Stop that Traffick: ‘The Girl Next Door’ becomes ‘Trade’ the Movie

Image from Trade the Movie Image from Trade the Movie

When 13-year-old Adriana (played by Paulina Gaitan) is kidnapped by sex traffickers in Mexico City, her 17-year-old brother, Jorge (Cesar Ramos), sets off on a desperate mission to save her. Trapped by an underground network of international thugs who earn millions exploiting their human cargo, Adriana’s only friend throughout her ordeal is Veronica (Alicja Bachleda), a young Polish woman captured by the same criminal gang. As Jorge dodges overwhelming obstacles to track the girl’s abductors, he meets Ray (Kevin Kline), a Texas cop whose own family loss leads him to become an ally.

From the barrios of Mexico City and the treacherous Rio Grande border, to a secret internet sex slave auction and a tense confrontation at a stash house in suburban New Jersey, Ray and Jorge forge a close bond as they frantically pursue Adriana’s kidnappers before she is sold and disappears into a brutal underworld from which few victims ever return.

This is the synopsis of Trade, a feature film that opens across the United States on 28 September 2007.

Inspired by Peter Landesman’s chilling NY Times Magazine story on the U.S. sex trade, “The Girls Next Door,” (published in January 2004), TRADE is a thrilling story of courage and a devastating expose of one of the world’s most heinous crimes. The American debut of Marco Kreuzpaintner, one of Germany’s leading young directors, TRADE is produced by Roland Emmerich and Rosilyn Heller from a screenplay by Academy Award(R) nominee Jose Rivera (The Motorcycle Diaries).

Watch the trailer for Trade the movie

Image from Trade the Movie

Explaining the social context to this dramatised story, the movie’s website says:
“The practice of slavery in the US is something most people think ended with the 13th Amendment in 1865, but in recent years it has returned in an even more virulent form. Fueled by the collapse of the Soviet Union and other eastern European countries, new technologies like the internet, and sieve-like borders, the traffic in human beings has become an epidemic of colossal dimensions. The State Department estimates that as many as 800,000 people are trafficked over international frontiers each year, largely for sexual exploitation. Eighty percent are female and over fifty percent are minors. Many people in this country push this atrocity out of their minds, believing that it only occurs in faraway countries like Thailand, Cambodia, the Ukraine and Bosnia. The truth is that the United States has become a large-scale importer of sex slaves. Free the Slaves, America’s largest anti-slavery organization estimates that at least 10,000 people a year are smuggled or duped into this country by sex traffickers.”

Image courtesy Trade the Movie

The film’s makers, Roadside Attractions, says it will donate 5 per cent of the opening week box-office gross divided among four organisations participating in the release of the film; United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Equality Now, International Justice Mission (IJM), and David Batstone’s Not For Sale Campaign.

On 19 September 2007, they held a benefit premiere at the United Nations headquarters in New York that included supper in the UN Delegates dining room. This marked the first film premiere event ever to take place at the United Nations, with the crusty UN officials mingling with film stars and artistes.

Read about the film-makers

Get involved in anti-traffick activism

Image courtesy Trade the movie

UN-ODC press release about Trade the movie

All images courtesy Trade the movie website

MTV Exit: Entertainment TV takes on human trafficking


Television gets blamed for lots of things that go wrong in our world. This isn’t surprising, given it’s the world’s most powerful medium and the key role it plays in our cultural, social and political lives.

A sociological study some years ago said broadcast TV was partly responsible for the movement of millions of people from villages to cities in search of jobs, higher incomes and better living standards. The glitzy lifestyles dramatised on TV was creating illusions in the minds of rural women and men, especially the youth, it said.

Of course, such migrants soon discover a very different reality in the cities. But few want to go back to where they came from. As they hang on in the cities, some fall prey to human traffickers, always on the prowl for vulnerable people to trade in.

The United Nations estimates that the total market value of human trafficking is 32 billion dollars — one of the most lucrative illicit trades in the world. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that worldwide, about 2.5 million people are victims of trafficking.

If TV indirectly contributed to this human perversion, it can also help society stand up and fight against it. As Music Television (MTV) is now doing.

MTV, the most popular music channel in the Asia Pacific region, will be playing a different tune in the weeks to come. For half an hour at least, beginning 18 September 2007 for MTV Thailand, live and hip music will give way to the harrowing accounts of three victims of human trafficking. This is part of the MTV Exit campaign.

Trafficking of people in the region will be given a human face through the personal accounts of Anna, Eka and Min Aung. Anna was forced into prostitution in the Philippines, while Eka is an Indonesian who was an abused domestic worker in Singapore. Min Aung from Burma recounts his sad experiences working and being practically imprisoned in a factory in Thailand for two years.

