Fools going to war?

Apart from the haircut, perhaps the most remarkable feature of Mr. Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, is that he is quite a young man (only 33 years old) and an angry young man to boot! After Mr. Don Trum-up threatened to destroy his country in a speech to the United Nations (sic), the North Korean response was to heap abuse on a doddering old man who has his finger on the biggest trigger in the world (and also has an absurd hairstyle). The Korean expression used was translated as ”mentally deranged dotard.” Many members of the American psychological profession apparently back up this assessment.

No doubt next year there will be lots of events to commemorate the end of the First World War (1914-18), a conflict that resulted in the deaths of millions of men, mostly in the ”flower of their youth.” Since then and particularly during the 20th Century – the age of extremes – millions more young men have been persuaded to bomb, strafe and snipe at their enemies in an endless blood-rush of fury and destruction. Surveying the ruins, it is hard to conclude that the species homo sapiens represents the apex of natural selection on Earth, rather the opposite: that people have had considerable difficulties dragging themselves beyond the entrances to their caves despite 70,000 years of technological progress.

Indeed, we seem powerless in the face of grunting stand-offs between off-balance dictators and their militarised minions. Disarmament negotiations are discarded in favour of chest beating from the decks of aircraft carriers and wild screams from submarines as groups of alpha males groom themselves in ridiculous uniforms while preparing for the great showdown. In a world cluttered to overflowing with guns and ammunition, nuclear missiles and poison gas, barbed wire and improvised explosive devices, I fear that many fools in powerful places don’t need much encouragement to resort to using weapons in pursuit of an illusion of security.

Or do they? Perhaps modern youth will be able to distinguish between war games on their video modules and smartphones and the crazed ranting of bitter politicians trying to convince one group of citizens to hate another. For the time being I rest my case and keep my one eye on the Korean peninsula.


Mali on my mind

There are some extraordinary scenes in Abderrahmane Sissako’s 2014 film “Timbuktu”, which explores how the people in and around the city cope with the invasion of a bunch of jihadis bringing their haphazard ideas of the sacred and profane to disrupt everyday life on the edge of the Sahara desert. The half-crazed fanatics ban many forms of amusement including football. Some boys gather on their dusty playing field and go through the motions of a game but without a ball. Their flowing movements – like ballet dancers – are accompanied by a faint murmuring tune; the fundamentalists also banned music. A couple of jihadis roll past on a motorbike and the game stops. The players pretend to be doing gymnastics. There have been few better images of the surreal madness that has engulfed a vast belt of territory stretching from Central Asia, through the Middle East and across large expanses of Africa.

In 1985ish – not long after re-locating to Denmark – I began to think about food and agricultural policies in developing countries, about how and why some people have been able to transform farming systems, increase productivity and output and generate surpluses for export, while others languished in rural poverty, stricken with under nutrition and – in the worst cases – famine. Inspired by some analyses of peasants, markets and rural development, I decided to prepare a research project by traveling to West Africa. Through some chance encounters I had established contact with researchers at the Council for the Development of Social Sciences in Africa (CODESRIA) in Dakar, so Senegal seemed like a good place to start out.[1] Studying maps, I realised that it would be possible to travel all the way from the Atlantic coast to Ouagadougou, the landlocked capital of Burkina Faso. Taking the train from Dakar to Bamako and ”taxis brousse” (bush taxis) the rest of the way, the trip would include an excursion into the inner delta of the Niger River, at the heart of “la République du Mali.”

For around two months at the end of 1986 I backpacked with Lene, enduring some hardships but also getting a very good impression of the region known as the Sahel (the coast of the desert). After a couple of days in the urban confusion of Dakar, we went to the southern Casamance region and then took the train eastwards crossing into Mali near Kayes. I later found out that the borderlands along the Senegal River are amongst the hottest on the planet. Our train was slow and lots of dust and heat wafted into the carriages. After numerous stops at small towns and villages in the savannah, the train crawled into Bamako 12 hours late.

There were very few tourists in Mali. We stayed in rather run down hotels in Bamako, Ségou and Mopti, the three most accessible destinations along the Niger River. We enjoyed the colourful crowds in the markets, but found out that traveling around the delta by bus or taxi was difficult, so we didn’t get to the great sights (mosques) of Djenné and Timbuktu.

