The end of summer

Bitter sweet in Sweden this week. The wonderful, hot sunny days have been replaced with cooler, windier weather and rain showers. Last week it was 25C, still and sunny but now we’re down to 15C and the winds are gusty, making it feel a lot cooler. There’s still some sunny intervals but Sten next door had a buzz-cut a few days ago and clearly regrets it now as he has his first fire of the season. So time for a trip back to England.

Autumn means migration here and we have already had the start; swallows and pipits starting to move south-west overhead, waders calling at night and, suddenly, stretched flocks of gulls meandering lazily towards the local lakes to roost in the early evening. We’ve had young Thrush Nightingales in the garden all week too, nosing around us curiously as we’ve had coffee on the deck. It’s an evocative time when the sky over the garden and valley fills with flocks of birds, all seemingly moving in the same direction. The momentum will build up over the next few weeks so I’ll be back to indulge in the rush.

Western Harbour Ystad
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Enjoy your Rooibos tea and grandchildren, Desmond

The very reverend and most revered Archbishop Desmond Tutu announced today that he will retire from public life. Unlike politicians, who slope off to ‘spend more time with their familiy’ when they get caught with their hand in the till, this is a man who really means it. He also deserves it. As a very secular observer I think public life will be the poorer after he steps into the wings. Here’s a man who commands respect across different cultures, races and religions and has sufficient humility to laugh at himself and enjoy sharing the joke. I’ll miss the sight of him dancing and laughing alongside the more pompous wearers of the cloth and holders of high office, most of whom take themselves far too seriously.

He is a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate as well as a champion of the anti-apartheid cause and was famously quoted as saying, Be nice to the whites, they need you to rediscover their humanity’. Such humility; he has spoken against AIDS denial and publicly apologised to gays and lesbians for the posture his church has adopted in respect of them. He’s also the guy who originated the phrase ‘Rainbow Nation’ when describing South Africa.

A truly great man, in the opinion of this debauched sinner.

Pouring palm oil on troubled waters – an update

On Tuesday Caroline Spelman delivered her speech to the Global Business of Biodiversity Symposium. It was entitled ‘Biodiversity and the bottom line’. Her article in The Guardian sort of implied that she would be speaking about palm oil; that ‘miracle product’, remember? Well, she did mention it – eight times actually – but it was lost in a speech that was essentially based on understanding the economics of biodiversity and associated emerging business opportunities. I guess that was to be expected. Her speech was a carefully crafted vehicle that touched all sides but didn’t really say anything. A pity, that; I like to see ‘keynote speeches’ be just that.

She opened with an admission of failure by stating that This is the year our current global target to significantly reduce the loss of our biodiversity expires. It’s the year we finally know that – despite our efforts – this target will not be met.’ And, whilst that is not her fault, nothing in her speech suggested that she brings a wind of change with her appointment. Quite the contrary, in fact.

The good news was that the symposium was attended by representatives of a gamut of organisations that could, if given the chance, make real changes to the way we produce palm oil and manage the consequences. But to do that you need political will and you need to be empowered. This well-meaning symposium was short on the former and, by placing emphasis on business opportunity rather than environmental management, effectively emasculated the latter.

One of the points she made at length and which has nothing at all to do with palm oil is that the UK is the first country in the world ‘to be carrying out a national assessment of our ecosystems’. This is an initiative from 2005 that seeks, according to its website, to ‘help people to make better decisions that impact on the UK’s ecosystems to ensure the long-term sustainable delivery of ecosystem services for the benefit of current and future populations in the UK’. One presumes the contributors to the National Ecosystems Assessment [UKNEA] to be sincere and of course the initiative has to be seen in optimistic terms. But there has been an agenda, meetings and events since 2009 and they will not report until 2011 at the earliest. So it’s going to take six years to get to a point where a report exists. And then? Given that the wheels of government bureaucracy grind very slowly and that palm oil production is projected to have doubled in the twenty years to 2020 I think ‘mapping of the country’s consumption’, which is the initiative she is about to announce, is probably too little, too late. But then, we don’t want to lose the cheap resource while we’re self-righteously debating the loss of biodiversity on the other side of the world, do we? She went on, ‘Working with businesses, we aim to map the palm oil supply chain to the UK, including public procurement, to find out where we are using sustainable palm oil, what we are using it for and how we are sourcing it. Working with companies and NGOs, we aim to use our findings to produce a plan to help shift Britain’s sourcing of palm oil to a sustainable footing’. No programme, no targets and no action; except that every one of those aspirations represented a business opportunity in consulting, reporting, monitoring or production. And if you are in the lobbying game, opportunities to work for both the producers and the conservationists. No, plenty of time before anything gets done and, because they are already on the ladder before the conservationists get a foot on the bottom rung, plenty of opportunities to ensure that the guys in the production chain remain firmly in control.

