat fruits daily and my diet is generally somewhat tilted towards Asian cuisines—the pace of modern big city life isn’t really conducive for taking care of oneself. So here I was, staring at the raw salad sitting in a wooden bowl in front of me. It was served with a delicious apple vinegar, honey and garlic dressing. It would be the most substantive single meal I’d eat for the coming week. In fact, I was preparing for a brief fast for cleansing purposes under the supervision of the knowledgeable staff of The Spa, Samui’s first and most famous health resort. Since 1992, the owners, Toi and Guy Hopkins, a Thai-American couple run this place (and since lately another one inland up on the hillside), which I’ve seen referred to as ‘hipsters’ paradise,’ with a full set of options for cleansing, from a simple liver flush to full-scale fasts with all the associated accoutrements. I had modestly (or perhaps ambitiously) chosen an option somewhere in between. To make the fasting easier, there are other activities one can engage in, including steam baths, massages, yoga and Qigong practice on the beach, and of course meditation every morning. On top of that, the restaurant I was sitting in, Radiance, has been included in the list of the fifty best restaurants in the world (not that it would matter much to me)!

Apart from the healthy stuff, the island caters to the more common type of tourist. In fact, when tourism development started, it was probably foreseen that Samui would become another Phuket or Pattaya. The beaches are beautiful and clean, although in the high season I am told they can become very crowded especially in the most popular locations. Diving is decent and there are coral reefs to snorkel around. Some towns have developed into veritable party centres, with notorious nightlife and weekly shows of all female Muay Thai kick boxing—an apparent attraction to gawkers of many a variety. In addition, the lovely natural setting, lively yet relaxed ambiance and proximity to Bangkok and other major cities in the region (there are numerous flights to the Thai capital daily on the hip Bangkok Airways that also operates daily direct flights to places like Singapore and Hong Kong) has also made the island attractive to businesses in the free and creative sectors, such as information technology. These alongside tourism are transforming the Samui economy from its traditional subsistence base of agriculture and fisheries. The major cash product for centuries used to be coconuts that were exported from the island to the mainland.

Fishermen still practice their trade, as I could see from my vantage point on the second storey terrace in the restaurant. A small cluster of colourfully painted boats—red and white, orange, bright blue, more faded green—were moored in a small lagoon protected by a jetty. Many of the boats were open with just an outboard motor in the aft. A few had closed cabins built on them allowing for the captain to stand up while steering the vessel. The harbour was shallow enough for the fishermen to wade across to their boats from the sandy beach in front of our compound. As they were preparing for their nightly expedition, the sea kept changing. The afternoon sun had faded into the thickening clouds and the colour of the sea shifted from blue to a deep green reflecting the darkening sky. The wind was picking up and blew moist air from the gulf. After a while, the gusts were rather heavy and speckled with a few large drops of rain. Despite the mounting gloomy clouds that hung low on an outcrop jutting to the sea a few kilometres north from us, the threatening thunder storm never materialized. I watched as one by one the boats headed out from their peaceful harbourage towards the open sea their engines’ putter mixing into the steady sound of the waves. Soon it was dark and the only light from the sea came from the fishing boats blinking romantically in the thick tropical night. On the shore, a few restaurants lit up muted lights on their beachside terraces.
Samui, the third largest island in Thailand, has been inhabited probably for 1.5 millennia. It was likely used as a base by fishermen from the Malay Peninsula and southern China. The island is named on a Chinese map dating from 1687. Where it got its name is unclear, but likely candidate explanations could be that Samui simply refers to a local tree called ‘Mui’ or it might be a transmogrified version of the Chinese word ‘Saboey’ meaning safe haven. Either way, the island stayed safely and happily isolated for most of its history until the 1970s. Until then, people were minding their own business, fishing, farming and growing coconuts as their only cash crop. Then it was ‘discovered’ by outsiders. The first ones to arrive were backpackers. The white sands, blue sea, coral reefs, fresh seafood and unspoilt interior all conjured up images of paradise. Today that paradise still exists, although much of it has been lost to development. Fortunately, most of the tourism development is relatively small scale—spas, boutique hotels, guest houses for backpackers—and major resorts that completely modify their surroundings are not that many and concentrated in few places, like Chaweng Beach. Still, all the development leaves its mark, especially on the coastline, which today is virtually fully occupied.