Lynette Lee Corporal writing for Inter Press Service (IPS) quotes MTV Thailand campaign director Simon Goff as saying: “We worked with organisations and talked with experts to see what forms of trafficking we would focus on, the most prevalent forms that affect our audiences. We selected regions that would best represent the issue. Then, finally we brought in a production team, led by a Thai producer and a director from the UK.”

More extracts from her article:

Goff said that it took them six weeks of pre-production work, including research and sourcing, another six weeks to shoot the documentary, and six weeks more of post-production work. It took about four and a half months of “solid production,” he added.

Beyond the emotional and unsettling accounts of the trafficking survivors and the disturbing re-enactments of rape, beatings and abuse, the documentary also had interviews with a trafficker and a ‘client’ who openly admitted to the crime. In an interview with ‘The Chairman’, a Filipino recruiter who forces young girls into prostitution, revealed the horrific experiences young girls go through, and this was reinforced by what ‘Ama’ , a Chinese client who admitted to paying for sex with trafficked girls, narrated.

The challenge now, said Goff, is to break the people’s apathy and denial about human trafficking. “Ultimately, time will tell. We have launched the campaign and it’s already out there in the media. We hope that the show will make people realise that they are both a part of and a solution to the problem,” he said.

In Thailand’s case, he added that it is also important for Thais to realise that it is not just about Thai victims being trafficked abroad, but it’s also “necessary to look that we have other nationalities, such as Min Aung, who has been trafficked here”.

Read the full article on The Asian Eye website of IPS Asia Pacific

Watch or download the celebrity-presented MTV EXIT documentaries for Asia Pacific and South Asia

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime website on human trafficking

More information on trafficking and how to fight it

Taking it personally: Anita Roddick’s Arabian Nights

“I am overwhelmed by the potential of the web to link like-minded people and move them to mass-action,” the late Anita Roddick once wrote. “We are excited to experiment in other media too — perhaps subversive billboards, or a television program, or other print projects. As someone once said, we are only limited by our imaginations.”

In my personal tribute to Anita, written shortly after her untimely death on 10 September 2007, I touched on her extraordinary skills as an activist-communicator. It was in connection with a global television series that I last met Anita in person.

In the summer of 2003, I was invited to join a small group of people at Anita’s country home, Highfield House, in Arundel, Somerset, England. It was a one-day brainstorming on the future of Hands On, a global TV series that she’d been hosting for three years.

Hands On stood out as a beacon of hope amidst so much doom and gloom on television -– it featured environmentally-friendly technologies, business ideas and processes that have been tried out by someone, somewhere on the planet.

It covered a broad range of topics, from renewable energies, waste management and information technology to food processing and transport. The aim was to showcase good news and best practices so they could inspire others — entrepreneurs, communities or even governments — to try these out.

The series was first broadcast on BBC World and was redistributed to dozens of TV channels worldwide through my own organisation, TVE Asia Pacific, and others. It was backed by the reputed development agency Intermediate Technology (now called Practical Action).

Watch a typical Anita introduction of Hands On and a sample story in capsule form:

Anita brought her usual passion and dynamism to our discussion, energising the development and communications professionals enjoying her hospitality. Covering good news was already going against the media’s grain, but it was harder to keep at it year after year, especially when the media landscape was changing rapidly. It was a challenge to stay engaged and relevant to viewers across Africa, Asia Pacific, Latin America and Europe.

During the meeting, Anita asked me to sum up the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) which was coming up in a few months. Putting aside all the ‘developmentspeak’ of UN agencies, I described it as an attempt to put new information and communication technologies (ICTs) to work for the poor and disadvantaged of our world. Or get the geek tools to work for the meek. (I still think my phrase ‘Geek2Meek’ sounds better than the official ICT4D, where D stands for development.)

We agreed that civil society had to seize the opportunities offered by these new media tools. (A few months later, Anita presented two Hands On editions called ‘Communicating for Change’ on BBC World that profiled some initiatives doing just this.)

Always fond of analogies, I likened Hands On to Arabian Nights, which, according to legend, a young woman had spun from her rich imagination for 1,001 nights to save her life from an evil king. In Hands On, I suggested, we are telling stories to save not one life, but all life on Earth.

Read my July 2007 post: Telling stories to save ourselves…and the planet

Anita quite liked my analogy. She was always a good story teller, and had so many good stories to tell (A favourite opening line from her biography, Body and Soul: “There I was, with my panty down to my knees.” You’ll never guess why until you read that story…)

She challenged everyone at that meeting to make Hands On more interesting to younger viewers in different cultures. We recognised that offering one media product to a global audience was a tough sell: most people prefer a home-made, local story.

