As Colombian rebels and the government agree to search for missing, a note on women and conflict-driven sexual violence

At the dawn of a deal between the Colombian government and FARC rebels, in which both sides will work collaboratively to locate the more than 50,000 still-missing Colombians disappeared during five-decade civil war, reflecting on what that conflict has meant for many already marginalized rural women couldn't be more timely. 

While it's not news that women and girls often bear the brunt of war, Foreign Policy reports on the phenomenon in the context of Colombia internal conflict, in which 220,000 people have died and 5 million have been displaced. 

At the same time, the article sheds light on some of the ways in which rural women have sought empowerment. FP reports on one woman, who developed the organization Mujer, Sigue mis Pasos, to raise awareness of the violence women face in contexts of war. Another, also a prominent Colombian journalist, went public about her survival of conflict-related sexual violence.

A recent success for Colombian victims of sexual violence was the passing of a law in 2014, enabling such acts to be considered crimes against humanity. There was also the passing of a 2008 law that permits sexual violence in contexts of war to be viewed as distinct crimes.

But despite these steps forward for women, and the historic agreement regarding location and identification of the disappeared reached late on Saturday, many remote areas of Colombia remain under rebel control. In these regions, including parts of the southern department of Cauca, only a "tense" calm has been achieved, while rebels wait for orders from above. 

 

 

Dancing with the Devil in the City of God

Last night at the University of Zurich, Julianna Barbassa, a Brazilian American journalist and writer newly based in Switzerland, presented her recently published book "Dancing with the Devil in the City of God". The work offers a uniquely readable and personal account of how the lives of many residents of Rio de Janeiro changed very quickly in the surprisingly explosive lead up to the 2014 World Cup. Dealing in particular with the increasing marginalization of the already disenfranchised urban poor, it provides outsiders glimpses into worlds that would otherwise remain invisible to most.

A key advantage of Barbassa's account is its timeliness. Published in the aftermath of the World Cup but in advance of the 2016 Olympics in Rio, it tackles themes that remain critically relevant today, thereby seizing a rare chance to engage a wide audience readers that otherwise may not have picked it up. 

Barbassa's intercultural positioning paired with her journalistic experience at the Associated Press enable her to weave fact-based narratives into a rich tapestry infused with her deep understanding of Brazilian history, current affairs, and the international environment with which they interface. Rarely does such complexity have the chance to appeal to such a broad readership.

Check out her website and buy the book.

October 1st is International Coffee Day - let's celebrate with awareness!

Evidently we can do something more than just embrace the early, chilly days of fall this October 1st. The International Coffee Organization invites us to revel in the joys of a warm brewed cup while acknowledging the hard work of coffee farmers and recognizing the journey coffee makes from seedling, to cherry, to wet mill, to drying, to bagging, to selling, to sorting, to weighing, to roasting, to selling again, to flying over the ocean, to selling again, to grinding, to brewing, to pouring, to drinking. 

They call it a global community and ask us to celebrate "a journey of diversity, quality, and passion." 

In Switzerland, you can celebrate International Coffee Day with UCC Coffee in Zollikofen. A presentation on coffee production in Honduras will be followed by tasting opportunities.

Coffee is delicious. For many of us, that first sip in the morning, before we're fully awake, when the day is still full of possibilities, is a rare constant. But to call what happens from farm to cup along the coffee supply chain a community doesn't quite capture the what's happening. Communities are built on reciprocation, distribution of responsibilities, knowing one another, and shared accountability. Coffee is a business. 

But we can try to make it a fairer business, and one that allows farmers and their physical communities to prosper rather than subsist.

As a step in that direction, let's take October 1st to educate ourselves on coffee. An important part of that is getting familiar with regions of the world in which coffee is produced and learning about challenges farmers confront. In Colombia, small farmers deal with extremely high production costs. In recent years, many farmers have faced devastating losses as a result of coffee leaf rust. Renovating crops has resulted in many producers taking on loans that volatile coffee prices make difficult to pay back. As a result, many farmers are deeply indebted. Coffee rust has also ravaged swaths of coffee plantations in Central America. When farmers already struggle to invest in their crops, massive losses of volume to disease can be catastrophic. 

Climate change also negatively impacts coffee production in many parts of the world. Oxfam reports that in Uganda, longer droughts and erratic rainfall affects coffee at the flowering and "filling of the berries" stage, reducing productivity.

