Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Facebook's impact on Colombian politics

I've been here in Bogotá for over a week now. Not writing because there's not been much to report. I still don't have a long-term plan for what I'll be doing here. But short term plans involve going on a walking holiday involving 12 hours of walking uphill, stopping at some thermal baths along the way, and then a visit to Arauca where people have recently been forced off the land that's within 5km of a new oil well. Unusually this was done by the FARC rather than the paramilitaries, so my role will be more offering support and solidarity than protection.

When I first arrived, I was under the impression I understood Colombian spanish pretty well, having understood almost 100% of what our taxi driver/ guide in Cartegena said. Then on the bus ride up to Bogota, I found myself understanding pretty much 0% of what the woman next to me was saying. At one point she kept stroking her arm saying something like "caress" while I stared at her blankly. Then she motioned to my arm, repeating "caress". I was confused that she might want me to stroke her, or that it was so important to her that I stroked myself. Until eventually (slow on the uptake as usual) I realised the arm stroking referred to the watch under my sleeve. "Caress" = "¿Qué hora es?" (What's the time) if you are in the habit of not pronouncing 50% of syllables. I'm been very relieved, having got to Bogotá, that here they're not so slack.

I've moved into the team house, where everyone is quite wound up about the anti-FARC march happening on Feb 4th. It started on Facebook (and is sometimes referred to as 'The Facebook March' in the media), and has massively taken off. Obviously being against killing people, kidnapping people, and holding them in very rubbish conditions is something we'd like to get behind. But any mention that the paramilitaries here have killed far more people is not so welcome in the debate, which is of the right-wing "so you're not against terrorism then?" variety. Chávez' recent suggestion that FARC should be given political status is a big part of what has fuelled this march,

Anyway, there's a very nice cat here and I'm massively loving all this
no-air-miles tropical fruit.

Monday, January 21, 2008


There's no immigration at the container port where the boat came in, so the Port Agent came on the boat to explain to us the process. He had booked us a taxi to take us to a hotel where we were very strictly instructed that we must stay until the taxi came back for us to take us to immigration when it opened at 5. When the taxi did come back for us, we were taken via some random office in town where the taxi driver popped in, saying he had to pick up some papers for us. The French couple with me (whose freight boat journey from Martinique to Cartegena was the cheapest option for them) were very sceptical, and were shocked when he came out with papers including copies of our passports. I never doubted the randomness of South American bureacracy.

Things I've had an emotional reponse to since I've arrived:

- people with no shoes. The jolt of remembering what it feels like to be surrounded by poverty.
- hearing words I used to hear in Ecuador.
- the sense of familiarity and affection I have for this bit of the world.
- the sense of being an outsider
- the politics of agreeing prices for stuff. Being torn between outrage at getting ripped off, knowing how enormously unimportant 50p is to me, having respect for people trying their luck, worrying about the effect that tourist money can have on a society, wondering if the previous emotion is merely self-justification for being tight, knowledge that my money comes from my family's capitalist history and my cushy job and not from any hard work on my part, and that others have pretty much the same right to it as me. A gauntlet. I'm sure to harden up soon though.

Off to Bogota later today.

The mission is in question

Well, when we formulated the plan that I'd come here particularly to work on agrofuel related human rights abuses, it was so that I could feed into campaigning in the UK against the EU target of 2.5% of fuel from petrol pumps as biofuels from April this year.

When we formulated the plan, there seemed to be not such a widespread awareness of the problems biofuels were creating in the tropics, or the fact that, (especially where peat is being drained in Indonesia), they might well be contributing to climate change more than decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.

However, it seems that while I was on the boat on my way here, things have kind of kicked off in a way that may mean there's less of a need for me to be banging on about agrofuels to you all. Dr. Hartmut Michel, 1998 Nobel Prize winner for chemistry, has said they're quite a rubbish source of energy and there are far better things to focus on, like wind power. The Royal Society released a report saying that the UK's Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) does not necessarily encourage the use of the types of biofuels with the best greenhouse gas savings. And EU Environment Commissioner Dimas has said that given the social and environmental impacts of biofuels, maybe it's best we don't try too hard to meet the EU targets right now.