But then, she’d built the entire Body Shop chain with a largely common product offering, even if raw materials were sourced from different parts of the globe. She never imposed the Body Shop experience on our meeting, but it was sometimes instructive to look at how a globally available product could still be localised.

hands-on-in-asia.jpg hands-on-in-asia.jpg

This is just what we did in the months and years following the Arundel brainstorming. We rolled out the ‘Localising Hands On in Asia’ project, which saw several dozen Hands On stories being versioned into local languages and distributed through broadcast and narrowcast means in Cambodia, India, Laos and Nepal. The two-year project, generously supported by Toyota, was hugely successful in delivering the Hands On stories to millions of people who would never have been exposed to it in original English.

We were thrilled when our localising work inspired similar local TV shows in three countries (Cambodia, Nepal and Laos). Yet it was the narrowcast outreach that was more rewarding.

Read about one narrowcast experience in my April 2007 blog post: Anita Roddick, Angkor Wat and the development pill

Coming soon: Who killed Hands On, one of the most successful multimedia initiatives in recent years to communicate development?

Images from the Majority World: Global South telling its own stories


This image captures a typical scene in a South Asian village. The invitation arrived from Suchit Nanda, a talented Indian photographer who shoots men, women and scenes from different cultures and societies as he moves around Asia and elsewhere.

Suchit’s work is being marketed by, a new global initiative founded through the collaboration of The Drik Picture Library of Bangladesh and KijijiVision in the UK to champion the cause of indigenous photographers from the developing world and the global South – the Majority World!

“Very few published images of the South are taken by local photographers. They are invisible and don’t get a fair deal. This is what kijiji*Vision is campaigning to change,” says Colin Hastings of kijiji*Vision, a co-founder of

Read more about Majority World

By coincidence, just this week I’m involved in buying some photographs from Drik Picture Library to illustrate an Asia Pacific resource book on Communicating Disasters that TVE Asia Pacific is compiling. It is being co-authored by Frederick Noronha and myself, and due for a December 2007 release.

Whether in photography or videography, the global South – or Majority World – has to speak for itself. Our still images and moving images must tell our own story.

But try doing this in the commercial worlds of publishing or mass media, and suddenly we are competing in an extremely unfair and uneven playing field. Astonishingly, many development agencies – including the UN – don’t commission or acquire the work of talented Southern photographers or film-makers. Talk about not practising what they preach!

Read my recent blog post: Wanted – Fair Trade in Film and Television

In an essay titled Communication rights and communication wrongs written in November 2005, I criticised the globalised media for persistently using stereotyped images of the South — captured mostly by northern photographers and camera crews.

I quoted Shahidul Alam as saying: “Invariably, films about the plight of people in developing countries show how desperate and helpless they are… Wide-angle black and white shots and grainy, high-contrast images characterise the typical Third World helpless victim.”

I added: “Media gatekeepers in the North often dismiss the better-informed and equally competent Southern professionals — saying, insultingly, that ‘they don’t have the eye’! And for years, I have resisted the widespread practice of Northern broadcasters and film-makers using the South’s top talent merely as ‘fixers’ and assistants.”

Read my full essay on SciDev.Net, which published it after Panos Features – the original commissioners – declined to carry it. Apparently my views were too outspoken for Panos London, which claims to champion communication for development…

Experience the visual treats offered by Suchit Nanda:
Suchit Nanda

Support Majority World photographers by using their work

The Daily Star (Dhaka) reviews the exhibition

Wanted: Fair Trade in Film and Television!

This short film, Fair Trade: The Story (8 mins) has been produced by (Equilibrium Television).

It’s very well made, with great use of images and sound, and powerfully sums up the complex issues around fair trade in an accessible manner. The best part: we don’t feel it’s an activist film, even though fair trade is, by definition, progressive and activist.

What is your power as a consumer? The film, produced in association with TransFair USA and TinCan Productions, begins with this question.

It then tells us: “Fair Trade combines stringent environmental criteria with the highest income and labour standards of any product certification. Fair Trade ensures a fair price for farmers, fair wages for workers, safe working conditions, direct marketing access, community development, democratic decision making, sustainable farming methods, environmental protection.”

Chris White of TransFair USA quips: “Fair trade isn’t a product. Fair trade isn’t a brand. Fair trade is a story.”

