The Coming Pesticide Tsunami: Made in China?

Feature article published in Ceylon Today broadsheet newspaper on 14 March 2013.

Dr K L Heong: Beware of South-South dumping of hazardous pesticides!

Dr K L Heong: Beware of South-South dumping of hazardous pesticides!

The Coming Pesticide Tsunami: Made in China?

By Nalaka Gunawardene

Countries in Asia and Africa are threatened by a ‘Pesticide Tsunami’ that can seriously affect people’s health and the environment, a leading Asian entomologist warns.

Many developing countries that lack laws and regulations for pesticide marketing are vulnerable to ‘South-South dumping’ of highly hazardous agrochemicals coming from elsewhere in the developing world itself.

In recent years, China has become the world’s largest producer of pesticides, with most of its output being exported to developing countries, says Dr Kong Luen “K.L.” Heong, Principal Scientist at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), in Los Banos, the Philippines.

Dr Heong has been researching insect ecology in Asian paddy fields for decades. He is a leading advocate of integrated pest management (IPM) and sustainable agriculture that seeks to reduce current high dependence on agrochemicals in farming.

“Unless developing countries develop mechanisms to protect themselves, the coming Pesticide Tsunami is going to hit them hard. We urgently need to build self-protection at country level,” he said at a regional workshop of science and environmental communicators held recently in Bangkok, Thailand.

Dr Heong called for developing country governments to play a stronger governance role “to ensure quality information and pesticide prescriptions for farmers”.

Analysing statistics from China’s Institute for the Control of Agrochemicals, Ministry of Agriculture (ICAMA), Dr Heong showed how pesticide production in China has more than quadrupled between 2000 and 2009 – from around 500,0000 metric tons to over 2 million metric tons.

In that time, however, China’s domestic use of pesticides showed only a modest increase. That means much of the surplus was exported.

“It goes to countries that have lesser controls. It will not go to Australia, or Europe, or the United States for sure. Where else would it go? The developing world,” Dr Heong said in an interview.

Statistics maintained by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), which collates national data received from member governments, show that pesticide imports into developing countries have escalated during the past few years.

According to this database (available at: http://faostat.fao.org) Sri Lanka imported pesticides worth a total of USD 60.15 million in 2011. The figure for the previous year, 2010, was USD 47 million, i.e. an increase of over 20%. (Import quantities are not shown.)

South-South Dumping?

For decades, health and environmental activists have accused western multinational companies of ‘dumping’ hazardous pesticides in the developing world when, in fact, many such substances are banned in their own countries.

During the past decade, however, countries like China and India have also begun exporting their pesticides to the rest of the developing world. Some of these are no longer allowed use within their countries. (See box below: China’s Rising Toxic Exports).

“We are not (sufficiently) well aware of South-South dumping,” Dr Heong said. “We in Southeast Asia know this now. (But) what about Africa? There is a mechanism that dominates pesticide sales there, and it is worrying.”

In 2001, an international treaty called the Stockholm Convention was adopted to eliminate or restrict the production and use of persistent organic pollutants (POPs). These chemical substances, once widely used in pesticides, run off from farmlands and slowly build up through food chains, threatening human health and the environment.

The Stockholm Convention, and the related Rotterdam Convention for Prior-Informed Consent, both came into force in 2004. The latter provides a first line of defence giving importing countries the tools and information they need to identify the potential hazards and to exclude chemicals they cannot manage safely.

Dr Heong emphasized the critical role of governance in strengthening defences against the pesticide tsunami: sound policies, adequate national laws and regulations, and their proper enforcement.

“We cannot control exports by another country. But we can all control imports into our own countries. It’s all about individual countries acting in their own defence,” he said.

He added: “This is deadly poison we are talking about! I feel strongly that the poison should not be sold like toothpaste in the open market. And that is the key: governments should either revive their laws or implement the laws (for effective regulation)”.

Filipino rice farmer spraying pesticides

Filipino rice farmer spraying pesticides

Governance crucial

He emphasized the need for structural transformation in policy and governance — which he likened to the ‘roof’ of the ‘house’ of agricultural production and consumption.

“We spend a lot of money training our farmers; we spend even more money researching ecological engineering, new (plant) varieties and so on. These are like the furniture, and very nice furniture. But because they are placed in a ‘house without a roof’, they just get washed away. So building a roof is vital,” he explained.

In his view, registering importers of agrochemicals and licensing wholesale traders is necessary – but not sufficient. Toxic agrochemicals are currently being peddled to farmers mostly by untrained salespersons and vendors – they have no certification, and operate without much (or any) supervision and accountability.

“Most subsistence rice farmers across Asia simply ask their nearest local vendor for crop protection advice – and the vendors, in turn, promote whatever they have in stock, or whichever brand that gives them the highest profit margins,” Dr Heong said.

He wants to see developing countries introduce regulatory and certification systems similar to how pharmaceutical drugs are imported and distributed. The medical and healthcare professionals have their own certification schemes to ensure compliance with laws and regulations.

“We are dealing with a profession, and we are dealing with poison! Why are we not having a certification programme (for those peddling it to end users)?” Dr Heong asked.

Malaysian-born K L Heong holds a PhD and DSc from Imperial College, London. Besides insect ecology, he has also studied the sociology of farmers’ decision making, and designed communication strategies for educating farmers on sustainable agriculture.

His research and campaigns have changed rice farmers’ attitudes and practices in plant protection in many countries. For example, his work in Vietnam contributed to farmers more than halving their insecticide use in several provinces in the Mekong Delta; similar reductions were also recorded when his work extended to Central Thailand and Northern Vietnam.

Dr Heong is a leading voice interviewed in ‘Hopper Race’, a new documentary film produced by TVE Japan looking at rice planthopper threats to rice production in Asia. The Bangkok workshop was held to plan the documentary’s distribution across South and Southeast Asia.

Read my full interview with Dr K L Heong, published on TVEAP website

Text Box: China’s Rising Toxic Exports

China’s domination in the world pesticides trade is borne out by global statistics compiled by the UN’s FAO, and confirmed by independent researchers.

