Lydia James is currently a freelance writer and doer. She was an editorial assistant at New Internationalist between 2013-14. Her particular interests include resistance, climate justice, disability, women's rights and refugee issues. She also enjoys taking photographs. Her past work experience is an eclectic mix of farming, reporting, learning disability support, and communications. She is partial to chocolate courgette cake.


Lydia James is currently a freelance writer and doer. 

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Solar comes to Shatila

Shatila street

Shatila's labyrinthine streets seldom enjoy the sunlight. Roofs, however, are ideal spots for solar panels. © Lydia James

Sunglasses are surplus to requirements when walking through the labyrinth of alleyways that make up much of Lebanon’s Shatila refugee camp. High buildings locked in an embrace conspire with low-hanging electricity cables and water pipes to shield the camp’s 22,000 inhabitants from the sun.

Natural light is blotted out from many apartments, with ground- and first-floor residents getting the worst deal. Open windows are perfect for borrowing sugar off a neighbour or listening to the latest gossip, but attempts to capture anything other than drifting smoke fumes are futile.

While windows may be humble decoration, roofs are Shatila’s secret weapon.

Emerging from the fourth floor of the camp’s Children and Youth Centre (CYC) is to be dazzled by rays of the late afternoon sun. Roofs are not only places to dry clothes and store water containers; they offer the potential to harness the sun and convert it into a much-needed power supply.

Located in the southern suburbs of the capital, Beirut, the square-kilometre strip of land is one of 12 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, founded by the International Red Cross when the creation of Israel in 1948 resulted in the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians into neighbouring countries.

Getting to grips with solar panels in Shatila.

Lydia James

Decades later and under half of the inhabitants are Palestinian. The population has swelled and Shatila has become a sanctuary of sorts to Romany groups, Sri Lankan and Filipino immigrants, poor Lebanese families and, since 2011, over 6,000 Syrians and Palestinian-Syrians.

Conditions in the camp are dire: the Lebanese government absolved itself of responsibility towards Shatila residents long ago and discriminatory policies affecting the country’s 450,000 Palestinian refugees mean that it is difficult for people to change their living situation. The authorities supply water and electricity to the camp on an ad-hoc basis but most services are delivered by UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees), and other NGOs.

Four hours on, four hours off

In central Beirut, the power cuts out for around three hours a day; most people have a backup energy source meaning that the impact is rarely felt. ‘Here, it’s four hours on, four hours off. We have only 12 hours [of electricity] a day,’ says Mahmoud Abbas, better known as Abu Moujahed – the Palestinian director of the Children and Youth Centre. ‘But even this is not true because usually the power is cut for more than four hours at a time.’ The sunless apartments compound this problem. ‘The shortage is affecting people’s daily lives. When the electricity is off it means fridges stop working so families lose their food,’ explains Abu Moujahed. It is easy to become depressed with little natural or even artificial light and resorting to candles is dangerous with buildings at such close proximity.

The solution, for the few that can afford it, is to use a generator that costs $100 a month to run. Others illegally tap into the electricity grid. But there is another option – one that offers not only cheaper, greener energy but also autonomy over a resource rationed by the government for political rather than logistical reasons.

‘In the long run, the solar [energy] system is cheap, it can operate without much maintenance and the sun can be got from god for free’

This is where volunteers from Italian association Ingegneria Senza Frontiere (Engineering Without Frontiers) come in. Collaborating with Associazione per la Pace (Italian Association for Peace), members of a group called Yallah! first visited Shatila in 2012 and hosted several camp residents in Italy the following year as part of an exchange.

After working with CYC staff to identify the organization’s needs, eight volunteers began working on a solar energy pilot project in August 2014, replacing the costly generator with four solar panels. In February and April 2015 a further eight panels were installed. Now 12 panels – three kilowatts worth – power the four-storey building and its adjoining guesthouse when the mains electricity is down, although fridges and washing machines are currently too energy intensive.

This work is only half of the project. The engineers’ key objective when they visit the camp every 4-6 months is to support camp inhabitants to find their own solutions to the electricity shortages: training people to maintain the solar system is a large part of this, but it is proving a challenge.

‘Training is something that we try to do at the same time as installing the panels,’ explains engineer Giovanni Savino. ‘We invited a lot of people to the training in August 2014 and this time [in April]. But only one resident turned up – who was already working with the group. ‘It could be that people are working or aren’t interested in coming here to learn something for free. Maybe they don’t want to work with an NGO,’ speculates Savino. Environmental engineering student Costanza Martella offers another possible explanation. ‘People think this place is like a prison, perhaps they don’t want to paint the walls of their prison.’

Abu Moujahed is more positive. ‘Before [the installation] we thought that electricity was something that came from heaven, but when the engineers explained the process, people began to understand it. Maybe the repair of the solar panels needs some professional expertise but I have learnt how to assemble them easily: there is a map, instructions, it is clear how to do it.’

Spreading the word

He hopes the idea will spread to other organizations and families in the camp. ‘In August we called the organizations, committees and friends of Shatila to see what we did and to encourage them to do the same. Everybody found it a good idea but expensive.’ Funding for CYC’s solar project has so far come from a variety of sources, including Italy’s Roman Catholic church, UNESCO, fundraising events and personal donations. There are hopes that micro credit or small loans managed by NGOs in the camp could increase uptake. ‘In the long run, the solar [energy] system is cheap, it can operate without much maintenance and the sun can be got from god for free,’ adds Abu Moujahed.

There may not have been much interest in the training, but the neighbours are curious. From the vantage point of higher roofs or balconies, faces peek out from behind curtains or ask for their photos to be taken as the Italian engineers and CYC’s director make final adjustments to the system on their last day of work until August. A man sitting on the roof above comments loudly on the progress made – in the style of a backseat driver – with a cigarette in one hand and a coffee in the other, before thanking the workers profusely for their efforts. But not everyone is as appreciative. One evening a resident threw rubbish onto the centre’s roof next to the solar panels and initially refused to clear it up. As Abu Moujahed says, ‘within one year it is not possible to change the world.’

The glitches are fitting: in an overcrowded refugee camp designed to be temporary, nothing is tried or achieved without encountering obstacles. Meanwhile, the once-forgotten sun is beginning to increase a community’s resilience, four solar panels at a time.

‘A woman can be whatever she likes’

Yemeni girls playing a card game

'People in my photos are never strangers - they speak right to my soul,' says photographer Thana Faroq. © Thana Faroq

Yemeni rapper Amani Yahya’s dress sense is raising as many eyebrows as her lyrics in Yemen’s capital city, Sana’a. The 21-year-old swaps the traditional abaya and veil to busk in jeans, a t-shirt and a cap.

After spending her childhood in Saudi Arabia, she returned to Yemen in 2010 and started rapping two years later. A Dentistry student at the University of Sana’a, Yahya uses the art form to express her thoughts – in English – on women’s rights and issues. Her latest work, ‘Mary’, is about child marriage, based on a true story.

