Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Rant about Wolves, Elephants and Other Forms of Stupidity

Reading this short report on the BBC environment site about the accelerating decline of world wildlife population brought back some thoughts I had when admiring the stunning flora and fauna (especially fauna) in Etosha national park in North Namibia.
There are very few who would not be awed by African wildlife.  You don’t need to visit the many parks and reserves in Africa to see and be impressed – if you haven’t seen the BBC Africa series from 2013, I’d recommend you watch it.  Immediately.  Several times.*
African wildlife is not only impressive in its own right, but even more so when compared to our own.  Part of it is of course because of exoticism, something we see every day by necessity ceases to amaze us and becomes boring.  I’m always reminded of this when I talk to people who enthuse about having been to Finland for the first time.  Apparently Finnish landscape is pretty exotic to many people.
But another reason why African wildlife appears more impressive is because it IS more impressive.  This is partly because of geography, meteorology and natural history, but to a large part because we fucked it up.  We slashed and burnt our forests, polluted our rivers and killed off everything bigger than a rabbit.  This all happened at least decades, if not centuries ago.
So it riles me when we Europeans now turn around and try to teach Africans how to take care of their wildlife.  It’s almost comic, we really are the last people they should be taking advice from on these issues, unless it is of the “look how stupid we were, don’t copy us!” –kind, which it inevitably is not.  Instead we present ourselves as experts and concerned citizens of the world. 
In reality, if we were living in Africa, and had to deal on a daily basis with the magnificent African wildlife, we would destroy it within a few decades.  Because Europeans can’t live in or with nature, we have to kill it.** 
A case on point: A few wolves have managed to survive the rampage against nature within the borders of Finland, but they are at risk all the time, and being poached illegally probably at worse rates than rhinos in Namibia.  Not because they are valuable,*** but because they are thought to be dangerous.  We don’t want them near us, we can’t share our surroundings with them.  Yet it is over 120 years since the last time a wolf killed a human in Finland.
By contrast crocodiles, lions and leopards, but also hippos and elephants, kill people in Africa all the time.****  In addition they kill livestock, a serious problem in a country like Namibia where farming is mostly of the subsistence kind.  Yet we have no problem chastising the terrible, savage Africans that shoot these beautiful, majestic creatures.
I am not saying that lions, cheetahs or elephants should be killed.  I am saying that it is not for us Europeans to decide whether they are killed or not.  It is for the Namibians and their neighbours that come face to face with them.  If we want to protect wild animals, we should focus on making them profitable for the local people that are currently suffering from their attacks.  We can do this by handing over cash (e.g. by visiting parks and reserves) or by making innovative suggestions, to the extent we have any.  But the suggestions cannot start from the premise of telling Namibians what they should do and in particular what they should not do (i.e. kill wildlife).  Given our history, we have no leg to stand on in criticising them for anything when it comes to the treatment of the human-wildlife conflict.  Until we have cleaned up our own backyard, which is a sad, concrete-covered place in which nothing grows or lives, we cannot start telling others how to handle theirs.  We can only humbly request permission to go and play there from time to time.
(This was more preachy than my usual style.  But it doesn’t mean I don’t want people to comment and disagree!)
*Here is a link to a site that seems to stream the full series.  I haven’t tested the streams and I don’t know if it is legal, so take no responsibility.  Here is a link to the BBC presentation site for the series, which is definitely legal.
**Here is a link to a story of Bruno the bear that made the mistake of crossing into German territory in 2006, if you need evidence.
***Rhino horns are insanely valuable, which is why I have some sympathy with the (often poor) locals in Namibia who help the poachers.  If you want to address the problem of rhino poaching, focus on the demand, not the supply.  Same with drugs.  Free advice here to any concerned governments, NGOs etc.  You’re welcome.
****Numbers are hard to come by, but here are some from the FAO.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Rant about the Pot of Gold at the End of the Rainbow

I keep coming back to this topic of LGBT* rights.  Maybe somebody will think “move on already”, but I am not apologising, since I think it is THE human rights question of our time.  There are other live issues in Europe, such as the rights of the Roma and immigrants, but that is more a question of recognising and giving effect to rights that exist on the legal level.  The rights of LGBT persons do not even yet exist in law in many countries.