I didn’t connect with any researchers in Mali either. There was no university in Bamako and other educational opportunities were limited. I realised that the world of learning was not high on the priorities of the military government.

In Mopti we joined a huge crowd to watch a display of sailing skills on the river in honour of a visit by Mme. Mitterand accompanied by the Malian president’s wife, Mme. Traoré. Her husband was a fairly brutal general who had seized power in a coup d’état back in 1968. He overthrew Modibo Keita, one of Africa’s independence heroes, who had broken with France and developed economic relations with the Eastern Bloc. But aid from the USSR was limited. Mali had few exports of value: some cotton and livestock “sur pied” (on the hoof). Various grand schemes to expand irrigated rice cultivation in the delta largely failed. Severe droughts and famines of the 1970s and early 1980s seriously affected the country and questions of how to transform rural livelihoods and ensure food security were paramount.[2]

At the time of our trip in the mid-1980s, Mali had become a testing ground for adjusting price policies to encourage farmers to grow and sell more while managing grain storage systems with food aid deliveries in order to cope with shortfalls. I collected enough information to be able to write a paper on how aid donors – notably the Commission of the EU and USAID – supported the government’s food and agricultural policies. It was published in 1987 more or less at the same time as I began my research in Copenhagen. But having been lucky enough to meet a group of young researchers interested in my questions and attached to Ouagadougou University, I had shifted my focus from Mali to Burkina Faso.[3]

Moussa Traoré was finally overthrown by angry mobs and dissatisfied soldiers in a popular uprising in March 1991. By that time I had finished my PhD and started to work as a consultant. For several months I was involved in a feasibility study of livestock development in the “Liptako Gourma” region, which straddles northern Burkina Faso, north-central Mali and western Niger. My second “on the ground” introduction to Mali in 1991 included discussions with enthusiastic young people working to improve animal production systems.[4] One of them I remember in particular: aside from cattle, Dr. Diakité had a special interest in the small population of elephants living in the Gourma region!

I also discovered that Mali was riven with conflicts, notably between the peoples living in the northern desert and semi-desert regions and the greener south. The delta of the Niger River is a melting pot and meeting place for sedentary farmers, pastoralists and fishermen, as well as merchants. In course of time various kingdoms formed in the region, where control of salt and gold and cattle trading enabled rulers to accumulate some wealth and power. The Fulani – semi-nomadic cattle raising people – developed a sophisticated system permitting access to the river at different times of year as the waters rose and fell, thereby allowing the fishermen and farmers to co-exist. On the fringes of the Sahara, the “men of the desert” or “blue people” (Tuareg) occupied a vast, sandy landscape, riding camels and herding cattle between oases while obtaining grain from farmers along the river. Slavery was widespread.

Like many West Africans, the Tuareg resisted French colonial rule, not only in Mali but also in what became Mauretania and Niger, as well as southern Algeria and Libya. Their opposition gradually coalesced into a movement for the independence of “Azawad” as they call their territory. Since the end of the 19th Century there have been several armed uprisings both against French “imperialists” (AOF) and the Malian government after independence. Thus, for decades the north has been a zone of unrest and “instabilité.”

I was crazy enough to travel around this turbulent region in 1992. As a member of a small team evaluating Norwegian development assistance to the “Sudano-Sahel” region, I flew from Bamako to the small town of Goundam, 100 kilometres from Timbuktu. Working together with a French consultant, my task was to assess the progress of various Norwegian funded development schemes: irrigation along the Niger River, community development in off-the-beaten track villages and the dredging of a stream that supplies water to Lac Faguibine.

The lake is an extraordinary phenomenon. Surrounded by the Saharan sands, it is fed with water for two or three months every year when the level of the Niger River rises in the flood season bought on by the rains in the Fouta Diallon mountains to the south-west in Guinea. There is a narrow channel flowing from the river to the lake, but due to neglect it had silted up. Without water the crop production systems around the lake had deteriorated leading people to abandon the region. Thus, the plan was to dredge and clean the stream – called the “Marigot de Kondi” – thereby re-generating the lake and the rural economy.

In order to take a look we had to arrange transport. A peace agreement between the government and the Tuareg rebels had been signed in Bamako shortly before our arrival, but the local authorities in Goundam were uneasy about guaranteeing the safety of “la mission Norvégienne” since communication was poor, there were rumours of bandits in the area and the terrain was rough. After some haggling we agreed to have a military escort – whose fuel we paid – as we drove across the dunes to a settlement called Bintagoungou on the edge of the lake. En route I made surreptitious efforts to take a few photos of our odd little caravan as we bounced across the sand stopping from time to time to inspect the state of the “marigot.”