Finding her voice in a society where creativity has long been suppressed, but not quashed, by dictatorial regimes is not without its challenges. ‘People don’t accept the fact that I’m a rapper, they think rap is just a foreign kind of art and I’m copying Western styles, but art has no nationality,’ says Yahya.

A perfect storm

Yahya is breaking taboos in a country often spoken about in unflattering superlatives: ranked in 2014’s Global Gender Gap Report as the least gender-equal nation in the world, outdoing Pakistan, Syria and Afghanistan, Yemen is also the poorest state in the Middle East.

‘People don’t accept the fact that I’m a rapper, they think rap is just a foreign kind of art and I’m copying Western styles, but art has no nationality’

Half of the 25-million population is below the age of 15 and, due to a high birth rate, the number of people is expected to double by 2033. Some 13 million Yemenis lack access to safe water or sanitation, with water supplies set to disappear in urban areas within 15 years. Only five nations are more food insecure than Yemen and 334,000 people are internally displaced due to droughts and conflict.

Since 2002, US air and drone strikes have wreaked havoc in areas often hit, increasing support for and reliance on Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsular (AQAP). In 2011, when then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh was clinging to power in Sana’a, rival parties began to fill the power vacuum in other regions. The political instability has worsened since the Houthis gained control of the capital last September.

It is in this context that Yemeni girls and women experience inequality and a double hardship. According to the UN Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) 32 per cent of Yemeni girls are married before their 18th birthday. A quarter of women aged between 15-49 have undergone Female Genital Mutiliation (FGM) and intimate partner violence is common.

‘We cannot voice our opinions freely’

‘Yemen’s new draft constitution [launched days before the Houthi rebel government takeover on 22 January] passed two important issues,’ says Yemeni social researcher Rasha Jarhum. ‘The first was a 30-per-cent quota for women’s political participation; the second was to set a minimum age of marriage.’ Both pieces of legislation faced resistance from within the Constitution Drafting Committee but feminist groups came together to lobby for their implementation. If this constitution had seen the light it would have been a great victory for Yemeni women.

‘Since the coup by the Houthis, it feels like the status of women has gone back to the dark ages,’ says Jarhum, currently living in Beirut. ‘We hear about these new imposed codes of conducts like no going out after 7pm and music not being allowed.

Recently Yemeni Shirin Makawi and her French colleague [Isabelle Prime] were kidnapped. This is not only unacceptable by international and national human rights standards but also unacceptable by the tribal code of conduct and norms.’

Melody Of Our Alienation by #SupportYemen media collective.

Amal Al Yarisi is a journalist for the Yemen Times. ‘We cannot voice our opinions freely, especially regarding political matters. Most Yemenis believe that women shouldn’t occupy any political positions or even participate in the decision-making process.’

‘What other challenges do women face in 2015?’ I ask. ‘Illiteracy is prevalent among women and girls, especially in rural areas,’ responds Al Yarisi.

‘More than 80 per cent of women work in agriculture. Rural women have no forms of social protection and often their work is not economically accounted for,’ explains Jurham. ‘They work long hours and their rights are often disregarded, sometimes even by feminist groups.’

(Post) revolution through a lens

Yemen’s 2011 Arab Spring presented an opportunity for women to become more politically active. ‘The revolution was not just a political one,’ describes blogger Afrah Nasser over Skype. ‘My friends revolted inside their homes: they rebelled against the tradition that says you shouldn’t speak up as a woman. For women to literally walk on the street and shout and then to say to their parents, “I’m going to be part of the uprising”, was a revolution in itself. There were consequences. Women got divorced because they went against the will of their husbands.’

‘We cannot voice our opinions freely, especially regarding political matters. Most Yemenis believe that women shouldn’t occupy any political positions or even participate in decision-making process’

And now? ‘There were, and still are, political powers that use women solely as decoration to polish their image,’ Nasser believes. ‘The problem is that sometimes even women themselves don’t think that it’s a problem. Yemen is a conservative society with a lot of patriarchy. This is one of the reasons why I continue in media – if I let life’s problems get me out of there, I am going to give away a place for another macho guy talking as if he knows best about women’s issues.

‘I think we need more women in the media because their history gets vanished. If it is only men that are represented in the public eye, we will see fewer stories about women.’

Yemeni photographer Thana Faroq is one of the many women who have taken up the mantle. She was studying in the US when she began ‘shooting humans and their daily activities in the street’. By the time she returned to Yemen, her interest in street photography had grown. ‘I felt there were many untold stories that needed to be reflected on photographs away from what the media stream allows.’ One of Faroq’s projects is on child marriage, another shows women making a difference through leadership, courage or passion.

‘Shooting in Yemen has never been easy, culturally and security-wise. Not so many people would be thrilled to see a young woman carrying her camera and targeting them for photos. But I don’t really focus on the obstacles as much as on my documentation mission of everyday life in Yemen and the messages I aspire to deliver through my photographs.’

Make it happen

This year’s International Women’s Day theme is ‘Make it happen: encouraging effective action for advancing and recognizing women’. There are ways in which women around the world can help with this, says Amal Al Yarisi. ‘They can involve Yemeni women in conferences that tackle gender-related issues. And raise awareness among women in Yemen through workshops, conferences and symposiums to enable them to voice their opinions and participate in political and decision-making processes.’

Amani Yahya is already making it happen. Recently profiled by the BBC, her career as both dentist and rapper – perhaps a rapping dentist – is ahead of her. ‘My hope for Yemeni society is that they accept the fact that a woman can be something and that she can change something, she can be whatever she likes.’

‘Thinking loudly’: blogging for Yemen


Yemen's capital city, Sana'a, saw major protests during the 2011 uprising. Rod Waddington under a Creative Commons Licence

The Arab Spring marked the point at which Yemeni blogger and human rights advocate Afrah Nasser, along with many other young people in the region, began to ‘think loudly’, as she described it in her first blog post at the beginning of 2010.

Afrah Nasser.

When Yemen’s uprising took root in February 2011, she wrote about it. ‘I was critical of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s violent crackdown on demonstrators,’ Nasser explains, which ‘disturbed’ some supporters of the 33-year-long regime. She began to receive hate mail and death threats, which she describes as being ‘very natural at that time’. Meanwhile, CNN was celebrating her blog as one of the 10 must-reads from the Middle East.

The growing unrest in Yemen coincided with Nasser travelling to Sweden in May 2011 to take part in a leadership programme. While in Sweden, armed clashes broke out in Yemen’s capital city of Sana’a. ‘I called my family and they were internally displaced,’ says the 29-year-old. ‘They were fleeing the violence inside the city and had to move from one place to another.’ The airport in Sana’a shut down and it became increasingly difficult, and dangerous, for Yemenis and ex-pats to leave or return to the country.

