Saturday, March 28, 2009

A win for westerners

On March 25, Congress passed the Omnibus Public Lands Bill. The bill failed by two votes the first time a round a few weeks ago. The bill designated over 2 million acres of wilderness in the following western states:

California -- 750,000 acres of wilderness (deserts, mountains, redwoods)
Colorado -- 450,000 acres of wilderness (canyons and mountains)
Idaho -- 500,000 acres of wilderness (deserts and canyons)
New Mexico -- 16,000 acres of wilderness plus protections for dinosaur tracks and a cave formation
Oregon -- 200,000 acres of wilderness (deserts, forests, wildflower meadows)
Utah -- 235,000 acres of wilderness (canyon country)
Wyoming -- 1.2 million acres of national forest would be off limits to future oil and gas drilling
Check out a map of the designations here.

The bill doesn’t mean much for Colorado. It designates parts of Rocky Mountain National Park and Dominguez Canyon, both of which are currently have wilderness-like protections already. The designation of the Owyhee-Bruneau Wilderness in my home state of Idaho, however, was quite significant. For the last 8 years, the collaborative Owyhee Initiative worked out a wilderness designation that got the support of a wide range of interests. The Owyhee Initiative website states:

At the invitation of the Owyhee County Commissioners, groups began meeting to see if a collaborative solution was possible for some of the contentious natural resource issues particular to this area. The groups participating in the initiative which include ranchers, conservationists, county officials, recreationists, and others have used the following goal as their starting point:

To develop and implement a landscape-scale program in Owyhee County that preserves the natural processes that create and maintain a functioning, unfragmented landscape supporting and sustaining a flourishing community of human, plant and animal life, that provides for economic stability by preserving livestock grazing as an economically viable use, and that provides for protection of cultural resources.

If you guys don’t know Idaho and rural Idahoans, it’s hard to explain how amazing it was that these folks lined up behind environmentalists in a wilderness designation. I’m sure this approach was a breath of fresh air for locals. Many times wilderness designations in places where locals are typically anti-wilderness are conducted by outside environmentalists that go above the local communities straight to congress or the President (in the case of the Clinton/Babbitt last-minute National Monuments). But this time, wilderness interests sat at the table with the local communities and banged out a plan everyone could live with. Both Idaho Senators and one Representative voted for the bill. I can’t believe it, but for the first time in my life I’m proud of Mike Crapo and my Idaho Congressionals.

Although you might think all of the environmental community would cheer about Idaho politicians voting for a wilderness designation, there are a several detractors. Wilderness Watch, a group out of Missoula opposed the bill. On their web page they say:

The 1,246-page (Omni) contains … 15 separate wilderness bills. Many of the wilderness bills are relatively clean, meaning they don’t contain special provisions that will diminish the integrity of wilderness. However, at least two of the bills -- the Owyhee in Idaho, and the Washington County, Utah bills -- contain numerous harmful provisions that would open these areas to inappropriate activities such as the routine use of ATVs for herding livestock, motor vehicle use (including aircraft) and habitat manipulation by state fish and game agencies, and other damaging activities.

My favorite High Country News blogger Ray Ring lamented about the bill not passing the first time. His piece was met with ire by some environmentalists. A poster by the name of George maintained that the Dems should have taken more time to weed these issues out of the bill. He states:

If not, if Congress has tied itself up so tightly it can’t pass simple bills that have broad support, or has become so distracted with junkets and fundraising that there isn’t time to do the people’s business in a deliberative way, then it needs to fix the process, not resort to hasty, and destructive omnibus bills that trade away for political expediency deeply held American values, like Wilderness, wildlife protection, and democracy.

There are some good points are raised here, especially about the watering down of wilderness, which is everyone’s business. However, George’s idea of democracy is pretty different from mine. In the development of the Owyhee-Bruneau Wilderness, many folks of many different interests sat down at the table and came to an agreement. There is no better example of grassroots democracy. I guess George thinks democracy is outside groups coming in after the collaborative process and pulling out pieces of the agreement that were important in getting everyone to come to consensus. Never mind that small sacrifices local environmental interests made resulted in the support of local communities and local politicians. Unfortunately there are some enviros who still prefer forcing their agenda on local communities in a top-down matter. That’s not democracy to me.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Putting child labor in developing countries into perspective

Allow me try to put child labor in Africa or other developing regions into context. This is not meant to excuse child labor, merely to explain what I’ve seen while living in Kenya. I guess the most important thing to remember is that many families are extremely poor. They probably only eat one meal a day, and that they are grateful for. Forcing your children to contribute to your daily meal is more a necessity than cruel, greedy oppression.

To me, the cruellest part of child labor is denying that child a chance at an education, and thereby a hope at a future better than their parents. Now, remember that school in many developing countries is not free. Even in Kenya, where the government does have an official free primary school (grades 1-8) system, parents are responsible for buying school supplies, such as a uniform, books, pens, etc. This is a minor cost, but it can be very significant for the poorest of the poor. Many families simply cannot afford to send their children to primary school.

So if the child is not going to go to school anyway, what’s wrong with asking them to work in the farm with his/her parents? That doesn’t make it any less horrible for the child, but come on, in many situations all family members need to contribute in order for the family to live. Most child labor in Africa is children working on small family subsistence farms. For some reason, I view working on a farm less tragic than sending your 10 year old to work in a coal mine, for example. What if the child is forced to work on the farm after school or on weekends? American children are “forced” to do chores, right? Again, the important point to me is that a child gets an education.

A common form of child labor for girls in Africa and other developing countries is working as a made or housegirl. A family does not even need to be wealthy to be able to hire a housegirl, at least part-time--middle class will do. These are viewed as good opportunities for young girls, and in some cases the girls are happy to have it. They have no chance at going to school (secondary school is not free so only the middle-class and above can afford it, so working in a house is really the next best option. They can work from age 12-18 and accrue quite a savings, as they spend very little money while they work. This money can make them more independent and less likely to marry the first man that comes along. They can send money to their families, providing food for younger siblings.

I guess my point is that after understanding child labor in Africa, I view it as “less horrible,” because it’s a matter of life and death for the child and his/her family, and they might not be losing out on an opportunity to go to school by working. It's also largely a matter of degree: the age of the child, the work being done, etc.

I’ve always preferred not to shove western cultural norms on other communities. We’re not the most kind society either in some respects, so it can come of as being hypocritical and patronizing. Some Americans view others as “barbarians,” but they’re the ones who take care of their elders instead of hiding them away in nursing homes. We have no problem exploiting our 5 year old girls for beauty pageants and our 10 year old boys for Little League world series on ESPN.

However, this doesn’t mean we can’t support the cause of children in developing countries. There are child labor organizations you can donate too, but I’d be careful of unintended consequences--again, a working child could make the difference between life and death for some of the poorest families. We can also lobby to change some of the root causes of poverty in developing countries, like insisting on improving governance if developing countries want aid money, or pushing for fair trade so African agricultural exports are on a level playing field. Africans want the same things for their children than we do: an education and the best chance to succeed in life. These things can be realized only if poverty is reduced.