Category Archives: Sustainable Agiculture vs Agribiz

5 signs that Mexico is losing its drug war

5 signs that Mexico is losing its drug war – The Week.

In Mexico, drug violence has become a routine part of the news. But some moments stand out as particularly frightening

Marisol Valles Garcia is Mexico's youngest police chief and works in a town just 60 miles from Ciudad Juarez, the country's most violent city.

Marisol Valles Garcia is Mexico’s youngest police chief and works in a town just 60 miles from Ciudad Juarez, the country’s most violent city. Photo: Corbis SEE ALL 14 PHOTOS

In the four years since Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched a crackdown on drug cartels, clashes between powerful drugrunners and Mexico’s police have skyrocketed in frequency and intensity. Since 2006, over 28,000 people have been killed, including 2,000 police officers — and the carnage shows no sign of slowing down. Calderon remains optimistic, at least publicly, but faces mounting criticism over the violence. Here are five especially troubling signs for what many consider a failed war:

1. A town’s entire police force quits
No officers were injured when gunmen fired more than 1,000 shots at police headquarters in Ramons, a small town in an area “torn by fighting between the Gulf and Zetas drug gangs.”  But the attackers (who tossed six grenades for good measure) made their point — all 14 of the town’s police officers promptly quit. Their new headquarters had opened just three days before the attack. (Watch an AP report about the police force)

2. The college student who became chief of police
In the small, crime-ridden town of Praxedis Guadalupe Guerrero, nobody was eager to serve as police chief for understandable reasons — the last person who took the job was killed in June. So when 20-year-old criminology student Marisol Valles Garcia volunteered, she made international news. “I took the risk because I want my son to live in a different community to the one we have today,” Guerrero said at a press conference.

3. Cops accused of killing their mayor
It has become an all-too-common story in Mexico: A public official is murdered, and a security guard or police officer turns out to be involved. When Santiago mayor Edelmiro Cavazos was killed in August, six city police officers, including one posted at Cavazos’ home to protect him, were quickly arrested and accused of helping a drug cartel pull off the crime. It was hardly an isolated incident, since most of Mexico’s 430,000 officers “find themselves outgunned, overwhelmed and often purchased outright by gangsters.”

4. A police chief is decapitated
In early October, Rolando Flores, the lead investigator on a high-profile case involving two Americans, was murdered, and his severed head was left in a suitcase in front of a military compound. In a sign of how routine such incidents have become, officials weren’t sure if the decapitation was related to the Falcon Lake case or to other cases Flores was investigating.

5. Killers target rehab centers
Not content to kill judges and mayors, gunmen appear to be going after former colleagues who may be trying to reform themselves. Last Sunday, gunmen lined up 13 recuperating addicts and executed them; two days earlier, another 14 people undergoing rehab had been gunned down. Such attacks have occurred before, but their rising intensity “could signal the lengths to which Mexico’s drug lords will go to prevent reformed addicts from giving information to authorities.”

America's flesh-eating cocaine problem

America’s flesh-eating cocaine problem – The Week.

Parents have long warned that drugs will fry your brain. Now doctors say cocaine might also rot your skin — literally

Cocaine users may be snorting a flesh-eating drug; 82 percent of street cocaine is laced with a veterinary drug used to deworm animals, according to a new study.

Cocaine users may be snorting a flesh-eating drug; 82 percent of street cocaine is laced with a veterinary drug used to deworm animals, according to a new study. Photo: Scott Gibson/Corbis SEE ALL 14 PHOTOS

It’s no secret that cocaine can be dangerous, but drug dealers might be making it more harmful than ever. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration recently reported that 82 percent of the cocaine it seizes has been cut with a veterinary drug that can rot away the skin on users’ noses, cheeks, and ears. “It’s probably quite a big problem,” says dermatologist Dr. Noah Craft with the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Insitute. “We just don’t know how big.” Here, a brief guide:

How does levamisole end up in cocaine?
Drug dealers typically add fillers to cocaine to boost their profits. Cheaper cocaine may be upwards of 90 percent filler. Sometimes, the added powder is just baking soda or some other innocuous substance. But drug cartels in South America increasingly prefer to use levamisole, a veterinary antibiotic normally used to deworm cattle, sheep, and pigs. It’s not clear why dealers don’t just use baking soda all the time, although studies in rats suggest that levamisole might tingle brain receptors in the same way cocaine does. If that’s the case, adding it to the supply might be a way to enhance the effects of cocaine on the cheap.

And the user ends up paying the price?
Yes, in some cases, says Craft, who has published a case study in Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. Craft linked six patients with patches of dying flesh to tainted cocaine. The wounds typically surface a day after exposure due to an immune reaction that damages blood vessels supplying the skin. Without any blood supply, the skin is starved of oxygen, turns a dark purple, and dies off. While the contamination of the cocaine supply is widespread, not all of those using cocaine experience this adverse reaction. But, anyone who uses cocaine is at risk, Craft says. “Rich or poor, black or white.”

Are doctors just discovering this problem?
No, levamisole has been on the radar screen of drug-prevention officials and doctors for a while. In 2009, there were reports of a handful of cocaine users in Canada developing hepatitis C and anemia after using cocaine mixed with levamisole. The killer agent hinders a person’s ability to produce white blood cells, which are essential for fighting off sometimes deadly infections. But the DEA’s report on the extent of the contamination, explains why some doctors are now seeing gruesome wounds linked to recent cocaine use. “It’s important for people to know it’s not just in New York and L.A.,” says Craft. “It’s in the cocaine supply of the entire U.S.”