This is the first phase of that journey from farm to cup. In subsequent phases, farmers harvest and process their coffee. Some have wet mills on their farms, other share use of a wet mill with other producers. After the beans dry, farmers bring them to points of purchase - some with their own cars, others with transport services, and still others by foot. Depending on quality of the coffee and who they sell to, farmers may receive the base price set by the international market on that day, a minimum price guaranteed by programs like Fairtrade, or they may receive a premium from programs such as Nespresso AAA. Farmers without a connection to such programs may not have had enough money to invest in herbicides and pesticides for their crops, and may have taken these inputs on credit from intermediaries. With the harvest and sale of their coffee, they'll have to pay those middlemen back, rendering them little bargaining power when it comes to price.

What can we do for farmers? How can the global coffee trade become a community like the one the International Coffee Organization describes? 

The problem with coffee and all soft commodities is that there's no easy answer. Buying certified or verified coffee is certainly a step in the right direction. But just because something has a seal of approval doesn't mean we can assume we've done our part, and can sip our espressos with a clear conscience. 

Here's an overview of three popular certifications, and a note on their weaknesses: 

UTZ. As of 2014, UTZ was the largest sustainable farming certification program in the world. It promotes good agricultural practices, effective farm management, and some social and environmental standards. It has been criticized because it does not guarantee farmers a minimum price for their goods. That means that farmers that adhere to potentially hard-to-maintain standards mandated by UTZ are not rewarded with a price guarantee from the certification program. For information on impact, check out UTZ's 2014 annual report.

Max Havelaar/Faritrade Switzerland works to improve market access of Fairtrade products grown by producers in the Global South and to increase consumer awareness of the importance of Fairtrade. Fairtrade focuses on shortening the supply chain, establishing longterm sourcing relationships, enforcing a price guarantee for farmers, and paying a premium for Fairtrade products, enabling farmers to access are larger share of profits. The downside is that the Fairtrade system depends on consumer awareness and consumer willingness to pay higher prices for their coffee (and other goods). Without activism, awareness-raising, and conscientious consumers, it doesn't work. That said, Max Havelaar/Fairtrade has a strong presence in Switzerland, indicating that with effective advocacy of the principles, it can make a difference.

The Rainforest Alliance focuses above all on environmental objectives, with a nod towards the social. Their seal indicates goods that come from farms that maintain or are increasing tree coverage, work on conserving soil quality and decreasing erosion, limit chemical use, and protect wildlife. The Rainforest Alliance strives to facilitate access to education and healthcare. However, like UTZ, the Rainforest Alliance has been criticized for doing too little to guarantee a minimum price for farmers.

These are just three of the well known certifications we see on a relatively large scale in Swiss grocery stores. But looking deeper at what these seals mean helps us understand the complexity of the soft commodities market. Certified does not mean our fight is over. There is still a lot of work to be done before coffee producers and consumers are united in a global community.

Of course, it should also be mentioned that the poorest and most disenfranchised of farmers are generally unable to reach and uphold the standards of certification programs. 

October 1st is a good day to take a look at our consumption habits and search for ways to improve the situation of farmers, workers, and the environment.

 

Making the Sustainable Development Goals usable

Tomorrow, leaders meet in New York to sign successors of the Millennium Development Goals, the Sustainable Development Goals.

Depending on which article you consult, the MDGs were either a success, a failure, or neither/both. But whatever our stance, time's up. Now, the SDGs will sweep in to give form to the next fifteen years.

I've read a lot of bad press about the SDGs. I'd be lying if I said I hadn't shared a few grumbles (and chuckles) at their expense. But when putting this post together, I had no interest in cementing (too many) of my negative reactions in writing. What sense was there in lambasting the SDGs? After all, any steps towards global sustainability, whatever that may mean, are steps. They either fail or succeed, but either way we have the opportunity to learn something.

Okay, a quick once-over of the SDGS does inspire some questions. Why are there 17? Many of them could clearly be condensed. Who on earth, besides Jeffrey Sachs and maybe the Pope, is going to remember them?  What, might we ask, is a sustainable city? If the sky really is the limit, why are we aiming to "end" hunger, but just "reduce" inequality? How can we reach agreement on what it means to "promote" economic growth to the extent that it actually happens? 

The bottom line seems to be that the SDGs' developers are human. They made a list and then failed to edit it, and now we all get to pay the price by being confused.

But this is the list we have - and at least it exists. Flawed does not mean useless. So perhaps our next steps are to define our own jobs and actions in terms of the goals. Which goals are we addressing with our personal and professional projects? How can we adapt our work to address a given goal in a more focused way?

The SDGs are integrally connected to one another, and address interlinked challenges. This means when we try to define what goal our work focuses on, we'll often end up with all of them. Not so helpful. 

