December 2, 2008
Chers amis, On behalf of all of my family, I wish to you and yours a holiday season filled with love and good things. I am hard at work putting the final touches on a new album that I hope to present to you next spring. In the meantime, I send to you our most cheerful greetings. Joyeuses fêtes de fin d'année.
November 5, 2008
I started the long trip home the day before, travelling from Montreal to New York and finally New Orleans, leaving the Crescent City in the morning headed west. I arrived at my polling station, Ossun Elementary School, at 3PM. I have been voting in the same precinct for 30 years and have never seen the number of voters that came to cast their ballots this November 4, 2008. I live in the heart of Cajun country and the voters with whom I waited were working class, farmers and mechanics. Simple people.
The mood was courteous, almost solemn. There were mothers with young children, but they were all well behaved, as if they sensed that something important was going on. About one fourth of the people were black, one of whom, a young man with dread locks hanging down past his shoulders was in the wrong line, having lined up for precinct 9 when he, like myself, lives in precinct 8. I offered to let him step in front of me, an offer which he gratefully accepted. I assumed that I knew for whom he would be voting, but I would have let him in line no matter. The same thing happened a few more times while I was there, voters changing lines to queue up for the other precinct. Each time they were invited in line with courtesy.
A few times I was actually touched by emotion. It might seem corny, but I was moved by the scene. Not too long ago, it would have been difficult to imagine white people and black people standing in the same line in Louisiana to cast a vote, treating each other politely. The Louisiana gubernatorial election of 1871 was marred by gun battles at the polling places in nearby Opelousas as the White League attempted to wrest political control of the state from the carpet-baggers. That was a long time ago, but I can remember growing up amidst the vestiges of segregation in my small town. The Jim Crow South is not that far in the past. Which makes the candidature, let alone the election of Barak Obama such an important event.
The United States is battered and drifting after eight years of President Bush's failed leadership. George W. Bush is saddling his successor with two wars, a scarred global image and a government systematically stripped of its ability to protect and help its citizens - whether they are fleeing a hurricane's floodwaters, searching for affordable health care or struggling to hold on to their homes, jobs, savings and pensions in the midst of a financial crisis that was foretold and preventable.
John McCain finished by pandering to the right fringe of the Republican party. His choice of a running mate so evidently unfit for the office was a final act of opportunism and bad judgment that eclipsed the accomplishments of 26 years in the U.S. Congress and his courageous military service. McCain’s indecision and his “calling off the campaign” ploy during the onset of the recent economic debacle underscored a tendency to act and react without sufficient reflection. Obama, on the other hand, continually displayed a cool head and sound judgment.
Barak Obama has withstood some of the toughest campaign attacks ever mounted against a candidate. He's been called un-American and accused of hiding a secret Islamic faith. The Republicans have linked him to domestic terrorists and questioned his wife's love of her country. And he is black.
Standing in line with the voters of my precinct, parents with small children, working men and women, black people and white, I got a little emotional. I know Barak Obama is not perfect and I do not agree with everything he espouses, but I believe that he was the best candidate and I believe that his leadership will restore some of the luster of the American star that has been tarnished during the last eight years. And I believe that the American people will unite behind him. This campaign has been more passionate than most and will certainly leave bitter feelings, but it is to the credit of the American people that we will accept the decision of the majority of our fellow citizens and get on with our lives. I do not have the arrogance of many Americans and do not believe that I live in the “greatest country on earth”, but today standing in line at the Ossun Elementary School to cast my vote, I felt proud. Not superior or haughty, but simply thankful.
Remember the words of the founding fathers: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
October 1, 2008
This report is long a somewhat technical, but if you drink milk or serve milk to your children, please read attentively. The information included is taken from “Le Monde selon Monsanto (The world according to Monsanto) by Marie-Monique Robin (Editions Alain Stanké, 2008).
In what seems to be an obvious effort to promote the use of rBGH, (bovine growth hormone), the research team of Dr. Dale Bauman of Cornell University announced recently that the use of rBGH (or rBST) contributes positively to the struggle to contain global warming. According to Dr. Bauman, the use of bovine growth hormone in the U.S. is the equivalent of the elimination of 40,000 automobiles. This pseudo-science is based on the premise that it takes fewer hormone treated cows to produce the same amount of milk and the remaining cows produce less methane and the difference is the equivalent of the emissions of 40,000 cars. This is typical of the type of “science” that has been employed by Monsanto to promote and defend the use of rBST or rBGH. It is worth noting that Dr. Bauman is the godfather of bovine growth hormone technology and has been employed by Monsanto as a consultant. It is also worth nothing that in the past, Monsanto denied the health risks of PCBs as well as dioxin based Agent Orange long after the scientific community understood the extremely dangerous health risks posed by these products.
Somatotropin is a naturally occurring hormone secreted by the anterior pituitary gland which effects the functions of the other endocrine glands. In the late 1970s, Monsanto funded researchers were able to isolate the gene that produces the hormone. The new transgenic hormone is baptized “recombinant Bovine Somatotropin or rBST, or again recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone or rBGH. The somatotropin created by genetic engineering is designed to be injected into cows twice a month and is expected to increase their milk production by 15%.
According to Dr. Richard Burroughs, veterinarian graduated from Cornell, the scientists working on the project for Monsanto avoided fundamental questions: what was the physiological consequences for cows producing milk beyond their natural capacity? How should these cows be fed in order to prepare them for this exploit? What diseases could this treatment provoke? Etc. The research addressed none of these questions. The ultimate and only goal was to create a product that would augment the production of milk. Period. No matter that this treatment was certain to develop infection of the mammary glands which translates as an augmentation of white corpuscles, i.e. pus in the milk.
