‘Organic Island’ redux: Bhutan takes steps toward becoming the world’s first ‘organic country’; ten year timeline proposed

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So the notion of taking a whole nation organic isn’t so loopy (or original) after all. In Bhutan, political and social leaders are coalescing around a plan to ban a whole slew of agricultural and industrial chemical poisons and promote sustainable, organic methods in their agricultural sector. It runs counter to the ‘what’s good for business is good for [insert nation here]’ thinking that so frequently prevails but this decision represents not some atavistic neo-Luddite groundswell that’s predestined to fail but a fantastic opportunity for innovation and development that employs and educates vast populations in its achievement and maintenance.

Bhutan, by flickr user Christopher Michel. Used by cc: license. All rights revert to originator.
Bhutan, by flickr user Christopher Michel. Used by cc: license. All rights revert to originator.

Organic agriculture relies on the maxim “the best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow.” The organic farmer learns more, thinks more, and works harder to produce the same pound of cocoa or tomatoes or sugar cane as his/her conventional compatriots. Organic farmers accept a self-imposed standard of excellence that functionally eliminates 80% of the problem-solving shortcuts available to conventional farmers: the ‘spray-and-forget’ solutions that never ask how the shortcut was manufactured or where it goes after it kills whatever needed killing. National acceptance of the organic farmer’s mindful ways is the opposite of atavistic. It is an evolution: a step forward that equally and unreservedly reveres their shared past, present, and future.

In a nation with so ancient a Buddhist & Hindu tradition maybe the idea of everyone working together to improve everyone’s situation isn’t so alien or unlikely-seeming. I think perhaps that’s why I could see Grenada going the same way. I saw so much real agape on the island I can’t help but believe the political will exists to undertake the same level of national self-improvement & -empowerment. Every human rationale and potential benefit that accrues around this call to action applies to Grenada as well. Someone has to show the world what ‘possible’ means.

Kick ‘Em Jenny & the value of cloud computing

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The recent rumblings at the undersea volcano known as Kick ‘Em Jenny off the coast of Grenada, West Indies apparently damaged the undersea fiber optic cables operated by Telecommunications Services of Trinidad and Tobago LTD (TSTT) during its recent spate of activity. According to the article several individual fibers were broken, attenuating bandwidth for the entire network.

According to the Senior Manager Brand, Public Relations & External Affairs Graeme Suite there were no specific physical indicators as to what caused the damage. Suite said, “It was not stated what specifically caused the damage – ocean floor movement, rocks or extreme heat etcetera so I cannot speculate”.

Suite said the cable contained several individual strands of fibre which collectively provide a great deal of bandwidth. He said that some of the fibres were broken and the remaining intact fibres is what resulted in customers having less bandwidth for uploading and downloading.

On July 23, TSTT was made aware of the damaged cables on the sea floor near the volcano, which is located eight miles north of the island. It is managed by regional communications company, part of which is being used by TSTT for international data and Internet traffic.

It was my experience with this phenomenon of easily-disrupted internet that presented my primary professional challenge in trying to set up a global, internet-based, collaborative program from the island of Grenada. In the three years I did business in Grenada the entire island’s internet went completely dark twice, and operated with critically diminished capacity at other times. When it happened in the midst of our first year of operations our clients –connecting from the US, UK, Africa, and India– were thrown completely offline: with no access to important online resources including our essential digital collaborative space. As long as the internet was out we were functionally out of business.

We did cobble together enough off-island functionality to allow work to continue, but to even consider applying these technical band-aids going forward –let alone continue to suffer the embarrassment of a data-driven business with no control of its data– was inconceivable.

The longer-term solution I devised was to shift our technical operations into the cloud: to a massively-protected, distributed, redundant cloud service based in the US with global server distribution, in our case one conveniently paired with collaborative tools. It had not escaped my notice that the API offered by our cloud partner was already known to jibe perfectly with the internal software overhaul we were planning.

By shifting our critical operations to the cloud we were able to take a door that was sometimes closed to us and kick it off its hinges. Our clients had access to important data 24-7, our collaborative spaces stayed open, and our transition to a new internal software system was demystified all in one fell swoop. Of course it’s impossible to administer cloud spaces from an island without internet, but a trusted assistant posted outside the area of outage will have recourse both to voice telephony to communicate with on-island partners and internet service to effect instant changes in the business’ cloud spaces.

