Inside a student political meeting at the birthplace of American public higher education

To what extents young people are involved in community works and politics in the birthplace of American public education? And how they mobilize the organizational process? These are the questions which took me to the ‘Young Democrats of UGA’s weekly meeting in Athens yesterday. To explore about people’s participation in public policy I’ve met and talked with many people in last few months, but this was the first time I was in a kind of totally political meeting.

Of course, I did not participate in the meeting, but I ‘observed’ the meeting as a foreign scholar working with a Public Outreach unit at the university, did not say a single world or contributed to anything. Around 30 students participated in the meeting titled ‘Spooky Politics’. Trendy name it is! After all, this is the Halloween week.

It was a classroom, number 348, in the Miller Learning Center. When I arrived on time at 6.30 in the evening, the Pizza time was almost over, so the discussion began. Scheduled for one hour the meeting went to super overtime, ended around 8.

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Barack Obama’s photo was distributed over the total presentation as the filler which worked as some kind of icebreakers in the meeting. Turns out, the young democrats still miss the former president.

My top takeaway from this meeting of Democrat Party’s young supporters is that they conducted the session in a very effectively minimalist way. There was an exclusively fun part, a Costume Contest where only the guy with ‘Richard Nixon’ mask failed to win a prize. And there were no ceremonial or ‘motivational’ fiery speeches in the meeting like we see in Asian countries. It was something between a responsive Briefing Session about recent political developments and a kind of a moderated ‘Talking Point’.

There was an MS PowerPoint presentation for the whole program divided into some categories; local and national news, weekly actions, forthcoming local and national legislative agendas, and the ways students can contribute in taking actions about those agendas. Almost, every discussion came with some recommendations about how the students can engage themselves in the process.

Secondly, the students seemed to have a strong and sincere conviction to their liberal cause. When discussing recent political news and forthcoming agendas, topics related to public infrastructure, and environmental sustainability got more importance. And when discussing the latest ‘Terror Attack’ in New York, the presenter Ruth Pannill was careful about the contents. The reason there was no visuals on the slide probably was not a technical glitch, but a conscious decision. ‘It’s important that this kind of terror attack is not being exploited to spread Islamophobia’, she said.

Thirdly, the student politics are heavily partisan too. A lot of discussions was about the forthcoming Georgia state legislative special elections. It seemed the students are seriously taking part in the campaign because if the Republican party wins they will retain their ‘Supermajority’ which gives them the power to change the state constitution.

The local Democrat candidate is Deborah Gonzalez. Ms. Gonzalez is a Latina who raised her two children as a single mom. The meeting was apparently happy about the fact that in contrast to the Republicans, their candidate is not a white male.

The Republican candidate 22-year-old Houston Gaines was heavily criticized at the meeting for his alleged failure to elaborate on important public issues. One of the presenters mentioned that in an electoral forum Mr. Gaines who is a former student body president at UGA, even failed to elaborate on what ‘unique perspective’ he will bring to the state legislature. At a point in that forum, the UGA graduate said, ‘It’s obvious just by looking at us that we have a different perspective’. Young Democrats also made fun of Mr. Gaines for this. Terming him a ‘man-child’, one of the student leaders said, as if being white and man is a perspective.

And another important note; the participants were most responsive when the discussion entered into ‘crazy things’ the current Republican president is doing. Almost everyone has something to say about it.

Lastly, the students seemed very engaged about any discussion on ‘legislative’ process. After discussing recent and forthcoming legislative agendas at both state and federal level, the students were asked to reach out their representatives with feedback and demands. Texting, calling and attending town halls, ‘make them scared for the midterms if they are doing shitty things’, one of the leaders said.

Also, turns out, the students think it is really difficult to find out important decisions and processes from House and Senate website, mostly because of acronym-infested and jargon-filled language.

So, of course, it was only a single meeting, which I decided not to ‘participate’. One can’t possibly know much more as an observer. Probably, at the meeting, I’ve got some ideas about how politically active young people see their potentials to shape public policies in the USA.