The injection of bovine growth hormone interrupts the natural cycle of the cow. Normally, in order for a cow to produce milk, she must have a calf. The injection of rBGH provokes the artificial production of milk beyond the natural cycle. The consequences of this process on the health of the cattle and on the health of those consuming the milk had no place in the research.
In its efforts to commercialize its synthetic somatotropin, Monsanto found a valuable ally: the FDA. Created in 1930., the Food and Drug Administration oversees the commercialization of pharmaceutical and/or food products destined for animal or human consumption. It is important to understand that the FDA does no research of its own, but verifies the research provided to it by companies seeking approval for their products. In the case of the commercialization of synthetic somatotropin, the mission of the agency was simply betrayed. The long term consequences of the consumption of milk from cows treated with rBGH has not been researched conclusively. Nor have the effects of the drug on the cattle themselves. Those who dared denounce the process were harassed and pushed aside, witness the case of Richard Burroughs.
Richard Burroughs obtained his diploma in veterinary medicine from Cornell University. In 1979, he was recruited by the Food and Drug Administration and trained as a toxicologist. In 1985, he was placed in charge of the evaluation of the request for approval of the bovine growth hormone deposited by Monsanto. During his analysis of the studies furnished by the company, he noted several technical errors. It was apparent to Dr. Burroughs that the incidence of mammitis (infection of the mammary glands) was significantly higher than that reported. Dr. Burroughs concluded: “ you have compromised your findings by the use of progesterone and protaglandines. It is not possible to accurately evaluate the effects of somatotropin if additional reproductive hormones are injected which in effect mask the effects of the drug under review.” This report signed by Dr. Burroughs was the beginning of the end of his career at the FDA. On November 3, 1989, he is fired for “incompetence”.
Dr. Burroughs sued the FDA for his dismissal and was ultimately reinstated. He was, however, assigned to the porcine division in spite of the fact that he knew nothing about pigs. According to him, “the FDA deliberately closed its eyes on disturbing evidence because it was attempting to protect the interests of the company and to favor a rapid approval of synthetic bovine growth hormone”.
In the case of several studies, the FDA disregarded disturbing information, most notably in the case of IGF1, or “Insulin-like growth factor”. This hormonal substance is produced by the liver of mammals under the effect of the naturally occurring growth hormone. The pituitary gland of the cow and that of humans each produce a specific growth hormone. The effect of each one, however, is the production of the same substance, IGF1 the function of which is to stimulate the proliferation of cells thus allowing the organism to grow. All are in agreement that the level of IGF1 in milk from cows treated with the bovine growth hormone is much greater than normal, as much as 75% more. According to the FDA, however, IGF1 consumed by humans is biologically inactive since it is destroyed by the process of digestion. “Completely false” declares Samuel Epstein, professor emeritus of environmental medicine at the University of Illinois. According to Dr. Epstein, several studies have proven that IGF1 is not destroyed by digestion, because it is protected by casein, the principal protein of milk.
As Dr. Epstein explains, “We have known for decades that a high level of IGF1 can provoke a disease called acromegaly or gigantism. Those afflicted with this disease have a very short life expectancy, usually succumbing to cancer at an early age (30s). The use of rBGH in dairy cattle represents a real danger to public health, over 60 studies have shown that a high levels of IGF1 increase substantially the risks of breast, colon and prostate cancers.”
On December 7, 1990, the National Institute of Health was mandated by the U.S. Congress to evaluate the scientific data relative to rBGH. The conclusions were very prudent. It was recommended that additional studies be performed to evaluate the risks of elevated levels of IGF1. Three months later, the American Medical Association declared: “Additional studies are necessary to determine whether the ingestion of elevated concentrations of IGF1 present health risks for children, adolescents, and adults.” The FDA ignored these recommendations. This seems particularly careless given the fact that children are the greatest consumers of milk.
In addition to the problems associated with high levels of IGF1, milk from cows treated with rBGH contain the residues of antibiotics that are used to contain the infections of mammary glands associated with bovine growth hormone. These antibiotic residues are absorbed by the intestinal flora. Given this fact in combination with the tendancy of modern western to rely heavily on antibiotic drugs, it no wonder that new and stronger strains of bacteria are evolving and that diseases believed to be eradicated are making a comeback.
In its efforts to facilitate the commercialization of Posilac, the product name given by Monsanto to its synthetic bovine growth hormone, the FDA neglected to examine these pertinent questions. On November 5, 1993, the FDA granted approval to Posilac. 90 days later, the delay prescribed by law, Federal Express trucks were delivering the first batches of bovine growth hormone to dairy farms across the American countryside. Posilac is not sold by veterinarians, but is obtained directly from Monsanto. However, for every client that a veterinarian brought to Monsanto, the company paid the veterinarian $300.
Six days after the FDA’s approval, the Federal Register, the official publication of the U.S. government, published a directive concerning the labeling of milk from cows not treated with rBGH. Since the FDA declared that there was not substantial difference between milk from cows treated and milk from untreated cows, it imposed no obligation to label milk from treated cows. Therefore milk from rBGH treated cows and milk from untreated cows could be mixed together with no requirement to label the product. In addition, the official policy discouraged producers of untreated milk from labeling their product as such. Labeling milk as untreated by rBGH, was considered unfair competition, since the FDA does not consider milk from treated cows any different from milk from untreated cows. Obviously this policy met with the approval of Monsanto. The end result is that the consumer is effectively unable to find out whether the milk that he is drinking or giving to his children contains milk from cows which have been treated with a synthetic growth hormone.