Ms Spelman was not disingenuous in her speech and clearly believes that commercial opportunity supersedes firm conservationist principle. So we at least know where we stand. She concluded like this;

‘So I will leave you with two thoughts.  Firstly, it is imperative for each business to examine its own supply, to ensure that every step of the way it is guaranteed sustainable, otherwise your supply chain will be at risk.

Secondly, the world is going to start pricing natural resources, so if you move into these markets early you will get the first mover advantages that those moving into the carbon market are seeing.

So you have a Government not just concerned for the environment, but your bottom line as well’.

As I write this David Cameron is in USA having just discussed the fallout from the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and protests have taken place in Alaska against the commencement of deep-sea drilling. I suspect that in both those cases senior officials gave smiling and heart-felt assurances that the then current government was just as concerned for the environment as it was for their bottom lines.

We never learn, do we?

Where did the moon go?

What elevates an occasion into a memorable event? Is it the surroundings? Fascinating people? The food served or something that was said? Maybe it’s that single factor, self-effacing in itself, that adds the special ingredient. Whatever it is, it happened for us at the weekend when we joined renowned author Carl Uggla and his wife, equestrienne par excellence Agneta, for dinner. 

We were high above upper Fyledalen and the warm, clear weather continued so we were able to sit outside and gaze across the valley and a landscape that was sunny and intrinsically Swedish. The views stretched south across pasture and wheat fields to woodland on the far side and west, to the rising ground and pine forest at Romeleåsen, more than twenty kilometres away. 

Simon and Hannah

 

Of course Carl’s oxbringa med rotmos was delicious – that’s home-made salt beef with mashed swede if you’re an east-end boy like me – but the real joys of the evening for me were the attendant grandchildren, Hannah and Simon. Now I am something of a bore when it comes to children, their behaviour and how they should conduct themselves in order to minimise the impact they have on a world made for adults by adults. In fact, it’s something of an obsession as I become unreasonably irritated by impolite, inarticulate, gadget-addicted youngsters who can’t look you in the eye when they speak and who believe, if they gave it a moment’s thought, that beds are made, food is cooked and cleaning happens by magic. Broad generalisations, I know, but not unrealistic. Meeting these two sparkling, intelligent and well-mannered children was not only a pleasure but it also proved to be the added ingredient that made the evening special for us all. 

So, a memorable evening, indeed; excellent food, good Sicilian wine, friends that one would choose to spend one’s time with and a long, bright conversation with youngsters who were, put simply, a pleasure to be with. Why is it such an exception today? And such inquisitive minds – we travelled the world, spoke of places we’d been and chatted late into the night against the backdrop of a light, clear sky punctuated only by a few wispy clouds and a golden crescent moon. 

So absorbed were we in good conversation, we didn’t even see it disappear. 

  

Pouring Palm oil on troubled waters

Oil palm plantation

Caroline Spelman is our secretary of state for the environment and has entertained me today with a gripping piece in the Guardian. She advocates that we reap the benefits of palm oil but manage the environmental costs. As a newspaper article it’s pretty thin but, more worryingly, the rhetoric used hints at taking our highly-lauded coalition down a sad and familiar road. Yep, it is the economy, stupid; but sorting it out is likely to cause the resolution of environmental issues to back-up like trains at Victoria Station.

Ms Spelman has an interesting background in matters relevant to production of such an important cash crop, or the ‘ultimate miracle product’ as she describes it. For three years from 1981 she was a Sugar Beet commodity secretary at the National Farmers Union and then deputy director of the International Confederation of European Beet Growers – Heaven knows what its acronym is – from 1984-89. That was followed by a research fellowship for the Centre for European Agricultural Studies. Her statement today makes reference to our coalition being the ‘greenest government ever’ and shows that she clearly understands that many businesses will ‘now have targets for when all of the palm oil they use will be sustainable’.