'Super sand' to help clean up dirty drinking water

BBC News – ‘Super sand’ to help clean up dirty drinking water.

Contaminated water can be cleaned much more effectively using a novel, cheap material, say researchers.

Dubbed “super sand”, it could become a low-cost way to purify water in the developing world.

The technology involves coating grains of sand in an oxide of a widely available material called graphite – commonly used as lead in pencils.

The team describes the work in the American Chemical Society journal Applied Materials and Interfaces.

In many countries around the world, access to clean drinking water and sanitation facilities is still limited.

The World Health Organization states that “just 60% of the population in Sub-Saharan African and 50% of the population in Oceania [islands in the tropical Pacific Ocean] use improved sources of drinking-water.”

The graphite-coated sand grains might be a solution – especially as people have already used sand to purify water since ancient times.

Coating the sand

But with ordinary sand, filtering techniques can be tricky.

Start Quote

Given that this can be synthesized using room temperature processes and also from cheap graphite sources, it is likely to be cost-efficient”

Mainak Majumder Monash University, Australia

Wei Gao from Rice university in Texas, US, told BBC News that regular coarse sand was a lot less effective than fine sand when water was contaminated with pathogens, organic contaminants and heavy metal ions.

While fine sand is slightly better, water drains through it very slowly.

“Our product combines coarse sand with functional carbon material that could offer higher retention for those pollutants, and at the same time gives good throughput,” explained the researcher.

She said that the technique the team has developed to make the sand involves dispersing graphite oxide into water and mixing it with regular sand.

“We then heat the whole mixture up to 105C for a couple of hours to evaporate the water, and use the final product – ‘coated sand’ – to purify polluted water.”

Cost-efficient

Sand “Super sand” is made using regular sand – and it could become a low-cost way to purify water

The lead scientist of the study, Professor Pulickel Ajayan, said it was possible to modify the graphite oxide in order to make it more selective and sensitive to certain pollutants – such as organic contaminants or specific metals in dirty water.

Another team member, Dr Mainak Majumder from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, said it had another advantage – it was cheap.

“This material demonstrates comparable performance to some commercially available activated carbon materials,” he said.

“But given that this can be synthesized using room temperature processes and also from cheap graphite sources, it is likely to be cost-efficient.”

He pointed out that in Australia many mining companies extract graphite and they produce a lot of graphite-rich waste.

“This waste can be harnessed for water purification,” he said.

Virtual water cannot remedy freshwater shortage

Virtual water cannot remedy freshwater shortage.

ScienceDaily (June 6, 2011) — The implementation of virtual water into trading deals has been suggested as a realistic solution to solving the global inequality of renewable freshwater, but new research suggests that it may not be as revolutionary as first thought.

In a study published June 7, in IOP Publishing’s journal Environmental Research Letters, researchers have claimed that virtual water is unlikely to increase water use equality, primarily because the existing amount of virtual water is not large enough to overcome the inequalities that exist.

Lead author David Seekell, of the University of Virginia, said, “Virtual water is unlikely to overcome these constraints because there just isn’t enough to go around.”

80 per cent of humanity currently lives in regions where water security is threatened, meaning that as the global population grows against a finite volume of freshwater, a more equal distribution of water use between countries will be needed.

Virtual water — the amount of water it takes to produce goods or a service — has been suggested as a possible solution to this growing problem by using virtual water values to inform international trade deals.

Most goods carry a virtual water value — for example, producing one kilogram of beef requires 15 thousand litres of water — which can act as a significant tool for addressing a country’s input and output of water.

For example, a trade deal could be struck where products with a high virtual water value, such as oranges, could be exported from countries where there is an efficient and abundant water supply, into a country where the requirement of water to grow that particular product is more of a burden.

This would allow the receiving country to save on water, relieving the pressure on their limited water resources, and allowing the water to be used elsewhere in its infrastructure.

This study, performed by researchers at the University of Virginia, assessed the inequality in water use between countries and examined how different uses, such as industrial, household, and for agricultural products consumed domestically, contributed to the overall inequality.

To do this, the authors compared United Nations statistics on both social and human development statuses with water usage statistics for a range of countries.

Their study concludes that virtual water transfers are not sufficient to equalise water use among nations because water used for agriculture consumed domestically dominates a nation’s water needs and cannot be completely compensated by current volumes of virtual water transfers.

Seekell continued, “Even if it cannot completely equalise water use between countries, virtual water may stand to contribute to this effort if there is increased transfer from high water use to low water use countries, but the danger here is that these transfers effectively prop up populations above the carrying capacity of their natural resources and this could actually erode a population’s long-term resilience to drought or other disasters.

“There are a myriad of political and economic barriers to trade, and because water is not usually a deciding factor in trade decisions, it is unlikely that global trade will ever be viewed as efficient from a water use point of view.”

Higher density means world forests are capturing more carbon

Higher density means world forests are capturing more carbon.

 

ScienceDaily (June 6, 2011) — Forests in many regions are becoming larger carbon sinks thanks to higher density, U.S. and European researchers say in a new report.

In Europe and North America, increased density significantly raised carbon storage despite little or no expansion of forest area, according to the study, led by Aapo Rautiainen of the University of Helsinki, Finland, and published in the online, open-access journal PLoS ONE.

Even in the South American nations studied, more density helped maintain regional carbon levels in the face of deforestation.

