Archive for the ‘Human Rights’ Category

In 2012 I was very fortunate to attend several prominent international conferences where population issues – including human rights, the environment, and the global economic reality – were discussed. These events were the Aspen Ideas Festival, the Rio+20 Earth Summit and the Montreal International Conference on Degrowth in the Americas.

iStock_000014852074XSmall Earth

My current work is writing on many issues related to population, especially rights and the environment. We live in a world with 7 billion people that is predicted to be between 8 to 10 billion by 2050.  And we face many pressing problems that need solutions grounded in fairness, equality, and respect for life.

After attending these conferences, along with other events, experiences, and research, I decided to write a report on inclusive, holistic approaches to covering this subject. The result is People’s Rights, Planet’s Rights: Holistic Approaches to a Sustainable Population. It recommends focusing on the following issues to create a path to a sustainable population:

  • Women’s Rights – providing voluntary family planning services to the 222 million women in developing countries who want access to family planning services but do not have access to contraceptives;
  • Youth Rights – providing comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education to the nearly 3 billion young adults under the age of 25;
  • Rights of Nature – recognizing the legal right of ecosystems to exist;
  • Rethinking the Economy – accepting that endless economic growth is unsustainable and more efficient global indicators of human and environmental well-being should be adopted.

While there has been much focus, and rightly so, of the need to empower women as the answer to stabilizing population numbers, I think that other issues are sometimes overlooked. One is recognizing the rights of youth to reproductive health and education. Another – the need to reassess our endless growth economy – isn’t often mentioned as a solution in conjunction with human rights. Lastly, the concept of rights of nature is barely mentioned at all.

This report is my attempt to bring these issues together as a way to craft policies to better our communities and our world. Certainly it could have a big impact on India, which is soon to have the world’s biggest population. Balancing human rights with nature’s rights would help tigers and other endangered species. Creating local, sustainable economies with quality livelihoods would help people and the environment.

The same applies for the U.S. and developed countries. The situations might be slightly different, but in the end, they are not really so different; after all, we all share the same planet.

In my opinion, implementing policies based on the points above are worth undertaking and we have nothing to lose by doing so. It just might make the world a better place, which is what most of us want.


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I’m on the road and will be giving a presentation on women’s rights and rights of nature in Montreal later today.  I just came across this headline though and wanted to post the article.   It mentions the ‘people vs. wildlife” situation that we will be hearing more and more about, not just in India.

India seeks $30 million fund to save tigers

TNN | May 16, 2012, 01.47AM IST

NEW DELHI: India has sought assistance of $30 million under the Global Tiger Initiative, Keshav Varma, programme manager for the World Bank-led scheme, said here on Tuesday.He was speaking on the sidelines of the first stock-taking meeting of tiger-bearing countries on the Global Tiger Recovery Programme.India has refused to let Bank funds be used for protection and running of tiger reserves in the country but Varma suggested that the funds were to be used for the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau and international collaborations.

While India hosted the meeting which saw around 150 delegates and experts come together, the differences of approach between the World Bank initiative and Indian government’s approach were visible even on the inaugural day of the workshop.

While Varma referred to the US law on creating wilderness spaces – wildlife zones with no permanent human presence — environment and forests minister Jayanthi Natarajan emphasized that conservation in India had to be more inclusive, involving and protecting the rights of people living in vicinity of forests.

“The ‘people agenda’ ranks prominently in our ‘tiger agenda’. While we do not imagine any coexistence in the inviolate core areas, a viable inclusive agenda involving local people is fostered in the surrounding buffer,” Natarajan said.

Earlier too, while the initiative was taking off, India had pushed for country-specific solutions to conserve the tiger and won the debate on maintaining the issue as a ‘sovereign one’ – something that member secretary of the National Tiger Conservation Authority Rajesh Gopal stated yet again on Tuesday at the stock-taking exercise.

The workshop is expected to set the agenda for this year and negotiate and deliberate common parameters to assess conservation efforts.

