Papua New Guinea

In 1975 PNG finally gained its independence, largely due to the leadership of Michael Somare and his Pangu Party. In 1980, however, he lost a vote of no confidence, and successive governments were often chaotic and short-lived. Somare returned as Prime Minister in the 2002 elections but, following a lengthy illness, he was controversially replaced by Peter O’Neill in August 2011.

Flying into Papua New Guinea, the plane glides smoothly over kilometre after kilometre of rainforest. Trees appear like a broccoli carpet beneath you, then you suddenly descend, and the forest thins out until the sea, then the capital city of Port Moresby is visible, its shanty towns juxtaposed with modest office towers. The visual summary of the country as seen from the air is succinct: vast areas of wild, natural beauty, with a little modern development, and notable poverty.

The history of Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a long one. Archaeologists believe humans began inhabiting the region as hunter-gatherers 60,000 years ago. Later, gardening and forest management was practised, and today’s key dietary staples include the foodstuffs that would have been gathered over the centuries, including bananas, which are thought to have been first cultivated here.

The Spanish and Portuguese were the first Europeans to make contact with PNG, and the name of the country derives from this encounter: ‘Papua’ (meaning ‘frizzy hair’ in Malay) was coined by a Portuguese explorer, and ‘New Guinea’ comes thanks to a Spaniard, who thought the local people resembled those on the Guinea coast of Africa. It wasn’t until the 19th century, however, that Europeans had a real impact.

The demand for coconut oil led Germany to start trading with the islands, and in 1899 it took control of the territory, naming it German New Guinea. Control of the nation was subsequently seized by Britain, Australia, Japan and Britain again, until the country was formally placed under international trusteeship in 1949.

Rosa Wopon, 38, carries a hand of bananas she has just bought from a market

Jocelyn Carlin/Panos

In 1975 PNG finally gained its independence, largely due to the leadership of Michael Somare and his Pangu Party. In 1980, however, he lost a vote of no confidence, and successive governments were often chaotic and short-lived. Somare returned as Prime Minister in the 2002 elections but, following a lengthy illness, he was controversially replaced by Peter O’Neill in August 2011.

The country is a parliamentary democracy, and is often described wryly by locals as having ‘too much democracy’ – voters often have to select from over 100 candidates. This is a product of PNG’s ethnic diversity – people tend to vote along ethnic lines and it means that equal representation at all levels of politics is very difficult to achieve.

PNG’s biggest conflict has been on the island of Bougainville, where support for secession led to civil war in the early 1990s. After careful negotiations following a 1997 peace deal, a self-governing province called the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) was established in 2005, though some former soldiers have created illegal ‘no go zones’ in central and south ABG.

Mining dominates what industry PNG has – as well as providing its biggest environmental problems, as with the 1999 Ok Tedi disaster that spilled 80 million tons of contaminated tailings and harmed the health of 50,000 people. Social problems can also be laid at the door of the mining industry. Women have claimed, for example, that private security guards hired by the Barrick goldmine were responsible for gang rapes and other violent crimes on the site.

The wealth derived from copper, liquid gas and gold is poorly distributed – 85 per cent of PNG’s citizens still rely on subsistence farming, or on hunter-gathering in the case of uncontacted groups in the most remote forest areas. Inequality contributes to the rising incidence of serious violence, which has led to iron bars on the windows and doors of houses and businesses, and to the rise of ‘community watch’ groups that can tip into vigilantism. We can only hope that any dividends from the vast new $15-billion liquid gas project in the southern highlands, to be run by Exxon-Mobil, will be better shared.

Map of Papua New Guinea

The cold, hard reality of climate change

There’s no question that Bruce Parry is a people person. The presenter of the hit BBC shows Tribe and Amazon travelled around the world almost non-stop from 2002 to 2008, meeting a diversity of people from the inhabitants of the Asian rainforests to the nomads in the heights of the Himalayas. He was restlessly breezing through this global socializing until one tribe in Malaysia really got him thinking.

The Penan hunter gatherers form a strongly egalitarian society, without any notable social hierarchy, and with a strong culture of fair distribution. ‘I’d lived with loads of hunter-gatherers before, and all of them had cultures of sharing... but these people just seemed to go beyond…’ He theorizes that one of the reasons the Penang were so grounded and generous could be because they shun accumulation and exist very much in the moment: in fact, he says, they didn’t even have many words to articulate precise moments in time. ‘I would ask them, “when will that tree bear fruit?” and they would say: “when the bird flies over the tree that way”.’ Despite the language barrier, an important message was conveyed by his experience there: it made him realize that after flitting from one tribal experience to another, perhaps it was time for him, too, to slow his frantic schedule and live a bit more in the moment.