The researchers analyzed information from 68 nations, which together account for 72 percent of the world’s forested land and 68 percent of reported carbon mass. They conclude that managing forests for timber growth and density offers a way to increase stored carbon, even with little or no expansion of forest area.

“In 2004 emissions and removals of carbon dioxide from land use, land-use change and forestry comprised about one fifth of total emissions. Tempering the fifth by slowing or reversing the loss of carbon in forests would be a worthwhile mitigation. The great role of density means that not only conservation of forest area but also managing denser, healthier forests can mitigate carbon emission,” says Rautiainen.

Co-author Paul E. Waggoner, a forestry expert with Connecticut’s Agricultural Experiment Station, says remote sensing by satellites of the world’s forest area brings access to remote places and a uniform method. “However, to speak of carbon, we must look beyond measurements of area and apply forestry methods traditionally used to measure timber volumes.”

“Forests are like cities — they can grow both by spreading and by becoming denser,” says co-author Iddo Wernick of The Rockefeller University’s Program for the Human Environment.

The authors say most regions and almost all temperate nations have stopped losing forest and the study’s findings constitute a new signal of what co-author Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller calls “The Great Reversal” under way in global forests after centuries of loss and decline. “Opportunities to absorb carbon and restore the world’s forests can come through increasing density or area or both.”

To examine how changing forest area and density affect timber volume and carbon, the study team first focused on the United States, where the U.S. Forest Service has conducted a continuing inventory of forest area, timberland area and growing stock since 1953.

They found that while U.S. timberland area grew only 1 percent between 1953 and 2007, the combined national volume of growing stock increased by an impressive 51 percent. National forest density increased substantially.

For an international perspective, the research team examined the 2010 Global Forest Resources Assessment compiled by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which provides consistent figures for the years 1990 to 2010.

The data reveal uncorrelated changes of forest area and density. Countries in Africa and South America, which lost about 10 percent of their forest area over the two decades, lost somewhat less carbon, indicating a small rise in forest density.

In Asia during the second decade of the study period, density rose in 10 of the region’s 21 countries. Indonesia’s major loss of density and sequestered carbon, however, offset any gain in carbon storage in other Asian nations.

Europe, like the U.S., demonstrated substantial density gains, adding carbon well in excess of the estimated carbon absorbed by the larger forested area.

Says study co-author Pekka Kauppi, of the University of Helsinki, Finland, “With so much bad news available on World Environment Day, we are pleased to report that, of 68 nations studied, forest area is expanding in 45 and density is also increasing in 45. Changing area and density combined had a positive impact on the carbon stock in 51 countries.”

Overuse of antimicrobials in livestock risks human health, warn experts

Overuse of antimicrobials in livestock risks human health, warn experts.

ScienceDaily (June 1, 2011) — Excessive use of antimicrobials in livestock promotes resistance and risks the future health of both animals and humans, warn experts in an editorial published by Student BMJ on June 1, 2011.

Jørgen Schlundt and colleagues at the National Food Institute in Denmark argue that the routine use of antimicrobials can be reduced substantially, while maintaining profitable animal production, and call for their use to be monitored in all countries.

Antimicrobials are essential for treating bacterial infections in humans and animals. Substantial amounts are used in modern animal production, but their use can result in bacteria that are resistant to treatment.

Resistant bacteria can spread from animals to humans, mainly through the food chain.

Three of four recently emerging infections in humans originate from animals: avian influenza H5N1, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and Salmonella.

Several global organisations have proposed a range of different actions to contain antimicrobial resistance from animals, including restricting use in animals of the most critically important antimicrobials for humans. The European Union has also begun monitoring resistance in food animals and is implementing mandatory monitoring of antimicrobial usage in all member states.

Such monitoring already occurs in Denmark, along with progressively tighter rules on the use of antimicrobials in the raising of livestock since 1995.

Yet tighter rules do not lead to lower productivity. In Denmark, use of antimicrobial agents per kilogram of pork produced is estimated to be less than a fifth of that in the United States, yet Denmark continues to be the world’s largest exporter of pork and productivity is now higher than ever before.

Data from Norway also show that improving fish farm management and introducing effective vaccines can reduce the use of antimicrobials more than 20 fold.

“We have major tasks ahead for global containment of resistance, in relation to both veterinary and human medicine,” write the authors. “Antimicrobials are too precious to be wasted, and both sectors have plenty of room for improvement.”

They conclude: “Substantial reduction of antimicrobial use in livestock is feasible and necessary if we want to preserve the power of antimicrobials for future generations of both animals and humans.”

Identifying "Hot Spots" of Future Food Shortages Due to Climate Change

Identifying “Hot Spots” of Future Food Shortages Due to Climate Change: Scientific American.

climate change, global warming, food, agriculture, food crisis FOOD CRISIS: A new report identifies world regions likely to be hardest hit by climate change’s impact on food. Image: Evelyn Simak/Wikimedia Commons

Southern Africa, India and Southeast Asia will be plagued with both high susceptibility and a lack of coping mechanisms as climate change takes its toll, according to models published in a new study.

The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research’s (CGIAR) Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security identified world regions that will bear the brunt of climate change’s consequences on food availability. The project’s researchers measured current food security indicators and climate-sensitive zones in 2050, and the overlap between the two.

Other high-risk hot spots include Mexico, northeast Brazil, southern Africa and West Africa, assessed by indicators like future water availability, number of days above 30 degrees Celsius, length of the growing period, reliable growing days and high or low rainfall.