What caught my interest in her statement was that today she will be addressing ‘an international business audience’, not a group of significant or proactive environmental organisations who might put controls and sustainable management in place before the grubby fingers of international finance and commodity dealing soil it beyond recovery. But then, an environment secretary should put business interests ahead of environmental issues, no?

She has a lot of experience in speaking on environmental matters and, together with her agri-business background, clearly has a good grasp of the commercial aspects of how one might manage this ‘miracle product’. Having read the vague and evasive text of her puff this morning I’m wondering, however, if somewhere off in the wings the ground isn’t being prepared for companies such as Spelman, Cormack & Associates and their like, to manage not the environmental implications but the financial benefits of this ‘miracle product’. Spelman, Cormack and Associates is a consultancy that she set up with her husband and which lobbies on the food and biotechnology industry. Although she resigned as a director in June 2009 and the firm is reportedly not earning revenue her closeness to it and the real possibility of a serious conflict of interest have caused some questions being raised. Those good guys, The Sunlight Centre, have written to the Permanent Secretary of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [Defra] pointing out these concerns. The Guardian reported in May this year that the response, in part, was ‘The secretary of state and Defra’s permanent secretary will be ensuring in the usual way that the secretary of state’s private interests are declared and handled in line with the ministerial code’. Well, in light of what she wrote this morning and the fact that I know about her lobbying background and family interests it seems to me that her ‘private interests’ have certainly been declared. But that’s just what I’m worried about, her private interests.

Ms Spelman has a bit of form. There was the uncomfortable episode involving her employment of a ‘nanny’ whom she paid for with her parliamentary staffing allowance and which she had to repay. There was also the interest in where her main residence was at the time with her responses generating both opacity and Moonwalking.

Ms Spelman is clearly a consummate and intelligent politician and there is no suggestion that she has acted inappropriately. But you have to wonder just how clear things are; after all, she did claim £40000 on expenses for bills and cleaning against her second home while hubby, who was campaigning for a seat in the European Union, was claiming that the same place was his main home. I’m scratching my head a little here; me and Mission Control both know where we live .

I took an interest in palm oil several years ago after a visit to Malaysia and a late-night conversation fuelled by a lethal combination of environmental concern and Tiger beer. The product is a double-edged sword generating income across a very broad market but bringing with it the worst of human deprivation on mankind and the environment. Palm oil is derived from the pulp of the fruit or seed kernel of the oil palm Elaeis guineensis. It’s used for cooking, in food product manufacture, industrial processes and, of course, our future’s saviour, biofuel. But the true ‘miracle’ of palm oil is that it grows a long way away in Third World areas. This means that you can minimise and manage the concerns of the troublesome local people, who are easily dispossessed, while avoiding pestiferous environmental organisations.

The response, as always and as disingenuously referred to this morning by our environment secretary, is to manage the environmental impact. But then, of course, if you did you’d have to add the cost of controlled sustainability, compensation for local people, addressing eradication of biodiversity and the carbon mileage incurred between Asia and the West. Then the ‘miracle product’ would become a little less profitable.

The question is, how do you manage all these issues if you are secretary of state for the environment? Well, you start by addressing ‘an international business audience’ so that commercial opportunities are dealt with first; then you put in place rhetorical statements that sound like you are dealing with the consequences of a frightful mono-crop culture but which have no real impact because you are being cautious so as to avoid mistakes that will lead to real environmental damage; then you tax the profits of the companies that exploit the ‘miracle product’ but leave sufficient overseas-earnings loopholes so that political donations keep you and your political party in office. Finally, you make loudly-trumpeted gestures and perhaps throw aid in the direction of the environmental and social issues. But you won’t get a consensus and you know and we know it will not be enough and it will be after the fact, so it will also be too late.

But by then you may have left politics and moved into the consultancy business, lobbying the food and biotechnology industry again and, this time, perhaps for biofuel concessions; especially if your husband and the little firm you set up all those years ago have done well in the interim.