Writing a paper in the Proceedings of the International Academy of Ecology and Environmental Sciences in 2011, researchers Wen Jung Zhang, Fu Bing Jiang and Jiang Feng Ou say China is now the largest producer and exporter, and the second largest consumer of pesticides in the world.

The researchers, attached to the School of Life Sciences at Sun Yet-sen University in Guangzhou, note: “Since 1983, China has increased the production of organophosphorus and carbamated pesticides. Meanwhile, pyrethroid and other pesticides were developed. Since 1994, pesticide export of China has exceeded its imports.

“So far, more than 2,000 pesticide companies, of which more than 400 companies are manufacturers of original pesticides; more than 300 varieties of original pesticides and 3,000 preparations are being manufactured…”

They add: “Pesticide pollution of air, water bodies and soils, and pesticide induced deaths in China has been serious” in recent years.

They say China has banned the use of high-residual HCH, DDT and other organochlorined pesticides since 1983. And since 2007, several highly poisonous organophosphorous pesticides (namely, parathionmethyl, parathion, methamidophos, and phosphamidon) are also banned.

What is not clear is if similar considerations are applied to pesticides that China exports to other developing countries.

Their full paper, “Global pesticide consumption and pollution: with China as a focus” is online at: http://tiny.cc/PestC

Ceylon Today, 14 March 2013 - The Coming Pesticide Tsunami - Made in China

Ceylon Today, 14 March 2013 – The Coming Pesticide Tsunami – Made in China

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Asia Pacific Rice Film Award: Say thank you to rice in moving images!

Have a rice day!

Have a rice day!

If an alien spaceship were to randomly descend to the one third of our planet that is not covered by ocean, chances are high that it would land on a rice field.

So I was told a few years ago, when spending time with some rice researchers. Rice is the most widely cultivated food crop in the world. It is also the most important staple food for a large part of the world’s human population, especially in East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Latin America and the West Indies. From risotto to sushi to paella, food-savvy consumers are using rice as the main ingredient in recipes from around the world. Rice lends substance and texture to many dishes.

Despite all this, rice is under some pressures both economically and culturally. For one thing, it has been taken for granted by many of those who regularly have a ‘rice day’ and think nothing further about it.

That’s the reason for the first-ever Asia Pacific Rice Film Award – a regional competition to celebrate the role of rice in Asian cultures and societies. This is a regional partnership involving Pesticide Action Network Asia Pacific (PAN-AP), my own organisation TVE Asia Pacific and Public Media Agency of Malaysia.

APRFA logo

APRFA logo

I have just given an interview to TimeOut Kuala Lumpur magazine, October 2009 issue. In my capacity as head of the seven-member international jury, I answered questions from the magazine’s Brian Kwan. Here is the full text of the interview, which is also available online here:

How effective do you think this award will be?
When we set out on this joint effort, we posed two big questions: What feeds 3 billion people? And what is slowly but surely disappearing without anyone noticing it? The answer to both questions is Rice! We wanted this film award to draw attention to the central role that rice plays in Asian and Pacific cultures and economies. The measure of our success will be a long term one, and will depend on how many take part in this competition and how far and wide we will be able to distribute their creative efforts.

Why do you think Asia is in need for a wake up call on the subject of rice?
Rice one of our most revered treasures in the Asia Pacific, and many of us take it for granted. It is central to the Asian way of life — its cultural heritage and diversity, spirituality and traditions. This precious rice heritage is under threat from corporate or industrialized agriculture, neo-liberal globalization, private control of the rice seeds, and genetic engineering of the rice genome. Rice lands are also being torn away from small rice farming communities in the name of “development” projects such as special economic zones, cash cropping, and agro-fuel plantations.

Time Out KLPesticide Action Network Asia Pacific (PAN-AP) has for the last two decades championed the food sovereignty of the grassroots, namely, farmers, agricultural workers, indigenous people and consumers. In 2003, PAN-AP launched the SAVE OUR RICE CAMPAIGN. It is founded on Five Pillars of Rice Wisdom: Rice Culture, Community Wisdom, Biodiversity based Ecological Agriculture, Safe Food and Food Sovereignty. Last year, PAN-AP joined TVE Asia Pacific and Public Media Agency to organise this film competition as part of the on-going campaign. We all share the ideals of promoting rice in Asia and the Pacific.

APRFA co-organisers

APRFA co-organisers

What would you be looking out for in the short films?
The Asia Pacific Rice Film Award will be presented to creators of short innovative television, video or cinematic films that effectively educate the public on the role of rice in Asian cultures, economies and communities/societies. The films should use the ‘Five Pillars of Rice Wisdom’ as guiding principles. They should enhance appreciation of the rice heritage of Asia; raise public awareness of the issues on and threats to rice; highlight the role of small farmers, women in rice; strengthen the people’s resolve and action to save rice; and encourage a stronger role for youth in rice.

Any tips for the participants?
We are looking for short films that are innovative, imaginative and ultimately effective in raising public awareness. Rice may be a pervasive topic in Asia, but the threats to rice are not yet widely appreciated. How do we take this message to the three billion rice growers and eaters of Asia using moving images? How do we engage the YouTube generation – predominantly youthful populations of Asia – with films that open eyes and provoke minds to think further? What would work best — factual reportage, drama, humour, performing arts or other formats? These questions are worth pondering. As organisers, we are open to all formats. We want to be surprised!

After all this, what would be the next step/project?
As I said, this is an on-going campaign, so the winning and commended entries will become new tools and resources for that campaign. Making films and ranking them is only the first half of our shared challenge. We then have to get these films distributed far and wide, using broadcast, narrowcast, webcast and mobile platforms. Three billion people means six billion eye balls that need to be reached! That should keep all of us busy for a while…

Read more about the Asia Pacific Rice Film Award 2008/2009

Deadline for entries is 31 December 2009!

Danny Schechter: Moving Images Person of the Year 2008

Moving Images Person of the Year 2008

Danny Schechter: Moving Images Person of the Year 2008

As 2008 – clearly an Annus horribilis for tens of millions around the world – draws to an end, we announce the Moving Images Person of the Year 2008: Danny Schechter.