Naturally, it also changes the economy and the way of life of people. Apart from tourism which directly is a huge employer and source of income, many locals benefited handsomely from selling the land they had owned for perhaps generations to developers. These people do not need to work in the tourism industry. Most of the employees in the innumerable hotels, restaurants and other establishments come from the poor northeastern provinces of Thailand, Isan, as far away as physically possible without leaving the country. I have been told that the dialects are so different that the immigrants from Isan have a hard time even understanding the southern natives when they speak their own dialect.

On my second day while still on my pre-cleanse, I rented a car, a small Suzuki Caribian (sic), a puny off-road vehicle commonly referred to as ‘jeep’ on the island. The rental agreement stated that the car was fully insured, except for the sound system. Needless to say, there was no sound system. I turned left from the spa gate joining the traffic towards southwest (my plan had actually been to turn right but the traffic flow looked so discouraging that I decided to make the island tour in the opposite direction). The Spa is located in the community of Lamai in the southeast of the island. I had started the drive carelessly without checking everything and after a few kilometres noticed that the petrol gauge indicated an empty tank. By that time I was on a smaller side road heading towards the beach. Having no idea where a filling station might be located, I suddenly noticed a sign that clearly said ‘gasoline’ in front of a small open food stall by the roadside. The kind woman in charge only had four litres contained in plastic bottles. I told her to pour them into the tank and headed out looking for a filling station with a larger supply (I found one just a couple of kilometres further on the main road; this one had what seemed like antique hand-operated pumps connected to two petrol barrels standing loosely on the pavement).

I decided to head inland, following signs to an elephant trekking operator, a waterfall, and a high viewpoint. The small road passed through coconut palm plantations where buffalo were grazing. Soon it started to climb, challenging my little Suzuki. I soon realized that I needed to stop and connect the four-wheel drive lest the poor vehicle start rolling back downhill. Before that, however, I had been overtaken by three military coloured open off-road vans travelling uphill at considerable speed. They belonged to an ‘adventure’ tour operator and were hauling young Western ‘adventurers’ up the mountainside with horns blaring to warn off potential others using the road.

The road was paved but narrow and curvy. After several kilometres during which my vehicle almost stalled in a couple of the steepest slopes I found myself on the tallest peak of Samui island. Climbing to the altitude of 635 metres from literally the sea level in a matter of a couple of kilometres was no mean feat and was proof of how steep the road’s gradient actually was. Several of the island’s peaks rise above half a kilometre, but this was the absolutely highest point. The interior of the island is still largely impenetrable rainforest and luckily hard to develop because of the topography. Here however, there was a restaurant, called Peak Eye View, from whence a fabulous panorama over the entire island in all directions far to the sea opened. For a second I was tempted to join the tourists (who included the ‘adventurers’ from the three trucks) for a cold beer, but I stayed firm on my pre-cleanse regimen and resumed my drive after admiring the view. The restaurant also kept a troupe of gibbons in front of it. They were tied to long leashes but were able to jump and frolic in the trees, which they do with amazing skill and flair. Unfairly to my mind, gibbons are also known as ‘lesser apes’—as opposed to the great apes (chimpanzee, bonobo, gorilla, orangutan and us humans). To me, they are only lesser in size.

Not far from the peak I found another attraction marked as Namuang waterfall. A field had been cleared for parking but I was the only visitor. Luckily the girl who was apparently in charge of collecting 30 baht (approximately US$1) per vehicle was lying flat on a bench and only lifted one eyelid lazily when she saw me pass. I was glad to note that the midday heat gets even to the locals. I followed a path clearly marked with a formal sign that said 'Pointview.' It led down a deep slope where I could hear water—but not enough for a waterfall. Indeed, when I reached the bottom there was a small trickle falling between rocks into an almost dry riverbed. I took this to be proof of Samui’s water shortage. I crossed the creek skipping precariously from one uneven and damp boulder to the next thinking whether the girl at the parking lot would hear my cries should I break a leg. On the other side, new signs appeared, this time hand written on a piece of paper but more correctly stating 'viewpoint.' I followed the narrowing path climbing steeply before coming to my senses and turning back. The signs were probably leading back to the mountain top where I had just been. I got my exercise walking up and down the gulley in tropical heat and was drenched by the time I got back to the car.