None the less, several dairy producers refused to follow the government directive and were dragged into a tug of war with Monsanto. The first victim of the company’ draconian policy was
Swiss Valley Farms in Davenport Iowa. In 1994, this dairy farm cooperative of 2500 producers informed its farmers that it would not purchase milk from cows treated with rBGH. Monsanto immediately swung into action employing lawyers to intimidate the cooperative. A settlement was reached under the terms of which Swiss Valley Farms could label its milk as “rBGH free” provided that it include the following declaration: “The FDA has found no significant difference between milk from cows treated with rBGH and that from untreated cows.” The episode left farmers shaken, however, as Monsanto was intent to intimidate them with scare tactics and its considerable legal and financial resources.
In 2003 it was the turn of Oakhurst Dairy, the largest dairy products company in New England. “We will not give in” declared Stanley T. Bennett, president of Oakhurst, “we consider that our customers have a right to know what is in their milk.” The company was able to continue its labeling under the condition that it include the disclaimer. In February 2005, Tillamook, one of the largest cheese producers in the U.S., directed its 147 farmers to stop the use of rBGH. Immediately Monsanto sent in the lawyers, intending to spread panic in the company.
More recently, Monsanto attempted to intimidate Kleinpeter Dairy of Baton Rouge, Louisiana to abandon with its “rBGH free” label. Fully determined to resist the pressure of the multi-national, Jeff Kleinpeter saw his sales increase. This is the reason that Monsanto is so intent on preventing dairy farmers from labeling their products “rBGH free”: the consumer will naturally choose a product free of a controversial hormone treatment whose ultimate health risks are not fully understood. Monsanto and the FDA, however, would prefer to keep consumers in the dark.
Perhaps the saddest aspect of this story is the effect of the drug on cows themselves. According to a promotional pamphlet published by Monsanto, “ the performance of calves born to mothers treated with Posilac is excellent.” It is very difficult, not only because of the fear which Monsanto has instilled in the farming community but also because of the shame associated with the sufferings inflicted on dairy stock, to find farmers prepared to speak on the record, but Marie-Monique Robin was able to find one courageous dairy farmer. In addition, in order to buy Posilac, the farmer must enter into a contract with Monsanto that contains a confidentiality clause. None the less, a dairy farmer named Terry, owner of a herd of Holsteins did confide in Ms. Robin.
“It’s a lie,” declared Terry, “ Not one of the cows that I injected gave me a calf. Right away I noticed that they were losing lots of weight. I wanted to have them inseminated, but it never worked. In the end, I sold them for slaughter. It’s terrible the things that we inflict on the cattle. In order to transform them into permanent milk producing machines the cows must use up their reserves. This causes weakened bones. With enormous teats, the cows have trouble walking and some of them are hardly able to stand.”
According to John Klinsam, president of Family Farm Defenders, on organism devoted to the defense of the family farm, “rBGH is a veritable drug. That’s why it’s called “crack cocaine for dairy cows”. When the cows are no longer injected, they literally collapse. One day, the large dairy producers will have to stop the injections because nobody is going to buy their milk. At that time, they will have to send their herds to slaughter. This represents approximately one third of the dairy cattle in the U.S.”
Monsanto will attempt to hide the information concerning the use of rBGH as long as possible, hoping to avoid the identification of milk from cows treated with rBGH. On the other hand, consumers are more and more anxious to find out if the milk that they are giving to their children is from treated cows. So far, with the connivance of the FDA, Monsanto has been able to keep the truth from the public. But not forever.
As the story of Kleinpeter Dairy indicates, time is not on Monsanto’s side. With its usual array of intimidation tactics, the multinational was still unable to force Kleinpeter into removing its “rBGH free” label. Sales went up as a result. Given a choice between a product containing controversial ingredients with unknown health risks and a similar product without those elements, the consumer will choose the later. The real outrage in this story is the collusion of the FDA. The government agency has chosen to support to a powerful multinational company and betrayed its mission of protecting the public health. Insist on rBGH free dairy products.
September 1, 2008
This is the third of a six part series dealing with GMOs (genetically modified organisms). The information included is taken from “Le Monde selon Monsanto (The world according to Monsanto) by Marie-Monique Robin (Editions Alain Stanké, 2008). This report will deal with the history of dioxin and Agent Orange.
The term “dioxin” refers to a family of 210 related substances of which the most toxic goes by the name of “tetrachloro-p-dibenzondioxin” or 2,3,7,8-TCDD. The general public first became aware of dioxin following the “Sarveso catastrophe” on July 10, 1976. On that date, an accident occurred at the Icmesa chemical plant in Italy belonging to the Swiss multinational company, Hoffmann-La Roche. A noxious cloud spread over the Lombardy plain. In the space of a few days, more than 3000 domestic animals died asphyxiated. Dozens of residents developed “chloracne” a chronic disfiguring skin condition. The existence of dioxin, once a closely guarded secret of the military-industrial complex, was now public knowledge.
At the beginning of the 1940s, several chemical laboratories in Britain and in the United States were able to isolate the growth hormone of plants and to produce it synthetically. In large doses, this hormone provokes the death of plants. After WWII, several companies in the U.S. and Europe began the large-scale production of dioxin-based herbicides. In 1948, Monsanto opened a plant in Nitro, West Virginia, producing 2,4,5-T. On March 8, 1949, a leak on the production line caused an explosion. An unidentified substance was released, covering the interior walls of the plant, and escaping in a cloud. The workers who were brought in to clean up the spille developed a debilitating skin disease and were victims of nausea and persistent head aches. On September 5, 1949, Dr. Raymond Suskind filed a report at the bequest of Monsanto. The contents of the report were not made public until 1983.
