All posts by thejrchronicle

Matthieu Ricard

B. R.  Ambedkar once said that “a great man is different from an eminent one in that he is ready to be the servant of the society”. Matthieu Ricard definitely fits the definition. Born in 1947, the French doctor, photographer and Buddhist monk, has dedicated his life to others through a very unorthodox path.

After getting his Ph.D. degree in molecular genetics under French Nobel Laureate François Jacob, Ricard decided to settle in the Himalayas so he could concentrate on the practice of Tibetan Buddhism, where he has lived since 1972. 

He has translated into French numerous Tibetan masterpieces, and became in 1989 the French translator of the Dalaï-lama. Additionally, he has published dozens of photographic books, showing life in Tibetan monasteries and some marvelous Himalayan landscapes and day-to-day events. 

Ricard spreads his lessons and thoughts through numerous vehicles, among which this fantastic Ted talk. Amidst other advices, he gives five very simple lessons of wisdom. First, to cultivate altruistic love. Second, to distinguish and overcome emotions. Third, to develop good will and wisdom (for instance, he refuses to fell hatred even before the worst of massacres). Fourth, to search the cure for pain. And lastly, to develop the skill of cooperation. 

The completeness of his property rights are donated to the Karuna-Shéchèn organization, an entity founded by Ricard and which handles over a dozen humanitarian projects in Tiber, Nepal and India, in the areas of health, education and environment. 

Since 2000, he integrated the Mind and Life Institute, an organization favoring the dialogue and the sharing between Buddhism and science.

Today, he lives in Nepal at the Schéchèn Monastery, devoting much of his time to the preservation of the Tibetan culture. 

Learn more about Matthieu Ricard on The Independent, and read his article in The New York Times.

Getting to the Roof of the World

If you have ever climbed a mountain, you know how it feels. As you go up, your body starts to feel heavier, your lungs have less and less air, and it may even happen that your head gets a bit dizzy. Yet, the feeling of accomplishment after a great effort, and the happiness of being able to grasp the world from a little bit higher, are even more breathtaking – in a good sense. Being able to exceed oneself and also to defy nature, while being more in contact with it, motivates many people to climb mountains. 

Today, the ultimate destination for this type of adrenaline-seekers remains Mount Everest, in the Himalayas, despite the fact that this mountain range has other incredibly difficult peaks, such as the K2 or the Lhotse. 

Rising 8 848 meters above the sea level, only those who have made it to the top can imagine the effort that it takes to get there. Research says that the risks that one faces while climbing the Everest are as high as traveling to space… Faced with the mountain, we understand how little we are.

It is thus no wonder that many do lose their lives while trying to get to the top, something which is more and more shown by the media. Today, getting to Mount Everest is not as hard as it was thirty years ago. If you have money (knowing that an expedition can cost between 50 000$ to 100 000$) and have already climbed other peaks, it is quite normal that you attempt this adventure, regardless of your actual skills and strength to endure the journey. 

While in 1980, around 200 people attained the Base Camp (which reaches around 5 000 meters, depending if your are climbing the North face or the South face) per year, today, around 1 000 people get there. Half of those are generally able to get to the top. After 8 000 meters you enter the “Death Zone”, where oxygen is only 33% of that available at sea level. You can use oxygen masks, but even so it is not an easy task.

If the number of deaths per climb has not increased since 1980 (it has decreased), there are still far too many risks and most of them are actually caused by excess of people on the mountain. You can only climb Everest during a certain period of the year. Thus, hundreds of people make the toughest climb in the world in a very short period of time, something which is not sustainable for the mountain itself and carries great risk for those involved. Many deaths are caused by simple accidents due to excessive weight in sensitive areas, or avalanches and other natural causes, as was recently the case with the 16 Nepalese sherpas who died, in the most deadliest day ever on Mount Everest. This accident is even more a shame because these sherpas were trying to help less-experienced climbers to get to the top, and it is not the first. When bad weather strikes, people have to wait to make the final climb, which leads sometimes hundreds of people to make the final meters at the same time when the weather clears up. 

Climbers going to the top (Source: National Geographic Magazine)
Climbers going to the top (Source: National Geographic Magazine)

Beyond this, the mountain is more and more polluted by the debris that these expeditions leave behind. From oxygen tanks to simple garbage, to human bodies (because you can hardly recover the bodies of those who die after the Base Camp), Everest has become a wasteland (there are up to 10 tons of waste in the mountain). Besides the work that is already done by some sherpas, Nepalese authorities are now demanding that climbers come down with a few kilos of trash.