Fair trade is all about creating opportunities for small scale producers in the developing countries to get organised and supply directly to consumers in different parts of the world. When they sell direct, with few or no intermediaries, they can earn three or four times more, and that money will enhance their incomes, living standards and societies.

Read more about fair trade at Oxfam website, Make Trade Fair

Fair trade is certainly a cherished ideal, but it’s mired in complex economic and political realities. The globalised march of capital, profit-maximising multinational corporations and developed country farm subsidies are three among many factors that made fair trade difficult to achieve in the real world.

Difficult, but not impossible. Determined producers and consumers have shown over the years that they can connect to each other, ensuring greater fairness and justice in transaction. That’s the power of the consumer.

Now here’s another kind of fair trade that I have been advocating for a long time: Fair Trade in Film and Television (FTinFT for short). It’s high time we started promoting this as another plank in fair trade activism.

Let me explain. In the media-rich, information societies that we are now evolving into, media and cultural products are an important part of our consumption — and therefore, more of these have to be produced. In the globalised world, more television and film content is being sourced from the majority world — or is being outsourced to some developing countries where the artistic and technical skills have reached global standards.

But in a majority of these media production deals, the developing country film and TV professionals don’t enjoy any fair terms of trade or engagement. Their creativity and toil are being exploited by those who control the global flow of entertainment, news and information products.

This is why the top talent in the global South become assistants, helpers and ‘fixers’ to producers or directors parachuting in to our countries to cover our own stories for the Global Village. Equitable payments and due credits are hardly ever given.

I personally know many award winning film-makers in developing countries across the Asia Pacific who have been engaged on such unfair, uneven terms. Lacking sufficient market opportunities and trade unions in their own countries, these professionals have little choice but accept the occasional assignment that comes their way from BBC, CNN, AJI or other global players.

Remember, film-makers have families to feed too.

Unfair trade in film and TV is also how the unsung, unknown creative geniuses contribute significantly to the development of new cartoon animation movies or TV series, as well as hip video games that enthrall the global market. Lacking the clout and skill to negotiate better terms, freelancers and small companies across the global South remain the little elves who toil through the night to produce miracles. They work for tiny margins and even tinier credit lines. Some don’t get acknowledged at all.

If you think this is inevitable in the big bad world of profit-making business, hear this. I also know some western charities that champion global justice who are equally guilty of repeatedly exploiting southern film-makers — sometimes, ironically, to produce documentaries about social justice issues!

Even as they cover stories about fair trade practices in coffee or cotton, these entities practise unfair trade in their own industry.

I can cite many examples. Last year, the London-based Panos Institute approached me for recommendations for development-sensitive film-makers in two Asian countries where they wanted to implement some training programmes. I asked if the professionals I can gladly recommend – whose skills are on par with any western counterpart – would be paid international rates. Panos backed out saying they can only pay a local rate, which they felt was good enough.

Then there are UN agencies who always haggle with local film-makers over rates and fees. The same agencies that happily commission PR media agencies from Madison Avenue for hundreds of thousands of US Dollars would ask southern film-makers to donate their time, or work at a reduced fee, for the United Nations causes!

Local rates for local talent is simply not good enough if their work contributes to an international media effort. Southern film-makers and photographers, who lack opportunities to roam the planet looking for stories and work, should be engaged on fair, international rates in any media venture whose products will be consumed globally.

I’m proud to say that TVE Asia Pacific practises what I preach here. We are small time commissioners of southern film-making talent, but we always pay international rates, and engage local talent in every country we work in. And they get due, proper credit in all our productions.

This, then, is the essence of Fair Trade in Film and Television that we must advocate and agitate for. As long as the story tellers of the global struggles for social justice are themselves excluded from the story, there can be no fair trade, or true global justice.

There is now an urgency to address FTinFT because Media Process Outsourcing (MPO) is emerging as a growth industry. May 2007 news: India’s InfoSys and TV18 set up MPO firm.

Let me return to the question frequently posed by fair trade activists: What is your power as a consumer?

Now ask that question as a consumer of media products on TV, video, DVD, web and mobile devices. Don’t take anything for granted. Don’t accept the lofty PR claims of big time (or even small time) producers and peddlers of media content on how ethically they have sourced or made this content.

For a start, look carefully at where stories have been made, and whether local film and TV professionals get proper, on-screen credit. And write to the big players – 24/7 news channels, cartoon corporations and others – demanding to know their fair trade policies and practices in content creation and sourcing.

Make the same demands on the United Nations agencies peddling media products on their social causes. See how many of them will stand a simple test: do they engage southern film-makers to tell stories of development and social justice in the South? If not, why not?