“76 persons developed a severe cutaneous condition caused by their exposure,” noted Dr. Suskind. In April 1950, he filed another report which related to 6 workers who were particularly affected. They suffered from skin disease, as well as respiratory problems, central nervous system problems, liver problems and sexual dysfunction. One of the workers developed psychological problems. His skin had turned so dark as a result of his exposure that he was mistaken for a Black, and subjected to the segregation which was common practice in the Southern U.S. at the time. In another confidential report, Dr. Suskind noted that 13 of the workers suffering from exposure at Nitro had died in their mid-50s.
During this time, Monsanto did not question the production of 2,4,5-T but was collaborating closely with the Pentagon to develop its use as a chemical weapon. According to the St. Louis Journalism Review, as early as 1950, Monsanto maintained a regular correspondence with the Chemical Warfare Service of the U.S. Army. In an article published in 2003 entitled “Agro-business, biotechnology and war”, Brian Tokar notes that “The multinationals who dominate the market for chemical fertilizer and pesticides, made a fortune during WWII. These are the same companies who today control biotechnology and genetically modified seed and thus the production of food crops.”
World War II created opportunities for companies to profit from the development of chemicals such as DDT, which had been synthesized in 1874. This potent insecticide, outlawed today, was rescued from oblivion by the U.S. Army in an effort to rid itself of the fleas associated with an outbreak of typhus. As early as 1944, Monsanto produced DDT in large quantity. Its relationship with the Pentagon at this time was very close. Years later, during the Vietnam War, this relationship will help Monsanto obtain the biggest contract in its history: the production of Agent Orange for use by the U.S. military.
In the 1940s, improvements in aviation technology made possible the large-scale dispersal of chemical agents, most notably DDT. The beginning of the Cold War coincided with the development of powerful herbicides such as 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T. The U.S. Army was anxious to put the new aerial dispersal methods to use. It was hoped that this technology would help to destroy crops and thus starve enemy armies and/or populations. The first large-scale experiments of this technology took place in Vietnam in 1959.
Operation Ranch Hand began officially on January 13, 1962, one year after the election of John F. Kennedy to the presidency. The object of the operation, approved by the president himself, was to clear land routes as well as water courses and the frontier of South Vietnam of the thick tropical vegetation to allow better control of the Viet-Cong. In addition, the use of airborne defoliants could destroy crops destined to sustain the rebels. In July 1961, the first cargo of defoliants arrived at the military base in Saigon.
The herbicides arrived in 50 gallon drums, each one color coded to identify each particular product. Agent Rose contained pure 2,4,5-T, Agent White 2,4-D, Agent Blue contained arsenic. The most toxic was Agent Orange, introduced in 1965 and containing half 2,4,5-T and half 2,4-D.
On January 10, 1962, the government of South Vietnam issued a communiqué announcing its plans to launch an experiment destined to rid certain key land routes of vegetation. “The government declares that none of these products is toxic nor do they constitute a danger for wildlife, domestic animals, human beings or the soil”. It was not mentioned that the chemicals would be used in quantities 30 times superior than the recommended dosages.
On January 13, 1962, a Fairchild C-123 took off from the military base at Tan Son Nhut with a cargo of more than 800 litres (200 gallons) of Agent Violet. From that day until 1971, 80 million litres (20 million gallons) would be dispersed over 3.3 million hectares (1 million acres). Over 3000 villages would be contaminated. 60% of the defoliants used were Agent Orange, the equivalent of 400 kilograms (880 pounds) of pure dioxin. According to a study by Columbia University published in 2003, the dissolution of 80 grams of dioxin in drinking water can poison a entire city of 8 million people.
By the end of 1969, the U.S. government can no longer pretend that Agent Orange does not pose substantial health risks. A study conducted by Diane Courtney of the National Institute of Health reveals that laboratory mice subjected to heavy doses of 2,4,5,-T develop fetal malformations. On April 15, 1970, the Secretary of Agriculture announces a ban on the use of 2.4,5-T around lakes, swamps, recreational facilities, personal homes and near agricultural products destined for human consumption. This is the end of Agent Orange, but it is just the beginning of a long combat on the part of Vietnam veterans for compensation for the health problems caused by exposure to Agent Orange. During the Vietnam War, exposure to Agent Orange affected not only the pilots and the technicians of the delivery aircraft, but also the soldiers in the field. The occurrence of fly-over contamination was all too common and the G.I.s in the field suffer an abnormally high incidence of health problems associated with dioxin poisoning.
In 1978, Paul Retershan, a Vietnam veteran suffering from intestinal cancer, sued the manufacturers of Agent Orange. Thousands of veterans joined the lawsuit in what was to become the first class action initiated against Monsanto. The lawsuit was complicated by the fact, as Greenpeace has since pointed out, that dioxin is omnipresent in the American population as well as in the environment and in the food supply. It is therefore almost impossible to prove that dioxin found in any particular individual is the result of a specific exposure be it an industrial accident or a case of over-fly as in the case of Vietnam veterans.
On May 7, 1984 at 4 AM in the morning just hours before the case initiated by Paul Retershan arrives in court, the manufacturers of Agent Orange propose a settlement of 180 million dollars. The Vietnam veterans accept the proposal. The funds will be placed in an account and distributed to Vietnam veterans capable of proving incapacity to work resulting from exposure to Agent Orange. 40,000 veterans will ultimately receive compensation ranging from$256 to $12,800.
In February 1984, while the Vietnam veterans settle their lawsuit, another is on the verge of beginning in Illinois: Kemner vs. Monsanto. For more that 3 years, 14 jurors will attempt to assess the damages suffered by the inhabitants of Sturgeon, Missouri as the result of a railway accident on January 10, 1979. On that date a train containing 70,000 litres (nearly 20,000gallons) of chlorophenol is derailed spilling the entire cargo.