Summer in southern Sweden

It’s not cool these days to express joy in some of the simple things in life; meadows full of wild flowers, the scent of a pine forest on a warm, still day or a bird of prey soaring overhead. Our lives, individually and collectively, are poorer for it and so too, I suspect, is our literature. It seems to me that we are so preoccupied with navel-gazing, so careful to pursue the course that fashionable consumerism sets out for us that a lot of the richness that’s provided for free passes us by. 

I like being in southern Sweden a lot but haven’t had time to just sit back and enjoy it at its own pace until this year. This is a place of countryside and a place of nature. Sweden’s a big place with a small population – around nine million over about 174000 square miles and most of them in the three main cities. Compare that to the UK, where just over 61 million are crammed into a seemingly tiny 94500 square miles. What you get here is space. If you get off the beaten track you really are on your own so if nature and all things natural captivate and seduce you, like they do me, then the past few weeks of summer here have been something special. It’s been a time of long cycle rides and walks through the forest; local strawberries, chilled Orvieto in the shade and dinners at Kåseberga on the coast with friends. But, mostly, it’s been a time of wildlife. 

Kaseberga Harbour

 

We had a long, cold winter – so miserable that I fled to balmier climes after week upon week of deep snow and very, very sub-zero temperatures. But following-on from a cold spring we have been enjoying hot, sunny days with temperatures frequently in the high 20s centigrade and sometimes above 32. The late onset of warmer weather held back spring so this period has been a condensed experience, with a fresh green landscape set against the long days that are the hallmark of midsummer. 

The ground falls away beyond the fence at the end of the garden here and drops into Fyledalen, a huge area of mixed woodland, rough grazing and valley slopes. So we’re a real and close part of the nature that surrounds us. As I write this three or four young Long-eared Owls are calling into the night, one of two broods that we have in the village this year. A dog Fox was just barking and there are Hedgehogs on the lawn. It’s truly dark only for about four hours a night so evening and dusk last for several hours. Earlier, as twilight hung on an early migrant Northern Harrier made its way lazily south-west while we watched Hobbies hawking for beetles over the apple trees at the end of the road. Thrush Nightingales were still providing an occasional burst of song and tonight two rivals were competing from opposite ends of a small plantation. Two Woodcock were still ‘roding’ around their territories. 

 

During the day Common Redstarts have been feeding their young in the garden but the two pairs of Pied Flycatchers have moved away from the boxes and only visit now as occasional individuals. Coffee on the deck last week was interrupted by an immature Icterine Warbler in the adjacent hedge and a Lesser-spotted Woodpecker in the Oak Tree. 

It’s hard to avoid so much activity and, if you don’t go looking for it – as we did for young Tawny Owls in the valley a few evenings ago, when we counted 22 – it comes to you; standing quietly in the garden at dusk this week a young Badger shuffled all the way over to me to check if my sneakers were edible. Out in Fyledalen Fallow Deer are calving and Roe Deer are seen with new kids. The Wild Boar start farrowing in May so we’ve already seen the spotted piglets running at the feet of the adult animals. Golden Eagles nest in the valley and, although we see them frequently, we’re always amazed at how easily such a huge bird can remain out of sight. White-tailed Eagles are also breeding on an island in a nearby lake. Common and Honey Buzzards are often in the sky and the Red Kites are ubiquitous. We’ll have hundreds of Cranes overhead when the migration really gets underway but were thrilled to have the first one over the garden this week, circling high in a clear sky and trumpeting loudly. 

Add to all this a huge variety of butterflies, dragonflies, damselflies [and a few things that bite you] as well as wildflowers in the woodland and valley and it becomes a multifarious experience. As I wrote at the start of this, it’s a joy and a simple pleasure that is easy to overlook in the race to be cool or famous. 

A busy life can get in the way of enjoying simple pleasures and, like most people I guess, pursuing a hectic career has tended to take precedent for me. I’m not certain, however, that I ever lost sight of my appreciation of what I wanted to get out of it all as I shouldered my way on and off the 7.34 to Liverpool Street. Life today sometimes seems to have the wrong complexion and clearly puts massive demands on people’s time. It seems to me though that many of the values held as important are both shallow and superficial, measured as they are in degrees of fame or acquisition.   

It’s hard to find either the space or the variety in nature in the UK and one almost certainly has to travel to a protected area to find it. Here it’s still abundant and all around us and it’s been a joy to experience.