Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Aral Sea

If you look on a map of Eastern Europe you'll find The Aral Sea just east of the Caspian Sea - in the Central Asian deserts sandwiched between the formerly Soviet states of Uzbekistan and Kazakstan. It is the 4th largest body of inland water in the world and the largest reserve of inland salt. But to really see the Aral Sea, you would have to have a new map that indicates that perhaps the Sea is misnamed because there's no water in it anymore. It's a dried up chemical-infested salt flat not unlike I imagine Death Valley in California only more savory.

In the 1960's when the African slave families of the American South finally got out of bondage and stopped picking those backbreaking cotton crops the agricultural opportunity to do so moved to the Aral Sea. In a massive human rights movement to free oppressed people in The United States the result has been to environmentally destroy another human settlement halfway across the world.

I pick up a copy of this month's Vanity Fair to pass the time on the nautical journey from Tsawassen to Schwartz Bay as I cross the Georgia Straight to the Southern tip of Vancouver Island. I don't normally read Vanity Fair but the stories are so well written and when I do I feel for a brief few hours that I live in New York. Those writers are so smart and so efficient in their collection of ideas - it's like they know all the interesting and juicy things the rest of us would never come across - someone with as my friend Judy says, 'great cocktail party skills'. Personally I love the cocktail party concept - if I can't squeeze any interesting coversations out of the crowd I can leave and nobody cares. Dinner parties are different.

Joan Root was a Kenyan environmentalist who was doing whatever she could to save Lake Naivasha from being drained by the flower growers perched on the edges of the lake and whisk their goods to Europe in their own private fleet of jets. So in this eerie twist of affairs - an elderly formerly English woman who lives on 85 acres of some of the most beautiful land in Kenya gets murdered so she'll shut up in order so friends walking the high streets of London can have their roses and tulips and green beans. That's really what it comes down to - another murder in Kenya only this time by the dark forces of employment and profit and growth that Joan's advocacy was thought to threaten.

Usually Vanity Fair writes about murders in Kenya by folks who are sleeping with people they're not supposed to be sleeping with. I don't mind those stories - a bit harsh really for breaching the monogamy pact but much closer to our own lives and good to know we're not the only ones bringing problems upon ourselves in life. But this story is creepier because it's about flowers, something beautiful we all love that at a dinner party you would never think might be draining a lake or ending the life of a little old lady who lived in a farm and cared for the future.

Will I ever find myself in some sort of similar and terrifying position - because I am using business as my activism to alleviate poverty, generate income and get kids into schools? Will someone whisper about me in the dark night of Nairobi - 'that woman who makes t-shirts from recycled product found in the markets - she is helping children so we need to get rid of her'. Could our artwork and exhibitions and napkins and pillowcases and teams of designers learning photoshop ever represent something other than opportunity for Kenya? Will I live like the Dalai Lama one day - forced to do what I love outside of Kenya because it ceases to be safe for me there? I think my father fears this.

It is well known that big business gains when it operates within nations that are deemed 'unstable' so much so that there is a history of failed states ironically full of oil and diamonds and the lowest wages on the planet. I know this becasue for 3 years I have been discouraged by people who love me - not to invest in Kenya because it is dangerous and volatile and it's children are not worth risking my life over. These forces be them real or imaginary keep competition away and allow for huge monopolies to exist working under very difficult conditions but at the end of the day highly lucrative and worth all the line items like security, weapons and bribes. After all that there is still big big money to be made when no one else is around to bring the price down. And this kind of protectionism occurs in different more socially acceptable ways - be it through import duties or immigration laws like we have in place in Canada.

Next week I will test this theory in Canada when the studio ships the first major load of product to me here so I can look at the invoice and see what our government says about doing business with Kenya. I have been told the duties will be as high as 18% which is why we don't see products from Kenya here. But my secret weapon is that I am from here and I used to work in shipping. I know how the system works and I will trade to our advantage as much as I possibly can. And I am a writer who knows how one word can completely change someone's perception - how an intonation can make someone truly care by stopping to think about their own actions and what kind of impact we all have everyday with every decision we make.

I want my business to be an example of how something beautiful and healthy can show others that if we don't get caught up in all the dialogue maybe over time of just getting dirty doing what we believe in things will get better. When I worked in West Africa for Doctors Without Borders I quickly realized this was a wrong move and I got out of the NGO world. I was never going to succeed pointing fingers and fighting in the same wars that feed off humantiarian activity. It was so easy for me to see how angry I would become over time, how disillusioned or deflated I would end up being after engaging in things I didn't believe in.

So I think of the Aral Sea and wonder if this flower production keeps up at the pace it's going after 20 or 30 more years there will be no Lake Naivasha. When I visited the lake in June I saw a hippo up on the land much higher than usual, when I was there last year, and I wondered if he was simply standing where he normally floated and hadn't noticed the water level had gone down. Hippos don't look very smart - they can chase after you and kill you in an instant but not an animal I would think to be perky or alert to change. Before I left Lake Naivasha I bought a box of crayfish on the dock and took them back to the Parklands where I was living and gave them to the kitchen staff in exchange for a plate of my own. Lots of garlic and onions with tomato on the side.

Crossing the Georgia Straight last night - a massive body of water connected to the Pacific Ocean and filled with the tips of drowned mountains we now call the Southern Gulf - I think of Joan Root and this idea that we are using up the fresh water supplies of the world so we can have t-shirts and flowers. This is the primary reason why I have chosen to use recycled or 'dumped' textiles for the business - after learning about the textiles industry for the last 2 years and basically having to lie down and rest from all the awful depressing news within it - how it uses up precious water and pays people awful wages - how we in the rich countries devour all these clothes week after week in all the supermalls you can imagine - it's awful and terrifying the toll it takes on the planet so 6 billion of us can be 'in style'. But we have more than enough - so much so that we send it all off to other places like Kenya because we don't want to see it in our lives anymore and we believe our castoffs can help others.

A friend of mine said to me 'people might not want to buy a recycled t-shirt Sue - they might want a new one' and even though I am so far past this thought myself I stopped in my tracks and privately grieved. If they knew about the Aral Sea and they had ever seen a photo of beautiful Joan Root caring for hippos and birds and god knows what else wandered past her - if they connected all the dots along the industrial agriculture trail I know in my heart they would say - give me the one that saves the planet. I will buy the one that Joan Root suggests will save her lake.

So I will go to my meeting this morning to attempt to finalize my business plan and I will tell yet again another person with their mouth open that yes - all the products are made from recycled things we find on the streets of Nairobi and turn them into beautiful usable wearable art. That there are creatively feasible ways to lessen the impact, decrease the traffic and get kids into school if we choose to believe it is possible.

This story is for Joan Root who with her father gave photographic safaris to guests who came from all over the world to see the Lake Naivasha.


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12:03 AM  

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