This was to be the longest trial in American history. Monsanto is represented by 10 lawyers who work in 4 hour shifts. The company is intent to establish its reputation as an intractable adversary and hopes to thereby discourage any further legal action. The highlight of the trial is the revelation that the 3 studies supervised by Dr. Suskind and published by Monsanto between 1980 and 1984 had been falsified. If the studies had been conducted correctly, they would have arrived at a conclusion diametrically opposed to the conclusion of Dr. Suskind. Had the studies been conducted with rigor, they would have indicated that dioxin is in fact a powerful carcinogen. The fraud was confirmed by several scientific organizations including the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the National Research Council which stated that the Monsanto studies “included errors of classification between the persons exposed and those unexposed. The studies were biased with the goal of obtaining a specific result.”
On October 22, 1987, after 8 weeks of deliberation, the jury reached a distinctly strange verdict: the plaintiffs were granted $1 of damages since, according to the jury, they had not been able to prove that their health problems were the direct result of the chemical spill. In addition, however, Monsanto was obliged to pay $16 million in punitive damages because of its irresponsibility regarding the health dangers of dioxin. Monsanto will appeal and win the appeal. In the opinion of the appellate court, the link between the chemical spill and the health problems of the plaintiffs had not been established, and therefore punitive damages were not justified.
In Vietnam, it is estimated that 150,000 children suffer from malformations caused by Agent Orange. 800,000 people are said to suffer from exposure to the chemical. Studies published in Vietnam indicate that the occurrence of miscarriage and congenital malformation is much greater in villages that were sprinkled with Agent Orange. Unfortunately the question has become political.
In February 2004, the Vietnamese Association of the Victims of Agent Orange filed suit in Federal Court in New York. The suit was rejected by Judge Jack B. Weinstein, the same judge who negotiated the 1983 settlement between the Vietnamese veterans and Monsanto. According to the judge, the military use of herbicides is not forbidden by international law and therefore cannot by considered a war crime. The judge concluded his opinion with the following statement: “If selling herbicides constituted a war-crime, the chemical companies would have refused to furnish them. We are a nation of free men and women accustomed to rising up as soon as the government surpasses the limits of its ascribed authority.”
Jill Montgomery, spokesperson for Monsanto, issued this statement: “ We feel compassion for those persons who believe that they have been harmed and understand that they attempt to discover the cause of their suffering. However, all of the credible scientific evidence indicates that Agent Orange has no long term effect on health.” And so it goes.
August 5, 2008
This is the second of a six part series dealing with GMOs (genetically modified organisms). The information included is taken from “Le Monde selon Monsanto (The world according to Monsanto) by Marie-Monique Robin (Editions Alain Stanké, 2008). This report will deal with the history of PCBs and the pollution of Anniston, Alabama.
According to the best estimates, 1.5 millions tons of PCBs were produced between 1929 and 1989, of which an important percentage ended up in the environment. PCBs or polychlorobiphenyls, are chemical derivatives. They were the product of the industrial advancements of the end of the 19th century. PCBs were discovered during the early stages of the refining of crude oil for the production of gasoline. During the early 20th century, chemists were able to develop benzene, a hydrocarbon utilized as a solvent in the chemical synthesis of medicines, plastics and colorants. Benzene was mixed with chlorine to obtain a new product which had remarkable properties of thermal stability and resistance to fire. For over 50 years, PCBs colonized the planet. They were used as liquid refrigerants in electric transformers and heavy industrial hydraulic systems as well as lubricants in plastics, paints, ink and paper.
According to David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University of Albany, New York, we all (humans) have PCBs in our bodies. PCBs belong to a category of particularly dangerous chemicals, POPs or Persistent Organic Pollutants. These chemicals are dangerous because they resist degradation and accumulate in living tissue all along the food chain. According to Professor Carpenter, PCBs have contaminated the entire planet from the North to the South Poles. The files of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) reveal many alarming cases including that of children born of mothers who consumed fish from Lake Michigan contaminated with PCBs and who suffered from abnormally small body mass at birth and reduced cognitive development. The Inuit people of Hudson Bay are particularly at risk because of their high consumption of animal protein. PCB contamination is at its maximum at the top of the food chain and particularly high in marine mammals such as seals, polar bears and whales. Prolonged exposure to PCBs can cause cancer, notably of the liver, pancreas, intestine, breast, lungs and brain. PCBs can cause cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, deficiency of the immune system, thyroid dysfunction, dysfunction of sex hormones, problems of reproduction and neurological problems.
Thanks to its patent, the Monsanto Company of St. Louis, Missouri controlled the market of PCBs in the USA until their ultimate ban in 1977. The company was aware of the potential health risks of PCBs as early as 1937. In 1936, three employees of Holowax, a client of Monsanto, died suddenly following exposure to PCB vapor. Additional employees of Holowax developed “chloracne” a debilitating skin condition associated with PCBs. A report filed with Monsanto on October 11, 1937 states: laboratory tests on animals show that prolonged exposure to the vapor of Aroclor (the commercial name of Monsanto manufactured PCB) cause toxic effects on the entire organism.
According to Professor Carpenter, for decades, in the USA and around the world, political leaders collaborated in an effort, orchestrated by Monsanto, to keep information regarding the dangers of PCBs out of the public eye. In the face of growing concern regarding the safely of polychlorobiphenyls, on February 16, 1970, N.Y. Johnson of Monsanto wrote an internal memo addressed to sales representatives of the company directing their response to potential questions posed by clients reacting to the increasing public concern about the dangers of PCBs: “Attached please find a list of questions which can be asked by our clients and appropriate responses. You can reply orally, but under no conditions should you furnish a written response. We cannot afford to lose a dollar of business”.