A new journey

‘Yemen was all over the news. It was a very severe time; I can’t even describe how difficult it was. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t comprehend what was going on.’ Faced with an expiring tourist visa and no guarantee of safety back home, Nasser applied for political asylum. ‘Staying in Sweden was the best decision that I could think of,’ she says. She gained residency and is now applying for citizenship in order to travel.

Yemeni writers and journalists inside Yemen are challenging those in the Diaspora to become advocates for their home country, to ‘break down misconceptions’

Living in Sweden has been ‘a new journey that I did not plan for’. How has it changed her identity? ‘I need to write a book about that. It has been an adventure’, she says. There have been ‘ups and downs’ but Nasser feels closer to Yemen and to the Middle East now than ever before. ‘There are many events about the Middle East in Sweden and I have met public figures from Yemen and the region whom I wouldn’t have met elsewhere.’ She also has a large network of Yemeni Twitter and Facebook friends ‘whom I never met while I was in Yemen. I wish to live enough to meet them.’

Nasser is co-founder of Yemeni Salon, ‘a meeting place where we discuss Yemen’s political and social affairs.’ It has been open for two years and the response by the Swedish public has been encouraging. ‘We started the Yemeni Salon because we were thirsty for discussions about the country. We run seminars and invite Yemenis to speak: we try to bring a little piece of Yemen to cold and freezing Sweden!’

Adapting to a different culture has not been without its challenges. ‘After three years in Sweden I discovered that I needed to take vitamin D pills to cope with the winter,’ Nasser laughs. ‘Because of a doctor’s prescription, I got the vitamin D and my life changed. Just last night I was telling my mother in Sana’a that I needed to take my pill and she was, like, “what pill?” I told her it’s like how people chew Qat [a mild narcotic] to forget the violence in Yemen: I take Vitamin D to forget the sun.’

Nasser started blogging because she believed there was a lack of English-language coverage of the country by Yemenis. This has now changed, she says. And Yemeni writers and journalists she keeps in contact with inside Yemen are challenging those in the Diaspora to become advocates for their home country, to ‘break down misconceptions’. Living abroad has given her a new role and purpose as a blogger: ‘My stories may be more interesting with different analogies and I can name-and-shame media outlets that publish misleading information about Yemen.’

Blogging in Sweden has also kept Nasser connected to her home country. ‘It has helped me to feel like my feet are on the ground, that I’m not far away and that my identity is not in crisis.’ Studying for a Masters in Communications, she is able to understand how the internet – which she sees as a neutral force – has affected her life in exile.

Threatened with censorship

Ironically, after refusing to be silenced by death threats in Yemen, it was in Sweden where Nasser’s blog was threatened with censorship. While interning at the Arabic section of Swedish Radio International she was advised to keep her political opinions to herself, both on and off the radio. After taking to Twitter to air her concerns and meeting with a legal advisor, she reached a compromise with her bosses, in which she agreed not to talk about Yemen on the radio but would keep speaking freely on her blog.

‘It was a learning experience. I prefer to use my journalistic skills to stand with the vulnerable and the weak – the voiceless,’ she says. ‘I cannot bring the two sides of the story together because sometimes, especially in the Middle East where there are many important or historical times, you cannot stand with the authoritarian government.’

‘I am optimistic and pessimistic at the same time. This is a new attitude that I have. I am optimistic because I want to be optimistic but when I consider all the factual stuff I become pessimistic’

Censorship has a long history in Yemen. The targeting of journalists may have been highlighted during the revolution, but it came on the back of three decades of media repression. In 2014, with Saleh’s successor, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, running the country, Yemen was ranked 167 out of 180 in the Press Freedom Index – marginally better than the year before. As the Houthi rebel party asserts control over Yemen’s government, it stands accused of assaulting and detaining journalists at recent demonstrations. ‘I think it’s a great indication of the type of democracy or freedoms al-Houthi are preaching about when they target journalists,’ says Nasser.

In the middle of another political catastrophe four years after the hopeful beginnings of revolution, how can people around the world support Yemen? ‘What the country desperately needs is the support of leaders who want to get it out of this chaos. If the international committee were sitting in front of me, I would tell them to go to Yemen with a learning mind because Yemenis have the resources, the potential. We need to co-ordinate this according to Yemeni standards and reality and not bring a strategy that does not suit the country’s social structure or politics.’

Regarding the future of the beleaguered nation, Nasser is pragmatic. ‘I am optimistic and pessimistic at the same time. This is a new attitude that I have. I am optimistic because I want to be optimistic but when I consider all the factual stuff I become pessimistic.’

Nasser’s hopes for her future include a Swedish passport. She is planning to go back to visit or to live in Yemen soon. ‘It’s been almost four years now but I’m nearly there,’ she says. Will it be safe for her? ‘Thanks to interviews such as this, yes. I think the more high profile you are, the less targeted you are. But I don’t know really. I’ll do what feels right and I think that will be to return to Yemen.’

‘We might not achieve a victory, but we at least can tell a story’

Festive lights in Bethlehem

Festive lights in Bethlehem.

As the last chocolates disappear from advent calendars and nostalgic renditions of ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ fill the air, Leila Sansour is busily touring Britain’s cinemas with an invitation to viewers to see the celebrated and contested city in a new light.

Sansour is the daughter of a Russian mother and Palestinian father. Born in the former Soviet Union in 1966, she moved with her family to the occupied West Bank aged seven before escaping a decade later in search of a bigger world.

In 2002, Sansour was drawn back to Bethlehem to make her first feature film, Jeremy Hardy Versus the Israeli Army. As the Israeli authorities began building the separation wall, Sansour made plans to document its devastating impact on Bethlehem’s residents, but instead filmed a bittersweet account of her relationship with her father and with Palestine while spearheading a campaign to ‘Open Bethlehem’.

We met on a bright December morning in central London, where Sansour talked about her mother, her emotional connection to Palestine and the challenge of starring in her own documentary.

Why did you return to Palestine after your teenage getaway?

Probably because of a sense of duty in that I knew the situation and how unjust it was. My father [Anton Yousseff Sansour, founder of Bethlehem University] dedicated his life to the cause and I appreciated it but hadn’t wanted to participate in it. He died suddenly [in 1996] aged 58 and I felt quite haunted by him as a figure; he meant a great deal to me.

I returned to Bethlehem two years after making the film with Jeremy Hardy and when Israel had started constructing the wall; I wanted to document that huge and radical change to the city. I thought that even if we couldn’t stop it, we could explain and show the world what it meant and the impact that it might have on the Middle East. I went to Palestine believing that I was going to engage in a big project for a whole year. Little did I know that it was going to be eight years and, indeed, a lifelong commitment. I now feel that I belong in Bethlehem more than anywhere else – and I suppose this film took me back home.