And if you are in a position to decide on commissioning a new film, TV or video product, please consider engaging local talent — but pay them international rates if your product is going to cross borders (these days it very likely will).

We have a long way to go to achieve Fair Trade in Film and Television. Let’s get moving!

Read my call for ethical sourcing of international TV news

Photos from TVE Asia Pacific image archives

Shimu: Bangladesh’s real life ‘Meena’ enthralls millions on TV

Meena’s uncle has arranged for his daughter Rita to marry Babu, a shopkeeper’s son. But Rita is only 15 and has not yet finished school. With Meena’s help, it comes to light that Babu, who is studying to be a doctor, does not want to get married yet, especially since he knows it is unsafe for young girls to become mothers. To everyone’s satisfaction, the marriage is postponed until Rita is 18 and has completed her education.

That’s the storyline in Meena: Too Young to Marry, which is part of the hugely successful cartoon animation series Meena, which Unicef produced with leading animation houses in South Asia during the 1990s. It was part of the Meena Communication Initiative.

Its central character is Meena: a spirited, nine-year-old girl, living in a typical South Asian village, facing all the usual challenges of growing up — whether in her efforts to go to school, or having enough to eat, or in fighting the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS in her village. In a sub-region where many families still favour boys over girls, life is not easy for Meena, but she finds ways to not just cope but flourish.

Now comes the news of a real life Meena in Bangladesh.

Shimu - photo courtesy Washington Post

Alo Amar Alo is the name of a live action television drama series that promotes girls’ education in Bangladesh. Launched in July 2007, it is currently running on Bangladesh Television, BTV.

Alo Amar Alo (“Light My Light”) centers around a girl named ‘Alo’ who stops going to school when she completes Class V. Throughout 26 episodes, the story follows Alo as she struggles to overcome life’s challenges through the support and friendship of a renowned actress.

Playing the role of Alo is 13-year-old Shimu, who suddenly finds herself the star of the country’s most popular television series.

In an article profiling her, The Washington Post wrote on 14 September 2007: “Shimu, a youthful Bangladeshi version of Winona Ryder, is recognized across the country for her moving role as the spunky 11-year-old heroine Alo. On Wednesday nights, more than 10 million viewers tune in after the 8 p.m. news to see her character put through the gantlet of family entanglements and financial strains that afflict many of the young girls in this desperately poor, densely populated South Asian nation. Alo must fight to stay in the fifth grade while her uncle demands that she work in a garment factory and other family members urge her to marry so they will have one less mouth to feed.”

“Teachers say that Shimu’s photograph hangs in classrooms across the country on posters advertising the show and that her story has become a symbol of the struggle to keep girls in school.”

Elsewhere, the article notes:
“As in Latin America’s telenovelas and many African and South Asian TV dramas, story lines in Bangladeshi programs are often infused with messages decrying social ills such as child labor, domestic violence and early marriage. Many of the shows are low-budget productions funded by nonprofit organizations or the government. Shimu’s show…is funded by the Education Ministry and UNICEF; actors receive modest stipends.

Being a TV star has not changed Shimu’s life, says Washington Post writer Emily Wax. Even though Shimu is on television, her family does not own a TV set. She and her friends watch the show at the theater group’s center.

Her grandfather, Mohamed Siddiq, 61, is quoted saying he wants Shimu to stay in school but is worried that she may end up marrying or working, since their family is being evicted in a month and has no savings.

“We are illiterate. I really want Shimu to stay in classes,” Siddiq said. “It’s just so hard to survive here.”

Read the full article about Shimu in The Washington Post online

The Alo Amar Alo series is funded by Unicef and the Ministry of Education in Bangladesh. It’s part of a communication strategy which includes interactive popular theatre shows, folksong performances, wall paintings and Meena Communication Initiatives.

“These have been extremely effective in raising awareness on the value of education as well as reaching the remote corners of the country through the mass media. Parents have shown more willingness to send girls to school. The increase in the enrollment of girls has also been the impact of multiple awareness raising campaigns,” says Unicef Bangladesh.

But big challenges remain. The Washington Post article draws parallels between the character Alo and child actor Shimu.

“Sometimes I feel she should support me,” Shimu’s grandmother, Ayesha, 49, who was herself married at 12, is quoted as saying. “Boys want to marry her. They are always harassing her. Even though she is known for her acting, it’s very hard to make a living here. If she were married, we wouldn’t have to worry about feeding her.”

To which Shimu says, simply: “It’s better to stay in learning for the future. I want to try.”