It is easy to forget that this is officially a paradise island when one drives on the main road circling it. The traffic is constant with cars, lorries, motorbikes and mopeds, often with entire families on them the little one riding in between mom and dad. And there are foreigners—Aussies, Brits, Germans, Swedes, Finns, Japanese, Americans, you name it—riding their rented scooters and small cars. Apparently these farang can be such a traffic hazard that the Samui Police Department had found it necessary to post a large sign on the roadside warning people to remember to drive on the left side! Driving on the circular road also confirms that the entire coastline is by now occupied, largely by the tourist industry. One can still see undeveloped plots of land for sale to anyone with the will and capital. There are some original towns but the locations of major resorts have also developed into villages with a variety of services targeted to the visitors, from Thai massage to ‘Deutscher Bierhalle.’ The sides of the road have been overtaken by sprawl nearly completely.

I stopped at Ban Nathon, the largest real city on Samui and its main administrative and commercial centre. Upon entering the town I detected a large open air market: always a sure attraction for me. I thus parked and went to explore. The vegetables and fruits looked fresh and delicious (so many different kinds of greens), but the most interesting part was the fish market, clearly owing its existence to Nathon being the port of the largest fishing fleet in Samui. There were buckets of freshly caught fish of different sizes, shrimp, squid. Some fish where displayed on trays already in a fried state.

Wandering deeper into the town, I was relieved to discover it indeed was a real commercial centre for people who actually live here. There were grocery stores, clothing outlets, motorbike repair shops, law offices and several doctor’s offices of different specialization. There was also a pleasant, if somewhat dilapidated seafront boulevard lined with tempting looking seafood restaurants, small hotels and, just on one side street, a row of massage parlours.

Nathon is located on the west coast of Samui, diagonally on the opposite side of the island from where Lamai lies. I’d about had enough of sightseeing for the day, especially of the continuous strip mall lining the road. I still had to drive north following the coast before heading back south on the other side. The traffic was getting worse as I had to drive through a series of conglomerations: Bang Por, Mae Nam, Chaweng. I was hot and tired of keeping an eye on my unpredictable co-travellers, constantly shifting gears to keep the little car that pretended to be an SUV moving up and down the hills. Then it stopped. At one junction when I slowed down pressing down the clutch, the engine just died and refused to start again. The battery was dead: not a single breath of life left in it. I have no idea what killed it, as I had been driving most of the time, not using the headlights or air conditioning (there was none). It just had had enough and died. Luckily I was already just a few kilometres from Lamai and could call the rental car service. They didn’t even sound surprised. A smiling employee soon appeared and matter of factly connected the cables between the batteries of his and my Suzukis. Kawp khun khrap—thank you very much—and he drove away. Jai yen yen—don’t lose your cool, as they say here. Things work out.

There are some 55,000 permanent residents on this small round island just some 15 kilometres across. However, the number of locals is dwarfed by visitors. Statistics show more than 670,000 annual arrivals at the Samui airport. Granted, not all of them would be tourists and many would be locals returning from trips to Bangkok or abroad. Yet the bulk is bound to be visitors from further away. Such numbers of people and feet on the ground inevitable leave footprints. Even if the people come to Samui in search of the pristine paradise—and Samui has managed to preserve some of it relatively well, much better than say some of the hotspots around the Mediterranean—every part of the natural environment will be transformed. Roads get paved over, coral reefs face pressures, the ocean itself suffers. One of the most critical resources is freshwater. This is a common problem for most small islands and Samui is facing it, too. The Spa has signs that ask patrons to conserve water because there is a critical shortage of it. Not a convenient factor for a spa in the tropics. Although the island is surrounded by water, it’s all salty. The freshwater is generated by rainfall and streams in the central mountain. The aquifers are replenished there, but the rapid development on the coast has brought with itself a hugely increased demand. The supply just isn’t enough, thus threatening the sustainability of the entire development model.

The coastal development itself poses particular risks. When the protective natural vegetation is removed for development, habitats are lost and the coastline is rendered vulnerable. This was dramatically demonstrated during the tsunami: in places where mangroves and other coastal habitats were intact, the destruction by the tidal wave was significantly moderated.