‘Everywhere we went in Amazon, we found issues: oil, logging, poaching... and these are some of the same we can see in the Arctic. But of course, the Arctic’s environment is changing faster than anywhere else’

After a two year hiatus spent mainly meditating and chilling out, Parry felt he had at last been able to absorb the incredible experiences and lessons he received whilst making previous shows. Still, his inquisitive nature and desire to highlight issues that are affecting indigenous people around the world inspired him to pack his bags once again, this time to visit entirely different groups of people: those in the Arctic.

One feature of Arctic is a clear statement about how global warming is now an undeniable reality, most keenly felt in the North Pole. Of course this is not the first series Parry has made with a focus on this matter. ‘We’ve always highlighted environmental issues,’ he says. ‘Everywhere we went in Amazon, we found issues: oil, logging, poaching... and these are some of the same we can see in the Arctic. But of course, the Arctic’s environment is changing faster than anywhere else. I’d been to the Arctic before, and I could see the changes myself.’

In his inimitable style, Parry immersed himself amongst the indigenous peoples of the North Pole, hunting on thin ice, munching seal eyeballs, and dressing in polar bear pants with them. He discovered that whilst each different group faces unique challenges, they are all united by the fact that these are mainly of a socio-ecological nature: global warming is impacting their traditional ways of life. Certainly, Parry admits, people are flexible, and are attempting to adapt to climate change the best they can, but he stresses that this flexibility often offers only a short-term solution, or carries a very heavy social cost.

Having to adapt to modernity has severed the connections they had between their traditional cultures and their land, thus throwing their sense of identity, and even their very survival, into doubt

‘It’s very sad,’ he says. ‘The landscape is absolutely integral to the cultures of these people.’ He explains how the indigenous people he became closer to over the course of filming Arctic expressed their frustration and worry about how quickly global warming is affecting them, and also how they feel that having to adapt to modernity has severed the connections they had between their traditional cultures and their land, thus throwing their sense of identity, and even their very survival, into doubt. Parry is certain that by viewing the tribulations of the people of the north, we are in a sense, looking a bit into our own futures: ‘what happens in the Arctic affects all of us,’ he states. The Arctic is changing: with the warming of the land, industrial expansion is both offering economic opportunities and ecological threats for one of the Earth’s last relatively wild areas. ‘It is only if we choose wisely that I believe the future of coming generations will be assured,’ he concludes.

Arctic is published by Conway is is available at www.anovabooks.com

Standing up for peace

Dean Obeidallah in action on stage.

Robert Lowell

When Dean Obeidallah read ‘Arabs are the new Blacks’ in the US press after 9/11, he couldn’t have been more thrilled. ‘Oh my god! We’re cool!’ he exclaims enthusiastically. ‘Hot Asian girls will stop dating Black guys and start dating Arabs! People will ditch baseball hats for Arab head gear! Posters of Nasser will replace Tupaq in teenage boys’ rooms...!’

If Arabs are the new cool, comedians like Obeidallah are at least partly responsible for spinning their image back from the ‘crazed foreign fanatics’ so commonly seen in the mainstream US press back to one more grounded in reality

If indeed Arabs are the new cool, comedians like Obeidallah are at least partly responsible for spinning their image back from the ‘crazed foreign fanatics’ so commonly seen in the mainstream US press back to one more grounded in reality.

It can’t have been an easy task. The comedian explains that before 9/11, he ‘was just another white guy. And then one morning in September I woke up and I was an Arab.’ Previously simple tasks, like withdrawing money from the bank or buying air tickets, suddenly became politically loaded and even suspicious. Bank tellers and airline staff would say: ‘Obeidallah? What kind of a name is that? Where’s it from?’ ‘I’d tell them: “It’s a Middle Eastern name that means Peace-loving Arab. Oh, and I come from the same country as Aladdin”,’ he says with a grin.

‘Our goal is to build bridges between the Jewish and Arab/Muslim-American communities through comedy by highlighting our commonality’

But Obeidallah is more than just a cheeky chappy. He’s a popular US comic who has organized other Arab-American comedians into tours with names like ‘The Axis of Evil’ and ‘Arabs Gone Wild’, has won The Spirit of Bill Hicks Award for his thought-provoking, stereotype-smashing comedy, and has recently been touring his show Stand Up For Peace, which he performs with co-creator Scott Blakeman.