An example. My work focuses on responsible sourcing of agricultural raw materials (SDG 2, 12, 13, 15, 17). I'm also working on improving opportunities and prosperity in rural agricultural areas (SDG 1, 2, 4, 5, 6. 7, 8, 9, 10, 16, 17). Unfortunately, contextualizing what I do with regard to so many goals is confusing and overwhelming. It doesn't help me prioritize next steps. 

But perhaps by isolating the one or two goals that most strongly resonate with our work, we can give the SDGs shape. For me, those goals are SDG 2 and SDG 12. Describing what I'm working on in this vocabulary allows me to communicate a complex, multi-level problem and project in simpler terms, to more people. 

The SDGs are abundant, interrelated, and in some ways laughably abstract. But they build a global foundation, a common understanding of the challenges. This is the basis on which we can come together and understand one another when we talk our work as related to another laughably abstract concept - sustainability itself. This foundation supports us in forming alliances and collaborative projects with the least possible confusion and misinformation.  

It's certainly not a waste of time for all of us to take 15 minutes to frame our work in the context of the SDGS. Not every SDG, just the one or two that resonate with our deepest passions. I knew which ones those were by the sense of pride I felt when I pictured myself telling a complete stranger what I do. My projects aim to SDG 2) end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture, and SDG 12) ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.

 

Cowspiracy takes environmental NGOs to task for inaction on animal agriculture

While not a perfect film, Cowspiracy does show us something fascinating: a plethora of Non-Governmental Organizations that claim to champion environmental causes when they are in fact either under-informed in regards to or have simply chosen not to focus on the connection between widespread meat consumption and deforestation. 

The film starts with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr: "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." It plays a bit abstract without the context that follows, but what the filmmakers are referring to is what they frame as an abundance of misinformed and somewhat impotent NGOs and activist organizations. These, one can infer, are our silent friends. 

In the opening sequence, the deputy executive director of the Sierra Club lists off an abundance of numbers and statistics proving our headlong plunge into an increasingly unsustainable future, but when asked about the role of livestock, he appears flummoxed, merely asking, "uh, well.... what about it? I mean...."

The film reacts to the disturbing statistic that "livestock and their byproducts" (such as environmental degradation resulting from feed production) are responsible for 51% of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. Animal agriculture alone is responsible for 18% of emissions, while the oft-maligned transportation sector can be held accountable for 13%.

After making us painfully aware of what these numbers look like through the liberal use of bar graphs, Cowspiracy goes on to point fingers at such famous environmental hard-hitters as Greenpeace, the NRDC, Amazon Watch, the Climate Reality Project, Oceana, 350.org, Surfrider Foundation, the Rainforest Action Network, the WWF, and the Sierra Club. Greenpeace appears in a particularly unfortunate light, although the organization offers little provocation other than a request not to be filmed and an email declining further involvement in the project.

Nevertheless, the narrator uses context to make less than savory implications about why Greenpeace does not wish to speak with him. I certainly do not envy the spokespeople featured, who, for the most part, seemed embarrassingly ill-informed. If the majority of NGO employees really are so ignorant, that's the deepest offense perpetrated. I'll explain.

NGOs often find themselves between a rock and a hard place in trying to defend the environment, while simultaneously procuring enough money to do just that. They form relationships with corporations, an arguably necessary move in a globalized world, through which they 1. procure funding, and 2. gain the opportunity to influence, or at least be heard, in the formation of corporate practices and strategies.

While the makers of Cowspiracy may not like to believe that NGOs have long been sullied by the realities of a complex global economy, they have. Multinational corporations have lots of money and far-reaching influence, and those are two things that NGOs have to really fight for. In comparison, NGOs have limited financial resources and a business model that is by definition, without procuring funding, unsustainable. Challenges arise when NGOs work with corporations, but opportunities arise as well.

The effectiveness of an NGO/corporate partnership in supporting the environment often comes down to the individual people involved, how good they are at their jobs, and how well they understand the complex playing field of stakeholders and challenges. And one of the most disturbing realities this film reveals is that the people we've hired don't have a full picture of what challenges we're facing or how they're interlinked. But then again, if we consider the failure of Cowspiracy's makers to contextualize the tensions NGO employees face, they don't get it either.  

Of course, maybe NGOs are in fact conspiring to look the other way when it comes to animal agriculture, as the title suggests.