Varma also advocated a greater role for the private sector in conservation efforts – something the government has not allowed so far though several agencies and corporates have shown interest in getting involved in management of such reserves, which improves their branding and is also a lucrative business proposition with tiger tourism being a key market.

The Union government is expected to present before the Supreme Court fresh guidelines about regulating tourism around tiger reserves within the next few days.

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Recently I had the privilege of meeting with Dr. Prakash Tyagi, a medical doctor and director of Gramin Vikas Vigyan Samiti (GRAVIS), a rural empowerment organization based in the state of Rajasthan, India.  Dr. Tyagi was visiting the San Francisco Bay Area, courtesy of the International Development Exchange (IDEX).

The mission of GRAVIS, grounded in Gandhian philosophy, is to promote sustainable rural development via capacity building, community and women’s empowerment, social justice, and protecting the environment.  I am familiar with the work of GRAVIS, having written previously on how the organization empowers rural communities through employing traditional knowledge of taankas, a water storage system.

GRAVIS works in the Thar Desert in western Rajasthan.  It is the world’s most densely populated desert ecosystem, with 23 million people.  Life is tough, with unpredictable rainfall, environmental degradation, climatic extremes, resource scarcity, few health clinics, and oppressive social standards for women.  GRAVIS incorporates a holistic approach, focusing on water security, food security, health, and education, and reaches approximately 1 million people.

Dr. Tyagi talked about how GRAVIS works to overcome the difficulties facing women in the Thar Desert by making them equal partners.  They are guided by the idea of “sitting on one carpet”, meaning equal voice/equal rights for men and women.  Much of this work is done through Self-Help Groups, which aid women in life skills and economic self-reliance.  Projects include support for seed banks, micro-credit lending, and nutrition.

Overall, GRAVIS takes a life-cycle approach to meeting the needs of girls and mothers, and promotes leadership development, health education, maternal health, and girls education. Currently, the organization has set up 90 primary schools to help increase girl enrollment.

We discussed family planning, a sensitive issue in rural areas.  GRAVIS has put much effort toward prevention, capacity building, and the training of village health workers.  I asked Dr. Tyagi about the “mother-in-law” effect, as this particular family member has culturally had much influence on births in India (with a preference for grandsons). Though still an obstacle, Dr. Tyagi said they were slowly changing deep-rooted beliefs, especially by involving men in family planning, and by improving literacy.  GRAVIS states on their website that village health workers, who come from rural areas, have the trust of their respective communities, which enables them to overcome some of the village skepticism regarding modern medicine and health practices.

Another cultural barrier to overcome is that of child marriage, a still-too-common practice in Rajasthan, and one rooted in social poverty. Official government figures show the percentage of girls getting married before the age of eighteen is 68% in Rajasthan.  Dr. Tyagi said that their Self-Help Groups work in villages to change attitudes and beliefs. GRAVIS has been able to reduce rates of child marriage by empowering women, educating girls, and improving economic opportunities.

Lastly, our discussion touched upon overcoming desertification, overgrazing, erosion, and other environmental problems.  GRAVIS works with communities through locally-based organizations to create community forests and pastures.  The forests – called orans – are considered sacred, dedicated to a local god or goddess and protected by ancient laws in each community. According to the social entrepreneurial group Ashoka, the land is sacred because it provides villages with grazing land and pasture for livestock, produce and medicinal plants such as berries, roots and herbs, and also fuel, timber and water.  Traditionally, orans allowed for equal access of all people to resources.  GRAVIS is working with communities to protect more orans in the Thar Desert region.

The short time I spent with Dr. Tyagi gave me hope and inspiration that by taking a holistic, traditional, and empowerment-based approach to the critical issues facing not only Rajasthan, but also much of the world, we can create positive change.

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We hear a lot about consumption in the developed world, and rightly so.  As an American, I know that the majority of my fellow citizens and I consume an unsustainable amount of goods and resources.  This needs to change, as the planet cannot support a growing global population of American-level consumers.

But of course, as developing countries grow, prosper, and move into the middle-class, they want the things that we in the developed world want and have.  Cars, computers, smartphones, televisions, lattes and most everything else under the sun. It is a contentious issue, one that has stymied the global climate talks, amongst other things.  We can only hope that we soon find a path that we can all live with and still be content.