The pair mainly tour universities in the US, and aim to build bridges between Jews and Arabs, as well as to engage in dialogue about the Israel/Palestine conflict. But what could possibly be funny about that? ‘We actually don’t do jokes about the conflict – most of the show is about being Jewish and Arab-American, and through the comedy, we try to point out the shared, common experiences we have had. Our goal is to build bridges between the Jewish and Arab/Muslim-American communities through comedy by highlighting our commonality.’

‘We encourage vigorous debate here in the US about our government’s ineffective and disinterested Middle East policy. We urge students and adults alike to get involved’

There’s a question and answer session after the show to encourage discussion with the audience on Middle Eastern issues. ‘The most common question at college shows is: Why isn’t there peace already? College students in the US are amazed that the conflict has gone on for so long. Other questions are about why we started the show and what we recommend as a solution to the conflict.’ And the answers to those questions? Firstly, in a nutshell, the two started the show in 2003 after performing it as a fundraising gig for the charity Seeds of Peace, which brings Palestinian and Israeli teens together in a summer camp in the US to teach them tolerance of the ‘other side’. The routine was so fun and successful, the duo decided to continue its performance indefinitely. Regarding a solution to the conflict: ‘We joke about those who say: “We tried talking and it didn’t work.” That’s like saying “I tried breathing – I didn’t care for it”. Engaging in a constructive dialogue about peace is the only way to bring it about. Another thing we encourage is vigorous debate here in the US about our government’s ineffective and disinterested Middle East policy. We urge students and adults alike to get involved, work for pro-peace organizations, and ask their elected officials to break away from the status quo of accepting an unacceptable situation that has offered Palestinians and Israelis alike a bleak future.’

So, with Arab-American comedy going mainstream, are attitudes towards Muslims changing in the States? ‘I don’t think people are as angry with us as they were in the first few years after 9/11 and at the beginning of the Iraq war. But I’m not saying Americans love us. So it’s still challenging. The fear is that it seems that rightwing people can make racist comments about Muslims and Arabs and few non-Muslims or non-Arabs will defend us, while if someone made a racist comment about Blacks or Jews, many people of all different backgrounds would rush to condemn it....’

So perhaps Obeidallah’s enthusiasm may be a bit premature: until racial slurs towards Arab-Americans are as stigmatic and universally condemned as those directed towards African-Americans, it seems Arabs will not yet be ‘the new Blacks’.

The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour is now available on DVD.

For more information about Stand up for Peace, please see www.standupforpeace.com

Guinea

Photo by Cheryl Morris

Upon landing in the evening in Conakry, the Guinean capital, it seems as though the country’s youth is obsessed with reading: scattered throughout the airport, a myriad of young men sit silently hunched over books; sometimes alone, sometimes in groups. The simple reason for this is that these young scholars have nowhere else to study: the airport is the only place for miles with guaranteed electricity after dusk. This sight is almost symbolic of Guinea as a nation: there are aspirations for a brighter future, but a serious lack of the organization and infrastructure to reach it.

Flag of Guinea

The country is a challenging place to visit. The poverty is widespread and manifest. Rubbish is so abundantly strewn about that it is impossible not to walk on or through it in many areas. Barefoot children kick footballs through puddles of filthy water. Packs of military guards in the backs of pick-up trucks stare menacingly at passers-by. But it shouldn’t be this way.

Guinea is rich in natural resources, especially in iron ore and bauxite, the raw material for aluminium. It also has plentiful gold, diamonds, coffee, fish and agricultural products. Moreover, for all its troubles, it has avoided the conflict that has plagued its neighbours Sierra Leone, Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire, and has consequently hosted one of the largest refugee populations in the world. Nonetheless, a history of conflict, corruption, political and economic myopia and mismanagement has impoverished the country to the extent that a European thinktank, the Crisis Group, recently warned that Guinea may become a ‘failed state’. This is perhaps not surprising, given the country’s turbulent history.

The first of France’s African colonies to gain independence in 1958, sentiments in Guinea’s Government were virulently anti- Western, and its first President, Ahmed Sékou Touré, turned to the Soviet Union for support. He was relentless in his hounding of those opposed to this move, and tens of thousands of Guineans were consequently tortured, executed or vanquished during his 26-year reign.

The supposedly socialist agenda did nothing to alleviate the crushing poverty most citizens lived under, but when General Lansana Conté took over in a bloodless coup in 1984, his reversal of Touré’s policies did little to improve the dire economic situation of most Guineans.