During the days of the fast I took it easy. I talked with other patrons who had taken the challenge. They came from many walks of life and from around the world. Although the spa has a distinct New Age feel, most of the guests are far from the sandals-and-lentils crowd. There was Paul, a British businessman in his late-50s who has spent the past twenty years in Dubai, with his tall and beautiful Filippina wife. There were the two Australian sisters, Claire and Stephanie, who started the fast together with me. They were cheerful down-to-earth girls still in their 20s, spending their days on the beach. We would compare our sensations daily as the fast progressed. There was also Roland, a long-haired Malaysian fellow with a ring in his lower lip, whom I met in the steam room on the day I was breaking my fast. Roland, who worked in advertising film production in Indonesia, was a fasting veteran: this was his fifth trip to The Spa! We agreed that the biggest problem here was boredom, as apart from the treatment there really was nothing to do except to walk or lie on the beach. By 8:30 pm life in the restaurant was definitely slowing down—not that it really mattered to us fasters.

The feeling of hunger never came, thanks to the heat and the various detox drinks, diluted vegetable juices and broth fed to us at regular intervals. But the energy levels went down and the degree of listlessness would very from day to day. Early in the mornings, I would walk along the beach. It was very peaceful and the sea was calm. I might meet one or two other people taking their morning walk, but normally the only sounds were the numerous birds starting to sing and an occasional puttering of an outboard engine from further away in the sea. The fishermen were already at work, a few of them wading into the bay and throwing in their fine-meshed hand nets. On some mornings women would be walking the waterline with nets and plastic bags collecting shellfish. From one resort I could hear a distant radio playing soft Thai pop as the staff were preparing the place for the day. From another sounded the familiar chime of Windows starting as someone opened his laptop. The beach itself was open to anyone and one could walk for miles to either direction without being blocked. The land right behind the beach, however, was strictly partitioned into private properties.

Small crabs scurried on the sand, their spindly legs a blur as they hurried towards their holes. As I stepped into the warm and clear sea, schools of tiny fish would dash to give way to the huge intruder. In places, the sand was soft and soothing to the sole, while elsewhere it stung with billions of tiny pieces of coral and shell that had washed to the shore. In a bend in the bay there were curious boulders, some as tall as a man, clustered on the shore and into the sea. Here and there, coconuts had fallen and now lay half buried in the sand in the shade of the mother trees that lined the shore. One morning, I sat for a long time in the shade of one such palm tree and watched a black heron go about catching breakfast. It waded gingerly in the shallow water, turning its head left and right, observing the goings on beneath the surface. Every now and then, it would rapidly stretch its long and narrow neck, dip its head suddenly into the water, emerging with some poor creature in its sharp beak.

Or I would indulge myself in the steam room (as if the natural heat here just north of the equator wasn’t enough!). It was located in a secluded corner of the compound. I would sit there wrapped in a sarong and let the hot steam infused with 32 traditional Thai herbs sooth my body and mind. In between sessions I’d cool down in the shady garden decorated with playful Buddhist statuettes. The sweet attendant had prepared a pot of exquisite jasmine tea served in thimble-sized Chinese cups decorated with blue and white dragons.

In the afternoons I would lie under a tree reading or dozing off. I’d go for an occasional swim. Later after all the cleansing included in the program was done for the day, I’d lie down in an easy chair on the porch of my bungalow and watch the tropical night get dark. One late afternoon I observed a succession of honey suckers attend to a bush with little white flowers next to my chair. First came a swarm of small bees that busily worked each flower. After they were done, a tiny hummingbird, truly the size of my thumb, continued the task, hovering in front of the flowers keeping in place by the enormously rapid flapping of its wings while it stuck its needle-like beak into the blossoms. Finally, a butterfly arrived, it too sucking into the flowers. I hoped there was enough honey left for her.

One afternoon I decided to go driving again. I had received a refund from the company for the unfortunate ‘jeep,’ which had died on me earlier (twice, as it is, because it had been returned to me the following day supposedly repaired, but the battery was still dead and, once we got it started, it was clear that the engine had lost all its traction). I was somewhat distressed to see that the same ill-fated vehicle was again presented to me, but was assured that it had been thoroughly fixed. This turned out to be true and I could hit the road again, heading southwest through Ban Lamai towards the Samui Aquarium and Tiger Park, which appears to be a major tourist attractions. Now, I am not keen on seeing animals in captivity and all kinds of zoos, especially in the developing countries where their conditions tend to be dismal, depress me. Yet, zoos do play a role in conservation—better an endangered species in captivity than extinct in nature—and if this aquarium can convince any visitors of the value of preserving the wildlife, I’m all for it.