Sherpas cleaning Mount Everest (Source: Asia News)
Sherpas cleaning Mount Everest (Source: Asia News)

As some claim, as it is, Mount Everest is a mess

If we are to preserve this amazing beauty and richness for future generations, climbing mountains (particularly the Everest) ought to have more regulation and restrictions. Not only for the sake of the mountain, but also for the sake of the people who depend on it for a living, and of those who want to explore it.

Colonizing Mars by 2024

Virgil Grissom, the second American astronaut to fly in space, once said that “the conquest of space is worth the risk of life”. By the time we are writing, it seems that thousands of men would agree with him. 

Through this video, we discovered the megalomaniac, the grandiose, and at the very least, the disturbing project called ‘Mars One’. 

‘Mars One’ is a Dutch non-profit foundation that will establish the first permanent human settlement on planet Mars in 2022. Founded in 2011, the ‘Mars One’ team launched its Astronaut Selection Program in 2011 and 78,000 people have applied to it. By now, this 6 billion dollars project has preselected around 700 potential candidates. 

The most troubling part of the mission? The ‘Mars One’ project offers only a one-way ticket to its astronauts. As there is no technology to come back, the departure will represent the end of life in earth for the astronauts. 

By 2015, six teams of four individuals will be selected to start a eight-years training program. Their “ability to deal with prolonged periods of time in a remote location will be the most important part of their training”. Moreover, they will learn to grow food, to repair components of their future habitat and train medical procedures. 

In 2024, the first group of four people will leave earth to land in Mars in 2025 and live there forever. The journey to Mars will be a tough one. The flight will take between seven to eight months, where astronauts will be confined to a very small place, where showering will be impossible and canned food the only option. Why do they want to go? Hear it first hand here in Korum Ellis’ interview.

According to ‘Mars One’, “the one-way mission to Mars is about exploring a new world and the opportunity to conduct the most revolutionary research ever conceived, to build a new home for humans on another planet”.

Crazy? Amazing? Unrealistic or visionary? 

Learn more about it here and tell us your thoughts ! 

Chernobyl, 28 years later

On the 26th of April 1986, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and particularly Chernobyl, a city in the North of Ukraine, was the stage of one of the major nuclear catastrophes ever witnessed. Its nuclear plant, located 16 kilometers from the city, had one of its four reactors explode, and due to several malfunctions there was no way to contain the radioactive wave which came out of it. 

Releasing hundreds of times more the amount of radionuclides that were dropped by the two nuclear bombs in 1945, millions of acres of land were contaminated and more than 300 000 people had to be evacuated.

The aftermath of Chernobyl. (source: BBC News)
The aftermath of Chernobyl (Source: BBC News)

Beyond these figures, this accident continued (and continues) to have extreme consequences for people, with thousands having been infected by the waste of Chernobyl, many having eventually died. Indeed, in high doses, radiation is lethal for living organisms, by changing cells and even DNA. Until today, an area of around 2 600 square kilometers is designated as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, where access is highly restricted.

While some of us might imagine Chernobyl as a dark place full of weird, radioactive species, this region has developed a quite unique ecosystem. For years now, researchers have pursued field trips in Chernobyl, to explore the biological changes radioactivity has caused.

Though it has many abandoned infrastructures, the most affected area is full of a green and resilient vegetation, which turns it into a post-apocalyptical, yet, quite beautiful scenario. 

Abandoned bumper cars (Source: BoredPanda)
Abandoned bumper cars (Source: BoredPanda)

Although nature has undoubtedly suffered, as this The New York Times short film shows, several species have been able to adapt and live in areas of exposure which would be impossible for humans. 

Yes, biodiversity (from spiders to birds, to even trees) has been severely hit and has experienced mutations induced by radisation. It is undeniable that it has taken many years to be able to thrive again and big animals are seldom spotted in the region. Yet, hope is not lost. Chernobyl fortunately shows that despite what we, humans, might do to our environment, it will be always more resilient than us…

Nevertheless, Chernobyl remains a threat for human lives. While in 1986, a dome of concrete and steal was built around the exploded reactor to try to contain the contamination, this one is no longer safe. Hence, the Ukrainian authorities are now highly investing on a new structure that could definitely stop the spread of any other remnants of radiation. There are hopes that in a not-so-distant future, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone will disappear, but we will have to wait and see. In the meantime, the efforts to clean the area continue.