What does the situation in India look like?  People often associate India with poverty and rural villages, but that’s rapidly changing.  It is projected that by 2030, approximately half of India’s households are projected to be in the middle class.  That amounts to close to 600 million people.

India's Growing Middle Class


The outlook for India is that growing urbanization, a young working-age population, and higher income will result in increased spending, resulting in a consumption boom over the next two decades.  No wonder Wal-Mart is banging on India’s doors (it currently operates in India as a joint venture with an Indian conglomerate, but foreign investment rules could be on the verge of change).

I started this blog because I find India fascinating and believe that what takes place in that country not only affects the world but can provide a learning experience for us all.  How can we bring 400 million village people who lack electricity into the 21st century without creating huge amounts of carbon emissions?  Like China, India is heavily reliant on coal but is also moving ahead with renewable energy initiatives.  What happens when more and more Indians move to urban cities?  How will India balance growth, poverty, and the environment?  And what about tigers?

I follow and associate with groups that are doing amazing work in India.  These organizations, many focused on women (Navdanya, WEA, IDEX, GRAVIS), and others (SELCO, Husk Power Systems), give me hope that as Indians make progress they will also find a sustainable path to prosperity.  Technology will play a key role, but so will tapping into historical/ancestral knowledge and traditional best practices.

India has existed for a long time.  I’m willing to bet that there is a lot we can learn from the world’s biggest democracy.  At the very least, it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

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The first time I went to India, back in 2000, I was on a steep learning curve to learn about seed saving, industrial agriculture, and genetically-engineered foods.  I was working at the International Forum on Globalization and organizing a trip for a handful of North American, European, and South American farmers, activists, and scientists to meet their counterparts in India.

What I remember best about the trip was visiting the organization Navdanya, located in the Himalayan foothills near the town of Dehra Dun.  Navdanya works with farmers to save seeds that have been used by Indian farmers for generations.  Seed saving is threatened by large corporations such as Monsanto and Cargill, and by global trade rules which they lobby intensively for (such as trade related intellectual property rights, or patents).  Once a seed is patented, then farmers, many of whom have been saving seeds all their lives, can no longer do so because they are violating patent rights.  Each year they must buy seeds to plant.

About a decade ago, neem, a tree endemic to South Asia, was part of a big patent battle in India.   It has many traditional uses, including medicinal, fuel, toothpaste, and even as a type of contraception. Neem has been used for thousands of years but in the 1990s a multinational company put a patent on neem.  An international coalition led a fight against W. R. Grace and the European Patent Office to overturn the patent, and eventually it was revoked. How can a company be allowed to engineer a native species and then force people to buy it when they have been harvesting and saving it for years?  Well, that’s a long story and another post.  Simply put, it’s the belief that man can do better than nature.

Along with seed saving Navdanya promotes biodiversity, organic farming, and farmers’ rights.  They also help build community seed banks and train farmers and others in food sovereignty and creates awareness of indigenous knowledge and practices.

Now that I cook Indian dishes, I can appreciate all the seeds and spices I saw at Navdanya’s farm.  Cardamon, turmeric, coriander, fenugreek and many other things I couldn’t recognize and never knew existed. It was simply amazing, as was the food they cooked up for us – all fresh and homemade.  None of this processed stuff we call food.

I would love to go back and visit with the Navdanya staff and farmers, now that I understand so much more about local agriculture, Indian food, and holistic living.  But I can certainly appreciate what I have here, especially in bountiful California. Support local, organic agriculture and you’ll live and eat well.  Someday we’ll overcome corporate rules that really don’t benefit anyone and threaten our environment and communities.   In India, farmers are fighting to protect their livelihoods, as are farmers here in the U.S.  It’s a cliché, but buying local and acting global makes a big difference in so many ways.  It tastes and feels good too.