It turned out to be quite a complex, although the surroundings were a mere dusty parking lot in front of which a group of men tended to two elephants that stood languidly in the shade of a cluster of big trees. There was a price list: elephant trekking (Baht 800), photo with elephant (Baht 300), feeding the elephant with bananas (Baht 80). I went to the aquarium entrance and asked about the program and the price. There would be a tiger show in an hour, I was informed. Trained tigers would jump through hoops of fire and the like. There was also a show with sea lions (which I could briefly observe through a crack in the fence; the sea lions were small and cute, like their handlers). The entrance fee was Baht 750 (US$22!), which I found excessive (although many other farang riding in on their mopeds or vans happily seemed to dole out the asked price). Instead I headed towards the beach, which in this part looked very different from that in front of our compound. The tidal flat reached at least a couple of hundred metres into the bay, which shone bright blue and turquoise in the afternoon sun. When I returned to my car I found a truck full of local school kids had been just hauled in to see the elephants. Rows of plastic chairs had been arranged so that they could sit down and each in their turn feed and pet the pachyderms. I hope each of these children will become an animal lover (or rather, remain as such, as most children naturally love animals).

I returned to Ban Lamai and stopped at the busy part of town around a market where huge durian were sold at the fruit stalls. This popular fruit in these parts of the world is banned from many hotels and other closed public spaces because of its pungent smell. I have friends who love the fruit but I have never learned to enjoy its overly sweet flesh. The town also has a Buddhist temple—Wat Lamai—and cultural centre. It’s a relatively modest affair, albeit decorated with all the colourful paintings and statues typical of Southeast Asian Buddhism. As I entered, a row of monks—approximately ten of them—was sitting in front of the Wat chanting sutra for a group of mostly older villagers sitting in the dirt in front of them.

Thailand is multiracial country with several religions, although Buddhism tends to dominate in most places, except the south bordering to Malaysia where Islam is the predominant religion. In recent years there have been regular clashes between Muslim insurgents demanding regional autonomy often in violent ways and the Thai authorities who equally have been known to use excessive force further aggravating the conflict. In Koh Samui, the two sides have lived harmoniously since the beginning. The Moslems are a small minority on the isle, but one can see men with their Islamic beards and women riding on motorbikes with their colourful headgear flowing in the wind. Southeast Asian Islam is not equally restrictive than it is in some places further west.

On yet another morning, I drove north through the sprawl until I reached the north coast. I noticed an entrance to a community marked with a gate above the main road leading to it: Bophut Beach Fisherman’s Village. It looked tempting enough, so I went in. The road ended in a t-junction with the main street that ran parallel to a beach with the whitest sand imaginable. The bay in front boasted numerous boats moored in it, ranging from traditional fishing boats to luxury sails and speed boats. A lone windsurfer was riding the waves beyond. At the pier was an utterly dilapidated vessel named ‘Fortune’—its best days were clearly far in the past and it wouldn’t be anyone’s good fortune to clamber onboard.

The street was lined by old Chinese style wooden houses on both sides, virtually all of them now converted into shops, restaurants and guesthouses. There were numerous bars that under other circumstances would have beckoned me irresistibly. I noticed that there were many signs in French, some promising fresh croissants and the like. I later read that this village had been popular with the French tourists for several years now (nevertheless, I only heard English and Finnish spoken on the street). In the same Samui guide I also read that Bophut is “easily the most charming village on Samui.” Based on my brief visit, I probably would agree.

But I continued towards the Big Buddha that is one of the most popular attractions on the isle. The northeast coastline was heavily developed. New bungalows were sprouting up on the hillsides, contrasting with the shacks of the fishermen on the beach and the makeshift stalls of the elderly street vendors. Soon I turned onto the causeway that connects the mainland to the tiny island housing the Big Buddha. I found a shady place to park under a tree on a plaza lined with shops attracting the foreign tourists and Thai day trippers alike. As I headed towards the Buddha and the Wat Phra Yai temple, a Bangkok Airways ATR-72 turboprop roared past the statue just above our heads on its final approach to Samui airport.

The temple complex is not particularly old or historical. In fact, the local community built it only in 1972 to cater to the spiritual needs of the visitors. I suspect they also had in mind that the Buddha would attract more such visitors and bring economic benefits to the island just when it was being discovered by the outside world. I climbed the steep steps on top of which the 12 metre tall gilded Buddha sat (there was a sign that stated, pragmatically, that from 10 am to 4 pm when the steps get hot in the sun it was ok to keep your shoes on). In the side pavilions on each side of the steps, monks in saffron robes were administering blessings to the Thai visitors.