Which came first, the idea for the campaign Open Bethlehem, or the film?

Initially I thought I would document Bethlehem during a critical year but with a personal touch. I was going to explain my relationship to my father and occasionally tell the story through my eyes. When I started the campaign we had to consider what that meant for the film. The film and the campaign kept on influencing each other until it became obvious that I needed to make the story about the really strange journey that happened to me.

It’s unusual for a director and producer to also be the star of a film. How did you balance these roles?

It was a difficult path to walk in many ways, and it meant that the film took longer. Once I knew that I had to tell my story, the film took on a new challenge. As a director you have to be honest, but as a person you are sensitive so it’s almost that you have a split personality. It took me a while to accept that I had to – the character had to – behave. At the end I did feel that the director triumphed, hopefully.

You often talk about returning to Bethlehem as a way to reconnect with your father, but when on the phone to your mother in the film she asks you what you are still doing in that ‘godforsaken place’. How has your mother influenced your view of Palestine?

That’s difficult to explain. My mother is a product of post-war Russia and she and my father were very different people. She is cautious of things and has never been particularly extravagant or adventurous. My father was easy-going and had that Middle Eastern spirit where life comes to you. I am probably closer in my outlook on life to my father than to my mother. I think that, at whatever cost, we should cast ourselves wide in life. We might break some bones but that’s okay. Maybe I broke a few too many making this documentary and my mother sensed that, so she had a point, but now I’m here, the film is out and I hope it will serve a purpose and advance the Palestinian cause.

Have Palestinians living in other parts of the West Bank had an opportunity to see the film? What do they think about it?

Not many people have seen it there and Palestinians are quite critical in general but we did show it in Bethlehem and I received positive feedback. Suddenly I’ve reconnected with just about everybody from my school that has read about it or watched it. The film is a vindication for what many of them experienced. Sometimes we might not achieve a victory but we at least can tell a story.

You have said that Christians in Palestine are always the first to leave in a crisis; why do you think that is?

Historically, cities like Bethlehem were about 90 to 95-per-cent Christian. As the original community of the city, they were the main recipients of all the wealth that Bethlehem was able to generate because of pilgrimage tourism. Muslims are slightly more recent inhabitants so they don’t own many of the shops or hotels. The moment there is unrest, many [Christians] have the funds to decide that they will start a life outside Palestine. Muslims also leave, like anyone else, but Christians are now a huge Diaspora – which is also a factor in them deciding to leave.

Do you think the political situation has changed much in Palestine during the last decade? Should the focus still be on Bethlehem?

I’m focused on Bethlehem because it might be better able to tell the story of Palestine and have a bigger voice in the world than other areas of it. But telling the story of Bethlehem is not just a magic wand that we can wave, we need to work hard. The situation constantly changes and this last decade has changed again, for the worse. It is becoming more hopeless and it is shocking how the Israeli authorities cannot see that they are bringing both of us down and stirring up an environment that almost imposes conflict and war. If they continue, then we will become totally intertwined as two people in this deadly embrace.

What does the future hold for you? Do you think you’ll go back to Palestine?

There was a point in my seventh year where I thought, ‘that’s it, I’m going to stay in Bethlehem’, but actually, now that I’m here [in Britain] to distribute the film and I’m not looking at the situation so much out of emotion, I’m not sure. My attachment is greatest to Palestine and no doubt I will be spending a lot of time there, but it’s necessary to occasionally recharge your batteries. You need to have some perspective on the world because you get hemmed in, in Bethlehem. I think I’m always going to have to be dividing my time in both. It suits me because I am a cosmopolitan kind of person, I like London and I have many friends here.

What is the next phase of the Open Bethlehem campaign?

We want to screen the film over and over again, in churches and cinemas across Britain, and next year in the US. We’re going to encourage people to join our movement and to become symbolic citizens of Bethlehem with a Bethlehem passport. Our message is that Bethlehem is a world city and belongs to everyone. With support, it can have a future. We hope to run workshops next year in Britain and the US so those interested can find out how they can explain the situation in Palestine using Bethlehem as a springboard. They can be ambassadors for Bethlehem. We also want to encourage visitors to the West Bank because we believe that the most important thing is that people see it with their own eyes. Watch the trailer of Open Bethlehem:

There will be more screenings of the film around Britain in January 2015. See the website for more details and how you can get involved in the campaign.

The most dangerous job in the world

Rescuers after a Syrian air raid

Rescuers gather at a site in Aleppo after an air raid, January 2014. Freedom House under a Creative Commons Licence

Muhammad Zikra and Ahmad Hamade, both aged 40, are finishing a traditional game based on Arabic poetry. As they take time out from a training day, team joker Ahmad demonstrates that he can speak nine languages – if saying ‘I love you’ counts.

Loving life and its people is what motivated Muhammad and Ahmad to sign up to one of the most dangerous jobs in one of the most dangerous of countries in the world: they are Syrian Civil Defense volunteers in Syria’s northwestern city of Idlib, 325 kilometres from the capital Damascus.

Amid the horror of Syria’s three-and-a-half-year civil war, during which by even the most conservative of estimates, 191,000 people have been killed, Syrian Civil Defense is an organization compiled of teams of unarmed civilians, also known as the White Helmets. Volunteers train to be first responders in areas where few emergency services remain.

Idlib province, apart from Idlib city, is under rebel control, meaning that civilians suffer daily bombing campaigns at the hands of the Syrian government.

Ahmad and Muhammad are just two volunteers out of 270 in the region. Some 1,100 civil defenders work across the country in cities such as Aleppo, Hama and Atareb, and this number is set to rise. The volunteers’ main role is to carry out search and rescue operations in the immediate aftermath of government shelling.

Muhammad was a team leader for the fire service in Idlib for 13 years before he became a White Helmet. ‘I always believed in the message of saving people and I was already doing that before the war started,’ he says, speaking through Alia, media support officer for international organization ARK, who is translating. ‘When government forces left my town I defected from the regime and started working with Syrian people like I used to do.’

Former electrician Ahmad joined Syrian Civil Defense after witnessing the worsening effect of the war: ‘I saw the destruction that was happening and the amount of people that were trapped under the rubble and I thought it was necessary to have some kind of team to try and save those people,’ he explains.

Daily life is a harrowing mix of dodging and responding to airstrikes but also a basic struggle for survival, according to Muhammad. ‘We have no water or electricity; we have to stand in lines for several hours to get bread. But the main thing is that the kids have not been able to go to school for so long.’

The work of civil defenders includes public services such as digging wells to enable local communities to access clean water. After rescuing people from bombed buildings, they help clean up the dangerous debris from the roads and put out fires.

‘We can’t leave’

‘The bombing is continuous, at unexpected times and includes different types of bombs,’ Muhammad explains. Barrel bombs – bombs packed inside large oil drums filled with explosives, steel and oil, missiles and ‘vacuum bombs’are designed to not only cause maximum death but maximum horror when recovering the bodies of the dead and dying.