You can read this very good piece by The New York Times, which will give you some insight about the Chernobyl catastrophe and its aftermath, or have a look at these amazing photos.

Angola: Public transport is The place to be . by Pedro F. Neto

Angola lived of one of the longest conflicts in recent history. For more than forty years, from 1961 to 2002, the country experienced a devastating war. The highly damaged infra-structure, the vast mined territories and the unpredictability of warfare meant that the country remained closed to researchers until very recently. Yet, even nowadays, undertake academic research in Angola may be a troublesome and often dangerous task. The regime seeks to control all aspects of society  thereby nourishing a permanent atmosphere of suspicion. In spite of a decade of peace there is still a long road towards full democracy and to attain certain civil rights, – particularly with regard to freedom of expression and assembly. It is in this context that the Angolan public transport is an interesting case study. In fact, even though the army, the police and its informants, are everywhere, they seem to turn a blind eye on what happens in public transport. 

Although the context and contours may change according to the city or region, the truth is that public transport is a place of a deep ethnographic richness. In the capital Luanda the so-called candongueiros (the Toyota Hiace blue vans for urban transport) are the best way to discover new music in town. Musicians and music producers outside the formal distribution market, with or without a political slant, use the blue vans to promote their work. Along the way, the candongueiros repeatedly play the new hits and the compiled cd’s are for sale on the bus. But the means of transport are not only a way to portray the vibrant culture in Angola, they are moving cocoons where a mass political culture is hatching. In the regions of Moxico and Huambo, intercity public transport, – namely buses, mini-buses, vans (the so-called gafanhotos), 4×4 (the LandCruisers), and trains (the Benguela Railway),- are places of storytelling and remembrance, of acting and performance, but above all they are places of public gathering, assembly and debate. During my long travels within the country, I witnessed people engaging in fierce political discussions presenting their points of view for and against the everlasting government. It is possible to scrutinize some reasons behind its exceptional status. Mobility makes it difficult to the security forces to monitor and control, at the same time, people enter and leave along the way allowing a certain degree of anonymity.  Likewise, G. Pirie* noted that public transport played an important role on fighting South Africa’s apartheid. During the 1980s and 1990s the commuter trains to and from the townships were places of political gathering and mobilization.

Can public transport in Angola be an effective mean for a real political change? Only time can answer that. Yet, in the meantime, for anyone willing to take the pulse of Angolan civil society or only to know which will be the next musical hit in the country, public transport is the place to be.

 —————–

*Pirie, G. H. 1992, « Travelling under Apartheid »;  in Smith, David M. (ed.), The apartheid city and beyond: Urbanization and social change in South Africa, London/New York: Routledge, pp.172-181

PEDRO F. NETO is an Architect and Anthropologist currently pursuing a PhD in Anthropology at ISCTE-IUL (Lisbon) and EHESS (Paris). His research focuses on the relationship between space and identity, as well as on borders and forced migrations, mainly in African contexts. He lives between Lisbon and Paris.

Idi Amin

In 2006, The Last King of Scotland told the fictional story of a Scottish doctor who travelled to Uganda and became the personal physician of the dictator Idi Amin, a character immortalized by the brilliant performance of Forest Whitaker. Although the story of the movie was invented, it did show a partial portrait of one of the 20th century worst dictators of the African continent, Idi Amin Dada.

Born in the North of Uganda, in Koboko, Idi Amin grew up while his country was still a colony of the British empire. In 1946 he joined the British Colonial Army as an assistant cook, but by 1953 he was already a sergeant. His strength and size (1,95m) never passed unnoticed as he was the Ugandan box champion from 1950 to 1961.

In 1962, Britain granted Uganda its independence. By then, Idi Amin had built a close relationship with the new nation’s socialist prime minister, Milton Obote. He was promoted to army commander and worked closely with Obote until 1971, when he staged a military coup while Obote was attending a meeting in Singapore. By February 1971, Amid declared himself President of Uganda. Despite his promises to return to democracy, his eight years of leadership plunged the country into a human catastrophe and drove Uganda further away from peace.

As journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown argues in this documentary, the danger of Amin was that he was portrayed both as a fool and a villain. Big ego or simply ridicule, Idi Amin demanded many titles, among them those of “His excellency President for Life,  Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.”