Nicknamed “The News Dissector,” Danny is a television producer, independent filmmaker, blogger and media critic who writes and lectures frequently about the media in the United States and worldwide.

He has worked in print, radio, local news, cable news (CNN and CNBC), network news magazines (ABC) and as an independent filmmaker and TV producer with the award-winning independent company Globalvision. He is a blogger and editor of Mediachannel.org, a web and blog site that watches and critiques the print and broadcast media.

Another way to introduce Danny is to recall the scary headlines and TV news images that have dominated 2008 – of reputed banks going bust, leading stock markets crashing and these events triggering a global financial meltdown that, for now, has been slowed but not completely averted by unprecedented governmental intervention…by the very governments of the industrialised countries who should have kept a sharper eye on what was going on in their free market economies.

As the carnage on Wall Street and other global financial centres continued, some hard questions were asked: Did anyone see this coming? If so, why weren’t they listened to? What is the real cause of all this chaos? Where was the news media and why weren’t they doing their job of sounding the alarm?

Well, one man who saw it coming and tried very hard to raise the alarm was Danny Schechter. In 2006, as part of this effort, he made a documentary film called In Debt We Trust. In this, he was the first to expose Wall Street’s connection to subprime loans and predicted the global economic crisis.

This hard-hitting documentary investigated why so many Americans – college and high school students in particular – were being strangled by debt. Zeroing in on how the mall has replaced the factory as America’s dominant economic engine, Emmy Award-winning former ABC News and CNN producer Danny Schechter showed how college students were being forced to pay higher interest on loans while graduating, on average, with more than $20,000 in consumer debt.

An inconvenient truth that America ignored for too long...

An inconvenient truth that America ignored for too long...

The film empowers as it enrages, delivering an accessible and fascinating introduction to what former Reagan advisor Kevin Phillips has called “Financialization” — or the “powerful emergence of a debt-and-credit industrial complex.”

Danny and his film have done for global financial meltdown what Al Gore did for global warming with his own film: investigate rigorously, gather and present the evidence of a gathering storm, sound the alarm — and keep badgering until the warnings were heard. In both cases, the inconvenient truths they presented were ignored for too long — and we are paying the massive price for such indifference.

Watch the Trailer of In Debt We Trust:

Deborah Emin, writing in OpEdNews in October 2008, noted: “In Debt We Trust…brought Schechter a lot of grief. Rather than being seen as a prophet of doom, which in and of itself was not so terrible, he should have been lauded for sounding the alarm when it would have been in time. It is truly an amazing fact of American life that the powers that be can so disastrously determine what information we are able to see based on their subjective judgment of what is too negative or too harsh a view of a specific topic. From this perspective, we should judge all these gatekeepers as those on the Titanic who did not want to alarm the passengers that the ship was going down.”

Watch an extract from In Debt We Trust: How did we get into this mess?



Watch In Debt We Trust in full on Google Video

So here’s the trillion-dollar question: if this film was made in 2006, and has since been running to packed houses scaring a lot of thinking and caring people, why was its message not heard in the corridors of power in Washington DC — and elsewhere in the G8 countries’ capitals?

The short answer could be that there have been no thinking and caring people running the American government for the past eight years.

Read all about it!

Read all about it!

The long answer is found in a book that Danny published in mid 2008. Titled Plunder: Investigating Our Economic Calamity and the Subprime Scandal, it’s an outgrowth of – and update on – his 2006 film. It documents with shocking evidence how debt has restructured the American economy and put Americans under a burden that many will never overcome.

Plunder also offers an analysis based on current events, going behind the scenes, identifying the key players and culprits, challenging the financial industry, government deregulation — and the financial and most sections of the mainstream media who have been cheer-leading the financiers as the latter took ever larger risks. Danny also argues that this has been a criminal enterprise — a point only touched on in most media coverage — and of global significance, given the globalization of markets.

Read my Sep 2008 blog post: Financial Meltdown: Putting pieces together of a gigantic whodunnit


On a personal note, I have been a great admirer of Danny Schechter and his work since I first met him 13 years ago. In the Fall of 1995, he gave an inspiring and provocative talk to a group of journalists and producers from the developing world who were on a UN-organised media fellowship in New York. As part of our tour of media and development agencies in the US East Coast, we visited Danny’s GlobalVision productions.

Danny introduced himself as a ‘network refugee’ — one who had worked for the mainstream network television in the US and had left in disgust. From outside, he was trying to find alternative ways of speaking truth to power — the original mandate of the mass media which many corporatised media companies had abandoned, knowingly or otherwise.

In that pre-Internet era, Danny engaged in his media activism through independent filmmaking, through which he supported and often participated in struggles for social justice in his native United States as well as in places like apartheid-ridden South Africa and strife-torn Palestine.

Danny was one of the early media activists to take advantage of the web. In 2000, he co-founded with Rory O’Connor MediaChannel.org, the first media and democracy supersite on web. Operating on shoe-string budgets, it has sustained critical spotlight on the mainstream media (MSM) for 8 years in which the MSM landscape has been completely transformed. While its scrutiny and chronicling of the political economy of the media is more crucial than ever, and veterans like Walter Cronkite whole-heartedly endorse the effort, the non-profit effort struggles for survival.

Now in his 60s, Danny is simply indefatigable. Besides running MediaChannel and GlobalVision, he blogs every few hours, writes a regular column on Huffington Post, lectures on media, writes books and still has time to make investigative films. He is extremely well informed, witty, funny and completely irreverent. He writes and speaks with justified outrage but no malice. That’s a tough balance to maintain.

Danny visits Wall Street on 20 September 2007 – typical of his funny, incisive reporting:

I was delighted to catch up with Danny in May 2008 when we both participated in Asia Media Summit in Kuala Lumpur. He and I were in a small minority of participants who were familiar with the inner works of the mainstream media and transformational potential of the new media. In characteristic style, Danny stirred things up, livening the usually staid proceedings, and I did my best to back him up from the audience. We both enjoyed asking irritating – if not outright annoying – questions from the 400+ media mandarins and press barons who’d come together for the Summit.