On the top it was mercifully cool, as had been apparently discovered by the four dogs that lay flat in the Buddha’s shadow, and the view was quite stunning to all sides. The Big Buddha was surrounded by many smaller images, including two smaller, reclining Buddhas shining golden in the sun. Small gilded monkeys were offering their respect to the gods.

Although not by any means a haven of tranquillity, I was pleased to have visited Wat Phra Yai as I continued my drive south towards Chaweng on the east coast. This is the largest centre of tourism on Samui. It contains some of the biggest and fanciest hotels and the longest beach on the island. Behind the beach, there is a long shopping street that has a seemingly endless row of shops and restaurants. There are the usual souvenir shops and clothing stores, tattoo parlours (in my books, getting a tattoo while backpacking in the tropics rates among the more thoughtless things to do), and art shops (selling the kind of art—orange sunsets over a turquoise sea where dolphins skip and large eyed girls gaze sadly—that is available in any town from La Jolla to Goa where tourists of a ‘spiritual’ persuasion gather). Luckily, Chaweng also boasts by far the best bookstore on the island, Bookazine, in which I rummaged for a good while. The fast had made a dent, not only in the toxins in my body, but also my reading materials. I was well into the third and last book I had brought with me and was in a desperate need for replenishment, which I was able to find in this small but rather well-stocked shop.

The morning to break the fast finally arrived. I prolonged the pleasure by first indulging in the steam bath. Afterwards I swaggered to the beach garden of Radiance radiating the confidence of someone who has just pulled off a major deed—and ordered food. I couldn’t quite decide whether I craved more for fresh fruit or a raw salad, so I ordered one that contained both. It tasted good, but I realized that it was mostly the relief of not having to swallow the various healthy and cleansing liquids that came with the fast.

I lingered for another couple of days just to get adjusted to solid food and to get ready to face the outside world. In the end, I was ready to leave and truly looked forward the hustle and bustle of Bangkok that lay in wait for me. As I watched out of the airplane window at the small island in the blue sea, I though how lucky it was that the tropical nature is so powerful. Its resilience is such that immediately when humans leave the lush vegetation, with its infinite number of creatures small and large, quickly takes over again. That’s why we haven’t lost all of the paradise, the flowers with striking colours, the pleasure of hearing so many different birds singing such rich coloraturas. And the chirping geckos on the walls whose ample insect dinners I watched enviously every night of my fast.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Long knives v. Xiaokang

I returned to Beijing on Sunday the 12th of July 2009 just when the Government of China declared that the riots that started on the 5th of the month in the Xinjiang region had been suppressed and things had returned to normalcy in Urumqi, the capital. The death toll stood at 184, although the English language newspaper, China Daily, reported that the fatalities might still rise as 74 of the injured were on the “verge of death” (July 13, 2009). Some of them did indeed pass away in the days to come. The daily further reported that 137 of the dead were ethnic Han, 46 were Uygur and one poor fellow was an ethnic Hui. The Urumqi government announced they’d dispense special compensation plus funeral fees to each of the bereaved families, adding up to 210,000 yuan or US$30,730. The fact that all of this was reported on the first page of a Chinese newspaper itself was a sign of progress and openness in the country. During last year’s riots in Tibet, the news was much more carefully controlled and foreign journalists were kept from reporting in the aftermath. The bad news for the Chinese central government is that trouble is brewing in the Middle Kingdom’s western flanks.

The roots of the unrest in Xinjiang (literally, New Territories) appear to lie in the extensive influx of the Han Chinese into the ethnic enclave. In the past decades the Uygurs have perhaps already become a minority in their own land, as the Chinese government has encouraged the majority Han who make up about 92 percent of China’s population to move west in a campaign reminiscent of the conquest of the American west in the 19th century—Go West Young Han! The ethnic and cultural differences are as large as they can be. The Uygurs are Turkic people whose language is close to Turkish, rather than Mandarin or any other variety of Chinese. Furthermore, they are Muslims by religion, a fact that has enabled the Chinese government to convince the West that quelling unrest in Urumqi is part of the misguided global ‘War on Terror’ and that the troublemakers have connections to Al-Qaeda. Indeed, a group of Uygurs were arrested in Afghanistan and sent to Guantánamo Bay by the Americans where they have rotted for years despite no evidence of any ill-doing by them. The reasonable assumption is that the poor sods were on their way to Turkey to find employment when they were caught in the American dragnet. Later they could not be released and sent back to China, as it could be expected that they’d face reprisals due to their illegal emigration. Finally, only in June this year, the tiny Pacific nation of Palau agreed to take 17 of the Uygurs in return for a promise of considerable aid from the US.