From Bintagoungou we drove eastwards to Timbuktu. I remember that we arrived in the legendary city towards sunset and immediately went for a walk to see the mosques and the buildings housing the famous libraries. I was a bit disappointed to find that it was a rather dilapidated and dusty settlement, but there was a comfortable bed and water at the hotel.

The trip around the north included meetings with farmers attempting to improve irrigated crop production along the riverbanks as well as a stop in Mopti to discuss birdlife and a scheme to protect nesting sites for migratory species with representatives of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The evaluation of Norwegian assistance covered numerous topics. I also spent a few days travelling by train to and from Bafoulabé in the north western Kayes region where a Norwegian NGO called Pastor Strømmes Foundation was engaged in rural development. Overall we had many positive impressions to report to the donor.[5]

One way or another, by 1992 I was beginning to feel that I understood some of the dynamics of development policies and practices in Mali. I was also well aware of the educational and health deficiencies in the country, which ranked amongst the lowest in the world on the UN’s “human development index.” The removal of Moussa Traoré, the end of military rule and the organisation of elections seemed to be ushering in a new phase promising better days for the impoverished rural and urban communities.

The Norwegians seemed optimistic too and in the post-cold war period of the mid-1990s it appeared that more financial resources might flow to the benefit of the poor. In 1994 I also visited Bamako briefly in connection with a study of crop protection schemes in the Sahel. But then the country dropped off my radar screen…

Over ten years later I was in Bamako again, as team leader for an appraisal of a proposal to provide Danish funding for improved water supply and sanitation. During my two-week assignment in 2006 I was slightly shocked to find that although there had been several elections and although local government had been strengthened considerably, illiteracy rates were still high, rural poverty was still widespread and the conflict between the north and the south rumbled on. I was particularly taken aback by discovering the extent of gender inequity; the female sociologist I worked with was very upset by the way in which even trained technicians in the water and sanitation services looked down on women, refusing to greet her or to listen to her ideas. In the final wind-up session at the Ministry in Bamako we made some noise about the importance of tackling gender bias in development schemes funded through Danish aid, something which might have seemed fairly obvious in so far as we dealt with basic needs for all: the provision of clean drinking water for rural households and efforts to encourage better hygiene to reduce infant and child mortality.

It is astonishing that in the 21st Century there are men who consider women to be unclean, unfit to drive cars and only able to serve as sexual servants, not to mention who like to grope girls. I’m not surprised that the feminists are resurgent in many countries. During travels in Mali I learnt a little more about the closed minds of religious fanatics.

Meanwhile the war of terror continued to spread unrest throughout the Middle East and deep into Africa. In 2011 the rippling waves of Arab discontent reached Libya. Colonel Gaddafi was heavily involved in the politics of West Africa and there were many soldiers with roots in the region serving in his armed forces. Thus, amidst the chaos when the colonel was overthrown, hundreds of men and thousands of weapons drifted southwards across the desert to Mali. It was only a matter of time before these heavily armed “mécontents” began to organise another revolt, bringing together the jihadis of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) and the Tuareg.

Although I haven’t been to Mali since 2006, I have watched from a distance as the tragedy of violence has spiralled out of control. In 2012 the fundamentalists fleeing from Libya joined forces with the northern secessionists and began to move south, rapidly overrunning the demoralised Malian army. A coup d’état in Bamako further weakened the institutions of the country. As European governments’ fears of a jihadi “state” exporting terror from south of the Sahara looked increasingly likely to materialise, the French put together a coalition and a major military campaign to fight back. By early 2013 French and Malian army units – supported by contingents from numerous other countries including Denmark – had recaptured the main northern towns and in June a ceasefire was agreed with the Tuareg rebels. Provisions were then made for a UN peacekeeping force to take over.

As I conclude this essay, the operations of MINUSMA (“la mission multidimensionelle intégrée des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation au Mali”) are entering a fifth year, but there is not much stability in the northern zone.[6] Indeed the risk of terrorist attacks has spread throughout the country. New dimensions have been added to the chaos, notably drug and human trafficking across the Sahara. In the latest response a joint military force is being put together in order to strengthen regional anti-jihadi and anti-trafficking campaigns. Meanwhile MINUSMA has become notorious as the UN peace operation with the highest casualty rate; it seems that the soldiers have become easy targets for fanatical rebel warriors emerging from the sands of desert with their automatic weapons and improvised bombing devices.