There really seems to be a clear split in where the world is going, as I witnessed in Namibia.  Western countries (including much of South America) are slowly but surely moving towards recognition of equal rights.  Some need a bit of nudging, like Russia, which is trying to jump off the human rights bandwagon and climb aboard the homophobia train, but it will struggle.  There is very little doubt that the European Court of Human Rights will give them the slap they amply deserve for their “homosexual propaganda” law.  That is the price to pay for wanting to be part of European society, Mr Putin.

Some other countries, mostly those in Africa (South Africa excluded), or where the majority religion is Islam, are racing in the opposite direction.  They are tightening laws and, arguably more importantly law enforcement, against sexual minorities.  The discrimination is very real.  It is absolutely PC to spout homophobic crap in Namibia, usually coupled with thundering religious judgment.  The part about Jesus being on the side of the outcast and persecuted appears to be forgotten in the righteousness of the family being about multiplying and filling the earth.  We even had a few colleagues, working for a HUMAN RIGHTS ORGANISATION, who did not support equal rights for gays.  I mean, where do you begin in such circumstances?

I kept asking myself why this is.  There appear to be a few reasons.  The publisher of the Namibian, the country’s main newspaper, thought it was diversion.  Politicians always thought it was a good time to make homophobic statements whenever the heat was on the government for some alleged misdeed or other: “Look over there, a moffie, let’s all go and beat him up!”  You can also see why this would apply in places like Zimbabwe.  Very practical example of the technique satirized in the movie Wag the Dog.

The second reason appears to be relentless, and successful, hate campaigning by a few nutjob American preachers.  There is currently a case ongoing in Massachusetts against a certain Scott Lively brought by Sexual Minorities Uganda, and the facts in the Court’s Order permitting the claim to proceed make for pretty chilling reading.  Scott Lively is very proud of how he has managed to convince prominent Ugandans, including Parliamentarians, that homosexuals are behind just about all evil in the world and it is important that they be contained, if not exterminated.  He is the author of a historical book on the subject called Pink Swastika.  Go on, google it (I refuse to provide a direct link) and you will be amused and horrified in equal measures.  You will also see why Mr Lively well deserves the title of a “nutjob”.

This is perhaps the saddest part of the story.  Homosexuality is not the western import that evil tyrants like Robert Mugabe claim it to be, homophobia is.  It is not that countries like Namibia were previously totally accepting of homosexuality.  They just didn’t really care.  There was a lack of information on the part of both, the LGBT persons themselves, as well as the general public, about what it means to be “homosexual”, “bisexual” or “transgender”.  Nowadays LGBT persons are more self-aware, and consequently clamour for recognition of their right to be who they are more openly.  This in part, and the Scott Livelys of this world in part, lead to homosexuality being more understood, but not well enough understood to be accepted.  It is the classic case of the fear of the unknown, but peppered with a heavy dose of malicious misinformation.

So the fight is very important.  I must admit that F and I were quite disheartened at times in Namibia; we even ended up writing a newspaper op-ed to correct a blatant untruth stated publicly by a high-ranking public official in terms of what the law said about the rights of a certain group of sexual minorities (asylum seekers). 

Then we went to a sexual minorities party and it came at just the right time.  The atmosphere was fabulous, the music was great and the crowd was a true rainbow.  There was everyone from a glamorous drag queen via a butch lesbian to a couple of boring white heterosexuals whose movements you could barely call “dancing”.**  Everyone was accepted for who they were, nobody was aggressive or judgmental and the point was just to have a good time.  We had some drinks, we boogied and we met a few nice people.  What more could you ask from a party?  It was so amazing to see how these people, who face intolerance every day of their lives, were themselves so accepting and tolerant.  F said afterwards that it made him believe in our LGBT project again, as these were people whose rights were worth fighting for.  I think human rights belong to everyone, not just nice people, so I can’t subscribe to that statement, but I couldn’t help being uplifted by the very inspirational bunch of people.  There was definitely a pot of gold for me at the end of that rainbow party.

So I will keep ranting until the human rights of sexual and gender minorities are given full recognition, in Finland, Namibia and elsewhere.

You have been warned.

*I have recently discovered that LGBT is not quite the widely known acronym, like the UN, HIV or CIA, I assumed it to be.  Thus for the sake of clarity: LGBT stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (or Transsexual).  Sometimes you will see it also as LGBTI (“I” for Intersex) or LGBTIQ (“Q” for Queer).