“In all of these areas, food security is always an issue,” said Philip Thornton, one of the study’s authors and a senior scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute. In addition to climate and economy, “these are areas where population increases are projected to carry on, adding more potential problems.”

How productivity flips
The researchers mapped vulnerability to nine thresholds — the points at which a region can “flip” from normal productivity to subpar yields. One example of a threshold is the 120-day growing period, the minimum length needed for a crop like corn to survive. If climate change causes growing periods to shrink to less than 120 days, it will take a significant toll on food sustainability.

Southern Africa — encompassing Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Botswana, Mozambique and South Africa — showed to be highly exposed to several of the eight thresholds. Spots in northeastern Brazil, Mexico, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan were also very vulnerable, concluded the study.

Food security indicators, a combination of economic, health, logistic and population statistics, assessed which areas are currently at greatest risk for hunger and malnutrition.

“Africa and South Africa are clearly much more chronically food insecure regions than Latin America or China,” states the study. “In terms of resource pressure, again Africa is highlighted for population growth rates.”

Market access, economy also key
North Africa, a region that will not be especially vulnerable to climate change according to the study’s findings, ranked high in the number of hours needed to access a market. As seen in food riots earlier this year, the region is also sensitive to price volatility in international markets.

“One of the key areas in helping to provide food security is not simply an idea of more productivity, but also access and affordability of food to those who need it,” said Thornton, in regard to North Africa.

But for the regions that are faced with increasingly stressful weather patterns, “there’s a great deal that could be done to offset the impacts of climate change through adaptation, farming with new technology and government policies that are conducive to promoting small-holder agriculture,” he said.

Crop substitution for a drier and warmer climate, converting cropland to livestock grazing land, and making better use of rainfall are proven methods.

“It’s not particularly rocket science,” he said.

Thornton’s words reflect the conclusions of another report released this week. The nonprofit aid organization Oxfam released a food security report recommending government investment in small-scale farming and instituting concrete plans to deal with climate change. Continuing to follow the current system may drive food prices up 70 to 90 percent in the next 18 years, warns Oxfam.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

African land grab could lead to future water conflicts

African land grab could lead to future water conflicts – environment – 26 May 2011 – New Scientist.

IS THIS the face of future water conflicts? China, India and Saudi Arabia have lately leased vast tracts of land in sub-Saharan Africa at knockdown prices. Their primary aim is to grow food abroad using the water that African countries don’t have the infrastructure to exploit. Doing so is cheaper and easier than using water resources back home. But it is a plan that could well backfire.

“There is no doubt that this is not just about land, this is about water,” says Philip Woodhouse of the University of Manchester, UK.

Take Saudi Arabia, for instance. Between 2004 and 2009, it leased 376,000 hectares of land in Sudan to grow wheat and rice. At the same time the country cut back on wheat production on home soil, which is irrigated with water from aquifers that are no longer replenished – a finite resource.

Meanwhile, firms from China and India have leased hundreds of thousands of hectares of farmland in Ethiopia. Both China and India have well-developed irrigation systems, but Woodhouse says their further development – moving water from the water-rich south to northern China, for instance – is likely to be more costly than leasing land in Africa, making the land-grab a tempting option.

But why bother leasing land instead of simply importing food? Such imports are equivalent to importing “virtual water”, since food production accounts for nearly 80 per cent of annual freshwater usage. A new study into how this virtual water moves around the world offers an explanation for the leasing strategy. Ignacio Rodriguez-Iturbe of Princeton University and Samir Suweis of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne have built the first mathematical model of the global virtual water trade network, using the UN Food and Agricultural Organization’s data on trade in barley, corn, rice, soya beans, wheat, beef, pork, and poultry in 2000. They combined this with a fine-grained hydrological model (Geophysical Research Letters, DOI: 10.1029/2011GL046837).

The model shows that a small number of countries have a large number of connections to other countries, offering them a steady and cheap supply of virtual water even if some connections are compromised by drought or political upheaval. A much larger number of countries have very few connections and so are vulnerable to market forces.

Most importantly, the model shows that about 80 per cent of the water flows over only about 4 per cent of the links, which Rodriguez-Iturbe calls the “rich club phenomenon”. In total, the model shows that in 2000, there were 6033 links between 166 nations. Yet 5 per cent of worldwide water flow was channelled through just one link between two “rich club” members – the US and Japan.

The power of the rich club may yet increase. The model allows the team to forecast future scenarios – for example, how the network will change as droughts and spells of violent precipitation intensify due to climate change. Predictably, this will only intensify the monopoly, says Suweis. “The rich get richer.”

China and India are not currently major players in the virtual water network on a per capita basis, and as the network evolves they could find themselves increasingly vulnerable to market forces and end up paying more for the food they import. Leasing land elsewhere is an attempt to secure their food and water supply in a changing world. But it could be a short-sighted move.

Last year, Paolo D’Odorico of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville showed that a rise in the virtual water trade makes societies less resilient to severe droughts (Geophysical Research Letters, DOI: 10.1029/2010GL043167). “[It] causes a disconnect between societies and the water they use,” says D’Odorico. The net effect is that populations in nations that import water can grow without restraint since they are not limited by water scarcity at home.

Although this could be seen as a good thing, it will lead to greater exploitation of the world’s fresh water. The unused supplies in some areas that are crucial in case of major droughts in other areas will dry up. “In case of major droughts we [will] have less resources available to cope with the water crisis,” says D’Odorico.