In spite of Monsanto’s efforts to continue the manufacture of PCBs, the products were banned definitively in the USA on October 31, 1977 (Halloween). But in Great Britain, where the multinational company owned a subsidiary at Newport in Wales, and in France where the company Prodelec continued to manufacture PCBs until 1987, as well as in Germany (Bayer) and in Spain, the production of PCBs continued long after their suppression in the USA. On 29 September, 1976, the head office of Monsanto sent a memorandum to Monsanto Europe with a model of questions and answers in order to prepare its European branch in the case of a possible public outcry. The document states: “If a question is posed regarding the carcinogenic properties of PCBs use the following reply: Preliminary studies that we have conducted on the workers associated with the fabrication of PCBs as well as long term studies on laboratory animals do not conclude that PCBs are carcinogenic.”
On January 14, 2002, John Hunter, CEO of Solutia, the company which had purchased the chemical division of Monsanto in 1997, declared: “There is no consistent and convincing proof that PCBs are associated with any serious long term health risks.” This statement was issued in response to a Washington Post article of January 2, 2002 entitled: “Monsanto has hidden pollution for decades” . The article dealt with the contamination of Anniston, Alabama. A lawsuit had been filed in Calhoun County Alabama by members of the community of Anniston who alleged that the considerable health problems of the town, high rates of cancer and severe neurological problems, were the result of pollution by the Monsanto plant producing PCBs. According to a declassified report by the EPA, 308,000 tons of PCBs were produced at the Monsanto plant in Anniston from 1929 to 1971. Of the total, 27 tons had been emitted into the atmosphere, notably during the transfer of molten PCBs to various reservoirs. 81 tons had been dumped into Snow Creek and 32,000 tons of contaminated waste had been deposited in an open pit in the heart of the black community. The results were persistent and tragic health problems amongst the black residents of Anniston.
On January 22, 2002 after 5 hours of deliberation, the jury rendered its verdict in Abernathy vs. Monsanto. It declared Monsanto and Solutia guilty of having polluted Anniston and “the blood of its population” with PCBs. The verdict accused the plaintiffs of negligence, fraud, and attacks on persons and property. It went on to criticize Monsanto for activity that “violated in the extreme the limits of decency and that can be considered atrocious and absolutely intolerable in a civilized society.”
One month after the verdict was rendered, the EPA announced an agreement with Solutia to decontaminate the site. This decision, very favorable to the polluters, rendered the jury verdict irrelevant. The number two at the EPA during this period was Linda Fisher, ex-employee of Monsanto. At the same time, another lawsuit was filed in Birmingham Alabama, Tolbert vs. Monsanto. This case was a class action on behalf of the alleged victims of the pollution at Anniston and was being tried by the celebrated black attorney, Johnnie Cochran. Fearing the repercussions of what promised to be a highly publicized trial, Monsanto and Solutia proposed an out of court settlement of 700 million dollars, the highest indemnity is U.S. judicial history. 600 million was to be disbursed to the victims, and 100 million was to be spent decontaminating the site and for the creation of a specialized clinic.
More than 35 years earlier on November 2, 1966, a report arrived at the head office of Monsanto. The report detailed the outcome of an experiment conducted at the company’s request by Danzel Ferguson, a biologist at the University of Mississippi. Ferguson had plunged 25 fish into water from Snow Creek.. All of the fish lost equilibrium and all were dead within 3 and one half minutes, spitting blood. “The water is so polluted that even diluted 300 times, it will kill fish “, the report concluded.
According to Ken Cook, director of the Environmental Working Group, a private organization specialized in environmental protection, the worst part of the story is that Monsanto knew about the risks at Anniston but did nothing. An internal document of August 1970 marked “Confidential, destroy after reading”, reveals that Monsanto was dumping 16 pounds of PCBs per day into Snow Creek (compared to 269 pounds per day in 1969). The company never warned the inhabitants that the water, the soil and the air of the western part of town were all highly contaminated.
Monsanto is currently the world’s largest dealer in genetically modified seed and the producer of the world’s most popular herbicide, Round-up, as well as the controversial bovine growth hormone.
July 2, 2008
Those of you who are familiar with this blog will recognize several recurring themes: the natural environment, particularly that of South Louisiana, French politics and culture, Québecois politics and culture. I have also written about agriculture and biotechnology, specifically genetically modified organisms (GMO) (report of June3, 2003, November 5, 2003 / February 4, 2004 / March 3, 2004 / June 2, 2004 / January 5, 2005 / August 3, 2005 / May 3, 2006) . This report and several which will follow will deal with essentially the same question: the conflict between traditional farming methods and the farmers who utilize them versus the multinational chemical giants who are developing products which could ultimately mean the demise of traditional agriculture and which pose considerable risks to human health.
Of all of the reports which I have written over the last few years, I consider this one to be unquestionably the most important because it deals with fundamental questions regarding agriculture and the growing of crops upon which the survival of the human race depends.
If this seems a bit melo-dramatic, please read on. I was recently myself flabbergasted by the documentary by Marie-Monique Robin: Le Monde selon Monsanto (The world according to Monsanto). This and the following reports are really nothing but a synopsis of her book, published by Alain Stanké (Longeueil, 2008). It is unlikely that the book will be translated into English and made available to the American public. The effects of its publication would have such important consequences for both the agro-chemical companies and for the U.S. government itself, that it seems improbable that the American public will have access to this information..