In 1998 Conté held and won national elections, and did so again in 2003, although both polls were criticized for their ‘irregularities’. Conté’s reign was generally unpopular, and his poor governance and cabinet corruption resulted in two large strikes, one in 2006 and another in 2007. When Conté died in 2008, another military junta, led by Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, took power and suspended the constitution, along with union and political activities, until the next elections – which have been indefinitely delayed.

Today, the country’s future is uncertain. Despite its rich natural resources, foreign companies have been reluctant to invest in Guinea, due to political instability, the population’s low level of literacy and shortage of job skills, and the country’s lack of electricity and other infrastructure. Furthermore, it has been repeatedly alleged that the Government demands bribes, and reneges on important contracts and concessions. The Chinese have been economically active in the country, but ordinary Guineans, resentful of the strong Chinese presence in their country and frustrated with their continually low standard of living, recently looted and vandalized Chinese businesses, thus worsening existing tensions between natives of the country and the growing Asian community.

Desperate to improve economic conditions, the Government has attempted to re-engage with the IMF and World Bank, which stopped assistance to the country after the last coup due to the rampant corruption and lack of democratic reform.

Cheryl Morris

Map of Guinea

Interview with Martha Lucía Micher Camarena

Martha Lucía Micher Camarena talked with Cheryl Morris

Martha Lucía Micher Camarena, illustrated by Sarah John

Mexico is quite far from being a model of gender equality. It ranked a rather dismal 93rd out of 128 countries in the Global Gender Gap Report of 2007. Domestic violence is rife; in fact, over 70 per cent of all Mexican women say they have suffered some form of abuse. Some 91 per cent of all ministerial positions in government belong to men. Abortion is illegal in most parts of the country.

Fortunately, Martha Lucía Micher Camarena is fighting to change this – no easy task in a culture that perceives male and female gender roles as being quite distinct, where the Catholic Church has much authority and influence over issues such as divorce and abortion, and where a powerful oligarchy fights to maintain its position.

For over three decades, Micher has adopted a multi-faceted approach to dealing with the problems mainly poor Mexican women face. First, she worked within the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) as a candidate that would represent the needs of women. Later, she fought to decriminalize abortion when she gained the position of lawmaker in the province of Guanajuato, and worked as a federal deputy in Congress. Through her current organization, the Mexico City Women’s Institute, also known as Inmujeres, she also fought for a woman’s right to choose in the first semester of pregnancy, and eventually her work paid off: in 2007, this was finally permitted in Mexico City, although in the rest of the country, abortion is still only legal in cases of rape, severe birth defects, or if the mother’s life is put at risk (and even in these cases, the Church sometimes interferes with doctors’ decisions and bars the termination). Abortion rights in just one city may not seem like a huge step forward, but it should be noted that of all the countries in the Americas south of the US, only Cuba and Guyana permit terminations.

Micher claims that because of poverty and a lack of education, most Mexican women ‘don’t have an equal opportunity to exercise our rights. We often don’t know them. This lack of awareness prevents us from defending ourselves.’ When asked what Inmujeres is doing to change this, she states that the group has ‘introduced gender training at an inter-institutional level in 2007. We trained Mayor Ebrard and his cabinet members, and all officials within each secretariat to undergo the same gender training. We are also pushing to rework all public policies so that they take into account the inequality between men and women.’

More important still, in December 2007 Micher and Inmujeres finally pushed through a law that will allow for greater protection of abused women, and further punishment for their abusers. Perhaps controversially, one section of the new law will prevent victims and perpetrators from reconciling outside of the courts, which experts claim will avoid repeat offences.

A Western woman visiting Mexico City might be surprised to find that Mexican women suffer so much oppression and abuse. Though there is certainly a bit of Latin machismo in the culture – wolf whistles in the street and so on – the capital doesn’t feel very different from a European city. Micher agrees that ‘Mexico City is more advanced than the nation as a whole, and much more advanced than other countries in Latin America, such as Nicaragua, Guatemala, or Chile.’ But she admits: ‘We are still one of the first countries with problems of violence against women.’

The campaign to protect women’s rights in Mexico has, moreover, involved great support and solidarity from activists in other Latin American countries. ‘In 2000 when [the province of] Guanajuato’s deputies passed a law that all women who terminated their pregnancies, even those resulting from rape, had to go to jail… we called for international pressure. People from all over Latin America came. We organized demonstrations. We protested outside Congress. The Governor at the time had no choice but to reverse the decision.’