One evening, Danny and I had a drink with Malaysiakini’s CEO and leading new media activist Prem Chandran where we talked about the slow but inevitable decline of the mainstream media dinosaurs — or what Michael Crichton called Mediasaurus. The trouble with mediasaurus, we agreed, was that they are taking a long time going extinct and for now, they still command significant numbers of eyeballs and the dollars that follow.

After Prem left, Danny and I continued our chat into the evening. Over a spicy Indian meal, Danny gave me a crash course on subprime crisis (or sub-crime as he calls it) and how that was going to have a domino effect on markets everywhere. I listened with growing comprehension — and deep admiration for the man’s ability to communicate complexities without oversimplification.

Events in the weeks and months that followed have shown how remarkably prescient Danny Schechter was. And what a monumental, global scale mistake it was not to have heeded this man’s cautions in his blogs, films, columns and elsewhere.

We end 2008 with my cartoon of the year. As I said in a blog post in September 2008: “This cartoon by Pulitzer prize winning Tom Toles first appeared in the Washington Post in 2007 – it brilliantly anticipated the global financial meltdown that we’re now experiencing. Coming in the wake of confirmed global warming, it is a double whammy.

Meltdown 2

Meltdown 2

Who’s Afraid of Citizen Journalists 2: Reflections from Asia Media Summit 2008

On World Press Freedom Day 3 May 2008, I wrote a blog post titled Who is Afraid of Citizen Journalists. The answer included the usual suspects: tyrannical governments, corrupt military and business interests, and pretty much everybody else who would like to suppress the free flow of information and public debate.

By end May, I realised that some people in the mainstream media (abbreviated MSM, and less charitably called old media or dinonaur media) are also afraid of citizen journalists. That was one insight I drew from attending Asia Media Summit 2008 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (27-28 May 2008).

Asia Media Summit 2008

The two day event drew 530 broadcast CEOs, managing directors, media experts and senior representatives of development and academic institutions from more than 65 countries in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Over eight plenary sessions and twice as many pre-summit events, they examined ‘new visions and new strategies broadcasters need to pursue to address the demands of new technologies, stiff competition, media liberalization and globalization’.

As I shared in my first impressions from the Summit, this annual event is still warming up to the new media. That’s understandable considering that most participants are those who work in MSM/OM/DM. Some, like myself, have been flirting or experimenting with new media in recent years, but even my own organisation, TVE Asia Pacific, still works largely with television broadcasters going out on terrestrial, cable or satellite platforms.

While the death of MSM/OM/DM has been greatly hyped, it’s a fact that they face more competition today than ever before. And instead of competing for eyeballs (and other sensory organs) with better content and higher levels of product customisation, some sections of MSM/OM/DM are trying to impose their own, obsolete mindset on the new media.

A session on ‘Regulations and New Media Models’ brought this into sharp focus. The session raised questions such as: Should we apply some principles from traditional media (meaning MSM) to the new media? Should we adopt some minimum rules to allow for sufficient legal space for new media businesses to find their niche in the market and evolve to fit the needs of consumers? What are the policy implications of User-Generated Content (UGC) with regard to copyright infringement, information accuracy and content quality?

The panel comprised three Europeans and one American, all working in MSM or academia (it wasn’t immediately clear if any of them blogged personally). For the most part, they said predictably nice and kind things about new media. It was interesting to see how these professionals or managers – who have had their careers entirely or mostly working in or studying about MSM – were trying to relate to a new and different sector like the new media.

But the panel’s cautious attitude about the new media went overboard on the matter of regulation. This is where matters are highly contentious and hotly debated: while most of us agree that there should be some basic regulation to ensure cyber security and to keep a check on content that is widely deemed as unacceptable – for example, hate speech – there is no consensus on what content should be regulated by whom under which guiding principles.

Ruling unanimously in Reno v. ACLU, the US Supreme Court declared the Internet to be a free speech zone in 1997, saying it deserved at least as much First Amendment protection as that afforded to books, newspapers and magazines. The government, the Court said, can no more restrict a person’s access to words or images on the Internet than it could be allowed to snatch a book out of a reader’s hands in the library, or cover over a statue of a nude in a museum.

It was during question time that the discussion took a cynical – even hostile – attitude on the new media. Some members of the audience engaged Dr Venkat Iyer, a legal academic from University of Ulster in the UK, in a narrowly focused discussion on how and where bloggers may be sued for the opinions expressed on their blogs. The issue of multiple jurisdictions came up, along with other aspects of cyber libel and how those affected by criticism made online by individual bloggers (as opposed to companies or organisations producing online content) may ‘seek justice’.

These discussions were more than academic, especially in view of worrying trends in host Malaysia and neighbouring Singapore where bloggers have been arrested or are being prosecuted in recent weeks.
Asia Media Forum: Restrictions follow critics to cyber space
IHT: Malaysian blogger jailed over article



From the floor, I remarked that I was disturbed by the tone and narrow vision of this discussion, which merely repeated new media bashing by those who failed to understand its dynamics. Acknowledging the need for restraint where decency and public safety were concerned, I argued that it is a big mistake to analyse the new media from the business models or regulatory frameworks that suit the old media.

There are mischief makers and anti-social elements using the new media just as there have always been such people using the old media. Their presence, which is statistically small, does not warrant a knee-jerk reaction to over-regulate or over-legislate all activity online, as some Summit participants were advocating. To do that would be akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

I continued: “This is not a healthy attitude to adopt, especially when we look at the bigger picture. In many countries where freedom of expression and media freedom are threatened or suppressed by intolerant governments and/or other vested interests, new media platforms have become the only available opportunity for citizens to organise, protest and sustain struggles for safeguarding human rights, better governance and cleaner politics. In countries where the mainstream media outlets are either state owned or under pressure from government (or military), and where newspapers, radio and TV have already been intimidated into silence, citizen journalists are the last line of defence…”

I also noted with interest that on this panel was Mogens Schmidt, UNESCO’s Deputy Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information (in charge of freedom of expression), and said that this was not the kind of rolling back of freedoms of expression that UNESCO was publicly advocating. In a brief response immediately afterwards, Schmidt said that he fully agreed with my views, and that this was UNESCO’s position as well.