In the end, then, the hunt for water that is driving emerging economies to rent African land to grow their crops could come back to haunt them.

Bollywood Superstar Aamir Khan Shines the Spotlight on What's Caused an Estimated 150,000 Farmer Suicides in India

Bollywood Superstar Aamir Khan Shines the Spotlight on What’s Caused an Estimated 150,000 Farmer Suicides in India | World | AlterNet.

An interview with Khan’s about his new film, “Peepli Live,” which explores the deadly consequences of India’s shift to a neo-liberal economic model.
A tangible consequence of India’s shift to a neo-liberal economic model has been the flood of suicides among farmers. The vast majority of the world’s second most populated country still farms for a living, but are caught between deep debt and the erratic nature of seasonal change. Lured by the promise of greater production, farmers are pressured into mortgaging their farms to purchase genetically modified seeds, pesticides, and fertilizer from American companies like Monsanto. Since GM seeds are patented by Monsanto, their repeated use each year requires constant licensing fees that keep farmers impoverished. One bad yield due to drought or other reasons, plunges farmers so deep into debt that they resort to suicide. One study estimates that 150,000 farmers have killed themselves in the past ten years.

A new feature film written and directed by Anusha Rizwi and produced by Bollywood megastar Aamir Khan, called Peepli Live, tackles head on this grim topic. The story is set in an Indian village named Peepli where one young debt-burdened farmer named Natha is talked into taking his own life after he learns that his family will be financially compensated through a government program created to alleviate the loss of farmers taking their own lives. What unfolds is a dark comedy of errors when a media circus descends on the tiny village, followed by corrupt politicians wanting to make use of the planned tragedy. Khan’s credits as an actor and producer include Lagaan, the 2001 Oscar-nominated film about Indian resistance to the British occupation. His latest film 3 Idiots released last year became the highest grossing film in Indian film history.

Text of Sonali Kolhatkar’s interview follows (with video and more information about Khan’s film at the bottom of the article):

* * * * * *

Sonali Kolhatkar: The film Peepli Live tackles a number of issues in rural India which aren’t always portrayed in Bollywood films. How important was it for you to make such a film about an issue that’s not very well known especially outside India?

Aamir Khan: I feel that Peepli Live is not really a film about farmer suicides [but] that farmer suicides are a backdrop because the film doesn’t really go into the issues that farmers are facing or why this epidemic really has been spreading for so many years now. It’s a film that’s more about the growing divide between urban and rural India and how as a society we are concentrating all of our energies, our resources, our wealth towards cities and are ignoring our villages and the rural parts of India which is where the bulk of our population lives. As a result our villages are not life-sustaining in a healthy manner. And that in turn results in a lot of migration from villages to cities. So in villages we don’t have schools often, medical facilities, even basic stuff like water and electricity. I think this is what the issue in the film really is.

On a certain level it’s also a film about survival. While it’s a satire about civil society today and takes a humorous view of the administration, the political scenario, the media, or civil society in general, it’s also on a certain level a story about survival. Each one of us: politician, journalist, civil servant, or a district magistrate, or even Budhia (a character in Peepli Live), who’s a farmer, a villager – each one of us in our own environment, in our own situation, is doing what he or she thinks needs to be done in order to survive.

Kolhatkar: How is Peepli Live different from mainstream Bollywood fare?

Khan: It’s not a mainstream Bollywood film. It’s just a story that I loved and a script that I read which Anusha Rizwi has written and directed and I just loved what she wrote. I found it very funny and moving and also heartbreaking. And also sensitizing in a lot of ways because I have lived all my life in a city. Often I’m not aware of how life in rural India is. So I just loved the script and I wanted to be part of it. I could see straight up that this is not a film that is going to be easy to market or even to convince the market to accept as a film. But it’s something that excited me, moved me, and engaged me.

So I just went ahead and produced it. I was aware of the challenges I have in front of me. And it’s also a film that I believe has the potential to engage a world audience. It’s a film that I think would connect with audiences from different cultures. And that’s what we’re trying to do – we’re trying not only to reach out to our traditional audiences for Indian film but to audiences who may have never watched an Indian film before. Or may have just watched Slumdog Millionaire (laughs). Actually Indian film, or Bollywood, as it’s popularly known, doesn’t make any one kind of film. Yes, the bulk of them are musicals, and the bulk of them have larger-than-life story-telling and have a lot of hope and romance in them. But a number of them now for the last few years have been films which are really off-beat and don’t fall into that category.

Kolhatkar: So Bollywood is evolving in your opinion?

Khan: Well I think everything is changing constantly. So I think cinema in India is also changing. I think audiences are changing. I think younger film makers are coming in who have different voices and have different things to say. And over the last ten years if you look at the films that have really succeeded and have gone down well with audiences, a number of them have been films which don’t fall into that description of what is conventionally known as mainstream Bollywood.

Kolhatkar: Farmer suicides are a huge issue in India and even though it’s a backdrop for your film, it’s a very grim subject. But Peepli Live addresses this is an almost comedic or satirical manner. Why was this approach effective?

Khan: This is a question more for Anusha (Rizwi) who’s written the film. I don’t know why she chose a satirical view of what is happening. But I think it’s more engaging that way. Anusha was a journalist before she made this film and she, I guess, through her experiences in the field, has come up with a lot of what is in the film and a lot of what is in the script. So I think her choice of it being a satire is because it connects more easily with people. But while you’re laughing you’re also feeling bad. You’re thinking, “should I be laughing at this,” you know? “I don’t think I should be laughing at this, but it’s funny.” And, it’s also very thought-provoking on a lot of levels. So personally I really like what she wrote and I think when I saw the film after its first cut – because I was not there when they were shooting it and I was only involved after the first cut stage – I was really happy to see what she has done.

