Creative Commons

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

We are eating our lungs out

Excellent article in PNAS

Global demand for agricultural products such as food, feed, and fuel is now a major driver of cropland and pasture expansion across much of the developing world. Whether these new agricultural lands replace forests, degraded forests, or grasslands greatly influences the environmental consequences of expansion. Although the gen- eral pattern is known, there still is no definitive quantification of these land-cover changes. Here we analyze the rich, pan-tropical database of classified Landsat scenes created by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations to examine path- ways of agricultural expansion across the major tropical forest regions in the 1980s and 1990s and use this information to highlight the future land conversions that probably will be needed to meet mounting demand for agricultural products. Across the tropics, we find that between 1980 and 2000 more than 55% of new agricultural land came at the expense of intact forests, and another 28% came from disturbed forests. This study underscores the potential con- sequences of unabated agricultural expansion for forest conservation and carbon emissions.

See Full Article
Tropical forests were the primary sources of new agricultural land in the 1980s and 1990s H. K. Gibbsa et al

Friday, September 24, 2010

Only the Economy can save the Environment?

I am an avid reader of The Economist magazine. I guess I read not because they write lots of good stuff in there. I read it because a good friend ones told me it is the kind of stuff that smart people read. Before my conversion I read Newsweek and TIME. My friend convinced me that they were intellectually underwhelming.

This week The Economist is actually carried a very brilliant and important story, “The World’s Lungs”. And it is the lead story, and beautifully illustrated on the cover page.

Under the subtitle Reddy, steady, grow this article describes what is in my view is the Environmental Kuznets’s curve. The environmental Kuznets curve is a hypothesized relationship between various indicators of environmental degradation and income per capita. It is hypothesized that in the early stages of economic growth environmental degradation (deforestation, air and water pollution, soil erosion) is accelerated.

However, beyond a certain threshold level of income per capita (which will vary for different indicators) the trend of degradation is reversed. Essentially, the key argument is that at high-income levels and sustained economic growth environmental degradation can be halted.

But here is the argument that I find compelling. “Economic development both causes deforestation and slows it. In the early stages of development people destroy forests for a meagre living. Globalization is speeding up the process by boosting the demand for agricultural goods produced in tropical countries. At the same time, as people in emerging countries become more prosperous, they start thinking about issues beyond their family’s welfare; their governments begin to pass and slowly enforce laws to conserve the environment. Trade can also allow the greener concerns of rich-world consumers to influence developing-world producers”.

The Economist recognizes that we do not have the luxury to wait until Africa is wealthy before we can halt deforestation, halt sea level rise and stop dangerous climate change. You probably think they should figure that out. It is not that obvious to many of our human kind that there is such a thing as being too late.

It is heartening to see The Economist make such a strong argument for REDD. The wordy play is clever “Reddy, steady grow”. There is of course the familiar strategy around ecosystem service payments such as the Catskills example that is referred to in the story.

But I think The Economist screwed this great story when they slipped into the stereotypical portrayal of the developing world when they wrote, “The difficulties are immense. REDD projects will be effective only in places where the government sort-of works, and the tropical countries with the most important forests include some of the world’s worst-run places. Even in countries with functioning states, some of the money is bound to be stolen.”

I am not sure they had to add this. Many things are changing in the developing world. For instance, we have slowed down the rate of new AIDS infections; we have more kids attending schools in Africa today; we are closing major gender gaps in education, employment and political representation. But I am aware, and need no reminding that Africa aught to do better.

And I know African can and must do better.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Letter to America

This is audacious. How dare any one tell America how to be?

I guess it is like the famous fable about telling the King that he is naked. If I were a King, I would take great offense if one of my minions accosted me to draw my attention to my nudity.

I have always said to my American friends that unlike them, the rest of the world knows and thinks about what is happening in America. Conversely, Americans know and care very little about what goes on beyond their state.

America, if you were a King this is what I would have to declare to you, “Your Majesty thou art naked”. As an international public intellectual, I owe this to America.