Idi Amin dancing
Idi Amin performing ritual dancings

By the mid-1970s however, his titles were worth little as he became best known as the ‘Butcher of Uganda’ for his brutal authoritarian rule. According to Uganda’s Daily Monitor, between 80 000 and 300 000 people were killed during Idi Amin’s rule. Simple criminals, peasants, opponents, and especially, members of the tribes who had supported the previous government of Obote. Thousands of innocents were killed under Amin’s commands; many of them on National Television in order to spread terror amid the population.

His attitudes towards the international community most certainly granted him the worst  reputation. He did everything he could to provoke the British. In 1971, when Britain entered in recession, Amin started the Ugandan ‘Save the British Fund’ to collect food for the starving British. The following year, he expelled all Asians in Uganda with British passports. This measure backfired, as the Asian community represented the biggest business owners in the country, and for years, Uganda was incapable of assuring supply of goods as basic as sugar or butter.

Even more chocking were Amin’s comments following the 1972 Israeli massacre in Munich by Palestinian terrorists. As a revenge for Israel’s refusal to train Ugandan soldiers, Amin sent a telegram to the United Nations’ Secretary where he wrote “Hitler and all German people knew that the Israelis are not people who are working in the interest of the people of the world and that is why they burnt over six million Jews alive on the soil of Germany.”

Unfortunately, the tells of Amin’s actions are too numerous to count. His reign lasted eight years, and in 1979, his troops – which he had sent to Tanzania to annex the Kagera region – were defeated, and the Tanzanian forces took over Uganda. Mr Amin fled to Libya, and later to Saudi Arabia, where he died in 2003.

He was never judged for his crimes.

Read more about Idi Amin in The New York Times and in The Guardian. And if you haven’t, make sure you watch The Last King of Scotland.

Legalize It?

On the 31st of July 2013, the Uruguayan House of Representatives passed a bill to legalize and regulate cannabis production, sale and consumption, bill that was enacted by the President José Mujica. Hence, it became the first country in the world to have such a measure.

Since then, several United States’ States have also pursued this course, and it is undeniable that the question of legalizing marijuana is one of the hot topics in Western countries. Countries such as The Netherlands or Bangladesh were already known for their permissive laws regarding cannabis, and other States allow its use for medical purposes.

Drug wars – specially in Latin America – are certainly a worldwide problem and unregulated consumption of drugs as well.

Cannabis has been used throughout the centuries, from a spiritual use (particularly in India) to strictly recreational purposes. With the International Opium Convention of 1925 (the first international treaty that deals with drug control), “Indian hemp”, which is another word for cannabis or marijuana, was banned from exportation to certain countries, while in those which continued to import it, there was an obligation to use it exclusively for medical or scientific purposes.

With a growing awareness of the damages caused by drugs, international regulation became increasingly stricter towards the use and sale of cannabis, nowadays being illegal to pass it from one country to another, since the majority of the world maintains repressive legislations.

What arguments can be brought forward for and against marijuana legalization?

One must keep in mind that cannabis is a drug and that it causes psychoactive effects. Current research shows that it even causes brain damages in young adult’s brains. Nevertheless, many claim that it is the most innocent of drugs, since compared to other hard drugs, it causes little dependency and very few physical damages.

But then again, aren’t there other drugs, known for causing much more deaths, such as tobacco and alcohol, that are completely legal in most countries in the world? It is undeniable that if legalized, cannabis surely needs high regulation.

The legalization and regulation of cannabis could help significantly reduce illegal trade, the black market and drug-related crime. Furthermore, if legalized, it would be possible to apply taxes to cannabis consumption, which would definitely represent a big increase in State’s revenues. According to the press, in a State such as California, in the United States, cannabis represents sales of approximately $15 billion per year. In taxes, that would mean that at least $1.3 billion could be raised every year. Could you imagine how this money could be used in a good way, such as scientific research? In Colorado, the tax of 15% on wholesale marijuana has brought 40% more in taxes than initially predicted, and its legal sale is apparently causing quite a success.

Legalize it?

#AdiósAdolfoSuárez . By Silvia González Marroquín

#AdiósAdolfoSuárez: A small tribute to the man that could promise, and promised.

(Un pequeño homenaje al hombre que pudo prometer, y prometió.)