Another panel member, Dr Jacob van Kokswijk, secretary of the International Telecom User Group in the Netherlands, noted that the new media required a totally new thinking and approach where its content is concerned – the rules that have worked for the old media can’t be applied in the same manner. He added that only 3 to 4 per cent of Internet content could be considered as ‘bad’ (by whatever definition he was using), and that should not blind us to seizing the potential of new media.

Another panel member, Joaquin F Blaya, a Board member of Radio Free Asia (RFA), made a categorical statement saying he was opposed to any and all forms of censorship. He knows what that means – RFA says its mission is ‘to provide accurate and timely news and information to Asian countries whose governments prohibit access to a free press’.

By the end of the session, I was relieved to see a more balanced view on the new media emerging in our discussion, with more moderate voices taking to the floor. No, we didn’t resolve any of the tough issues of new media regulation during the 90 mins of that session, but we at least agreed that the old media mindset of command-and-control was not going to work in the new media world.

From its inception in 2003, the annual Asia Media Summit has been very slow to come to terms with this reality, but this year the event moved a bit closer to that ideal – partly because they invited leading new media activist Danny Schechter to be a speaker.

We just have to wait and see if this momentum can be sustained next year when the Summit is hosted by the Macau Special Administrative Region of China.

I’m going to keep an open mind about this — but won’t bet on it…

3 May 2008: Who’s afraid of citizen journalists? Thoughts on World Press Freedom Day

Asia Media Summit 2008: Still warming up to new media…

Asia Media Summit 2008

Last week, I tried being in two places at once: executive producing an ambitious new TV debate series in my city of anchor Colombo (Sri Lanka) and participating in Asia Media Summit 2008 (AMS 2008) taking place in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, May 27-28.

The two cities are 2.5 hours and a few thousand kilometres apart, and I just about managed being productive on both fronts. But I don’t recommend the experience: I ended up with a massive sleep deficit that I’m still trying to shake off.

According to the summit organisers, some 530 CEOs, managing directors, media experts and senior representatives of development and academic institutions from 65 countries joined the two-day event and 16 pre- Summit workshops.

The Summit had its moments — a few ‘Aha!’ ones and quite a few others where I found myself nodding (bored out of my mind, and not in agreement with what was going on). Unlike last year, when I chaired part of a pre-Summit seminar and also served as a plenary speaker, I was merely participating this year — which gave me the chance to network, take things easy and ask more questions from the audience.

Of the five Summits held since 2004, I’ve attended four (I missed the first one). The scope, content and quality of this annual event have certainly improved in this time. But I find the Summit still very much a gathering of the movers and shakers in the mainstream media, primarily radio and TV (which dominate the Asian media landscape). Very few new media practitioners – individual bloggers like myself, as well as online audio/video publishers and operators of web portals – turn up at this event.

And the Summit discussions in the past have sometimes been decidedly cynical or dismissive of new media. When this happened in the opening plenary itself at Asia Media Summit 2007, I was so disappointed that I asked if I was actually attending the Asia ‘Mediasaurus’ Summit.

Things could only get better this year – and they did. For one thing, they had invited new media practitioners to speak of their chaotic new world (unlike last time, when we heard fossilised old media worthies pontificate fuzzily on the new media). Perhaps this was the organisers heeding our critique of last year. Or it had something to do with the rise and rise of bloggers in the host country Malaysia: the March 2008 general election there saw five active bloggers being elected to national Parliament from the opposition in the biggest political upheaval Malaysia had seen in half a century.

Asia Media Summit 2008

For this reason, we were looking forward to the Summit’s opening by Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, but for the second year running, he decided to skip the event. Instead, he sent his deputy Mohd Najib Tun Abdul Razak in his place to read his speech.

As Malaysia’s pro-government New Straits Times newspaper reported the next day, he urged journalists not to be too taken in by the “bells and whistles of technology”, but to hold to established virtues of accuracy, intelligence, fairness and grit as these formed the competitive advantage of the traditional press in the “anarchic environment of the new age”.

He added: “The right to freedom of speech and expression cannot be used as a pretext or excuse to violate and abuse the reputation and dignity of a people, to slander and libel or to defame religions or religious symbols. If this were the case, there would be no laws of defamation or libel and laws against those who incite racial or ethnic violence.”

During question time, the well known American blogger and media analyst Danny Schechter had an interesting exchange with the chief guest. Danny referred to the case of Malaysian blogger Raja Petra bin Raja Kamarudin who was recently charged of sedition for having written a political blog post.

DPM Najib and Schechter had very different views on the limits of freedom of speech and how far the new media can and should be allowed to comment on current affairs, especially politics. On the wider issue of human rights, Najib took the populist line and made references to America’s detention camps in Guantanamo Bay and the CIA outsourcing torture. Danny shot back saying that only 20% of the American people now support their president and his policies (and Danny certainly wasn’t one of them). He argued that human rights should be universal. Read Danny’s take on it here, and the more official version in the New Straits Times.

With that slightly bumpy start, AMS 2008 went on to display the mainstream media’s still uneasy relationship with the new media. For sure, the Summit had sessions on user-generated content and new media business models. But for the most part, these sessions brought out the narrow perspective of mainstream media’s managers or its long-standing researchers. With notable exceptions like Danny Schechter, other speakers talked about a fast-changing, rapidly-evolving reality that they’d barely skimmed or experienced themselves.

I would belatedly write more blog posts on some of the discussions that took place in later sessions, which prompted me to intervene several times from the audience.

From KL to Bali: Why were ICT and climate change debates worlds apart?

The timing of the Third Global Knowledge Conference or GK3 last week just couldn’t have been worse in terms of international media attention and coverage.