There are no tourists or travellers in Mali nowadays, only warnings to stay away. In March 2014 I went to a concert at the Palais des Nations in Geneva where the famous Malian singer Salif Keita was performing with his band. I had seen him on stage in Bamako in 1992 when I went to the Stade d’Omnisports with the team of Norwegian aid evaluators. Like many others I have developed a taste and an ear for the soft tones and swirling rhythms of West African music. But sadly it is the sound of gunfire not the kora that is heard in Timbuktu.[7]


[1] The Council is still going strong! See:

[2] Keen to understand more I located a useful collection of essays about ”Mali, le paysan et l’état” edited by Moussa Cissé et al. (L’Harmattan, Paris, 1981). The story of the ”Office du Niger” and the colonial use of forced labour to construct dykes and channels for irrigation is told in a minor classic by Amidu Magasa entitled: ”Papa Commandant a jeté un grand filet devant nous” (Maspero, Paris, 1978).

[3] My research efforts in the late 1980s resulted in two papers published as Speirs (1987): Food aid and food strategies, the case of Mali (CIIR, London); and, Speirs (1991): Agrarian change and the revolution in Burkina Faso (African Affairs, volume 90-358).

[4] At the end of the 1980s I was also involved in a major study of crop and livestock production systems in West Africa for which I got credit when the results were published as a World Bank Technical Paper called: ”Indigenous integrated farming systems in the Sahel” (Speirs & Olsen, 1992). It is available online:

[5] The Foundation is also still going strong: To my surprise the final synthesis report of the 1992 evaluation is available online from the Norwegian evaluation department:


[7] A recent study by Charlie English about ”The book smugglers of Timbuktu” (2017) contains many insights into the history of the region, while also dealing with the rescue of the ancient manuscripts from the city’s libraries that the jihadis were expected to destroy in their rage against the world.

Catalunya, etc.

The journalists writing in my newspaper – – have been considering various ”matters arising” from the contested referendum on Catalan independence that was held on 1st October. In particular they point out that the Catalans are not alone. Similar movements aiming to break away can be detected in many regions of our European homelands, including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in the dis-United Kingdom, Kosovo in the patchwork of territories that once was Yugoslavia (and which has been recognised by most other European countries but not by the Russian and Serbian governments), Greenland and the Faroe Islands, the Basque region of Spain (whose inhabitants speak a non-European language), the Flemish and Walloon regions of Belgium, various bits of Italy such as South Tyrol and Venice (which was once a powerful city state), eastern Ukraine where separatists supported by the Russians have been waging war for several years and Corsica where the armed struggle against the French petered out a few years ago. In short, there’s plenty of scope for re-drawing the maps! I wonder how Switzerland fits into this puzzle: as a curious conglomerate of three linguistic zones – plus some high Alpine valleys where the remnants of Latin are spoken – each pulled apart by links to the surrounding countries but somehow holding together as a successful and very rich nation or state.

Equally interesting are the comments on how ”Catalunya versus Spain” has been treated in recent coverage by a sample of the media. Selecting examples from three sources, an amusing assessment of the Danish view of world is made by a group called the Center for Wild Analysis. While the public service broadcaster (Danmarks Radio) focused on parents enjoying themselves in the run up to the referendum during the occupation of the schools that would be polling stations in Barcelona, the right-wing Jutland Post (Jyllands Posten) reported from a demonstration in support of Spanish unity. From another angle, a tabloid newspaper (Ekstra Bladet) ran an article on whether or not FC Barcelona would be allowed to play in the first division of the Spanish football league if the Catalans break away. The tabloid is particularly well known for lengthy coverage of sport and photos of uncovered girls. The Wild Analysts triangulated these reports to conclude that Danes look at the world as autoritetstro hyggefetischister der helst ikke vil bekymre sig om meget andet end bare damer og fodbold. Roughly translated: the Danes are subservient to authority, obsessed with hygge (having a good time) and don’t want to be worried about much more than naked ladies and football!