The value of cloud services to developing economies can not be overstated. Adoption of cloud services ameliorates infrastructural woes, preserves and protects data and access, and avails developing businesses of highly advanced APIs and online tools they might not otherwise enjoy. Locating your data, server functions, or e-commerce solutions in ‘backbone’ countries dramatically cuts down on latency and keeps both internal and public-facing aspects of your business available even when you are not.

Addendum: a neat map of the undersea cables serving Grenada can be found here.

Organic Island

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When we moved to Grenada in 2008 it didn’t take long to discern that the best produce was sold by roadside vendors. Our first week in our house we met Miss Annette at her stand on the Mont Toute Road. Gardeners ourselves, we found lots of common ground. She was never a voluble conversationalist, but engage her about her farming business and she would tell you everything there was to know. It was this way we came to understand how certain Grenadians make a living, but also to realize that for the most part the produce sold in roadside stands was grown organically.

The most evident reason for this is economic: pesticides/fungicides and chemical fertilizers are expensive. In the absence of modern industrial solutions to ancient agricultural problems however, Grenadian gardeners and truck farmers relied on tried-and-true pre-industrial methods to keep pests at bay or maintain the health and productivity of their soil.

Agriculture is everywhere on a small island, even at the bus stop by Grand Anse.

Yard fowl proliferate throughout the island, making a useful living for themselves on the fat bugs attracted by a yard full of delicious food while fertilizing & aerating soil as they go. Early-morning drivers often pass the gardener in his/her plot, taking advantage of the coolest hours to lend credence to the old saying “the best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow.” Manic pot-hounds or cunning scarecrows deter opportunistic avian thieves. The farmer could simply spray chemicals all over his/her garden and go inside to watch TV for the rest of the day, but to the Grenadian farmer such ideas are as alien and inconceivable as the endless flat fields of the American prairie.

As accidental as organic Grenadian produce may now seem, certain Grenadian agriculturalists pursue these methods the same way avowed organic farmers do: as a living homage to an ideal. Among the lane’s-end backwoods camps of Grenadian Rastas organic agriculture is practiced in accordance with and observance of a universal ideal.

In Rastafari : from Outcasts to Culture Bearers, Ennis Edmonds observed that according to Rastas “the entire universe is organically related and that the key to health, both physical and social, is to live in accordance with organic principles” (60). One need not rely on academic sources however to realize that Rasta culture urgently identifies and stresses the unity of mankind and the Earth. Popular attention is focused on Rasta rejection of material ways and cannabis consumption, but viewed as an ethic instead of a cultural oddity Rasta reveals itself to be as powerful a motivator for organic methods as the mission statements of any number of international organic colloquia.

Organic agriculture wholeheartedly accepts the notion that obsessive fixation on maximizing productivity and profit shortsightedly –perhaps even lazily– engages the job of farming. Like Rastas, organic farmers hold ever in mind The Bigger Picture: that everything we do happens within a closed system of responsibility. The science-driven organic farmer acknowledges the interrelatedness of environmental and biological systems and seeks to preserve them in their original balance by either by mindful, principled action or judicious non-intervention. The Rasta farmer seeks to align his every action with the principles of his religion, and so is prevented from using what he rightly perceives as poisons on an Earth he sees as the very tableau through which he lives an observant life of spiritual communion.

To my knowledge there is no formal alliance between Rasta agriculturalists and the organic farming movement, but there should be. To show the Rastas that they are already part of and welcome in a well-known and internationally respected community of agriculturalists, to bring new ideas about organic methods to their farms, to witness and document the methods they have developed to deal with the unique problems inherent in tropical agriculture…it is to facilitate the one-ness of man & Earth.

Cocoa pods merrily growing. Photo by flickr user Karunakar Rayker, appearing here under Creative Commons license

For that matter, there is no reason this message couldn’t resound among all Grenadian farmers & gardeners, close as their methods often already place them to even the strictest international organic principles. For most, it might require a few simple adjustments (e.g., removal of pressure treated lumber in/around the garden, filtration of greywater used for agricultural purposes) and then they get a bright ‘ORGANIC FARMER’ certificate to hang on their roadside stand or market stall.