Two weeks ago ‘there was a horrible accident that happened in a town called Ehsem near Idlib,’ remembers Ahmad. ‘There was a vacuum bomb. Three families were living next to each other – brothers with their families. The whole building went down and was destroyed; 33 people died immediately. Only two children were still alive. It was good that they were saved but they now have nothing and they have nobody to look after them. It was very confusing for us; how can something like that happen?’

‘We know that any day we may get hit by a barrel bomb or a missile and just die. But we choose not to think about that. The only way we cope is to think that when we stay fewer people die’

Asked how they cope, Muhammad and Ahmad agree that they have a humanitarian duty not to leave. ‘We know that any day we may get hit by a barrel bomb or a missile and just die. But we choose not to think about that. The only way we cope is to think that when we stay fewer people die.’

Syrian Civil Defense started organically; some firefighters like Muhammad moved from working for the regime to volunteering in liberated areas, and from the beginning of President Bashar al-Assad’s bombing campaign, small groups of civilians around Syria began trying to rescue people – without training, transport or equipment, but with a desire to help.

In the summer of 2013 Idlib city council began working with ARK to establish civil defence centres; there are now several in the province. The first courses were held in Turkey to teach basic search and rescue. A year later, the project has expanded to include medical training as well as media, administration and leadership courses so that the organization can become sustainable. ARK, along with Turkish non-profit AKUT, now teaches most courses inside Syria. But resources are limited and equipment is constantly destroyed. ARK delivers medical kits, equipment and vehicles [donated by foreign governments] but it's not enoughh, says Alia. ‘As much as we can give it’s still not enough.’

The volunteers work in shifts. ‘When I go there [to Idlib’s Syria Civil Defense team office] at 8am, the first thing we do is check the equipment and the cars so that everything is ready,’ says Muhammad. ‘Then we wait to hear from the spotter who works in the areas around Idlib. The spotter tells us where the aircraft is going so we can get ready. When we know where the incident has happened we go and try to rescue people and then come back and get ready again.’

‘Every day this happens. Every day there is a bombing and every day there is something to respond to,’ adds Ahmad.

‘We’re a family’

Many civil defenders have lost relatives, or have stayed when loved ones fled to neighbouring cities or countries. ‘Everybody lost their family; we are not sure any more where they are living because of the displacement. They are refugees,’ says Muhammad.

For all volunteers the long, uncertain hours mean that they form close bonds with each other. ‘We are a family. We all have solidarity with each other,’ the two explain. One of their teammates was killed in Ibdid at the end of September. Ahmad says that he feels more pain and sorrow in losing their colleague than when one of his brothers died.

Syria’s civilians are increasingly under attack by opposing forces, although in Idlib, at least, the present danger comes from the regime. Ahmad and Muhammad emphasize that they do not belong to an establishment or opposition and that they help anyone who needs rescuing.

On whether they believe that outside governments or coalitions should be involved in Syria, the pair are sceptical. ‘Everybody you see in the media, everybody else is winning except the Syrian people. The only losers are the Syrian people. This is what we care about the most.’

The future is mysterious, they say. ‘It’s too hard to determine who is supporting Syrian people and what they think the Syrian people are. We don’t understand anything that is going on but we will keep on with our humanitarian duty until things get better.’ The ominous alternative is left unspoken.

How can we help? I ask. ‘As civil defenders we would ask anybody to support us in getting more equipment, better equipment, better solidarity, advocacy… that would be great.’ Ahmad and Muhammad are keen to thank people around the world who have already helped them. ‘But this [support] will only reduce the number of people who die; it will not stop the death. What will actually stop the death is for anyone to find a way to stop the war. This is what we want. We want to stop working. We don’t want better equipment; we want to not work at all.’

Britain’s train industry has gone off the rails


A train from London to Manchester may cost you more than a flight from London to Tel Aviv. Mikey under a Creative Commons Licence

If you are a train user, you will have already heard the cheery news, timed to coincide with a change of tense when talking about the British summer (it was a hot one, wasn’t it?). As if becoming reacquainted with your waterproofs wasn’t depressing enough, train companies announced on 19 August that from January 2015, the average ticket price will rise by another 3.6 per cent, for the 12th consecutive year.

Since the Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition government came into power in 2010, prices have risen by 24.9 per cent. Over the same period, average earnings have increased by just 10.7 per cent, with many having seen a freeze on their wages. Trade unions are warning that by 2018 there will be another 24-per-cent rise in fares.

To put the extortionate prices in perspective, on Thursday 6 November (a day picked at random) you could fly 3,600 kilometres from London Luton to as far as Tel Aviv, Israel for £99 ($165) and still have change left over compared to the cost of an advance single train ticket from London Euston to Manchester. Leaving at 6pm, this ticket would cost you £113 ($188). Choose to travel at 6.20pm and the same journey would be a bargain at £27 ($45). Buying your ticket on the day would set you back £160 ($266). Confused? Me too.

According to Minister for Rail Claire Perry, a lack of forward planning is where we are all going wrong. On BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme on 19 August, the Conservative MP said that people should not just ‘rock up’ to the station but avoid high fares by booking tickets in advance. Far be it for any government minister to lecture the public on how they should live their lives.

Ms Perry made just two trips on the train last year for work, one was in first class. Of course, should she need to pop into London from her constituency in Devizes, Wiltshire, for parliamentary matters more regularly, she can rest easy knowing that the taxpayer will foot the bill. Any ‘rocking up’ to the station that Claire Perry does out of work is easily afforded on her annual salary of £134,565 ($223,250).

Train fares in Britain are the highest per passenger kilometre of any country in Europe, yet it is one of few countries where passengers feel ‘lucky’ if they manage to bag a seat. On days when there is little room to stand, let alone sit, many of us simply shrug our shoulders and get out a book or phone, our only concern being which passenger we should stand butt-to-face with and which crotch-to-face.

The passengers hit hardest by fare rises are not city bankers but workers on minimum or low wage forced to commute from areas where they can afford to live to areas where there are jobs. They are those without the internet, who rarely get the cheapest deal booking over the phone or at the station. But all commuters, regardless of how much they have paid for their tickets, are treated with contempt by train companies.

The industry and the government should take heed though: commuters’ simmering frustration may soon boil over. The latest figures released by rail consumer organization Passenger Focus show that only 31 per cent of customers think that they are getting value for money and a YouGov Poll in November 2013 found that 66 per cent of those surveyed were in favour of returning the railways to public ownership.

The East Coast mainline has been publicly owned for five years and it is now the best run and most efficient operator in Britain. It has returned 0.6 pence per passenger mile – a total of over £1 billion ($1.7 billion) – to the taxpayer in the last five years, enabling reinvestment. Compare this with Northern Line, which takes a state subsidy of 51.5 pence (85 cents) per passenger mile. But in the wisdom of a government addicted to cuts and privatization, East Coast will be sold back to a private operator in February 2015.