On the move – a lament (October 2017)

With each new disaster unfolding on our TV screens it becomes more and more evident that our little planet is warming up to the extent that extremes are becoming the new normal. I heave sighs of relief that I don’t live in the path of the hurricanes that have been howling across the islands of the Caribbean before dumping excessive volumes of water on the southern states of the US of A or that my home has been washed away by the Indian Ocean monsoon. But with updates from meteorologists and atmospheric scientists readily available on the world wide web, it is easy to see which way we are heading: out of balance with nature and with increasing social and economic turbulence in regions affected by droughts, floods and other weather related misery.[1]

Have the leaders of our nation states appreciated the basic truths of what is going on or will they continue to try fooling people into believing that business can continue as usual by pumping oil and burning coal? Does Mr. Trumpet ever turn on the taps in his bathroom and feel the difference between hot and cold? Do he and his dangerous cronies understand that higher concentrations of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) are making the air and the seas warmer, or are these ”facts” beyond their apparently very limited intelligence? Why do hordes of otherwise articulate and well-informed, influential public figures appear to be locked in mind-sets of pathological denial whenever climate change is mentioned?

Maybe the answer lies in the dominance of short-term perspectives and the culture of instant gratification that have characterised our societies over the last 50 years or so. As Jim Morrison of the Doors sang back in 1970: ”We want the world and we want it now!” Learning to set aside, to conserve resources and to ignore the powerful messages to consume more of everything as soon as possible, is largely beyond us.

The contradictions are particularly uncomfortable for restless travellers like me. Since my teenage days when I got a taste for mobility I have had a hard time resisting the temptation to pack my bags and get on the road (or head to the nearest airport). Having been employed as a roving adviser regularly immersing myself in exotic surroundings in Africa, Asia and Latin America hasn’t made things any easier and since the 1980s I have been accustomed to treating the whole world as my destination. But the GHG emissions associated with my behaviour are forcing a re-think.[2]

I also like to think of myself as a global citizen, concerned about the fate of people in far away places and keen to get first hand impressions through face-to-face dialogue in order to find solutions to problems of environmental mismanagement, forest degradation and so on. However, as the techniques of digital communication – such as low cost skype links and video conferences – have become routine, there seems to be less and less need to travel. At the same time I am increasingly turned off by the swarming crowds at airport terminals, queuing for entry tickets at the sights that everybody “must see” and struggling past thousands of selfie cameras waving in the cobbled streets and outside the monuments of every European city.[3]

Perhaps my traveling days are over. I am very conscious of the inequalities that prevail in my freedom to choose where to go, while millions of people are unable to migrate to where they could expect to find a better life.[4] The downside is that I would like to see more of this fascinating world and continue to dream of safaris in southern Africa, of the sounds and smells of South-East Asia and of seeing the northern lights in the Arctic. But if I am to reduce the impact of my carbon footprint, to respect the share of the total carbon budget available for emissions from rich countries, then I had better stay put and maximise enjoyment in the forests and fjords nearby!

[1] The key messages are in the 2014 fifth assessment report published by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The Panel’s sixth assessment report is expected in 2019.

[2] There is no doubt that the livelihoods of millions of people will be affected in the coming decades as the earth continues to heat up. There are some bleak scenarios and there do indeed appear to be planetary ”limits to growth” as predicted in a famous study by the “Club of Rome” way back in 1972.

[3] Demand for air travel increased by around 8 per cent from 2016 to 2017. The need to reduce aircraft GHG emissions is slowly being translated into technological innovations, with talk of electric planes, a revival of giant zeppelins (airships), etc. Meanwhile the problem of how to manage mass tourism isn’t limited to Europe. A recent article in the Economist (23.09.17) describes how the “clean and pleasant” landscapes of New Zealand are suffering from pollution and overcrowding as the number of tourists has soared from 2.7 million five years ago to 3.6 million in 2016-17.

[4] Closing borders and cutting back international cooperation (through Brexit for example) don’t seem like the best ways to tackle global warming, although they appear to be the preferred choices of many European politicians in response to popular fears about jobs and security. Better ideas are outlined in a recent survey of 100 solutions to the “wicked problem” of climate change:

Facing the ocean and thinking about fish, August 2017

There’s a brightly painted mobile with wooden tropical fish hanging from the ceiling in our sitting room. When our grandson Carl – still a baby – comes to visit he gets very excited gazing at the multi-coloured fishes swinging in the air and as we lift him up to look closer he grabs at the little pieces of wood with determined movements of his tiny fists. He has recently learnt how to hold on to and then throw away objects… In an attempt to introduce him to the English language I whisper the word “fish” in his ear as he tries to catch them.