While I personally found the narrator's failure to remove his hat in interview settings to be obnoxious, the film showcases a fascinating degree of confusion, avoidance, or yes - maybe even conspiracy - when it comes to the drivers of environmental degradation. It's very much worth an hour and a half of your time. Perhaps with wider awareness of how deeply the impact of unsustainable (unmaintainable) meat consumption is felt, consumers will start considering their consumption habits in a bigger global framework. Maybe we'll even develop enough collective awareness to push environmental NGOs into putting their energy where it's needed - defending the environment and society in the face of increasingly powerful meat and soy industries.

Are farmers becoming more vulnerable as agribusiness advances data technologies?

Thanks to movies like Food, Inc., the public is largely aware of agribusiness' dominant role in the past, present and future of farming. Not just farming is affected; society and the environment see impacts as well, and production of crops like soy are changing the face of the countryside. There's a general understanding that perceived evils, such as patented seeds, "drive the consolidation of the seed industry". By some accounts, seed patents reduce farmers' autonomy, contribute to environmental degradation, and damage food security in the longterm. By other accounts, they're critical to food security and reduce the need for spray-on agricultural inputs. 

But a recent article in the Business Insider suggests that agribusiness is shaping farmers' lives beyond the seed. Data collection and synthesis technologies are advancing at a rapid-fire pace, and our abilities to process what this means for farmers' privacy and how it could make them vulnerable to multinational corporations are lagging far behind. 

The article talks about big data. A data so big that "sensors can tell how effective certain seed and types of fertilizer are in different sections of a farm." Clearly there are benefits to a farmer knowing this information. Collection and synthesis of this accurate, detailed, micro-level data helps producers make decisions that increase the productivity and resilience of their crops. 

But multinationals like Monsanto want to cross-compare data at a macro-level as well. 

The appeal is relatively clear. If companies cross-compared data across multiple farms, it could generate information that might help prevent disease outbreaks, or highlight geographically-based trends present on multiple farms. Shannon Ferrell, professor of agricultural law at Oklahoma State University, asked "What if we took that level of data we have on individual farms and analyzed it across tens or thousands of farms? What macro-level trends would we see?" 

The questions on ethics arise, however, in regards to farmers' privacy and potentially increased vulnerability. Who owns farm data if producers allow Monsanto to analyze it in these new ways? According to Ferrell, many feel they have not been given a clear answer. Given well-publicized incidences of the company taking farmers to court over seed-saving, producers' concerns about ownership of their data can be seen as quite well-founded. What happens if producers allow Monsanto access to private farm data before these grey areas are cleared up?

The article cites the Climate Corporation, a subsidiary of Monsanto, as saying farmers own their data and can input and remove it as they see fit. However, when we couple the relinquishment of private farm information with agribusiness' historical adeptness at pushing legislation in its own interest, farmers' tepid enthusiasm is not surprising.

But a key issue emerges in this article: technology is currently moving faster than our ability to understand, react to, and mitigate its potential consequences.  

Fortune's "Change the World" list offers some CSV inspiration for managers

Fortune has ranked a number of corporations according to the impact they've created in addressing social or environmental challenges alongside their business goals. The list offers an interesting jumping-off point for managers to consider when trying to envision what Creating Shared Value means for their business practices and overall strategy.

Click on the company's name to get a clearer sense of what it is they've actually done. The text provided is a snapshot, and the picture is always somewhat different on the ground. However, in a new global environment where sustainable business is increasingly in demand and becoming quickly the norm, forming a clear idea of what that means for your company or organization is key.

UK-based Vodafone and Kenyan Safaricom top the list, with an innovative platform, M-Pesa, from which people without bank accounts can "use their smartphones to save and transfer money receive pensions, and pay bills".

If you're a manager trying to integrate social and environmental responsibility into the core of your business strategy, take a look - you may find inspiration.

Columbia's e-learning course on sustainable development

We've heard about the importance of sustainable development, but most of us still aren't sure what that really means for our businesses, jobs and lives. Given the complexity of sustainability challenges and the myriad of stakeholders involved, it's hard to know what solutions are really out there, and which ones will work for us.

Columbia University's free online course offers the basics on sustainable development, helping us build the base knowledge necessary for identifying workable solutions. The course, The Age of Sustainable Development from Jeffrey Sachs, lasts 14 weeks, each of which tackles a different sustainability issue.

While the course focuses more on sustainable development challenges than solutions, it covers a wide range of material that may be unfamiliar to many of us, including managers. 

Only by understanding the challenges and stakeholders when it comes to sustainable development can we build workable solutions within our organizations. 