Some 1,700 people from all over the world – representing academia, civil society, governments and industry – gathered in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur from 9 to 13 December 2007 for this platform of events meant for everyone interested in using information and communications technologies (ICTs) for the greater good – to solve real world problems of poverty, under-development, illiteracy and various other disparities that afflict our world.

The organisers, a network called the Global Knowledge Partnership, called it ‘Event on the Future’. They had worked for almost two years on planning the event, and spent a huge amount of development funding to drum up global interest in the event.

As things turned out, GK3 was a complete non-event for the world’s media, whose attention was much more engaged by another event that was crucial for the future of all life on this planet – the UN Climate Change conference taking place in neighbouring Indonesia’s Bali island.

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That coincidence of events was very unfortunate, especially since GK3 also discussed and debated important issues that shape our common future. Yes, the substance at GK3 was immersed in — and sometimes buried under — massive volumes of hype and spin, but for the discerning participants there were occasional gem stones amidst the numerous gravel.

I have written up my impressions of GK3 as a series of missed opportunities. In my view, the biggest missed opportunity was GK3’s failure to position itself as part of the smart response to global climate change that scientists now confirm is happening and is largely human-induced.

After 20 years working in the media, I can understand why the news media ignored GK3. Yes, bad timing was one factor. But the bigger lapse was that the GK3 organisers and participants failed to find and articulate their common ground with the bigger global process that was unfolding in Nusa Dua, Bali island.

In the real world, Bali is not all that far from KL. But sadly, the two were worlds apart as parallel processes took place with little confluence.

It need not have been that way. There is much that ICTs can do in reducing carbon emissions that are warming up the planet.

The biggest ‘digital dividend’ from ICTs is how they can help reduce needless travel. Dependent as we still are on fossil fuels of oil and coal for most of our transport, even a few percentage points of travel that we can realistically cut down can yield major savings in emissions of carbon dioxide.

In a blog post written in August 2007, I cited Sir Arthur C Clarke’s slogan that sums this up very well: Don’t commute; communicate!

I quoted from an essay Sir Arthur had written for the UK’s Climate Group in 2005, included as part of a global exhibit on climate issues, where he noted: “….Meanwhile, other technologies enable us to adjust our work and lifestyles. For example, mobile phones and the Internet have already cut down a lot of unnecessary travel – and this is only the beginning. We should revive a slogan I coined in the 1960s: ‘Don’t commute – communicate!’”

My friend and academic colleague Dr Rohan Samarajiva, who heads the regional ICT research organisation LIRNEasia, has given this some further thought.

More and easier use of telecom should theoretically lead to less need to travel. But nothing is ever that simple, he says. “It is not realistic to think that improved telecom-based connectivity will immediately lead to a reduction in demand for transport and a reduction in greenhouse gases. But it is clearly a necessary action that will yield good results over time.”

For telecom to make a real contribution to reducing demand for transport, Rohan says several things need to happen:
• Most people need to have easy and convenient access to telecom, for sending as well as receiving messages and for retrieving as well as publishing information;
• All offices and business establishments must be reachable through telecom;
• They must change their business processes to reduce the need for people to physically come to their locations; and
• The ancillary infrastructures such as energy, payment and delivery systems must change accordingly.

These, then, are important goals that are worth pursuing not only for the achieving information societies but also for saving the planet from the current slow baking. That’s the message that GK3ers failed to grasp or convey to Bali.

Instead, we heard from the movers and shakers of the IT and ICT companies how they are working to achieve greater energy efficiency in the manufacture and use of their products. Their sincerity and commitment were not in question. But I didn’t hear anyone emphatically make the point that helping people to avoid needless transport use is the biggest climate benefit ICTs can deliver. (I was yearning to stand up and say ‘It’s avoided transport, stupid!’ in one plenary but we ran out of time.)

The industry mandarins were not alone. Even the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which sets standards and keeps an eye on ICT trends and conditions, missed this point. In a statement delivered to the Bali climate conference, ITU talked about lots of small contributions that ICTs can make to find solutions to the climate crisis.

To quote from their 12 December 2007 press release:

“ITU pointed out that the proliferation of ICT products in homes and offices, and their deployment throughout the world, places an increasingly heavy burden on energy consumption. The late night glow in homes and offices emanating from computers, DVD players, TVs and battery chargers is all too familiar. And the move to “always-on” services, like broadband or mobile phones on standby, has greatly increased energy consumption compared with fixed-line telephones, which do not require an independent power source. Energy demands caused by high-tech lifestyles in some countries are now being replicated in others.”

It’s always good to improve energy efficiency, if only to keep the bills in check. But can ICT industry and ITU please stop apologising for the relatively minor contribution their sector makes to global warming — and instead become a much bigger part of the solution? In other words, stop rearranging chairs on the Titanic’s deck, and instead get in the engine room to help steer the planetary Titanic from heading straight into that iceberg looming large.

We don’t need further studies, expert groups or conferences to deliver this category of carbon-saving, climate-friendly benefits: just keep rolling out telecom coverage worldwide and also make the services affordable and dependable. The markets will do the rest.

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This point was also lost in Bali. Obsessed as they were with a mechanism to succeed the imperfect Kyoto Protocol, the delegates failed to fully appreciate tried and tested solutions that can begin to roll out now and here. Let the diplomats and lobbysts bicker for years to come, but don’t ignore what markets can do in the meantime.

Even some champions of climate change have yet to realise the ICT potential for their planet-saving crusade. Al Gore, being both ICT-savvy and green, is an exception. Sir Nicholas Stern is not.

In October 2006, the UK government published a 579-page report on the economics of climate change by Sir Nicholas Stern, a former chief economist at the World Bank. Despite the massive size, scope and authority of the report, the Stern Report had no reference to the role that the ICT sector could play in helping to reduce energy demand, mitigate CO2 emissions and help to save the planet.

Fortunately, as I wrote in August 2007, telecom operators are begining to taking note. Among them is the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association (ETNO), which issued a report — incidentally, in the same month as the Stern Report — titled Saving the climate @ the speed of light: ICT for CO2 reductions.