The privatization of the rail industry is nonsensical. The benefits of some privately run industries – the presence of competition keeping prices low and efficiency high with little cost to the taxpayer – does not exist in the train industry. The railway is a natural monopoly and the only way that this can be seen as ‘fair’ is for different companies to enter bidding wars to run the service every few years. Short-term contracts offer little incentive for companies to invest profits to provide a better service. The state and passengers end up subsidizing the huge costs of the railway, but with none of the benefits of the industry being in public hands. In 2012/13, taxpayers paid £5.2 billion ($8.6 billion) to train operators in direct and indirect subsidies. The companies paid back just £1.2 billion ($2 billion). They kept £172 million ($285 million) in profits and paid out £204 million ($338 million) in dividends to shareholders.

The railway is a public service and should be run as one. Trains are not just a form of transport benefiting the individual, they are a common good: they reduce the number of cars on the road, lowering the amount of congestion and pollution; they connect people to jobs, and can be a lifeline for those with no alternative.

Twenty years ago, a disaster occurred when former prime minister John Major sold off the trains. But this damage can be reversed. Let’s own our railway, and improve it. 

Take action:

Visit We Own It and sign their petition calling for a Public Service Users Bill.

The Green Party is the only political party calling for trains to be brought back into public ownership. Get involved.

Read Passenger Focus’s research and publications on the train industry.

Add your voice to Bring Back British Rail.

Fishing for justice in Brazil

Lydia James talks to Brazilian fisher and human rights defender Alexandre Anderson de Souza.

How did you come to be a fisher in Rio de Janerio’s Bay of Guanabara?

I started fishing in 1998. Before that I worked for a transnational corporation. Then I saw fisherfolk in my parents’ village. I thought it was a very beautiful profession; that is why I still fish today.

Can you tell me about Petrobras? When did they come to the bay?

Petrobras is a semi-public Brazilian oil and gas transnational corporation, one of the largest oil and gas companies in the world. We started noticing Petrobras occupying the bay in the year 2000 when there was a big oil spill that contaminated the whole local ecosystem. At that time there was just one petrochemical plant in the bay – there are now three, along with 16 platforms. We began to lose the space in which we could previously fish; that is why we started our organization – the Association of People of the Sea (AHOMAR). Our quest is to find out why the company is occupying our space.

What impact has Petrobras had on the local environment?

The company has devastated the vegetation and the mung grass. It builds pipelines and platforms that reach far into the bay. The pipelines display artificial lights and these confuse the fish. Petrobras tanks, ships and submarines kill shoals of fish. The fish can’t survive in the area so there is a reduced amount of fishing. Fewer fish reduces the number of other sea creatures.

How many fisherfolk are there now in the area?

The Bay of Guanabara covers seven municipalities in Rio de Janeiro and curves all the way around to the town of Magé, where I am from. In the year 2000 there were 23,000 families in the bay; today there are 9,000. There are 28 fishing villages; 15 years ago there was twice that number. They have been removed by Petrobras.

How have they been removed?

People have been forced out. The government, the municipality and the police supported this. Families are offered a small amount of compensation but they have no choice but to move out. It is always the same.

Can you tell me about the work of the Association of People Of the Sea (AHOMAR)?

AHOMAR started in 2003, two years after Petrobras’ first oil spill when we found out that instead of sorting out the devastation, Petrobras was occupying more and more space in the bay. We didn’t feel that other organizations were representing us, so we founded our own to find out what was happening. We started with 600 fisherfolk in 2003, now we have 4,280. AHOMAR is a registered charity and it is the largest one protecting traditional fishing in Brazil.

Does the Brazilian government support your resistance?

The government has two opposing interests – one protecting the oil and gas industry and the other dedicated to environmental management and protecting people.

What have been the consequences of this conflict of interest?

I know the real motives of the government. I am a representative of the communities. There is no conflict of governmental interests – that is only what the media report. There is no interest in protecting the people or the environment, only with protecting Petrobras. All Petrobras’ buildings and infrastructure are financed by the Brazilian government.

You have been under Brazil’s federal programme, the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, for the past five years. What effect does that have on your family?

I have two sons and two grandchildren and we all live together in the same apartment. We are all hiding, though my children have external activities. I made an agreement with my wife not to talk much about it. My wife is part of a fisher organization for women. She says that at any time she expects her husband to be killed. They shot me twice, in 2009 and in 2012.

Some of the police who are meant to protect you are corrupt and have tried to kill you. Can independent officers protect you instead?

I have been without proper protection for a while. Police officers give me protection and an apartment, but I am not protected. One day the officers protect me, the next day I see them working on an oil platform.

The worst thing about it is the judges and people in the legal profession who are involved. There have been kidnappings of other fisherfolk. Five people have been killed and two are still ‘disappeared’.

Has anyone claimed responsibility for these killings?

In the case of two colleagues who were murdered in 2012, many articles were written about them in the international media. One person was charged and went to prison but he was found to be innocent. They believe he was a scapegoat. The police never found the real culprit. None of the cases concerning the six attempts on my life have ever been solved – in fact, sometimes the police refused to register the cases.

The main funders of Projecto Legal – the organization reported to be helping you with your legal case – are Petrobras. Have you been able to find alternative legal protection?

The lawyers I have do not have a connection with Petrobras, but in the country lots of lawyers do. We found out that one of the NGOs – I’m not going to say their name – received money from Petrobras. Petrobras has responsibility for everything that happens in the bay and they are trying to quash resistance. How do they do this? Only through connecting with NGOs and the government.

Can you tell me more about how Petrobras manages to gets away with its numerous human rights violations?

To give you one example, all of the board of Petrobras are linked to the party in power in Brazil. The senates and governors are in the PT [Partido dos Trabalhadores, translated as the ‘Workers Party’]. The judges are all from PT too. Despite that, we managed to stop one of their new projects. We’ve had some successes and the international media really help in spreading information about the actions of Petrobras.

Petrobras don’t deny what they’ve done, but they don’t acknowledge it either. They have contracts with other companies that do these kidnappings. They are not directly responsible themselves.

Brazil has received the world’s attention this year. But still few people know about your plight. What can the international community do to support you?

The most important thing is to raise visibility and awareness of what is happening in the bay. The media in Brazil is influenced by money and the national TV is funded by Petrobras. Human rights groups in Berlin and Canada have campaigns. Amnesty is also going to start one in London. It’s not just me; all fisherfolk need support. We live every day at risk of death. And it’s not just us in the bay – it’s the same for all fishing communities around the country.

Anything else you would like to add?

We don’t only protect the ecosystem, we also have a culture and a history that has survived for 500 years – violence won’t put a stop to that. It’s not about me. It’s a story about 9,000 men, women and children, and it’s for them that that I am talking to you now.