I have been following the development of GMOs in agriculture for many years. I have been myself a direct victim of what many have come to consider dangerous agricultural practices. My house was inundated by herbicide in a spill-over incident by a crop-duster. I filed a complaint and received a compensation of $28, the equivalent of the fair market price of the vegetables I had planted in my garden. The question of the effect of the spillover on my health and that of my family was not an issue. Some time later, my entire forest of several hundred trees turned bone white in the middle of the spring. Upon contacting my local county agent, he euphemistically referred to the incident as a “Command problem.” Apparently some of the herbicide Command, being used in a neighboring field had been transported by the wind onto my property. Command disrupts the synthesis of both
chlorophyll and carotenes which is why all of the trees had turned white. .I was subsequently visited by a representative of the chemical company who did his very best to charm me into not filing a complaint, going so far as to parade the farmers responsible for the incident. Three generations of them stood in the middle of my yard with their heads bowed in sorrow while the company rep went through his well-rehearsed routine. According to him I could put the herbicide on my corn flakes for breakfast with no ill effect. He gave me the willies. I knew he was lying through his teeth brilliantly evident through the friendly grin which spread from ear to ear. I felt like I was talking to the devil. I live in the middle of an agricultural zone into which massive amounts of herbicides are introduced in the spring and fall. The long term effects on the my health and that of my family are largely unknown and the practice itself is encouraged by the collaboration, i.e. collusion between the United States government via the FDA and multinational chemical companies.
Through Ms. Robin’s film I discovered a great deal of information that I had suspected but had not fully understood. The danger posed to human health by agricultural practices that are becoming largely ubiquitous is unknown, but by the stealthy utilization of the political process, the powerful multinational chemical companies are basically operating without real control, and posing significant threats to human health and to family based agriculture around the globe in the process.
The following report and those of the months to follow will attempt to put some perspective on a complex issue.
The fundamental problem goes beyond the question of greed and the abuse of power. It is a question that speaks to the nature of contemporary western capitalism. As we have witnessed, the communist system of the Eastern block imploded in the 1980s, falling under the weight of its own bureaucracy. Communism proved unable to inspire innovation because it was ultimately unable to create incentive. The problem of capitalism is of a completely different stripe. By favoring the acquisition of wealth above all, the system is in danger of destroying itself from within. If the object of social action in a capitalist society is the creation of wealth, it is in the interest of society to remove the obstacles which risk impeding that goal. The result, in the case of the FDA and agricultural related biotechnology is an unfettered process in which just about anything goes, including the marketing of products whose long term effects on human health are largely unknown and which may eventually prove disastrous.
At the heart of the issue are two questions: 1. the possibility of owning a patent for a living organism, and thus controlling its commerce, and 2. the nature of genetically modified organisms themselves. The way in which western society has come to regard these questions has influenced our vision of agriculture, of society and even of life itself. The way in which we perceive these questions has and will continue to have far reaching consequences for the manner in which humanity feeds itself, or does not feed itself as the case may be.
The first premise is that a patent can be obtained for living organisms, such as seeds and plants and animal clones. Under this perception of commerce, any and everything that is “invented” can be owned and should thus generate royalties for the owner of the patent in the same way that the inventor of a gadget or the writer of a song has the right to obtain royalties for the use of his “creation”. In the case of biotechnology, nothing is in fact “created” the genes that are bandied about are all naturally occurring substances. What is being “created” is the manner in which the particular genes of a particular plant are introduced into another plant to form a new organic form with “desirable” properties. The reasoning is that by “inventing” new plant forms, bio-tech companies are “creating” life forms for which they have the right to own the patent and thus control any subsequent use. The same holds true for animals as well. We haven’t gotten to human beings yet, but the judicial reasoning should logically apply to homo-sapiens as well.
By splicing together DNA from disparate organisms, the “creator” can obtain a patent and restrict its application under the condition of the payment of a royalty. In actual fact, this means that farmers who buy seed from biotech companies are obliged to enter into a contractual agreement compensating the patent owner for the rights to his “property”. This logic was confirmed by the Canadian Supreme Court in its ruling against Percy Schmeiser. The court held that Mr. Schmeiser infringed upon the patent held by Monsanto on its GMO canola by the very fact that some of its seed appeared in Mr. Schmeiser’s field. Never mind that the occurrence was random and unwanted, the seed brought in by wind or spread by a bird. According to the Canadian Supreme Court, the fact that some Monsanto seed somehow wound up in Mr. Schmeiser’s field made him liable to the company for infringement of patent. Under the terms of the contract that farmers are obliged to enter into with Monsanto, they cannot keep their seed for the next harvest as farmers have done since the beginning of time, but are obliged to renew their seed stock each and every year by the purchase of new seed from the company.
The second question deals with the nature of genetically modified organisms themselves. In spite of the apparent logic that genetically modified organisms are in and of themselves new products, the U.S Food and Drug Administration created a giant loophole which effectively exempts all GMOs from testing. The FDA is very rigorous in its requirement that any new product or any new additive to an existing product destined to be consumed by either humans or animals be tested for its possible harmful effects. In the case of GMOs, however, the FDA applied a concept of “substantial equality”. In other words if you are taking a gene from plant A and attaching it to the DNA of plant B, since neither plant A, nor plant B are harmful in an of themselves, then the new plant A+B is not harmful either. Therefore, there is no reason to test the new organism for possible harmful effects.
The fact of the matter is, as several scientists have shown, there is reason to believe that the new organism created from the splicing of the DNA from two individual plants, neither of which is harmful, may create an organism which is in fact harmful. Thus the potential danger comes not from the two original plants themselves, but from the new bioactivity derived from the process itself. It just so happened that many of the important players at the FDA during the period during which this major ruling was formulated (the Clinton administration) were former employees of biotech companies, most notably Monsanto.