There is no doubt that one of the reasons for the massive migration of the Han Chinese to the western parts of the country has to do with consolidating the ‘territorial integrity’ of China. Another reason of course is the economic opportunities that lie on the frontier, as was the case with the expansion of the United States to the west when the native Americans were trampled and corralled into reservations. Yet, there is still another justification, which is more benevolent, albeit misguided. The regional differences in prosperity are enormous. While the coastal areas of eastern and southern China are booming despite the recent economic downturn, the vast interior lags tragically behind. Shanghai today is richer than Singapore but in the interior there are provinces that, if they were independent countries, would qualify in the United Nations official category of Least Developed Countries. This divergence is likely the major source of instability in China and the government wants to even out the differences in development levels. Although nobody knows for sure, there is an estimated 220-240 million migrant workers roaming China, moving from the rural areas to the cities—and lately back, as the construction has slowed down as a result of the economic downturn reducing the number of available jobs. This is the largest ever mass movement of people the world has experienced.

The regional disparities are also an issue of human development. Since the days of the Maoist revolution, China has aimed to eradicate poverty and oppression and to spread economic development to all parts of the huge country. The campaigns in the western provinces and autonomous regions must also be seen in this light. Most Chinese people whom I talk to—even those educated and living abroad where they are exposed to unfiltered, albeit equally biased, news—indeed believe that the cause of extending economic development to what they see as backward lands is a noble one. The fact that the local populations—many of them ethnic minorities living for long periods of time in their homelands without outside intervention—do not welcome the Han invasion is just because they are ignorant. After all, the Chinese have brought economic growth, modern infrastructure, better housing and so forth to the ungrateful denizens of Xinjiang, Tibet and other regions. The fact that the locals see this as an occupation fails to penetrate the minds of even progressive easterners.

It is of course a figment of imagination of the liberal westerners in Hollywood and beyond that life in Tibet and other such areas would be lovely if only the repressive Communist government in Beijing left the people alone to mind their own business. Life in poverty is not a romantic life and Shangri-La never existed. Like Patrick French in his excellent and well researched book Tibet Tibet showed, the kingdom of the monks on the roof of the world was indeed a backward and at times brutal place. The Chinese image of it as a feudal society where an upper class of religious parasites exploited the poor peasants until the arrival of the Red Army, nevertheless, is simplified propaganda.

The problem with the Han is that they can be extremely culturally insensitive—frequently even racist—and the Chinese state is known to be quite heavy-handed. The East may be red on paper—and the Communist Party does retain a monopoly on political power—but the colour of money rules the day (incidentally, the largest denomination 100 yuan bill, still sporting the deceptively benevolent moon face of Chairman Mao, is something of salmon pink). Regretfully, most Chinese tend to see ‘development’ purely in terms of getting rich. Other values, such as cultural preservation or conservation of natural beauty, do not count in the equation. It is often said how eastern cultures are communal in nature, but in practice the desire for prosperity often doesn’t stretch beyond one’s own family, extended as it may be. “To get rich is glorious,” said Deng Xiaoping who transformed the Chinese economic system after the passing of the Cultural Revolution and its chief instigator. But at what cost? It’s a question that most people here rarely consider. Consequently, it is hard for the migrants who have moved to the underdeveloped areas to fathom why they should not be welcome. After all, they have brought so much prosperity and ‘development’ to the regions, so who cares if a holy lake in Tibet has been turned into a garish amusement park for the invaders? After all, people have the right to relax after a hard day’s work churning out money, right?

Luckily the central government has started to realize the importance of other values, too, such as sustainable development and social wellbeing. Xiaokang—meaning balanced and harmonious society—officially guides the national vision towards 2020. Xiaokang emphasizes a “scientific concept of development” that focuses on “five balances,” namely those between urban and rural, between different geographical regions, between economic and social, between people and nature, and between domestic development and opening-up beyond China’s borders. A beautiful vision but the challenge will be in the implementation. It’ll be tough to convince the provincial authorities, entrepreneurs, and all those trying to improve their lots that they should focus instead on Xiaokang.