One concern is I have why Unicef is exploiting a child actor without adequate pay. The article refers to actors receiving ‘modest stipends’. If Shimu was paid better for her natural talent as well as considerable time she doubtless spends on acting in Alo Amar Alo, surely that can make a difference in one child’s life? Or is that not statistically significant for Unicef?

Photo of Shimu courtesy The Washington Post

Meena image courtesy Unicef

Ozzy Ozone: The Little Molecule on a Big Mission

This is Ozzy Ozone. He is an energetic, cheerful little ozone molecule – part of the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere that prevents the Sun’s harmful ultra-violet rays from coming through.

Today, 16 September 2007, is a day to celebrate Ozzy Ozone. Because it’s the 20th anniversary since the nations of the world adopted the Montreal Protocol to phase out chemicals that harm the ozone layer.

It was a landmark international environmental treaty — one which has galvanized governments, industry and society into sustained action for two decades to give using close to a hundred chemicals, all of which – when released into the air – go up to damage the ozone layer.

Ozzy Ozone has been part of the many-faceted public education programme mounted by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to tell everyone how harmful UV rays are to our health, and how Ozzy and his fellow ozone molecules are literally protecting life on earth from being zapped out.

In this video, Ozzy Ozone and Alberta the Albatross take a voyage of discovery to find out exactly who and what is attacking the ozone layer and how children can play an important role in making a difference.

Watch Ozzy Ozone online:

Order Ozzy Ozone on video tape or DVD from TVE Asia Pacific

Ozzy himself is now 10 years old. He was created by a graphic artist in Barbados, as part of a government-supported campaign to raise public awareness on ozone layer thinning. This cartoon character served as a “mascot” and was very effective in raising awareness in Barbados. The cartoon series has been printed in the local newspapers on several occasions. Additionally, promotional items produced for local public awareness and education campaigns using the Ozzy graphic include posters, key rings, rulers, erasers, refrigerator magnets, mouse pads, pens, pencils, stickers, and envelopes.

The character was enduring and popular that UNEP struck a deal with Barbados to ‘globalize’ Ozzy. An animated video was produced, along with a dedicated website, comic strips and other media adaptations.

Read more about the origins of Ozzy Ozone

Ozzy Ozone website

Anita Roddick: “There was nothing like this dame”

Image courtesy Media is a Plural website

Citizen journalist, film-maker and media critic Rory O’Connor has written a moving tribute to extraordinary activist and entrepreneur Anita Roddick, whose premature death on 12 September 2007 has left her many admirers in shock and grief.

He recalls how colleague and fellow media-activist Danny Schechter and he first met Anita at a gathering of progressive business executives called the Social Ventures Network. Their shared background, vision and ideals soon turned them into friends and co-conspirators.

Rory recalls how their company Global Vision embarked on a new human rights-oriented TV newsmagazine in the mid 1990s: “Anita and her husband Gordon were key players in that series – ‘Rights & Wrongs: Human Rights Television’ – coming to fruition. They contributed their energy and enthusiasm, their ideas and information, their contacts and creativity (and oh yes, their capital!) and without all of it, the series would never have been born. But with their help, the award winning newsmagazine was broadcast weekly for four years, on more than 150 public television stations in the USA, as well as on channels and networks in sixty-one other countries. It remains the only regularly scheduled television program in history devoted exclusively to coverage of human rights.

Rory echoes my own point about how Anita was a communicator par excellence, driven more by intuition and inspiration than any textbookish theories:
“Although Anita wasn’t a media activist per se, she intuitively understood how media could be used for activism, and she did so shamelessly and in a cheerfully relentless manner. Whether she was supporting social and environmental causes through window displays, convincing American Express to pay her to appear in an ad promoting the Body Shop and its causes, working with Globalvision on its commercial and non-profit programming (or later writing books, blogging, running an activist website, contributing to the success of Mother Jones magazine, or working closely with — and donating millions to — media-savvy organizations such as Amnesty International,) Anita intrinsically ‘got’ the importance of characters and stories to selling anything—from cold cream to ideas and values – and she employed them cleverly and constantly in support of her principles.”

Watch Anita’s one minute on climate change for Friends of the Earth:

Watch’s thoughtful tribute to Anita Roddick, better presented than the fleeting coverage of mainstream news channels:

Read the full tribute on Media is a Plural website.

Read my own tribute to Anita Roddick: We shall always remember you!

Read Danny Schechter on News Dissector website

Running the planet without a user-guide

There is a best-selling small book titled Everything Men Know About Women. It’s authored by Cindy Cashman, writing under the pseudonym Dr. Alan Francis.

The book is revealing as it’s simple: every page is completely blank.