But I look forward to more one to one and group conversations with the southern youth. In a country where most college graduates are deep in the financial crisis with all the loans and so on, there should be more intriguing perspectives from the youth to find out.

I’m looking forward to exploring more about their thoughts about policies which oftentimes negatively impact the access to natural resources by families which eventually leads to more fiscal spending and debt.

‘I am the river; the river is me’, what it means for Conservation?

What will be the implications of attributing essentially secular person-hood to a natural process, a River, for example? Was it even something Maori people wanted for the Whanganui river as such? How will this new development influence the secular notion of ‘nature’ and vice versa? How it challenges the idea of ‘natural resources management’ as we know it? Will it bring any hope for dysfunctional and ‘native’ hating European approach of nature ‘conservation’

These are the questions I’m exploring since last week. And I’d love to share a brief note from what is gathered so far.

First of all, technically speaking, the New Zealand parliament did acknowledge Whanganui River as a legal person.

Of course, the 170-year old political battle of Indigenous people was not only about securing equal status for a river to a human person, the kind of legal person-hood enjoyed by incorporated entities (companies for instance).

The Maori people consider themselves as an indivisible part of nature; as a people, they consider the rivers, the mountains, the sea as members of their kin, their ancestors. But unfortunately, there is no scope of recognizing such a relationship within secular law. So, they had to choose an ‘approximation in law’, as one of the leaders said.

Secular ‘personhood’ for the Nature?

The ‘approximation’ of course granted the River ‘its own legal identity with all the corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person.’ But the NZ parliament agreed to do more by recognizing the river as an ‘ancestral’ river of Whanganui people; as a ‘person’ the River will be essentially considered as a member of the Whanganui people, not otherwise. Thus, the legislation also effectively says that from now on the rivers’ ‘interest’ will be represented by the indigenous people.

Technically, under the English common law, the Whanganui River is now a ‘minor’ person who needs to be represented by two guardians before the law. Supposedly, on behalf of this minor person, the guardians are entitled to sue anyone violating this persons’ rights. What if anyone invokes the rivers’ ‘liability’ in a case of a flood? Maybe it sounds naïve as much as the person-hood of the River seems amazing. How exactly will the things be played out in the court of law? That is something to see in the coming years.

What interests me more is, how this new development will be translated globally in different contexts. Moreover, how diverse form it will take if people in countries with the diminished participation of the citizens in the government try to peruse this political path of reclaiming their relationship with nature?

But one thing we can be sure about is, in absence of effective direct participatory government, in these times of judicial activism, courts in many countries will step in where ecological degradation is an epidemic. Citing the parliamentary precedent from NZ, an Indian court already tried to declare Ganga and Jamuna Rivers as ‘human person’. Turns out, ancestral status as goddesses is not protecting the rivers from pollution and encroachment

The Maori Message

So, this new development has all the potentials to be a stepping-stone for a new political path of reclaiming the relationship with nature, and for a legal one also. But if it is to be, it is totally up to the people, a common law court can’t deliver it. For the Maori people, it took almost two centuries of struggle. In spite of that, they were faced the Hobson’s choice of ‘legal status as a person’ for their natural kin. And they took it. Because in New Zealand, probably their leaders did not see themselves in a position to radically change the perceptions towards nature and ‘development’ in a Maori way.

While today we’re seeing people affiliated with ‘conservation’ movement, and ‘Natural Resource Management’ regimes across the world, and in general people who identify themselves as ‘liberal’ or ‘nature-loving’ are cheering this legislation as ‘victory’; I think it is important to note what a Maori MP said to us, he said ”It is not that we’ve changed our worldview, but people are catching up to seeing things the way that we see them.”

As far as I’ve read through interviews of members of the different Maori communities, the message is very clear to me; a River is not a ‘resource’ you are entitled to ‘control’ or ‘manage’, just let her be and live respectfully.

 

PHOTO: The Whanganui River. Mount Ruapehu can partly be seen at the top right of the scene. Photo by James Shook. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Flying crabs: Notes on Bangladesh’s export oriented mud crab fishery

The A great hunt is underway for the Mudcrabs in the Sundarban, world largest mangrove forest. Once just another scavenger in the forest, but since last decade the Mudcrabs are now known for their ‘export-quality’ flesh down here.