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photo credit: Oxfam.org.uk

Secretary Hillary Clinton and her entourage have come and gone from India, where they discussed many important and pressing issues.  However, women’s issues were not among them.  Of course you can’t cover everything in a short visit, yet I am a little surprised that it didn’t even make the agenda, given Clinton’s strong support of these issues at the State Department (creating an Office of Global Women’s Issues).  Clinton has put a lot of her force behind women rights, saying “The United States must be an unequivocal and unwavering voice in support of women’s rights in every country on every continent.”

Women in India are impacted by a host of problems, from poverty to HIV/AIDS to ingrained preference for sons.  The maternal mortality rate in India is shockingly high, at 254 per 100,000 live births, though there has been some improvement in the last few years. I wish Clinton would have focused attention on maternal health; according to UNICEF, worldwide over 500,000 women die of pregnancy related causes every year.  It is unconscionable that this many women are dying in childbirth.  A little attention and investment in healthcare and women’s rights would make a world of difference.

When I was in India in 2009, I met with women and men working to improve the maternal health of Indian women and increase awareness of family planning.  Education and access to health centers, be it public or private, are key.  A high percentage of rural women do not have close or easy access to clinics and healthcare providers, nor do they receive adequate pre (and post) natal care.  Furthermore, they don’t receive much education on sexual and reproductive health, especially available contraceptive options for themselves and their families.  It is crucial that both partners be educated and involved in making decisions and understand the risks and benefits.

Population Services International is one of many groups doing excellent work on women’s health.  One tactic they use in educating people is street theater, where actors talk about the effects of having a large family vs. small and act out as couples having a discussion of family planning. The play I saw was on IUDs – what it is, why couples might want to use it.  During and after the street theater, outreach workers hand out pamphlets with information.  It also doesn’t hurt to have international celebrities on your side — to encourage condom usage PSI has Justin Timberlake marketing one of their Masti condom brand.

I know, we can barely get our Congress to do the right thing on energy efficient light bulbs, so why would they even care about the health of women in India.  That’s someone else’s problem if women in India are dying in childbirth.  This is an obvious statement, but it is about doing what is morally just.  Women should not be dying in childbirth anywhere in the world in the 21st century if it is at all preventable.

Hopefully Secretary Clinton’s next trip to India will make this and other issues directly affecting women a priority.

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Words such as “green” and “eco” and “sustainability” are thrown around a lot these days in terms of improving the environment and coping with climate change. Sometimes the words have positive actions behind them, and other times, well, they are just words.

If we’re going to protect our communities and environment from increasing degradation, we are going to need more than words.  Simply put, we need a shift in the way we live and interact with our world.  A paradigm shift.  In India, the shift is called “Earth Democracy,” of which I’ll write more of later.

Last week I attended Global Exchange’s Human Rights Awards ceremony.  The awards are given annually to celebrate and honor people who are giving back to their communities and beyond.  One of this year’s honorees was Pablo Solón, Bolivian Ambassador to the United Nations.  Amongst other things, Solón is working to get members of the UN to adopt a Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth, which would complement the existing UN Declaration on Human Rights.

As I’ve written a bit on this subject before, I just want to share some highlights from Solon’s speech, some statements he made to which we should all give serious thought:

  • the biggest mistake that humanity is making is seeing nature as just a resource
  • if we don’t respect nature we will face a situation where it is impossible to guarantee human rights
  • our greatest challenge is thinking about the environment in a different way
  • we need to build a worldwide movement around human rights and nature’s rights

According to Global Exchange, Solón has emerged at the forefront of a global movement to radically change the relationship between humankind and nature.  He is not your typical ambassador, and giving rights to nature is not your mainstream issue — not yet at least.  But I’m willing to bet that if we take a hard look around at what our world is like and what are lives are like, this movement on the rights of nature may not seem that radical after all.  So many of us are so disconnected, to each other and especially to nature.   But the earth is a living system and humans are part of that system.

We need to make a shift not just in the way we live, but in how we think of our world and our place in it.  Solón’s view is that for humankind to survive, we need to develop another kind of system with a different relationship with nature.  Radical? Perhaps.  Necessary?  With a doubt.

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