It’s not an easy film to execute. And she hasn’t been to film school and she hasn’t really assisted any film makers to learn from them. It’s so amazing to see someone like her execute so well on screen what she has written. It’s a very layered script with a lot of characters. There’s a lot of chaos in the film at many times and while there often is a lot of chaos in a film shoot it’s usually behind the camera. And to create chaos in front of the camera and make it look natural is not easy. So when I saw the film I felt that what you’re watching is actually happening and she’s has hidden cameras capturing what is happening. So I thought she’s done a wonderful job – I’m really happy with her work.

Kolhatkar: The film most skewers Indian politicians and Indian media. How realistic are the caricatures presented in Peepli Live of the corrupt politicians and overzealous media?

Khan: In my opinion it’s a fairly accurate portrayal of what happens. Having said that I’d like to point out as well that it’s not the only point of view. A satire takes one point of view – it’s not a 360 degree view of politics or the people in media, or the people in administration (civil servants). There are a lot of civil servants, politicians, and those in the media who are trying to do a lot of good work and are very positive in their approach.

Kolhatkar: One of them is the young journalist, Rakesh, a character in Peepli Live, who is very hopeful. I’m wondering if he is a symbol of India’s young journalists.

Khan: He is the only character in the film that really has a conscience as it turns out. As I was saying earlier that while what is shown in the film is fairly accurate and happens everyday in India – it’s a fairly good window into rural life in India – but at the same time, I’d like to add that a satire takes one point of view. Of course there are journalists who are doing great work, and there are some politicians who are doing good work and are really sincere. But that point of view is not shown in this film. This film takes a satirical point of view. While what is shown is accurate, it is one aspect and not the whole.

Kolhatkar: There are no big-name stars in Peepli Live and I understand many of them are theater actors. How were they recruited? Were non-actors also recruited to play the roles of villagers?

Khan: I’m really happy with the casting that Anusha and her husband Mehmood, the casting director and co-director, have done. They really chose to go real with the casting which I thoroughly supported. A lot of the actors are actually villagers and tribals (indigenous people) who are from central India. And a lot of them are part of a theater group called Naya Theater. This is a group that was started by Habib Tanvir, a really amazing theater personality who has worked in Indian theater all his life. Unfortunately he passed away six months ago. But he was running this theater group in which he worked only with villagers and Adivasis (tribal or indigenous people) from Central India. And they did all kinds of things like adapting Shakespeare into their local languages and dialects. So a lot of them are very well trained actors. They may have never acted in a film before but they come from a strong theater background. I think the directors of the film, Anusha and Mehmood, also wanted there to be no known faces so that it looks real. So most of the cast is from a rural background.

Kolhatkar: One of the characters in the film is an elderly farmer who silently toils throughout the story. Is he a metaphor for the typical Indian farmer who is ignored and silenced in the mainstream media?

Khan: Yes you’re right. He really stands for a whole lot of people who in a very sincere and uncomplaining manner try to deal with what is dealt out to them in life and don’t really have a voice in what’s happening around them and are almost invisible to us. That’s how he’s treated in most of the film. So he represents that entire section of people.

Kolhatkar: Let’s talk about the film’s music. One particular song in the film called ‘Mahangai Dayain’ is played by the villagers of Peepli and recently was the center of some controversy after real-life local Indian politicians requested to use the song in their campaigning?

Khan: Well what is shown in the film is happening in real life I guess (laughs). The words to the song are: “my husband earns a lot of money but inflation eats it all away.” And it’s actually wasn’t in the film to begin with. But when Anusha was shooting in the village in Bidwai, she heard the local musicians singing this song. They had written this song themselves and it’s part of their music. When she heard this song she really liked it. So this is their voice and she asked them if she could use it in the film. And she got Raghu-bhai (one of the lead actors in the film) who is a very good singer to learn the song and sing it. They actually learned the song that night in the village under the tree and it’s recorded live on location, not in a studio, with spoons and thalis (steel dinner plates) and home-made musical instruments. And that’s a song that has really resonated strongly with a lot of India[ns] because it’s a coincidence that at the time that we were about to release the music of the film there were these huge price increases in India. The opposition parties called for a national “bandh” which is sort of a general strike for a day all across the country in protest of these price increases. And that day all the news channels actually carried the song as an anthem of what was happening around us. And so that made the song very popular. What’s amazing is that this is a song created by the villagers as part of their lives. This is what affects them – it’s their voice which you can hear.

Kolhatkar: So you hope that the film goes a long way toward bringing the stories of silenced farmers to not only urban India but to a worldwide audience?

Khan: Yes, I am hoping that the film sensitizes a whole lot of us like it did to me when I first read the script. As a society we have to be aware of inequalities and try and fight against them. I think that this is a film that I’m hoping will have an impact. It’s not often that films have an immediate impact but I’m hoping that this film has an impact and starts people thinking in the right direction.

Kolhatkar: There is only one hint in the film about the complicity of corporate America when one of the politicians’ characters in the film mentions the American company “Sonmanto” in an obvious reference to the agri-giant Monsanto corporation. Given that farmer suicides are directly linked to neo-liberal economic pressures from the West, particularly the US, how important is it that the film is viewed by an American audience?