I was reminded of this little book while listening to some of the world’s leading environmental scientists and conservationists speak this week during the 4th IUCN Asia Conservation Forum, held in the Nepali capital of Kathmandu, 10 – 13 September 2007.

Expert after expert admitted how limited our understanding still was of the planet’s intricate and inter-linked natural systems. Some processes — such as how climate change would impact different geographical regions, natural cycles and ecosystems — are only just beginning to be understood. We know more about the surface of the Moon than about the bottom of the oceans on our planet. We have only had a few recent glimpses into the large and complex world of micro organisms.

In short, many pages of our planet’s ‘operations manual’ or user guide are still completely blank!

Read related post: Talking Big Foot in YetiLand – Got a spare planet, mate?

Yet the ecological threats are real, and they are here. The pressures we humans exert on our environment is increasing by the day. Deferring action until we have better knowledge and understanding is no longer an option.

Instead, we now have to use a combination of the best current knowledge, common sense and intuition to address a multitude of formidable environmental issues including the growing piles of our waste, intensification of disasters, march of desertification, changing climate as well as the poisoning of our freshwater, seas and the air. Some of these degradation factors feed on each other, producing more damage – and rude shocks – than each one could on their own.


In this scenario, the conservation community — in Asia and elsewhere — faces three major challenges:

First, they just have to doggedly persist in gathering new knowledge, and deriving understanding and insights on how our planet works. This is not research for its own sake, or mere academic theorising. It’s now a pre-requisite for survival.

Second, they have to find smart and strategic ways to fill up the ‘blank pages’ in our planet’s user-guide. In the 1970s, they used to say we have been handed over a planet without that manual and it seemed we had time to figure things out. The truth is, time is running out and we have to write that manual as we go along.

Third, it’s vital that the user-guide is widely shared using every available advocacy and dissemination method, tool and medium. Staying within comfort zones and talking to each other in technical jargon is not enough. This is the point I personally stressed at the meeting: use modern ICT tools to discuss, debate and engage everyone in changing their ways where needed.

The current conservation imperative reminds me of what H G Wells said: History is a race between education and catastrophe. Right now, it seems, we are just staying ahead to avoid disaster.

Thanks to initiatives like the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, those blank pages in the Earth’s user guide are filling up.

Strange as it sounds, the book’s already filled pages have to be be peddled far and wide even as the other pages are being written.

Talk about a race between education and catastrophe!

Crossing the other Digital Divide: Challenge to conservation community

Digital Divide refers to the gap between those who have regular, easy access to modern information and communication technologies (ICTs) and those who don’t. In the past decade, the IT industry and development community have launched various initiatives to bridge this divide. The One Laptop Per Child project is among the better known examples.

As digital technologies and media gain momentum and wider coverage than ever before, another kind of digital divide has emerged. This week in Kathmandu, during the Fourth Asian Conservation Forum, some of us have been talking about this new divide — between the Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants.

This latter divide is mainly a product of age, not socio-economics. Market research and sociological studies now confirm that today’s younger people – raised on a diet of mobile phones, video games and mp3 (music) players – have radically different ways of accessing, receiving and coping with information.

Recognising this new Digital Divide is vital for communication and advocacy work of conservation groups, such as IUCN – The World Conservation Union, conveners of the Kathmandu forum.

For nearly 60 years, IUCN has been an effective platform for knowledge-based advocacy. Using scientific evidence and reasoning, it has influenced conservation policies, laws and practices at country and global levels. The world would be a worse place to live in if not for this sustained advocacy work by thousands of experts and activists who were mobilised by IUCN.

Much of that work has been accomplished through the classical advocacy tools: scientific papers, books, conferences and, in recent years, ‘policy dialogues’ — meetings where experts and activists would sit down and talk things through with those who make policy in governments and industry.

IUCN continues to pursue all these methods, with creditable impact. IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species, whose latest edition is being released today (12 September 2007), is among the best known examples of how the Union’s work informs and inspires urgent action for saving the world’s animals and plants driven to the edge by human activity.

To remain similarly effective in the coming years, IUCN — and the rest of the conservation community — need to evolve and adapt to changing realities in human society. One such reality is the proliferation of ICTs in the past two decades.

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) announced recently that the world’s telephone connections had passed four billion. Largely thanks to the explosion of mobile phones in the majority world, the total number of telephones (fixed and mobile) had quadrupled in the past decade.

While exact figures are hard to come by, it is estimated that around 1.17 billion people (almost 1 in 6 persons) have access to the Internet, even though varying levels of quality.