I thought a lot about fish during travels in August 2017. We spent a week in Lisbon – facing towards the Atlantic Ocean – a city where cod and sardines are on the menu at almost every restaurant. We stayed in a little flat close to the Castelo Sao Jorge on a hill in the old city overlooking Baixa (the lower centre) to the west and the Rio Tejo to the south. It was particularly enjoyable to stroll in the Alfama district, descending the steep hills and staircases by foot and then using the public ”elevadores” (lifts) to regain height without effort. There are tramlines crossing the city centre and it is fun to watch the old machines – the Portuguese call them “elétricos” – trundle along the narrow streets, sometimes getting stuck.

The fishing settlement of Cascais thirty kilometres west of Lisbon is an attractive destination and an ideal location to get fresh air when the temperatures soar. We joined the crowds on the suburban trains escaping the sweaty city to sprawl on beaches and sample the marine delicacies cooked up at eateries along the shoreline. Cascais is a surprisingly multi-faceted town divided between a quiet maze of seemingly deserted colourful backstreets and a hectic shopping zone packed with people. Next to an up-market modern marina is an old harbour where there are fishing boats moored as well as nets and lobster pots on the quayside.

From the train passing through Belém en route to and from Cascais there are good views of the monument to the ”discoveries”: huge figures of Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama and the other explorers who sailed south around the African coast in the 15th and 16th centuries, charting the route to the unknown East, where there were spices and peoples ”without history.” They also crossed the Atlantic to “discover” Brazil. In those days Lisbon and the southern Spanish ports were at the centre of an expanding world of European voyagers and colonisers. Fishing in the Atlantic wasn’t enough for those guys… The imagined riches of El Dorado were just beyond the horizon.[1]

On our last day in Lisbon we sailed across the river and walked around the town called Almada where we found a good restaurant serving a classic: ”bacalhau con todo” (cod with everything). Returning to the north bank, we took the underground across the city to the Park of Nations and the Oceanarium. It was a very hot day and hard to walk the un-shaded stretches of the concrete pavements to get to the exhibition centre. But it was worth the effort as the numerous tanks are full of every marine animal imaginable: from octopus to sharks, from eels to sea otters. It’s a hugely popular exhibit, crowded with groups of kids and families.[2] I took a few ’photos of some small creatures in one of the tanks: sea dragons!

In somewhat dramatic contrast, a week after returning from Lisbon I flew north to Bergen, to attend a three-day conference of European development researchers.[3] Again I found myself facing west towards the Atlantic and I soon found out that fish have been prominent in the history of the Norwegian coast too. Nowadays the most notable industries in Bergen are associated with North Sea oil. But in the days of the Hanseatic traders, the city’s fish market was the vital centre of the economy and it seems that there were many intrigues and battles for control of the marine produce, involving various levies and price wars, as well as widespread exploitation of the fishing communities by the powerful merchants.

It was good to have an opportunity to wander around Bergen. Like many European cities it has become a popular destination for Asian tourists. There are huge crowds along the famous Bryggen quayside and in the queues for the rack railway connection to the Fløyen mountain from which there are tremendous views towards the western islands and the ocean.

Very good meals were available at the hotel where the conference was held, with salmon, herring and other Norwegian seafood specialities appetisingly laid out on buffet tables. But one evening I had to find somewhere to eat in downtown Bergen and I opted for a Thai restaurant with several fish dishes on the menu. The excellent grilled tilapia I ate was served with ginger and fresh vegetables. May the oceans, rivers and lakes of the world continue to provide us with such fantastic foodstuffs!

An elétrico stuck in a winding street near the Alfama, Lisbon


An impression of the empire in a picture at the Gulbenkian Modern Art Museum


Old fish merchant’s houses at Bryggen in Bergen


Sunset looking west across the city towards the Atlantic Ocean from Fløyen


[1] Much has been written about the Portuguese colonial adventure and the rise and fall of the empire between the 15th and 20th centuries. In the end, the costs of containing uprisings and guerrilla wars in Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique were too high and the soldiers were demoralized after years of struggle. I distinctly remember the revolt of the armed forces to overthrow the Salazar dictatorship in 1974 (the Carnation Revolution), although it was overshadowed by the closing acts of the Viet Nam war.