Khan: I think it’s important that all of us should be aware of this, not only Americans. It’s important for all of us to be aware how our actions are affecting other people. When Peepli Live was screened at Sundance where we had a predominantly American audience, we got some pretty interesting responses, one of them being that not only did they find the film to be a great window into rural India but they felt that it resonated with them. One [member of the audience] gave the example of Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans and how the [Bush] administration reacted and the observation made was that even in that case the people affected were from less privileged sections of society. Which is why nothing was done for very long and even the funds that were collected for them, a lot of that didn’t reach [the people affected]. So these are things that happen all across the world, even in “first-world” countries. And the other aspect that you were talking about is how each of our actions has an impact .We have to be aware of how each of our actions affects other people and on a very basic level – I know this is over-simplifying things – we should try not to adversely affect people with our actions.

Kolhatkar: The media as portrayed in your film Peepli Live is amusing and even shocking. I’m wondering how you think Indian media is going to receive your film and the commentary that the film makes on them?

Khan: I believe that all of us are human beings first. I’m an actor, you’re a journalist, and someone else might be a politician. At the core of it we’re all human beings first and I think that that’s how I think people would receive the film. I think the film is accurate so no one should have a complaint from that point of view. I think that we as a creative group that has made the film are very clear that we’re taking one point of view and that it’s not a holistic point of view. So not every media person is like that. But this is one of the realities today of life in Indian society. And also importantly I think that Anusha Rizwi as a writer and director is not being judgmental on anyone. She’s not taking any sides and I think that’s an important aspect of the film. It’s important for people to receive this in a positive way for it to have an impact. And I think that’s one of the things that this film does achieve in my opinion.

For example you have Natha’s son [in the film] saying “Dad when are you going to die because uncle says that when you die I’m going to become a contractor.” And Natha says “what do you mean? Your dad’s dying and you want to be a contractor?” The son says, “No no, I want to be a cop!” So this is not how every child would react and this is not how we would expect a child to react whose father is about to die. You’d expect him to say “Dad I don’t want you to die.” But here we have a kid who’s in a bit of a hurry about his dad dying. So it is a black comedy, it is a dark view of things. And it’s not the only view and I’m sure the media’s mature enough to realize that.

Kolhatkar: I’d like to talk a little bit about your own career and why you gravitate toward films with a socio-political message. You’ve made a number of films either as an actor or producer or both, that are not simply standard Bollywood fare like Lagaan, Rang De Basanti, Mangal Panday, etc (many of which have been about the historical resistance to the British occupation). Why are such films important to you?

Khan:
Well I move towards material that excites me, stuff that I believe in. And creative people whose voices I believe in. So, it’s important for me to be happy in what I’m doing. When I come across a script that touches me, moves me, engages me, makes me laugh or cry, that’s what I want to be part of. I think for me film-making is a number of things: you’re entertaining people, you’re also engaging their minds. And importantly, it’s one or two years of my life. And so, the process is as important as the end result. So I have to be happy and excited about what I’m doing.

Kolhatkar:
Your last film 3 Idiots became the highest grossing Bollywood film of all time in India, breaking many records, and winning a huge number of awards. Although it’s extremely entertaining it also has a social message at its heart about the intense pressures that Indian parents put on their children to be highly educated professionals in technical fields. It’s not often that such a topic is tackled in Indian film is it?

Khan: Yeah, I think that Raju [Hirani] is a fantastic film maker but in this case he also picked up [on] a topic that I think a lot of people, not only in India but all across the world, [see in] our lives. And I think the core message of Three Idiots is “don’t chase success, chase excellence. And do what makes you happy, because if it makes you happy you’ll probably be good at it. And success will follow up somewhere behind. But don’t make your decisions based on what you think will make you successful because that might just make you really unhappy as well.” And, I think that core message really hit home in a big way with a lot of audiences. And again it’s a very funny film. It’s a film that is very entertaining but also is a film that rings true with a lot of people.

I’ve been very fortunate to work with a lot of talented people and films like Taaray Zameen Par which is about childcare, primary education, and learning disabilities and Three Idiots, which is about higher education — these films have been so satisfying to be a part of because not only have they been huge successes but more than that these are films that have actually changed lives. I have met so many people and so many have written to me about how the way they look at their kids has changed. And parents have changed the way they look at education, and kids have begun feeling differently about themselves. And that’s a very rare achievement for a film to have such a strong and immediate impact on society. And it’s so satisfying to see that. It’s really amazing.

Kolhatkar: Given how influential Bollywood actors are in India (just as Hollywood actors are here in the US), do you think it’s important for celebrities such as yourself to influence people in a positive manner or should movie stars never talk about social issues? I’m sure I can guess your answer but not all celebrities use their celebrite in a responsible manner.

Khan: I think my answer is fairly obvious. I think celebrities should, to the best of their abilities, use the kind of influence they have with people in a positive way and that’s always great and that’s what ought to be done and ought to happen. But having said that, I think each to his own. Celebrities are also human beings and I think we should understand if a certain person wants to stay away from stuff. Fair enough.

I really feel that each one of us, no matter which section of society we belong to, has to engage socially and politically in our own way. And each one can do it to a different extent. But each one of us CAN do it. And I think that’s what’s important. All of us should be aware of that and should engage in a positive way. That’s what I believe.