These are the more widely quoted figures, but the media mix keeps diversifying even as the size of the overall ‘ICT pie’ keeps increasing. For example, the 1990s saw a channel explosion in both FM radio and television across much of Africa, Asia Pacific and Latin America, hugely increasing viewers’ choice and enhancing the outreach of broadcasting. The popularity of video games (and now, online games) has spawned trans-boundary subcultures that were inconceivable even a decade ago.

It is this bewilderingly media-enriched world that IUCN’s members and experts are trying to engage, hoping to persuade everyone — from governments and industry to communities and individuals — to live and work as if the planet mattered.

In Kathmandu this week, I argued that scientific merit and rational (and often very articulate) reasoning alone won’t win them enough new converts to achieve significant changes in lifestyles, attitudes and practices. To be heard and heeded in the real world outside the charmed development and conservation circles, we need to employ a multitude of platforms, media and ICT tools. And we have to talk in the language of popular culture.

We have come a long way since the 1980s, with the new ICTs evolving parallel to our own understanding of sustainability.

When we were involved in processes leading up to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, back in 1992, most of us were still using fax and snailmail to exchange information. Email was confined to academic circles and the web was not even conceived.

By the time Johannesburg Summit was held a decade later, email had come into wide use and static websites were being used to disseminate information and opinions. E-commerce and music file sharing were gaining momentum.

Just five years on, the rapidly evolving web 2.0 offers us more tools and platforms to not just engage in one-way dissemination, but to truly communicate with a two-way flow. Wikis allow participatory document drafting. Web logs or blogs enable faster, easier expression and discussion. YouTube and other platforms have suddenly made sharing of moving images much simpler (assuming we have sufficient bandwidth).

In fact, connectivity is improving in many parts of the world, though there still are many gaps, frustrations and cost issues to be resolved. Young people, under 25 years, are leading the charge in entering and ‘colonising’ the new media. Social networking platforms such as MySpace and FaceBook are only the tip of this cyber iceberg. And virtual worlds — such as Second Life, with over 8 million online members — are moving in from the periphery to occupy a clear niche in our new digital world.


Every indication is that these trends will continue. IUCN and other conservationists, with their rigorous scientific analysis expressed in technical papers, print publications and the occasional op ed article in a broadsheet newspaper, have to navigate in this whirlpool — and it’s not easy. But their choice is between engagement and marginalisation. The planet cannot afford the latter.

I’m not suggesting that conservation scientists and organisations must drop their traditional advocacy methods and rush to embrace the new ICT tools. But they need to survey the new media landscape with an open mind and identify opportunities to join the myriad global conversations.

A good part of that is what intellectuals might see as chatter, or tabloid culture. It’s precisely this mass tabloid audience that needs to be engaged for conservation.

There are inspiring examples of how other sections of the development spectrum are seizing new media opportunities:

* Some humanitarian groups now use Google Earth online satellite maps for their information management and advocacy work, for example in Darfur, Sudan, and the Central African Republic.

* In an attempt to name and shame offenders, human rights activists are using YouTube to post incriminating video evidence of human rights abuses worldwide. The influential Foreign Affairs journal recently called this the YouTube Effect.

Fortunately, at least a few Asian conservation leaders already appreciate this enormous new media potential. In Kathmandu, Surendra Shrestha, UNEP’s regional director for Asia Pacific, echoed my views.

“My young kids spend several hours each weekend in virtual worlds. We need to get in there and engage them with our content,” he said. “To do that, we have to get inside their minds, and speak their language.”

Shrestha mentioned how UNEP in Asia is attempting this with ICT-based projects for youth, such as e-generation which, according to him, has involved half a million young people.

Such initiatives are beginning to happen, thanks to a few conservationists who are pragmatic enough to exploit the inevitable. But much more needs to be done to make conservation ‘cool’ and hip for Asia’s youthful population, half of them under 35, and many of them Digital Natives.

For sustainability measures to have a chance of success, these upwardly mobile, spend-happy youth have to be reached, touched and persuaded. If it takes tabloid tactics to achieve this, so be it.

And given Asia’s growing economic clout and ecological impact – with China and India leading the way – the fate of the planet will be decided by what is done, or not done, in our region.

While they debate the finer points of conservation strategies and activities in Kathmandu, Bangkok and other cities across our massive region, Asia’s conservation community must quickly cross the new Digital Divide that currently separates them from Digital Natives.

Declaration of interest: I was part of IUCN Sri Lanka Secretariat (1992-1994), where I started its communication division, and have been a member of IUCN Commission on Education and Communication since 1991.

Read my April 2007 post: Do ICTs make a difference?