[2] Check out

[3] The EADI-Nordic conference dealt with “globalization at the crossroads” and there were sessions on inequality, humanitarian assistance and migration, international tax justice and the “green shift.” The plenary speakers at the conference were a largely insightful and highly articulate bunch:

Wilderness in three books I read

Sometimes during long days in the concrete jungle I find myself dreaming about escape to the wilds. I’m not alone with these thoughts it seems; “the call of the wild” is an ancient curse. In the modern versions there are TV shows in which people attempt to survive in the sub-arctic tundra avoiding hungry bears, on deserted Pacific atolls threatened by typhoons or in the tropical African savannah with nothing but a water-bottle and a penknife. I am reminded of the Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2001), a bizarre story of a young man’s struggle to survive on a lifeboat floating in the Pacific with a Bengal tiger and a dead zebra as fellow passengers! I also recall David Byrne, the singer and songwriter in the band called Talking Heads, who is a keen cyclist and has described the joys of biking in the wilderness zones of America compared to the tame experience of discovering Europe where there are not many landscapes ”untouched by human hand.” The exceptions it seems are some regions of Northern Scandinavia and Scotland where there are expanses of moorland and mountains that haven’t been cultivated or covered in concrete. Recently, in addition to the tales by Martel and Byrne I’ve read three exciting books that touch on the theme of wilderness in one way or another.

Annie Proulx’s Barkskins (2016) is the most relentless dissection of how people have destroyed nature (forests) that I have ever read. Her subject is the clearance of North American forests from the arrival of settlers in New France (Eastern Canada) at the end of the 17th century, to the advent of conservation movements in the same regions (particularly Nova Scotia) in the second half of the 20th Century. The fortunes of the descendants of two outcasts from France are traced through the ups and downs of the families and their timber and logging businesses, interlaced with strong themes about racism and the disappearance of indigenous Americans. Every chapter of the book echoes with the cracking of axes and the screaming of saws. There are numerous dramatic incidents in the story, which illustrate the old thesis that life in the ”pre-modern” world was ”nasty, brutish and short.” I was blown away and couldn’t do much else for ten days but read the 700 pages!

Another impressive writer is Andrea Wolf who has tackled the life story of Alexander von Humboldt, a Prussian explorer and scientist whose enormous thirst for knowledge led him to undertake expeditions up the Orinoco River and across the Central Asian steppes to gather evidence supporting theories that have become the basis of ecological systems thinking. The Invention of Nature (2015) is an utterly absorbing read, largely because Humboldt himself was an extraordinary character, with an apparently endless capacity to lecture, debate and write on the composition of the ”kosmos” (the title of his major work). Everything from vegetation patterns to electrical currents, from romantic poetry to the movements of the heavenly bodies, was of immense interest to him. He lived near Berlin and in Paris from 1769 to his death in 1859, just before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. It seems that Humboldt’s legacy lives on in many scientific communities around the world, particularly where a holistic understanding of nature is emphasised rather than specialisation in “disciplines” with narrowly defined spheres of enquiry.

The third volume in these thoughts inspired by wilderness is rather complicated. The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant (2005) – subtitled ”a true story of myth, madness and greed” – is an examination of a curious incident in 1997 on an island in British Colombia, in which a woodsman and conservationist destroyed a unique 300 year-old Sitka spruce tree and then disappeared. The Haida Indians in the region revered the golden spruce and the wild Pacific coast is in the forefront of the story, which also deals with the large-scale destruction of forests in North America since the arrival of the white man. The protagonist is a man called Grant Hadwin who converts from working as a logging surveyor to taking up the forest conservation cause. But his life is a shambles of broken relations and in the course of his campaigning he somehow loses his sense of direction, battles with the forces of nature around the Queen Charlotte Islands, cuts down the golden spruce, is summoned to court to be tried for his crime but then canoes into oblivion. It is a bleak story. I read a paperback edition of the book that includes some fantastic black and white photos from the archives of the loggers and timber traders as well as ethnographic studies of the Haida.