It was a joint publication with the World Wide Fund for Nature, WWF. Its introduction read: “A wider usage of ICT-based solutions can play an important role in reducing CO2 emissions. This joint WWF-ETNO road map proposes a concrete way forward for a better consideration and inclusion of ICT’s in EU and national strategies to combat climate change.

Read the full report here.

So it seems that part of the climate response answer is literally in the air – or the airwaves. The emergence of information societies — where more electrons (carrying information) are moved than atoms (people, goods) — can help the pursuit of climate-neutral or, even better, climate friendly lifestyles. To use a currently fashionable UN term, that’s a co-benefit!

For these co-benefits to be appreciated and seized, it’s essential that we look at the bigger picture and not just work in individual sectors such as ICT and sustainable development. The ITUs and UNEPs of this world have to meet and talk more often — and also listen to each other more seriously.

I chose to attend the ICT event of GK3 in KL in spite of receiving three separate (and sponsored) invitations to join various activities in Bali. After last week, I have mixed feelings about that choice, but there’s no doubt at all in my mind about the massive potential that ICTs hold for mitigating the worsening of climate change.

But the ICT sector has to put its money where its mouth is, and practise what it advocates. It’s not good enough to endlessly meet and talk about all things ‘e’. Just as the world has to kick its serious addiction to oil and coal, we in the development sector have to wean ourselves away from our obsession with paper. Lots and lots of it.

In the last hour of the final day, I walked around GK3’s exhibition area, with the ridiculous name MoO. I was stunned by the massive volumes of paper lying around everywhere. The week’s events were drawing to an end, and it was unlikely there would be too many more takers for all that paper. In that week, I saw very little digital media being used to peddle institutional messages or deliver their logos. It was 95% paper-based.

My colleague Manori captured on her mobile phone this image of an exasperated me surrounded by mountains of paper.

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The MoO exhibitors were not alone in their profligacy and wastefulness – the GK3 secretariat easily wins the prize for producing the greatest volume of glossy, expensive paper-based promotional material for at least a year preceding the event.

Clearly both ICT and climate camps have some urgent rethinking to do. Together, we can find win-win, now-and-here solutions for slowing down processes of disruptive climate change already underway.

Or we can keep pushing bits of paper all around, all year round. The choice is ours – and the planet is at stake.

– Nalaka Gunawardene


Read my overall impressions of GK3: All geek but very little meek…and at what high cost?

Impressions of GK3: All geek but very little meek…and at what high cost?

I spent a good part of my last week (9 – 13 December 2007, both days inclusive) in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur participating in the Third Global Knowledge Conference or GK3.

GK3 was organised by a network called the Global Knowledge Partnership, as a platform for those interested in using information and communications technologies (ICTs) for the greater good – to solve real world problems of poverty, under-development, illiteracy and various other disparities that afflict our world.

Those within the GKP call it ICT for Development, abbreviated as ICT4D. I prefer the more catchy phrase ‘Geek2Meek’ (or using geeks’ tools/toys to serve the needs of the meek).

In the spirit of spawning endless acronyms and abbreviations that contribute to the Alphabet Soup, I will compress this as G2M.

GK3 was meant to showcase the best of G2M products, practices and processes in every area of human endeavour — education, health, natural resource management, poverty reduction, empowering youth and women, promoting enterprise, etc.

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After spending a good deal of my time and energy sampling many of GK3’s offerings, my cumulative impression was: there was a lot of geek for sure, but very little of the meek.

And the nexus between geek (tools) and meek (needs) was hopelessly lost in the incredible volume of hype, PR and spin generated by the platform organisers. What a missed opportunity it was for everyone!

To be fair, GK3 was not a single conference, but a whole platform of events sharing the large physical space of the KL Convention Centre and spread through the week of 9 to 13 December 2007. During that time and using that space, various groups organised diverse events and activities — ranging from the usual talk sessions and workshops to training, exhibitions, quiz shows, a TV debate and a documentary film festival. There were also several social events that provided many hours networking among individuals and organisations.

Event platforms like GK3 mean very different things to different people. Some turn up mainly to show and tell (or share) what they are doing. Some attend simply to find out what’s going on. Others look for markets, partners or opportunities. With some planning and work, most participants get to take away something in the end.

All this certainly happened during GK3 to one extent or another. It brought together hundreds of people from all over the world who share an interest in G2M — according to official figures, a total of 1,766 registered participants from 135 countries, comprising 19% from public sector, 21% from private sector, 29% from civil society, 20% from international organisations, 5% from media and 6% from academia. Among them, 82% of participants were from developing countries. And half of all participants were from Asia, which was not surprising given their easier access to KL.

These participants — most of them eager, energetic and creative individuals — talked and mixed in a myriad combinations around the overall platform theme: how the threads of emerging people, markets and technologies will intertwine to deliver the future. There was discussion, debate, sharing and networking.

I myself did all of this. I attended part of the 3rd World Electronic Media Forum, joined the GKP’s 10th birthday celebration, sat through some plenary and parallel sessions and moderated two sessions myself. Some TVE Asia Pacific documentary films that I had scripted or directed were screened at the i4d film festival, a key side event. The week also saw the release of two Asian regional books that I was involved in creating (one I co-edited, and the other I wrote a chapter for).

But being the professional skeptic that I am, I don’t buy the GK3 secretariat’s post-event claim that “An overwhelming number of participants indicated that GK3 is the only event of its kind, is absolutely critical and worthwhile.” I have no doubt that a statistically higher number of people made nice and kind remarks about the week’s offerings, as many such people are wont to, especially if their participation was supported by travel scholarships. (I would be interested to know how many of the 1,700 people came on their own steam, as I did.)

In fact, style (and hype) over substance characterised the entire GK3 platform — the hype had actually started months before the event, with all registered participants being bombarded by endless promotional emails that I found simply intolerable. (And no, the organisers didn’t offer us the option of unsubscribing.) So much time, energy and donor funds were spent – nay, squandered – on dressing it up and inflating everything to the point of losing all credibility. If anyone was laughing all the way to their banks after GK3, it must be the assorted spin doctors!