Watch Belarus Free Theatre’s Red Forest Stories with Alexandre.

Netty Musanhu: taking on gender-based violence in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe has had a long history of electoral violence. Every electoral year there is a lot of violence against women. [According to the Women’s Programme of the Research & Advocacy Unit, politically motivated violence, including rape, punishes individuals, families or communities who hold different political views.]

Musasa is an organization in Zimbabwe that tackles gender-based violence. It sits on Zimbabwe’s Anti-Domestic Violence Council, set up under the Domestic Violence Act, which advises government bodies on how to implement laws to protect women effectively. It also works directly with women survivors of sexual violence by providing temporary shelter and counselling, and operates a 24-hour hotline for women.

Lydia James caught up with Netty Musanhu when she attended the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, held between 10 and 13 June in London.

Two in three Zimbabwean women and girls have experienced a form of gender-based violence in their lifetime. What is life like for women in Zimbabwe?

Netty Musanhu

I am sure you are aware of the crisis that the country has been in for the last decade. Things are getting worse – women are bearing the brunt of all that. We are seeing an increase in rape and sexual violence. We ask ourselves the question, if we are having high levels of sexual violence in times of relative peace, what does this mean?

The situation right now for women and girls is getting to alarming levels. The government has at least acknowledged that there is a problem – we’ve been working with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs to launch a campaign. Everyone needs to take responsibility – faith and community leaders – to try to reduce rates of sexual violence, because if rates are so high now, what about in two, three years in the run-up to the next election? We need to do more.

The government has no money, so whether it will happen is another matter. Zimbabwe is not regarded as a ‘conflict country’, so not much money is given to it by donors.

What laws are in place to protect women?

Zimbabwe has been very good at ensuring we have the right acts and laws to protect women. The new constitution that began last year is gender positive. It is very good. But the missing link is the implementation of those laws.

The domestic violence law has not been getting enough attention or resources from the government – there is a huge gap. What we’ve been doing is advocacy to make sure laws are put in place.

But with our work we rely on donors. This is frustrating, because if donor priorities change, we have to change what we’re doing. You can’t do a six-month project and expect it to have an impact.

How did you come to be the director of Musasa?

I used to work for Action Aid International. Musasa is a charity that creates a safe space for women to be women. I felt it was an honour when they approached me to join [in 2009]. I think it has now transformed itself as an organization. You live it and breathe it, as you’re in contact with women on a daily basis.

What is the reaction of local communities to your work?

When talking to traditional leaders, faith leaders, men, older women – who are often put on the frontline – we are challenging harmful practices in the name of religion and culture.

We focus on creating safe spaces. We target whole communities – we work with men, boys, churches and chiefs to ensure that we prevent violence towards women.

What has the response been like from men?

We work a lot with leaders now and the impact of this has been that we are actually helping women through men. Men are bringing in their wives and sisters.

And men are volunteering with us in our sexual violence clubs, our peace clubs… there is a lot of interest from men. You can’t do it overnight, but there has been a positive impact.

Does the news about India’s rape cases filter back to Zimbabwe? If so, does it have any impact on how cases are dealt with?

The news comes out. Last time we (Musasa) organized a solidarity demonstration at the Indian embassy in Harare. The internet is freely available so people have come into contact with some of these cases. We use them to say to the government that if things are not done, this is what can happen.

One in three girls is raped before the age of 18 in Zimbabwe, according to UNICEF. There is lots of stigma and shame and victim-blaming. We need to break the cycle and the culture of violence.

Musasa is on Facebook.

Afghanistan's theatre of the oppressed



After more than 30 years of war, Afghanistan is a country synonymous with suffering, its people facing a crippled economy and infrastructure as well as bereavement on an unimaginable scale.

Amid the continuing turmoil a participative theatre initiative is helping some Afghans move towards justice and reconciliation by, literally, putting them centre stage. ‘People fell in love with the Theatre for the Oppressed,’ says Hjalmar Joffre-Eichhorn, spokesperson for the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization (AHRDO), which was born out of a vision to work with the most marginalized sectors of society.

Their first outing, five years ago, was a traditional scripted play performed by victims’ groups. Since then, AHRDO has continued to function despite the unrest, and it now employs women and men from around the country.

The aim of the theatre is not to point fingers of blame. But there is, says Hjalmar, an issue of transitional justice – the idea of redressing human rights violations following conflict: ‘Dealing with the past in a community-led way is where theatre comes in: it encourages a dialogue between different groups in society.’

AHRDO runs two main projects using different theatre techniques. Forum theatre explores issues of victimhood and the plays are developed by the ‘victims’ themselves. ‘Afghan widows are marginalized on two counts [as women and as widows], but by participating in theatre, they can tell their stories and promote two concepts lacking in Afghan society: democracy and justice,’ says Hjalmar.

‘Widows haven’t had their victimhood acknowledged yet. They want the government to be responsible for the murder of their husbands. The word “victim” doesn’t have positive connotations; it clashes with the notion of healing, and has received some criticism from Western NGOs.’ But coming to terms with loss is not easy when the perpetrators of unlawful killings are not brought to justice; accountability for human rights abuses has fallen off the government’s agenda.

‘Usually theatre is passive, but forum theatre is different – the audience is encouraged to participate by going on stage and coming up with a solution together,’ Hjalmar explains. ‘Up to 500 people can be in the audience at any one time. The aim of the theatre is dialogue, and its goal is to turn empathy into action.’

As well as the plays, the widows have created ‘memory boxes’, using artefacts, poetry and photos to tell their life stories. A hundred widows have exhibited their boxes in Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif, and in embassies.

Another project working with men and women focuses on women’s rights using legislative theatre. ‘We have worked with more than 5,000 women from six provinces in Afghanistan,’ notes Hjalmar. Women act out events in their lives to illustrate different issues and problems they face, such as forced marriage. The plays rarely have a happy ending. Participation is powerful: the audience’s solutions to the different issues are written down and common themes examined. The ideas gathered from one early rural theatre production were taken to a lawyer, who collated them into a legal report with 24 recommendations for new legislation concerning women’s rights. These were presented to the Afghan parliament. Now the document is used by MPs who are part of the Women’s Commission.

Zahra is one of the legislative theatre facilitators. ‘She embraced the theatre because it embodied something powerful,’ Hjalmar recalls. ‘But she was threatened, beaten up and forced into exile. The themes that we explore are not always welcomed; theatre exposes people. But Zahra has now returned. Theatre changed her life and she is willing to die for it.’

The future is uncertain, however. Violence, particularly towards women, is on the rise, partly due to the current withdrawal of foreign troops and post-election uncertainty. People are worried about the Taliban coming back.