Reflecting on the scope and intrigues of these three stories – both fact and fiction – I’m glad that I’ve had opportunities to get a bit closer to some forests and the wild, albeit on a limited scale and without the drama of struggling to survive against the odds. I think of the diverse wild landscapes I’ve admired over the years: the coastline of County Donegal in Ireland, the fringes of the Sahara desert in Burkina Faso and Mali, the rainforests in Central America and the barren but beautiful Altiplano in Bolivia, etc. I’m also glad that many of the world’s wildernesses are protected as national parks, biosphere reserves and so on. In this way the urge to exert control over nature is tempered by recognition of the grandeur of the cosmos.

An easy way to view the wilds, the Annapurna range from the air.


Crossing borders

Somewhat to my surprise, in the last couple of years I have lost the urge to travel, particularly over long distances. Is my caravan grinding to a halt? Commuting to and from Copenhagen isn’t a very profound and enlightening experience, but it seems to satisfy my desire for mobility and offers a daily opportunity to contrast a city and the countryside. The prospect of being packed into yet another Airbus or Boeing for long cramped hours of bad air and noise en route to the other ends of the earth fills me with dread and weariness.

My last memorable long flight was at the end of April 2016, returning from La Paz in Bolivia via Bogota and Frankfurt; a 24 hour trip… During it I watched the latest film version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth full of howling scenes on windswept Scottish moorlands and sat back in my seat reflecting on collapse and madness! Then the Airbus pilot had to abandon the landing in Frankfurt at the last minute due to crosswinds and circled the airport for 20 minutes before making a second attempt to put the wheels on the ground.

Maybe I’ve just lost my nerve. Anyway I seem to be crossing some borders. But borders are becoming more and more difficult to cross. As social and economic inequalities become increasingly explosive, as governments seek to prevent migration and as fences and walls are built to protect us from them, I find the world is less and less welcoming. Somewhere I read that despite the incredible scope and reach of mass and social media, many people are retreating into narrow ”virtual worlds” and communicate only with like-minded tribesmen, such that their exposure to any diverging or uncomfortable ideas or opinions is limited. The borders are not just geographical, but also emotional and intellectual.

In this context a dangerous political space has emerged where nationalist and populist movements with simplistic messages (tweets…) are defining new limits, suppressing dissent and undermining human rights. The most recent example is the demand by the Saudi and UAE governments that the rulers of Qatar close down the Al Jazeera broadcasting network. But there are countless other attempts to silence critical voices in many countries: Turkey under President Erdogan seems to be retreating rapidly from the democratic sphere as the prisons fill up with activists, while the ruling cliques in China, Iran, Viet Nam and elsewhere continue to police the channels of expression in their efforts to keep the people on the narrow road to conformity and to prevent ”unrest.” One of the great ironies of recent years is that Edward Snowden – who would be locked up in the United States for betraying official secrets, state surveillance of internet users – has been given asylum in Russia, where dissent is risky and almost any form of protest is met with intimidation and violence.

What happened to the promotion of our common future on this shared planet? Freedom of movement as well as expression seem to be reserved for a minority, a thin strata of the richest citizens for whom international travel has become part and parcel of daily life. The booming tourist industry bears witness to the possibilities, while student exchange programmes and global research networks are keeping the dreams of cross-fertilisation and innovation alive. But these ”open societies” are threatened by conservative, mainstream media-driven fears of outsiders bringing disruption and destruction. The contradictions abound, along with the visa application rules and passport controls. For example, while the American government has become obsessed with ”homeland security” and travel restrictions on foreigners, at the same time many highly skilled Chinese and Indians are apparently migrating to the info tech industries in California bringing their creativity and new ideas.[1]

I doubt it will be possible to police and control all these borders, despite the raging of noisy populists, anti-globalists and their kin. The human spirit is restless and seeks to go beyond boundaries. Long live the nomads of the world!

Black and white butterfly, design on cloth by Abdoulaye Konaté (Malian artist)


[1] Some inspiration for these thoughts came from the Economist, challenging received wisdom in an article called ”If borders were open” (15.07.17), which notes that although such a move would be disruptive, the potential (economic) gains are so vast that objectors could be bribed to let it happen! Maybe it is a false impression, but California – visited briefly in 2013 – seems to be a magnet for “libres penseurs” and inventors (not to mention musicians and film makers…). I wonder if the proximity of forests, mountains and deserts along the Pacific coastline has got something to do with encouraging the spirit of exploration. In San Francisco I liked finding street signs in Chinese, English and Spanish and I note that numerous social and natural science discoveries are ascribed to researchers at the universities around the Bay Area…