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As I have written and spoken (for example in an op ed article in i4d magazine, June 2006), the gulf between the (expensive) hype and reality in ICT circles can be wide and shocking. What is worth investigating is the development effectiveness of this whole platform, and the value for money it delivered.

Take, for example, an email circular sent out by the GK3 organisers days after the platform ended. Under ‘key initial findings’, they list the following for emerging technologies, the area that interests me the most (verbatim reproduction here):

Four future-oriented outlook involving technologies were highlighted – media, cybersecurity, low cost devices, and green technologies.
* Increased convergence of different media allows single broadcasting (one to many) to be complemented by social broadcasting (many to many), and in turn increases interactivity in the exchange of information.
* Cybersecurity, cybercrimes and cyberwaste are becoming real dangers which deserve special attention.
* More new low cost devices are needed to facilitate affordable access to information, knowledge, communication and new forms of learning.
* Demand for innovative green technologies is welcomed and growing.

I don’t see how any of this can be labelled as ‘findings’ — these are not even articulate expressions of already known trends, conditions or challenges. Is this how the ‘Event of the Future’ going to be recorded for posterity? Surely, GK3 achieved more than this – probably below the radar of its spin doctors?

GK3 to me was more evidence of the disturbing and very unhealthy rise of spin in international development circles, where both development organisations and development donors are increasingly investing in propagandistic, narcissistic communications products and processes. While publicity in small doses does little harm, it is definitely toxic in the large volume doses that are being peddled whether in relation to MDGs or humanitarian assistance or, as with GK3, in relation to Geek2Meek. Full-page, full-colour paid advertisements in the International Herald Tribune don’t come cheap — but they come at the expense of the poor and marginalised.

I was also struck by how web 1.0 the GK3 organising effort was — all official statements, images and communication products (and even social events) were so carefully crafted, orchestrated, controlled. Whatever spontaneous action came not from the Big Brotherly organisers but from some free-spirited participants who seized the opportunity to express or experiment. The defining characteristics of web 2.0 – of being somewhat anarchic, highly participatory and interactive – were not the hallmarks of GK3. Again, a missed opportunity.

Then there was the ridiculously named Moooooooooooooo – sorry, it was actually MoO, an abbreviation for ‘Marketplace of Opportunities’, which GK3 was supposed to create or inspire for all those engaged in Geek2Meek work.

The MoO turned out to be just another exhibition where two or three dozen organisations put up their ware to show and tell (and a few did brag and sing, but that’s allowed at places like this). Strangely for an ICT gathering, there was so much paper floating around — posters, leaflets, booklets, books, postcards, you name it! And very few CDs, DVDs and electronic formats being distributed.

Oct 2007 Blog post: Say Moooooooooo – Mixing grassroots and iCT in KL

In the last hour of the final day, I walked around the MoO (I must admit I was half curious to see if the cows have come home!). I was stunned by the massive volumes of mixed up paper lying around everywhere. The week’s events were drawing to an end, and it was unlikely there would be too many more takers for all this paper. My colleague Manori captured on her mobile phone this image of an exasperated me surrounded by mountains of paper.

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The MoO exhibitors were not alone in their profligacy and wastefulness – the GK3 secretariat easily wins the prize for producing the greatest volume of glossy, expensive paper-based promotional material for at least a year preceding the event. These were often sent in multiple copies to heaven knows how many thousands of people all over the planet.

All this happened in a year (2007) when scientific confirmation of global climate change prompted governments, industry and civil society to realise that business as usual cannot continue, and more thrifty ways to consume energy and resources must be adopted. Ironically, GK3 was largely ignored by the world’s news media who focused much more attention on the UN Climate Change conference underway in neighbouring Indonesia’s Bali island.

I have commented separately on the missing link between KL and Bali. It is highly questionable what value-for-money benefit an ICT event like GK3 could derive from the abundance of paper-based materials produced to promote it. It’s revealing that the GKP’s oft-repeated claims of attracting 2,000 participants to GK3 were under-achieved despite excessive promotion.

Writing in October 2007, I said: “An informed little bird saysGK3 has milked development donors well and truly for this 3-day extravaganza. I hope someone will calculate the cost of development aid dollars per ‘Mooo’…”

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Well, now is the time to ask those difficult questions. The donor agencies of several developed countries — and from Canada and Switzerland in particular — invested heavily in the GK3 extravaganza. These are public funds collected through taxes, given in trust to these agencies for rational and prudent spending. And it’s fair to say that most of this official development assistance (ODA) money is given with the noble aim of reducing poverty, suffering and socio-economic disparities in the majority world.

The GK3 organisers — that is, the GKP Secretariat — often talk in lofty terms about good governance, extolling the virtues of accountability and transparency. Here’s your chance to practise what you preach to the governments and corporations of the world: disclose publicly how much in total was collected for GK3 (from development donors, corporate sponsors, hefty registration fees), and how this money was spent. In sufficient detail, please!

We will then decide for ourselves whether GK3 provided value for money in the truest sense of that concept, and assess if GK3 was ‘absolutely critical and worthwhile’ as the organisers so eagerly claim.

It’s easy for like-minded people to become buddies and get cosy in international development networks. It’s also common to engage in self congratulatory talk and mutual back-slapping at and after gatherings like GK3. But too much manufactured (spun?) consensus and applause can blind our collective vision and lead us astray.

If we genuinely want to engage in Geek2Meek (or, ICT4D), we have to keep repeating the vital questions: what is the value addition that ICTs bring to the development process, and what is the value addition that mega-events like GK3 provide for turning geek tools to serve the meek? Answers must be honest, evidence-based and open to discussion (and dissension, if need be).

In not sharing the euphoria of GK3 organisers, I probably sound like that little boy who dared to point out that the mighty emperor had no clothes. If nobody talks these inconvenient truths and asks some uncomfortable questions, we would be going round and round in our cosy little grooves till the cows come home.

Did someone say Mooooooooooooo?

Read my November 2005 op ed essay written just after WSIS II: Waiting for pilots to land in Tunis

From KL to Bali: Why were ICT and climate change debates worlds apart?