Still lots of work to be done, especially given that there are plenty of driving factors pushing agrofuels (eg fuel security & profit) other than whether Europeans think it's an environmentally good idea. And the EU targets are still in place. But perhaps as there are now so many other voices shouting loudly, mine is not as needed.

In any case, it maybe that people here would prefer me to be working on BP's involvement in human rights abuses where it's pumping oil out of the rainforest. So perhaps the title of my blog may become a bit irrelevant. We´ll see.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Banana Boat

It's an odd ship. Apparently.

My fellow passengers are a 24 year old German bloke with a very nice camera (who took all of these photos), and a 69 year old English woman with a vast knowledge of container ship voyages. They are very pleasant company, being constantly positive and happy to be here. As am I.

Mary has done a freight boat holiday pretty much every year since she retired in 1999. She says they are better than cruise ships cos they have less of a focus on wearing gold lamme and who-gets-to-sit-at-the-captain's-table and overeating and shopping. As well as being less crowded and cheaper.

So given that none of the crew or officers have the English (being mostly Ukrainian, Latvian and Russian) or the inclination to chat to us much, it's lucky we have Mary to tell us what's what.

Apparently it's absolutely the least sociable boat Mary's been on. Strict hierarchies are a firm tradition of shipping, and it's normal for there to be a huge big line between the crew and the officers. But there's not always such a line between the passengers and everyone else. On other journeys Mary's taken, passengers have socialised a fair bit with officers, and a little with crew. Although language obviously plays a big part, here it seems everyone is hidden away. Passengers eat in the Officers' Mess. On this boat the Captain and First Officer occasionally make a quick appearance, but the other officers, presumably due to our presence, eat in the Crew's Mess. And we're told that the Officers day room is for our use only. No one is unfriendly. There's just very little interaction.

The first three days there was rough sea and I felt queasy unless I was lying down, which got a little boring. The boat rocked constantly 10-15 degrees from side to side, and things rolled around in a comical fashion. The 2nd officer (the only chatty one) said he'd once experienced 48 degrees of rocking. Wow. Imagine that.

Since then though, it's been very enjoyable place to be. Before I boarded, I found the idea of anyone doing the month's round trip a little strange. Now I totally get it. The rhythym of the structured day is relaxing. And I'm loving having more time on my own than I've probably ever had in my life. Plus some people find the sea calming. (Personally I find its bigness a bit disturbing.)

They weren't joking when they said that there's no guarantee special diets can be catered for. Apparently the quality of the food varies enormously, depending on the agency chef the boat gets given. Luckily this one loves potatoes as much as I do. There's very little variety in the food though, especially if you're avoiding the fish and meat. So although I'd recommend freight boat travel to most people, I'd only recommend it to vegans who were going to bring their own sources of protein.

Yesterday we finally got to see whales. Three of them. Really close to the boat. (Can anyone identify it.) Yey. And flying fish fly a really long way. I saw one go over 20m.

Today we have reached land and are in Guadeloupe underloading some containers (that the Chief Steward thought might have meat in them), and loading our first lot of bananas.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Getting ready to leave

Four days now til I get on my banana boat to cross the Atlantic. I had hoped to have done lots of work to this blog by then, posting up concise and lively background information about agrofuels and how they are affecting the environment and leading to human rights abuses.

As it turns out, that didn't happen. Partly because I've been ignoring my trip as avidly as possible, while living in the moment and enjoying time with the beloved boyfriend, who through an accident of timing, I only met last summer.
My boat takes 12 days, goes via Guadeloupe and Martinique, and should arrive in Cartegena around January 19th. I'll be going promptly to Bogota where I shall meet people from who seem to be very clear about the fact I shall be useful to have about.

Apparently there is another woman who booked through Strand Travel like me, so maybe I shall assume she's English. I'm certainly hoping she'll play canasta. There will be up to 4 others. I'm kinda hoping there won't be internet on the boat, but if there is, I'll let you know of any whale sightings.