The benefits of a certificate program are obvious. First, Grenadian and international customers alike can buy with confidence from a vendor displaying internationally-recognized symbols of quality. Second, it creates a gossamer layer of useful bureaucracy to gather and administer information about Grenadian agriculture. Third and finally, this information could lead to the creation of the world’s first ‘organic island’, taking cues from the ‘greening’ efforts of other nations in the developing world like the ‘Green Gabon‘ program or the now-legendary economic success of Costa Rica in ecotourism.

The ‘organic island’ –announced proudly to the world– is one of the few positive statements a country can make that can instantly attract the attention of the world’s press and the solidarity of every progressive individual who receives the message. No-one is offended. No vital agricultural sector is regulated out of existence. All you are really saying is that, as a nation, you are committed to the nourishment of all mankind. The goodwill and attention generated by such a move can only positively redound in the tourism industry: the cash engine of the Grenadian economy.

On this point everyone can agree. The truck farmer is given means to burnish his/her professional reputation and gain access to tried-and-true organic methods from gardeners the world over. The Rasta farmer finds the same opportunities, but more importantly the reassurance of witnessing the propagation of an ethic of supreme importance to him. Even the larger-scale sugar cane operations –most likely to have the capital to use non-organic methods– benefit from their transformation into a premium product: one that continues to satisfy local demand but sells at higher prices in the world market. It bears mentioning that other products made with organic cane (e.g., rum) can also transform into and market themselves as premium organic vendors. Given how few changes most Grenadian farms would require to fully adopt organic standards, there is no reason the average consumer would see prices at the markets increase. Ultimately, 90% of the plan is informational: talking to local producers, lining up their support, then shouting the news to the world.

“Ever conscious of God we aspire, build and advance as one people.” To me, no readily-accessible goal lives up to this motto like the ‘organic island.’

“But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.” Job 12:7-10

Ever conscious of God, we honor him by preserving and supporting His creation. My question –my proposal– is this: can Grenada aspire to and build a national treasury of public health and international goodwill? Does Grenada believe –as the Rastas and organic farmers do– that to mindfully adhere to a principle that benefits all mankind is to advance…to proclaim that Grenadians are one with all the peoples of the Earth?

The Grenada Chocolate Co. LTD – Solar-powered, owner-operated, organic chocolate: from cocoa pod to bar. Inside this building one man’s ‘crazy dream’ became the island’s premier gourmet export. It can be done! Note the solar oven and prodigious photovoltaic capacity in the front yard. Photo: 2008.

Some commentary about the universality of certain experiences…and Darth Vader

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Looks like that row south of Grenville to me. Photo by flickr user Canterbury. Used by Creative Commons License. All rights revert to originator.

From a social media posting:

“I was a punk rock guy in my teens. The local punk rock house was rented by one of our better local bands, the guitarist of which later ‘grew up’ and became a professional chef in a really neat, innovative restaurant (before killing himself with heroin). The things he could make out of last night’s rice and today’s beans…I learned a lot about cooking on the large and cheap from him.

“It’s funny to me, but when I moved to the island of Grenada I noticed immediately these punk rock cook-ins came about the same way the locals would organize a cookout. Whatever you had to offer –be it your share of fish from this morning’s net or a hand of plantain from your yard or a big dasheen root from the market– would all be brought and all go into a big pot over a fire. Sometimes that pot would yield oildown, sometimes fish waters, sometimes something else. Every time though a group would form when the head chef/host judged the pot ready. The fisherman and farmer who provided so much to the pot get their fill, but the wives and children and neighbors with empty bellies who happen by all eat too. There is no such thing as leftover oildown. It just impressed me that this communal way of eating –one that acknowledges our common humanity and our original cooperative social modality– seems to spontaneously arise in certain communities, even at great geographical and sociological distance. It is as if sharing and the concept of ‘enough’ are actually coded somewhere in our DNA, like the last shred of The Force that resided in and ultimately redeemed Darth Vader.”

Ikkyū, or how I feel about children

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Watching my four year old daughter dance
I cannot break free of her.