Kolhatkar: Bollywood flims have not always gotten too much recognition outside of South Asia, and the Gulf Arab States. But they do break through into the West occasionally, like your film Lagaan which was recognized by the Academy Awards — only the third ever Indian film to be nominated for Best Foreign Film. Do you think it’s important for the West to recognize the largest film industry in the world?

Khan: Well I think it would be nice if people around the world watched our films and enjoyed them but I don’t think we should load the West with this responsibility of having to watch our films and enjoy them. I don’t think that’s fair. And I don’t think that film-makers in India really have looked toward making films which are meant to engage a world audience. Because we have such a large and healthy audience of our own and we are very happy and busy engaging them and making films for them.

But I think every once in a way we do come across films that can break through. For example when I read the script of Peepli Live I immediately thought that here is a film that I really want to make first of all. Secondly it is a film that may have limited appeal in mainstream Indian cinema. But I’m going to try and push that. But I also believe it has the potential to engage world audiences. And so, with that in mind we’re trying to reach out to audiences across the world with this film. It’s not a big entertainer. It’s certainly not “Inception” or “Spiderman.” But it’s a film that is a human story which will connect with people.

So I think every now and then when there is material that organically has the potential to appeal to a world audience, it would be great if they would watch it!

Kolhatkar: You come from a family steeped in the tradition of Hindi film. Your father Tahir Hussein (who recently passed away) was a prolific film maker in India. What sort of mark do you hope to leave on Indian cinema, and indeed on international film making?

Khan: I’m not sure about that. I don’t know whether I think in these larger terms. I just want to be able to do work that I’m happy doing, that’s all. And I’m really happy with the kind of love and respect I’ve gotten over the last twenty years that I’ve been working [in film]. And I’m hoping that I’m able to do work which is good, which is challenging, which actually helps me to grow as a person and as an artist, and creative person.

Kolhatkar: Finally what lies in your future? I understand that you have a film coming up directed by your wife, Kiran Rao. Can you tell us more about that and any other projects of social or political significance or that are designed to appeal to an international audience?

Khan: Well Peepli Live is going to be released on August 13th. And then the next film after that is Dhobi Ghaat which I’ve produced and I’m also acting in it. Dhobi Ghaat is written and directed by Kiran [Rao], my wife, and it’s set in Mumbai. It’s about these four characters whose lives kind of touch each other. And the fifth character in the film is the city of Mumbai. It’s a kind of “slice of life” film. Half of it is in English and half is in Hindi. So, we’ve been honest to the characters. People who would naturally be speaking in English are speaking in English and same for Hindi. And the third film that I have in the pipeline is a film called Delhi Belly, which is a comedy. This is actually a story about three kids living in Delhi and how they get into trouble with the mafia and the underworld and they don’t know why. It’s a bit like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels in its genre. It’s not that story but it’s that kind of film I guess. Again it’s a very unusual film for Indian cinema because it’s entirely in English. I think it’s one of the few times that an English [language] film will be coming out of India. All the films that have no hopes of working are the ones that I end up producing [laughs].

Climate Change Wilts Farming Yields

Climate Change Wilts Farming Yields | Wired Science | Wired.com.

Set a place at the table for climate change; hotter weather may have already taken a bite out of food crops worldwide.

Farms across the planet produced 3.8 percent less corn and 5.5 percent less wheat than they could have between 1980 and 2008 thanks to rising temperatures, a new analysis estimates. These wilting yields may have contributed to the current sky-high price of food, a team of U.S. researchers reports online May 5 in Science. Climate-induced losses could have driven up prices of corn by 6.4 percent and wheat by 18.9 percent since 1980.

The researchers tracked country-by-country yields of these common foodstuffs over nearly three decades. Harvests of corn and wheat have climbed steadily since 1980 due in part to technological advancements, says David Lobell, a land-use scientist at Stanford University. But based on the team’s statistical analysis, farmers could have produced a lot more food if the weather had been cooler. For corn, global losses amount to millions of tons — about equal to Mexico’s yearly production of the crop. “For every decade of climate change, it sets you back a year,” Lobell says.

For reasons still up for debate, temperatures largely held steady in the U.S. over the study period. So Iowa, by and large, doesn’t seem to have lost out. Rice and soybean yields have also proved resilient to rising temperatures so far, the team discovered.

This analysis of the past three decades largely falls in line with what other studies have projected for the coming century, says Andy Challinor of the University of Leeds in England, who studies the impacts of climate on agriculture. With enough complementary analyses, scientists may start to feel more certain about predicting the future of food. Still, when it comes to agriculture, researchers rely on a very murky crystal ball. Humans can, and probably will, adapt to warmer temperatures, switching to hardier crops or developing new technology to keep harvests high.

While it’s far from a prediction, Lobell says his study identifies a number of problem areas that do need attention — not later but now. “If we really invest a lot in the development of crops that can withstand really high temperatures,” he says, “that would potentially change things a lot.”

Even today, food scarcity is a pressing problem, says Navin Ramankutty, a geographer at McGill University in Montreal. As populations climb steeply, putting added pressure on agricultural production, an estimated one in seven people go hungry across the globe.

Images: 1) Between 1980 and 2008, climbing global temperatures took millions of tons of wheat off the dinner table, scientists say. Some countries experienced big losses due to weather (red), while in others, wheat production held steady (blue). (Science/AAAS) 2) Corn is feeling the heat from climate change, with yields dropping close to 4 percent due to weather-related factors between 1980 and 2008. (Science/AAAS)

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