When we think about the Spanish Transition, terms such as consensus, pact, dialogue, democracy, rapidly appear in our memory, as well as the names of two men: Juan Carlos and Adolfo Suárez. Two elected men, not by the people, but elected (what a paradox, don´t you think?): the first one by Francisco Franco, and the second by his majesty the King, to accompany Spain towards democracy. It was not an easy task, because it was not easy to assure anything, between the happiness of many, and the tears of others, the dictatorship died and democracy was conceived. Our democracy was conceived by men and women, and Adolfo Suárez is without any doubt one of its recognized fathers. He led the Transition, without any valid models or references, as he himself highlighted it: “we were our own precedent”.

Well yes, Adolfo Suárez, the advocate of dialogue and consensus, revolutionized Spain´s History without revolutions. At the age of 43 and after 9 years in politics, this unknown technocrat, with little support from the elite of the time, achieved in only two years and a half to walk Spain from a dictatorial State to a constitutional democracy. He did it with a surprising integrity for those who still resisted accepting the waves of change in Spain by confronting the destabilizing canon shots of the extreme right and terrorism. He achieved his goals: he was able to elect a Parliament by universal suffrage for the first time since 1936, to draft the Constitution which was adopted by referendum, and to set the foundation for a democracy rooted in values of dialogue, understanding and harmony, in which the voice of all could be heard and listened to.

Those who today pay a tribute to Adolfo are those who once led to his withdrawal from what was already becoming a Roman circus. The defensive rise of Felipe González, the revival of Suarez´s past in the National Movement, joined with the UCD´s internal divisions, weakened him. The Spaniard´s disappointment and discomfort in 1980, together with civil-military conspiracies, carried Adolfo to humbly resign from the presidency of the Government.

The political animal and courageous democrat remained. On February 23, Suárez attended the investiture of his successor Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo, when a Lieutenant Colonel of the Guardia Civil, a certain Antonio Tejero, attempted against the rule of law, the one that was costing so much to build, penetrating the democratic body with weapons. All deputies fell to the ground, all but three: Gutiérrez Mellado, Santiago Carrillo and Suárez.

Perhaps it was his political and personal generosity, which characterized him until the last moments of his life, leading him to express himself in this way when receiving the last visit of his confessor: “I’m always ready to give and to receive forgiveness “; perhaps it was his courage and vision of public affairs; perhaps his unwavering loyalty to the King and Spain; or perhaps the humility of a Christian, who combined his spiritual integrity with the great duties of a democracy thirsty for freedoms; perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. What is certain for me is that Suárez is one of the few Spanish men and politicians who inspire me.

His death has filled the Spanish society, which is going through a context of widespread political tension, complaints and alleged marches for dignity, with the nostalgia of a glorious past, in which prevailed the values of integrity, dialogue and consensus. Politicians and citizens must now go through the exercise of rethinking their duties and citizenship respectively, in our democracy, and avoid the temptation of threatening its principles which were championed by its founders, precisely the power of the word, integrity and courage against violence.

Neither the three days of official mourning, nor the more than 30,000 condolences and tributes that visited the funeral chapel, nor the almost unconditional recognition from the whole political spectrum, seems to me as sufficient to pay a rightful tribute to the courage, vision and faith of this statesman.

Demonstrations of affection are appreciated, but must go beyond political correctness. The real tribute is to change this circus in which the law of the jungle prevails. The real tribute is that each Spaniard makes an exercise of introspection, and applies the same level of requirement to others and to himself. Precisely today, when Spain is going through hard times we should remember the journey, not sublimating it, and look forward to the road that lies ahead. Neither the crisis nor the hardships or difficulties can make us forget that we owe ourselves to Spain, to a democratic Spain. It’s time to remember that citizens and politicians must keep working together for a society in which pluralism is respected and where the legality of the institutions is truly consolidated. I want to believe that with his death, Adolfo wanted to fill us with a message: the return to the spirit of the Transition, a spirit of harmony and of the construction a common project. A moment from which many good things blossomed, despite the fact that is was neither obvious nor easy to promise anything, as today it is not either.

Let’s give thanks and dedicate him a fairer, a more democratic, a better Spain. We need a reformer and visionary now! Lets be inspired by Adolfo, his moderation and humility as a man, a citizen, a politician and a Spaniard, but also by his weaknesses, in order to demand more from our politicians as citizens, but without forgetting that as citizens, we are called to aspire to be a little more like Suárez.

Gracias Presidente!

SILVIA GONZALEZ MARROQUIN is a Law student at Sciences Po Paris. She was raised between the US, France and Spain. She’s currently studying Law at IE University in Madrid.