― Ikkyū

Addie at 4, on our back porch in Grenada
Addie at 4, on our back porch in Grenada

BBC: The future of education in Africa is mobile

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kindle-africa-schoolThe UN’s Steve Vosloo arrives at the same conclusion I drew five years ago from my experience in Grenada, specifically that increasing mobile bandwidth was the way to get data connections into every home (as opposed to cable or fiber solutions). From an educator’s perspective I instantly saw this as a way to get the strongly mobile- and cloud-based curricula I was designing into as many hands as possible.

While education struggles to cope, mobile communication has grown exponentially. Africa is today the fastest growing and second largest mobile phone market in the world. While in some countries – including Botswana, Gabon and Namibia – there are more mobile subscriptions than inhabitants, Africa still has the lowest mobile penetration of any market. There is plenty more growth to come. Over 620 million mobile subscriptions mean that for the first time in the history of the continent, its people are connected.

These connections offer an opportunity for education. Already, we are starting to see the beginnings of change. An increasing number of initiatives – some large-scale, some small – are using mobile technologies to distribute educational materials, support reading, and enable peer-to-peer learning and remote tutoring through social networking services. Mobiles are streamlining education administration and improving communication between schools, teachers and parents. The list goes on. Mobile learning, either alone or in combination with existing education approaches, is supporting and extending education in ways not possible before.

This is the conclusion I made in 2009: that cloud- and device-based distance learning curricula were the single best, most reliable way to bring ‘first world’ education to the developing world, let alone represent a quantum expansion into untapped markets for online education. At the time the prevalent mindset was to adapt current web-based services for online on private servers. Cloud curricula aren’t subject to point-outages of power, servers, or internet. Providers of free cloud services (Google, for instance) don’t ‘do’ down. The First Law of Online Education is ‘Access is everything,’ and in places where cable or fiber internet are impracticable or prohibitively costly mobile internet –fueled by & in turn fueling the explosion in mobile devices & laptop-like 4G Chromebooks– is the only technology that can plug entire communities in with the flick of a switch. Those communities are then free to be informed, conduct commerce, or learn.

Read the remainder of Steve Vosloo’s story here.

Polar bear cub hitching a ride on an adult; Grenada analogue

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Addie used to ride on my back for the swim across the little reef between our place and Grand Anse beach. It seems a million years ago and a million miles from a polar bear cub hitching a ride on the family’s best swimmer, but somehow also completely the same:

Polar Bear Cub Hitching A Ride On An Adult
Polar Bear Cub Hitching A Ride On An Adult

Peter Broggs – Fuss & Fight

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In Grenada Addie was 5 and Cal was 3: prime age for the young antagonist to learn the hassling trade and his sister the art of active resistance. This was the song I used to sing to defuse their occasional flare-ups, increasingly to their annoyance as they came to realize I was accusing them of being fussy. Now whenever I hear Peter Broggs’ call for peace in the community, I imagine my beautiful children in some of their less-beautiful moments and smile.

Everyday they get up and fuss
Everyday they get up and fight.
Everyday they get up and fuss
Lord everyday they get up and fight.

What you fighting for?
I really want to know right now.
What you fighting for?
I really want to know right now.

It’s a good thing to live up fully
In true love and harmony
Respectfully with dignity.
I know it’s a good thing.

Mighty Sparrow – Mae Mae

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Grenada’s own Mighty Sparrow delivers a truckload of double-entendre in this hilarious, totally off-color carnival classic:

Sparrow don’t bite me
Don’t do that honey.
I never had a man to ever do that to me.
Oy yo yoy yo yoy, doux doux darling
Look, me pores raise up
You making me feel so weak
Stop, Sparrow, Stop.

A victory for women, and the women of Botswana

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During my tenure at St. George’s University in Grenada some of my best students (and indeed arguably my best student) were medical students from Botswana, many of whom were women. That these accomplished, remarkable women are now monumentally freer as a result of this decision is a source of great and enduring joy for me.

In a landmark ruling, Botswana’s High Court on Friday affirmed women’s inheritance rights for the first time, up-ending a male-dominated system that had prevailed in the thriving African nation.

The court ruled that local customary laws — giving a son preferential rights to inherit the family home — are not in line with the country’s constitution, which guarantees gender equality.

“It seems to me that the time has now arisen for the justices of this court to assume the role of the judicial midwife and assist in the birth of a new world struggling to be born,” said judge Key Dingake.

Read the rest here.