The inexorable decline of America began with the invasion of Iraq. America’s precipitous invasion of Iraq has demeaned irretrievably, its moral standing as the leader of the free world. Then came the hunt for Bin Laden in the mountains of Afghanistan.

The two wars opened the floodgates for spending and the deficit burgeoned. Private debt has been on the rise too. Americans families acquired a voracious, insatiable appetite for personal debt. From essential debt such as collage loans to buying a plasma screen on credit.

While China was out building a über modern foundation for a 21st century economy America was busy chipping away to build a tunnel between Wall Street and the US Treasury. The idea was to destroy regulation and let the markets figure it out. This is because a former movie star and governor who beat Jimmy Carter to the presidency told them that government regulation was anti American.

So what did America get? They got the sub prime mortgage. Then they created a massive housing bubble. Banks reeled in poor Americans to take out mortgages they could not afford. Through complex and I would add idiotic fraudulent accounting, debt was swapped around as assets and before we knew it, the entire global financial system was careening out control.

Businesses are contracting and re-structuring on a new template. In the short-term credit is drying up. Sale of new homes is at an all time low, but thank God foreclosures are slowing down. American’s cannot consume ad libitum. And America cannot continue to spend money on imported good and produce nothing.

Here is a simple example; back-to-school dollars go to imported clothing and school supplies, including laptops, iPods, sneakers and even toys coated with lead. Hence a dollar spent by an American consumer does not translate into a dollar of domestic production. So how will the jobs return? I guess by more tax cuts to the wealthy and marching on Washington.

The GOP is digging in to continue the Bush tax cuts. And the tea party is on the march. They are angry and want to take America back. I think America is in a grave intellectual crisis. I am not sure that delegitimizing Obama’s presidency will provide any relief to America’s terminal dis-ease.

Conservative NYT columnist David Brooks wrote yesterday “The surging Republican Party has a story, too. It is a story of virtue betrayed and innocence threatened. And David Brooks adds “These statist forces are more powerful than ever in the age of Obama”.

GOP, the tea party and Glenn Beck are frothing in the mouth about small government and cutting Federal spending. I am not sure that any body could grow government bigger than the hundreds of billions of dollars Bush and the GOP spent in Iraq and Afghanistan.

GOP is talking about releasing the power of markets and unlocking the power of America’s ingenious creativity. Sarah Palin and her apostles claim to be the body and soul of America’s enduring principles of freedom and entrepreneurship and markets.

But here is what David Brooks had to say.

“The social fabric is fraying. Human capital is being squandered. Society is segmenting. The labor markets are ill. Wages are lagging. Inequality is increasing. The nation is over consuming and under innovating. China and India are surging. Not all of these challenges can be addressed by the spontaneous healing powers of the market”.

America, it is time to reinvent.

The GOP will have to learn to be more intellectual rather than operate through angry marches and harping on old and failed economic models. America needs a national conversation. America needs to move beyond the partisanship and the pettiness of talk show radio hosts and start to solve some real problems. The fundamentals of both the social and economic order in America are deeply flawed and the nation is headed only one way – down.

I am not sure that an intelligent conversation is possible in America, especially after the tea party revolution delivers Congress to the GOP. .

If you think the US economy is too big to fail, I think it is to big to save.

And yes, the King is nude.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Kenya's 38.6 Million Question

Kenya’s population is in an exponential growth phase. In 1969, there were 10.9 million Kenyans. In 1989, the population grew to 21.4 million. Today there are 38. 6 million card holding Kenyans. This is up from 28.7 in 1999.

To put these numbers into perspective, our current population works to a density of 67.8 persons per square kilometer. The United Kingdom with less than half Kenya’s territory has a population density of 254.2 persons per square kilometer. Similarly, Japan has a population density of 336 persons per square kilometer. Our neighbor Tanzania has a density of 46.3 persons per square kilometer.

