27 August 2010

More Choices for Ordinary Chinese

As disposable income increases in the world’s most populous country, ordinary Chinese are getting far more choices than ever before. That includes what they eat.

Up to now, the Chinese have not been as concerned as people in the West about nutritional issues. But that’s largely because fast-food only arrived in China two decades ago. Although shopping daily for fresh food has always been essential for Chinese cuisine, choices for ordinary people were limited in Mao’s China. The days of mounds of cabbage stacked under quilts on the tiny balconies of soviet style apartment blocks are not totally over. But one is hard-pressed to find them in China’s gleaming new cities.

On early-morning walks in Beijing last year, I was struck by the variety of fresh fruit and vegetables that ordinary Chinese now have to choose from at bustling street markets: bananas, mangoes, and papaya from the south; apples, melon and grapes from the north-west. A far cry from the few curious looking vegetables that were on sale when I lived in Beijing 25 years ago. In those days, what a treat it was for the office staff when somebody came back from a field trip to a far-flung place like Hainan Island with a sack full of pineapples!

Longfu Temple market in Beijing, near the Forbidden City (photo above), operates every morning from 6 to 8 a.m. After that, everything is cleared away and the area cleaned. It’s not actually a farmers market; it’s run by a company that buys from farmers and wholesalers.

China’s love affair with McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried is by no means over. But with child obesity becoming the nation’s number one nutritional problem, fresh fruit and vegetables are making inroads

15 August 2010

A benchmark for benches

Small villages, wherever they are in the world, are perpetually embroiled in some or other controversy. Schoenmakerskop, on the shores of the Indian Ocean in South Africa, is not different. For a while benches were an issue. About 100 of us live in the pretty hamlet with cliffs that overlook the sea and people like to come here to look at the sunsets, whales or just laze in the sun. When someone who used to love coming here dies, their next of kin invariably think it would be wonderful to erect a bench in his or her memory.

That is all very nice but is becoming impractical as the village is, as far as I can remember, only one nautical mile in length. In a length of 150 feet of cliff near my house there are already 4 benches. If people carry on procreating and dying at the rate they do we would eventually become the bench capital of Africa and people would come here to see the benches. Also all benches are not created equal and there are ugly, big and impractical benches that have sprung up over the years. With wooden benches there is also the question of maintenance and the harshness of the African sun means that the wood has to be treated at least once a year. In some cases this happens, in others not. The old concrete benches crack and fall apart.

In any case it has become an irritation and a problem. I don’t know who it was but a decision was taken that all benches and their location had to be approved by an official of the local Parks and Recreation Department. Even better is that a standard bench was decided on and no-one is allowed to deviate from the basic bench. What is great is that the bench is made of recycled plastic and is supposed to last for at least 75 years. Initially I was sceptical but they have worn gracefully and are fading nicely in the sun – they are also not as nauseatingly green as they were when they were initially installed.

The next step is to allow people to attach a plaque in someone’s memory to an existing bench for a donation and to use that donation for other necessary tasks in the village like the maintenance of the paths down to the sea and the eradication of alien vegetation.

The only question I still have to check on is the provenance of the plastic. I no longer believe it when people tell me a car was only driven to church on a Sunday by a little old lady and I hope the plastic is recycled locally from empty cool drink bottles and the like. I have used an image of a plastic fantastic bench in a calendar and it looks great – both the picture and the bench - and it is great to see how the recycling has fitted seamlessly back into the environment.

3 August 2010

The African Penguin

It is always sad to report a re-classification of a bird species when things are getting worse for the bird. The African Penguin Spheniscus demersus has been upgraded (or should that be downgraded?) from being listed as Vulnerable to now being Endangered. The population has dropped to an estimated 25 000 pairs that still live along the shores of South Africa.

As a student I was lucky enough to work on one of the nesting islands in Algoa Bay called St Croix. The penguins were then called Jackass Penguins after their braying call. It took a while before I got used to it and was able to get any sleep. The population was healthy and the biggest dangers were oil spills and anglers who still fished off the island. The angler could lose his line and snag quite a few penguins with fishing line. They were banned from the island. In any case it was a special experience and I bore the scar on my finger from a penguin beak with pride – they are tough fighters!

So what went wrong? Well guano was removed from many of the nesting islands and the penguins used to burrow into this to create their nests. Removal of the thick layer has meant that the nests are flooded when it rains. With a recent cold spell we had some 600 penguin deaths on Bird Island which is not far from St Croix. They are looking at artificial nesting houses for the penguins. With increasing population there has been increase pressure on fish stocks which form the primary diet of the Penguin. Fewer fish equals less food for the penguins which means they have to swim further to get food for the nestlings which means they are under more pressure. Good news is a ban on netting and trawling fish around St Croix and despite the short length of the ban until now an improvement in fish stocks has been reported.

Other factors are oil spills. The construction of a new harbour in Algoa Bay might be good for the economy but it will lead to more ship movements and the danger of more spills. I don’t know what the effect the avian malaria which is found in many of the penguins will be in the long run but it is an additional worry.

One good thing is the increased concern for the plight of the penguins in a country which has many other problems. The South African Marine Rehabilitation and Education Centre (SAMREC) in Port Elizabeth has new premises and this weekend I watched a few oiled penguins being treated. The process is far more scientific than in the old days, the centre is well designed and the people are caring.

The greatest moment was however the picture you see above – African Penguins being released into the wild after treatment!

Belugas - the white whales of the Arctic

One of our contributors, Andrey Nekrasov took a wonderful set of images of belugas while diving under the Arctic ice in the White Sea, Russia. Not surprisingly, a number of news desk editors agreed and Andrey's stunning images of belugas and Arctic diving  have appeared around the world.  Well done Andrey, it looks to have been a trip of a life time.Only wish I could dive.
This is just one of the set of 15, showing two belugas interacting with the photographer, each has taken a hand in their mouth and they are guiding him through the water. They are inquisitive whales by nature and this is probably them wanting to find out more.

Read the story and see the whole set on the Daily Telegraph website