‘The organization could close next week, next month, any time, because of the changing situation. And people are tired. It is impossible to plan ahead if every day you fear you or one of your loved ones might be killed.’

But there is still space for hope. ‘There are difficulties, but change is happening – and we continue because we want to create spaces for self-empowerment, and because stories need to be heard,’ says Hjalmar.

Hjalmar Jorge Joffre-Eichhorn spoke to Lydia James.

Fill bellies, not bins

Pumpkins in a field

Gleaners recover tonnes of pumpkins such as these at a farm near Southampton, England. © Gleaning Network UK

‘The chips aren’t very popular, so we’ll have the potatoes,’ says Lorraine, a worker at a homeless shelter in Oxford, England. On offer today in the Oxford Food Bank’s van are crates of Christmas pudding, lettuce, bananas, avocados, cookies, eggs and bread. Lots of bread. Everything apart from meat is collected by the organization and redistributed to local community charity projects across the city.

Lisa, another volunteer, remarks that the food bank feels like a mobile business, albeit a philanthropic one, rather than a means to distribute ‘waste’. Oxford Food Bank users know what they want, and in turn volunteers know to ‘informally ration’ certain items. If much of this food is ‘waste’, why do people want it? And why do customers crowd around the reduced section in a supermarket, while far greater amounts of imperfect produce are unceremoniously binned?

Between 30 and 50 per cent of the world’s food is wasted every year

It is legal for shops to sell food past its ‘best before’ date but many do not. ‘Best before’ dates are more about quality than safety, with the exception of eggs, according to the British Food Standards Agency.

Doug Rauch, former president of US grocery store chain Trader Joe’s launched Daily Table last month, a non-profit store in Boston selling only goods past shops’ sell-by dates – at half price. Donations of food by supermarkets and other suppliers are tax deducted, encouraging food distribution rather than waste.

Most supermarkets blame fussy customers, while customers blame supermarkets seeking perfection for wasting produce that is fit to eat. However, campaigns such as the Best Before Project in Britain that encourage businesses either to sell or donate food past its best before date could help prevent such circular arguments.

Legal hypocrisy

‘Climb resistant paint’ reads the sign as I consider my ability to hop over my local Co-operative supermarket’s locked gates. Having just peeked through a hole to see two workers dump large sacks of edible excess into an industrial-sized bin, I know there is plenty of food waiting to be recovered. The attitude of supermarkets towards dumpster diving can call into doubt their more benevolent face as sponsors of local food banks. But, as Tristram Stuart writes in his book Waste, ‘if people let food perish in their possession, they lose the right to own it.’

While supermarkets prosecute food reclaimers, they regularly decline produce from domestic and overseas producers that does not meet cosmetic standards or is surplus to requirements, without offering compensation or facing a fine. For some farmers, this can mean that 20 to 40 per cent of their harvest can go to waste, even 100 per cent if weather conditions have ruined the look of the produce. While it will not improve farmers’ financial woes, the age-old practice of collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields – gleaning – is enjoying a surge in popularity. Canadian volunteer-led group Not Far From The Tree puts Toronto’s fruit to good use by picking and sharing the bounty.

Between 30 and 50 per cent of the world’s food is wasted every year – half of it in producing countries that struggle with post-harvest loss due to inadequate storage; and half in rich nations where supermarkets and consumers eschew imperfection and treat food as a surplus good.

Global throwaway

The way we treat grain in the West directly affects producers in the Majority World. A few slices of bread thrown away at the end of each loaf by caterers and consumers contributes to an increase in global demand for grain, hiking up prices so that vital foodstuffs are out of the reach of the world’s poorest. If particular grains are shunned in rich countries in favour of a new ‘superfood’, for example, farmers are left with surplus crops fetching rock-bottom prices – with no alternative but to sell their produce before it spoils.

Good post-harvest management is important to reduce food loss and its environmental and economic impact. Agricultural NGO Groundswell International works in countries such as Burkina Faso and Ecuador, training farmers in techniques to improve food security and reduce waste. ‘One particularly successful post-harvest management strategy is metal grain storage silos in Haiti,’ says Chris Sacco, the organization’s Director of Operations. ‘Farmers are not only taught how to use the silos; they also learn how to make them from scratch.’

Eating and distributing food before it becomes waste is where the revolution begins

In India, Vaibhav Tidke and Shital Somani are developing what they hope will be a solution for millions of farmers and gardeners around the country: a solar convection dryer, suitable for fruit, vegetables and meat. The dryer dehydrates food, increasing its shelf life to a year, while retaining nutrients. Water can be added back in just before the food is eaten.

Farmers may be battling to ensure their produce survives storage and transportation overseas, but once in the world’s cafés, hotels and restaurants, food often faces a protracted journey to the bin. British restaurants alone waste 600,000 tonnes of food each year. But financial incentives and penalties could be a way of breaking this habit. Fed up with seeing full plates discarded during Ramadan after the nightly breaking of the fast, a restaurant in Saudi Arabia, Marmar, began three years ago to fine customers for leaving food, donating the money to charity. And in the US, chef Andrew Shakman created LeanPath, a food waste tracking system, in 2003 to spur on kitchen staff to be more careful with food. The system quantifies how much food is thrown out due to spoilage, expiration or overproduction. A camera documents each portion of food as it is thrown away. Workers can then see the equivalent of that food in terms of financial and environmental waste, while a scoreboard encourages competition between colleagues to save on edible excess.

South Korea and Japan are big believers in converting food surplus into feed for pigs, but they often employ energy-intensive methods. Since the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Britain in 2001, there has been an EU-wide ban on feeding food scraps – or swill – to pigs. The Pig Idea campaign aims to overturn the ban, both to divert food from landfill and to address the environmental and ethical impact of using 97 per cent of the world’s soy to feed livestock instead of people.

A fork and trowel: treasuring food

If wasting food is symptomatic of greed, ingratitude or ignorance, growing your own teaches its true value. ‘Gardening is a great way to connect people with their food,’ says Rob Pearce from Edible Garden City Project in Singapore.

‘When you grow your own, you harvest just when you want it, saving waste and giving you the freshest, tastiest and most nutritious food. Lots of children come to our workshops or community gardening sessions. This is great not just because it gets their hands dirty and they know where food comes from, but also because they value their food as they know how hard it is to grow.’

A billion people are starving worldwide, while 1.4 billion are overweight. The world’s population is steadily increasing and there is precious little room left for our waste to disappear into. From food growing to food sharing, community initiatives are challenging these issues.

Australian organization Food Know How, for example, offers community workshops on how to convert food waste into fertile soil by making Bokashi bins (easier to use than composters) and outdoor wormeries.

Be a ‘gangster with your shovel’ says guerrilla gardener Ron Finley who, with others, gardens on land he doesn’t have the legal right to use, on roadside plots and abandoned sites around Los Angeles.

Eating and distributing food before it becomes waste is where the revolution begins.


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