From the mudflats, creeks, canals, and rivulets of Sundarban, Mudcrabs are being exploited on an unprecedented scale, to be exported, alive; much to the delight of crustacean loving South East Asians- mainly the Chinese restaurant goers.

During some of my recent trips to the forest and impact zone, I’ve taken following notes on this;

A. The thriving crab fishery emerged as almost a Hobson’s choice for the local communities hard-hit by shrimp aquaculture and climate change. Sundarban dependent poor communities were already struggling hard to cope with disappearing livelihood options in the face of increased salinity, losing agriculture, declining fish stock and repeated floods and cyclones. So when the south-east Asian demand for seafood delicacy knocked at the door, the local traders took the opportunity.

 

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Fishers sleep on their dinghy in the Sundarban.

 

Take Munshiganj for example, a Union under Shyamnagar Upazila of Satkhira district. Once a quiet fishing hamlet tucked away on the bank of Kholpetua river of Sundarban, Munshiganj is now one of the busiest crab trade zones in the country.

When I first visited the area in 2008, bazaars around namely Kolbari, Nowabeki, and Harinagar has only six crab buying house operating seasonally. Now, more than thirty depots operate in only Kolbari bazar all year round. Every fine morning of Kolbari will remind you the hustle and bustle of Karwan Bazar fish market.
The scenario is more or less same for villages located in Sundarban Impact Zone of Bagerhat and Khulna districts too. Crab fishing in the mangrove heartland is spreading so rapidly that loan-givers cum buyers from far north are setting their new businesses throughout the coastal zone.

B. This is not a subsistence or artisanal fishery of local fishing families anymore. exploitation of mud crab is  Poor workers from the north-western regions are migrating seasonally to join this force of fishery workers. It’s easy to start now, as the buyers provide boat and gears with a lump sum of the cash. The newly turned fishers just need to go in with a permit from Forest Department and collect literally whatever they can get.

 

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Once a quiet fishing hamlet tucked away on the bank of Kholpetua river of Sundarban, Munshiganj is now one of the busiest crab trade zones in the country.

 

Satkhira district provides at least thirty percent of total Mudcrab extraction for export. Parulia bazaar is the main crab trade center of the district. On many occasions, I’ve talked to leaders of Parulia Crab Processing Traders Association. According to their account, they process seven to nine tonnes of Mudcrab in Parulia.

In every evening on an average of two truckloads of live Mudcrabs leave for Dhaka, where they wait for maximum two days, then hitch a ride on air cargo to be served as delicious dishes in China, Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia.

C. And it does not look like that, policy-makers have any idea about what is going on. Of course, it is not formally recognized as a ‘fishery’. The Forest Department sees it another ‘forest produce’. They just issue ‘permits’ for crab fishing in exchange for very little fees, as many ‘permits’ as the businesses want them to do. The other government agencies related to export promotions are keeping the record on how much foreign currency the crab exporters are earning.

 

Crab fishers
The fishers get only a third of the end value of the crab, which is less than fair, and in turn, pushes overexploitation to increase.

But reinvesting the revenue to maintain overall ecosystem balance or at least for sustaining the crab population is still unheard of.  Even there are no substantial efforts to know more about the crab populations to enable related agencies for sustainable management of the fishery.

 

D. Coastal regions of Bangladesh have very bad experience with another 100% export oriented industry; shrimp farming. Ecosystem balance and livelihoods in the coastal zone have been devastated by unsustainable shrimp farming in the last few decades. Thousands of hectares of Mangrove forest was cleared for shrimp farming in the Chakoria Sundarban region. In the western coast, shrimp farming is responsible for loosing for agricultural lands and salinity intrusion. And now, this wild crab fishery is just like the historic Burma-teak rush.

Back in Dhaka, I’ve talked with many government officials and exporters. But none them are planning anything to bring sustainability in the wild crab fishery.

 

Photos: © Mohammad Arju