Her work aims to change what she claims is a deeply embedded sense of machismo in Mexico. Women, she says, are ‘discriminated against for being indigenous, for being illiterate. We are discriminated against for being single, for having a family but not living with our spouses, for becoming pregnant, for not being pregnant.’ In addition to this, she is also struggling against a culture of corruption endemic in Mexico. Fighting against both patriarchy and the oligarchy means that Micher has faced a great deal of opposition – sometimes to a terrifying degree. After leading a commission that investigated the sons of former President Vicente Fox on suspicion of corruption and ecological destruction, she was constantly harassed and was followed by men in cars who also staked out her home. But even gangster-like threats can’t dampen this woman’s quest for justice: ‘I still have a busy year ahead!’ she laughs.

Masih Alinejad

MASIH ALINEJAD

The fashion police really do exist in Iran. Since 1979, women exposing too much hair, revealing anything resembling a womanly curve, or wearing too much make-up can be thrown in jail. When current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ran for office in 2005, he denounced this practice, questioning whether Iranian politics should focus on ‘two strands of women’s hair or fighting poverty, creating jobs, and implementing justice’. Once elected, however, his tone changed, and a new code of conduct that prohibited women from showing off too much hair or make-up, and men from sporting ‘Western’ haircuts, short pants, and sleeveless T-shirts in public caused 2,000 students to protest in the city of Shiraz. Perhaps a more sarcastic objection, however, came from the spirited journalist Masih Alinejad, who irked the Iranian leader when she asked if he had already fought poverty, created jobs and implemented justice, thus freeing up more time for scrutinizing skirts.

Stirring up trouble is nothing new for Alinejad. In fact, she likens journalism in Iran to ‘putting your hand in the mouth of a lion’. A writer for ILNA (the Iranian Labour News Agency), she has been in and out of court for expressing her views and writing the news, and in 2005, she made international headlines after she revealed that although they claimed they were receiving pay cuts, ministers in Iran’s Government had in fact been receiving bonuses for everything from serving ‘religious duties’ to ringing in the New Year. Initially, politicians accused her of stealing their payslips to collect information, but when a deputy belonging to the minority reformist faction confirmed that it was he who had provided Alinejad with the information, ministers then resorted to character defamation to eject her from Parliament.

‘They called me rude and obnoxious,’ she states. ‘But the worst thing is they called me a coquette. Flirtatious.’ Although this may seem almost comic to Westerners, in Iran such name-calling can have disastrous effects. ‘My brother had to come to my workplace to protect my family’s reputation, and to beg for me to not be fired,’ she says.

Journalists from around the world rallied to her defence, but the pressure, accusations, and condemnation surrounding her eventually had a profound effect on her personal life and led to her leaving Iran, at least for a while. ‘I was married with a son,’ she says quietly. ‘But I am divorced now’.

Under such circumstances, many people would withdraw into self-pity, or at least admit defeat. Not so Masih Alinejad. Immediately, she began working on a book called _Crown of Thorns_ (the title is an allusion to the fact that Masih is Farsi for Christ). It deals with how and why the conservative parliament was elected in Iran in 2004 by a landslide, and how it has performed since. It’s also a reminder that the political can be personal, as Alinejad reveals the impact Iranian politics has had on her life.

Despite its heavy content, the book’s tone, and indeed, its author, is optimistic. ‘Two out of three people in Iran are young (under 30), and many of them have travelled to Europe or the United States. Also, there may be censorship in Iran, but there are ways of getting around that,’ she says with a cheeky smile.

Unlike many people from the Majority World, Alinejad does not necessarily see the US or globalization as forces for bad, and believes that dialogue and negotiation are the only ways forward to improve relations between Iran and the US. ‘Politicians in my country who call America the Great Satan are no better than George Bush when he talks about the Axis of Evil,’ she states. In fact, when one Member of Parliament began his speeches by crying out ‘Death to America!’ it was Alinejad who insisted he think long and hard about the kind of international impact his statements might have.

International impact is something Alinejad hopes to have herself. ‘I came to London to study English so I can meet people like me, who are interested in world politics, and so I can write about Iran in a more international language. I also want to help in the translation of _Crown of Thorns_, and to try to get my new book published. It’s called _I’m Free_ and it is about the everyday struggles and victories of Iranian women’. Her stay here has not been easy, however.

‘Every day I feel lonely. I miss my family and I miss being at home in Tehran. A few days ago I was really sad to hear that more of my colleagues were put in jail.’ She finds the language barrier frustrating at times: ‘English is very hard to learn! I’m studying every day, but it is difficult!’ Despite the struggles and disappointments, she remains confident she will overcome whatever obstacles life throws in her path.

*Masih Alinejad* spoke with *Cheryl Morris*

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