Recently as I was having lunch with an acquaintance who is an official in a governmental research institute, I asked him about what’s happening in Xinjiang. Mr. Han said that there were some bad people attacking others with long knives and other weapons. The problem was that the police and army didn’t interfere early enough and the situation got out of hand. What was behind all of this, I asked. He responded that they (the Uygurs) just want to become independent.

Years ago I was travelling around the south-western province of Yunnan—another ethnic area—with a friend of mine, Guo, who is a professor in one of the top institutions in China. He was genuinely mystified about why the Tibetans were giving such grief to China. The ethnic minorities are treated with special privileges and are generally happy, except for the Tibetans, he noted with bafflement. It is true that ethnic minorities do have certain privileges. For instance, they have the right to education in their native languages and have not been subject to the official one-child policy. According to the Chinese law, a Uygur couple can have two children if they live in a city in Xinjiang and three children in the countryside (apparently, the exiled Uygur leader Rebiya Kadeer, whom the government blames for inciting the recent violence, has eleven children!). This is all good and well, but it misses the point of having the right to determine the state of one’s own affairs.

On my first Wednesday evening in Beijing I ended up in the Sanlitun entertainment area with Gunther, an Australian buddy of mine who is a long-term Beijing resident. We stumbled into one of the many small bars. A trio was singing on the bandstand: a young man dressed like an all-American boy and two girls in the shortest micro-jeans imaginable. They were singing hip-hop songs with Chinese lyrics to pre-recorded tunes karaoke style. They all seemed to be having a good time. When they took a break, unexpectedly a dancer appeared on the stage. She was a gorgeous, tall and slim girl with a face that bore little if any resemblance to the rest of the people in the joint. She was dressed in a bright red silk dress and a matching headdress. The music changed completely: no more cute and meaningless pop. Now it was serious, clearly Middle Eastern groove and the girl’s moves were no longer innocently baby-like those of the kids who had done the earlier hip-hop. This woman was gyrating to Turkish beats and her performance was distinctly erotic despite—or perhaps because of—her all-covering flowing silken outfit. She was a Uygur.

Meanwhile, life in Urumqi returned to normal—almost. While peace returned to the troubled city, roads leading to the Grand Bazaar were being reopened, shops unlocked, and security vehicles were no longer on the People’s Square. The Urumqi Public Security Bureau announced that residents would have to carry identity cards and were banned from holding dangerous articles, such as knives or batons.

On July 14th, the China Daily reported that the police had shot and killed two armed Uygurs who, together with a third surviving friend, all armed with long knives and batons, had been intercepted as they attacked a member of their own ethnic group. The paper reported that once the men had not heeded to the calls to drop their weapons and surrender “the police shot the suspects in accordance with the law.” On the following day, an Imam in Urumqi came out saying that one of the three shot men had interrupted a prayer meeting at his mosque, holding up a green banner and shouting “jihad.” An altercation ensued when the imam and his followers tried to expel the jihadist and the two other men who had joined him. When the three pulled out their knives the police showed up and shot them.

On the same day, I spoke with another contact from the central government. She was on her way to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan in the south-west, where an earthquake caused significant damage the week before. Her mission was to receive a group from UNICEF-Hong Kong who had raised funds to aid the earthquake victims. Ms. Liang mentioned that, as the hardest hit area was the home of the ethnic Yi (another minority tribe), the central government was particularly anxious to respond quickly and efficiently. I believed her. Ethnic minorities are getting priority treatment in China—at least as long as they do not make political waves.

A week after the end of the major unrest, CNN reported that the security presence in Urumqi was still heavy and that there were moves to restrict what foreign journalists could photograph. The Chinese consulate general in Australia was also putting pressure on the organizers of the Melbourne International Film Festival to cancel the screening of a new film about Rebiya Kadeer whom they classify as criminal. In the meantime, the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, unhelpfully stated that he’d invite Ms. Kadeer to Turkey. Inevitably, Al-Qaeda affiliates abroad made statements threatening to attack Chinese interests overseas in retaliation of the Xinjiang events. With these kinds of positions on the different sides, one cannot be very optimistic.