I am not sure that the number 38.6 million is the thing to worry about. Kenya is under populated, at least in gross terms.

A whooping $103 million was spent to conduct the population and housing census. When the results of the census were announced, the media went to town with detailed reporting on the demographics of ethnicities, religious groupings and yes, which county is the most populous.

I am not sure I would have expected more from the Kenyan media houses. They love to fan passions, ethnic or religious. To be fair to them, they lack the capacity to analyze and communicate demographic data. More importantly, they are in the business of selling not educating or informing. If they do, it is only incidental.

What should the country worry or think about the census results?

Should we worry about the tribe with the highest numbers? Or should we worry about whether Muslims or Christians or Hindus are the majority?

The politicians are certainly smarter. They have their mouth where their money will come from. They want more constituencies. It is our own gerrymandering –politicians get to choose their voters.

Here are the demographic patterns we should be poring over.

1.26.12 million Kenyans (67.7 %) live in the rural areas, where 80 % of them rely on ponds, springs, streams and wells for their drinking water.

2.There are 8.4 million girls compared to 8.2 million boys below age 14. Conversely, in the 15 to 64-age category, there are 10.1 million females compared to 10.5 million males.

3.For kids above age 3 attending school, there are 9.4 million in primary school compared to only 1.8 million attending secondary school. What is most disconcerting is that there only a paltry 198,119 young Kenyans (0.5 % of the total population) enrolled in university.

4.Men dominate women in all urban areas. This has implications on women’s access to key services and opportunities (e.g., health, education, employment etc.). It also begs the question, who is running Kenya’s rural smallholder agricultural base?

5.We have added about 8 million people to urban centers across the country since 1990. This explains the sprawl and the squalor of most of our urban neighborhoods.

6.How do these numbers square with the dreams and visions we have for 2030?

I will obtain the full census report in the coming week and hope to look way beyond tribe or religion or county.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Kenya's Day of Monumental Shame

If there is any one out there who wonders if a new constitution in Kenya will bring an end to state impunity or abuse of power or disregard to the law, August 27th 2010 was your answer. If there is any one out there who still doubts Africa’s lack of commitment to international obligations or honor or justice or human rights, August 27th was your answer.

The decision of the Kenyan government to invite an indicted war criminal to a most solemn and hallowed national event is unspeakable.

Omar El-Bashir is a criminal. El-Bashir presided over the rape and murder of hundreds of thousands in Darfur. The U.N. estimates that 300,000 people; men, women and children have been butchered in this needless war. 3 million more have been forced to flee.

El-Bashir is impervious to shame. He has cultivated a thick cordon of African leaders under the guise of AU member states who continue to block tougher international action against his regime. Mr. Kibaki is one of them. And Kenya has joined the league of pariah nations that provide safe passage to war criminals.

I would suspect that this is a favor that Mr. Kibaki would like reciprocated at some future date. I would like to suggest that the perpetrators of Kenya’s post election violence will have safe passage into Sudan if the ICC moves to issue arrest warrants.

Over the last week lawyers, human rights activists and outraged citizens have been asking Mr. Kibaki’s government to explain why El-Bashir was on the guest list.

At the risk of sounding fatalistic, my answer to them is get used to it! Do not fool yourselves, nothing changed. This place is still called Kenya and it operates pretty much on whims and caprices of people called politicians.

August 27 was not about Kenyans and their agitation for the new constitution. August 27 was a state function, a day for Mr. Kibaki and his friends to get together. And El-Bashir is a friend and neighbor of Mr. Kibaki's. If you had a beer on August 27 I bet you paid for it. El-Bashir did not have to pay for his drinks.

What new constitution? I thought that was just for how Mr. Kibaki would like to be remembered. Even I would like my name used in adjacency to words like second republic. I do not care what that really means.

I am not sure a signature on a piece of paper means much around here. Kenyan’s, please, just stuff it and get back to work!

Mr. Kibaki just did that. That is what I call leading from the front. And so can you.


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