Your burger is eating Argentina's small towns

Many of us have heard about the unsustainable global consumption of meat. In the ongoing discussion surrounding how to preserve our natural resources, words like "sustainable" and "unsustainable" can be thrown around haphazardly and at times make little sense. But when it comes to our meat habits, there's no reading between the lines. The amount of beef and pork we eat quite simply cannot be sustained by our limited natural resources.

Many of us also know that soy is the number one feed crop for pigs and cattle. The extreme demand for pork and beef necessitate massive amounts of soy. But what's the social impact of beef and pork dependence? What do buzz terms like "GMO" (Genetically Modified Organism) and "mono-cropping" (growing only one crop on a given bit of land) really mean for the people living and working in (and rapidly leaving) small rural communities in countries where soy is produced? 

A research group at the University of Oslo looked at how GM soy production is changing rural towns in Argentina, drawing from fieldwork conducted over the span of more than 40 years. Of course, the story is more complex than just soy. Rural-to-urban migration has been going on for far longer than 40 years, and results largely from epidemic disparities in infrastructure and provision of services between cities and rural areas. But the case of soy in Argentina shows how unrestricted meat consumption feeds inequality while chipping away at communities that grew out of farming - communities that are now arguably dying.

Dr. Kristi Anne Stoelen focused on the GM soy cultivation that has come to dominate in the Santa Fe region of Argentina. Crops are glyphosate resistant and Roundup Ready (genetically modified to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup). They do not require tilling, leading to reduced labor demands and fuel costs. At least throughout the duration of the research project at UiO, seeds were cheap. Companies advanced inputs (pesticides, fertilizers, etc.) to soy farmers, which they paid back after harvest.

The result was a rapid expansion of soy production. The Asociación de la Cadena de la Soja (ACSOJA) reported that Argentina produced 4.8 million hectares of soy in 1990, according to the Inter Press Service. In 1996, the GM revolution took hold, and the hectares devoted to soy ballooned. This trend was strengthened in 2008, partially due to a conflict between the Argentinean government and agribusiness. Today, 31 million hectares are devoted to soy production in Argentina.

There has been a corresponding reduction in crops critical to national food security. Soy is cheaper to produce than wheat and maize, and not subject to the same regulatory risks. As a result, it has replaced substantial hectarage of the aforementioned food crops, in addition to spurring the disappearance of pasture in favor of feed lots.

Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council reported that soy has also led to a decline in sunflower, fruit and vegetable production. This has correspondingly driven up the prices of produce.

And of course, soy production has spread to new areas, pushing people off their land and reducing biodiversity.

Aside from threatening food and livelihood security, mono-cropping soy reduces output; rotating soy with maize leads to an estimated 20% increase in productivity. Mono-cropping also leads to soil degradation, which increases vulnerability to pest infestations and diseases. Finally, mono-cropping contributes to pollution, compromising human health.

The GM soy revolution has led to a concentration of land in the hands of a few, which has been accompanied by an increase in land prices. Farmers have responded in a few ways to the demands of the market, some by going into agribusiness, others by farming part-time, and many by abandoning their land altogether. 

As is the case in many crops and in many countries, many remaining farmers have become managers, living in towns and hiring administrators and laborers to deal with the day-to-day processes of running and working their land. 

Dr. Stoelen describes a GM soy dominated countryside in which many rural communities have become shells of their former selves. Shops, restaurants, and bars have closed. Churches are vacant and unused. Common areas and sports fields are overgrown. Only the schools remain, to educate the children of local laborers. Rural workers, however, are often underemployed. So-called "poverty belts" have developed around towns. Many would-be farm workers are unable to find employment and depend heavily on government subsidies.

And ironically, while GM soy is pulling the ground out from under the Argentinean countryside, it is simultaneously funding the government social programs that disenfranchised farmers and underemployed workers critically depend on. 

Let's start thinking across national borders every time we choose to buy (and hopefully, start choosing not to buy) meat products.

 

 

An easy-to-process briefing on the inequality of coffee production

It's now well known that coffee production and sourcing could be described in many regards as ethically contentious. But while many consumers have heard there's a bigger, darker story behind their morning latte, they often remain unsure when it comes to the details on why. There's growing and generalized awareness that many modern agricultural techniques can imply negative fallout for the environment and society, and ultimately food security. But why, exactly? And are practices like Fair trade really helping?

This article by Alexander Myers, a graduate student at the University of Kansas, does a good job of cutting through some of the complexity. Check it out to get an abbreviated sense of why full sun production systems are the order of the day in many producing countries, what inequality in coffee looks like, and why Fair trade, while better, is an unstable solution at best.