So just what is Monsanto anyway?
Monsanto was founded in 1901 by John Francis Queen, a self-taught chemist. The small company, named for Mr. Queen’s wife Olga Mendez Monsanto, produced saccharine. Its major client was another newly founded U.S. company, Coco-Cola. In 1918, Monsanto made its first acquisition, an Illinois company producing sulfuric acid. The Monsanto Chemical Company went public in 1929, one month before the stock market crash. In the 1940s, Monsanto became one of the world’s largest producers of rubber, plastic, synthetic fiber, phosphate and polycholorbiphenyl or PCB. For more than 50 years, PCBs will insure the fortune of the company. PCBs are used as a refrigerant for electric transformers, and hydraulic equipment, and as lubricant in a variety of applications such as plastics, paint, ink and paper. On October 31, 1977, the production of PCB is outlawed in the U.S. because of the highly toxic nature of the product.
In 1944, Monsanto begins the production of DDT. By that time, the relationship between the company and the Pentagon had become quite close. In 1942, Charles Thomas, the research director of the company is approached by General Leslie R. Groves U.S. Army, to participate in the Manhattan Project which led to the creation of the atomic bomb. The chemists of Monsanto, under the direction of Mr. Thomas were enlisted to isolate and refine plutonium and polonium for the detonation device. At the end of the war, Mr. Thomas was promoted vice-president of the company while still working for the U.S. government in its efforts to find civilian applications for nuclear power. Mr. Thomas was the president of the company from 1951 to 1960. He was at the helm of the company when it obtained its most important government contract: the production of dioxin based agent-orange utilized in the Viet Nam war.
In the 1940, several researchers around the world were able to isolate the growth hormone of plants and were able to reproduce the molecule synthetically. The application of this molecule in large doses kills the plant. Out of this research comes the powerful herbicides 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T. Because the research had been accomplished in several laboratories at once, there is no clear patent holder which allows a free-for-all amongst chemical companies on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1948, Monsanto opens its first 2,4,5-T plant in Nitro, West Virginia, site of an industrial accident on March 8, 1949. Dioxin based herbicides are enormously popular, because they are “selective”. Properly used they will destroy weeds (dicotes) while leaving corn or wheat (monocotes) in tact.
However, dioxin is proven to be highly cancerous, a charge denied by Monsanto. Under increasing pressure, the company will eventually devote its energy to a new product, one which has become the companies biggest seller: the herbicide Round-up.
In the late 1960s, Monsanto chemists developed glyphosate, an amino acid based herbicide. This herbicide is not “selective” as 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, but “total”, absorbed by the plant via its leaves and transported to the roots and the rhizomes. Glyphosate effects an enzyme essential to the creation of chlorophyll provoking the necrosis of plant tissue. On the market since 1974, Round-up is a “huge success”. According to its original publicity, Round-up is “100% biodegradable” and “respects the environment”. In 1996, the New York state consumer protection agency prohibits Monsanto from using the terms “biodegradable, good for the environment” in its publicity. In 1998, the company is forced to pay a fine of $75,000 for misleading publicity. On January 26, 2007, the company is fined 15,000 Euros by the tribunal correctionnelle de Lyon France for misleading publicity, a symbolic gesture given the sums involved.
Since Round-up is a “total” herbicide, the challenge for the company was to develop plant stock resistant to the poison. Monsanto is not only the producer of the world’s most popular herbicide, but is also the world’s largest developer of genetically modified organism, notably soy beans, canola and corn. The primary purpose of the genetic modification is nothing other than to make the plants resistant to the herbicide.
In 2007, transgenic agriculture (GMOs) covered more than 1,000,000 hectares, approximately 3,000,000 acres. Half of them in the U.S. (54.6 million hectares) followed by Argentina (18 million) Brazil (11.5 million), Canada (6.1 million), India (3.8 million), China (3.5 million), Paraguay (2 million) and South Africa (1.4 million). 70% of the total is “Round-up Ready”, i.e. resistant to the herbicide, and 30% is “BT”, i.e. plants producing an insecticide. Monsanto controls 90% of the associated patents.
As you can read in Monsanto’s 2005 “Pledge”: the farmers who use genetically modified seed stock utilize considerably less pesticide and realize considerably greater economic gain compared to conventional agriculture. Monsanto helps small farmers throughout the world to be more productive and self sufficient” As you will discover in the following reports, this is hardly the case. For many, this statement is nothing but a smoke screen masking a huge commercial project to insure Monsanto’s hegemony over food stock worldwide. To many, the use of genetically modified organisms is a threat to the food stock of the world and to the ecological balance of the planet.
I am not a partisan of the conspiracy theory. I do not believe that some evil characters are holed up somewhere plotting to control the food supply of the world. The goal of insuring a secure supply of food for everyone is something that no right thinking person can contest. But the question remains what are the veritable threats posed by genetic engineering of food crops and the attendant chemical based agricultural processes to which they are associated. I am not against scientific research for the improvement of the world’s food supply. It seems to me, however, that the scientific evidence is not conclusive and given the history of companies like Monsanto, it is hard to take the agro-chemical companies at their word. Remember, in this capitalist system, the only responsibility multi-national companies have is to their shareholders. Wealthy and powerful, multinational companies have used the political system to their advantage. Making a buck. It has proven to be in the interests of the companies to continue marketing products harmful to human health even in the face of overwhelming evidence, since the legal consequences of any eventual lawsuit are not cost prohibitive. It makes business sense to keep producing harmful products in spite of the eventual punitive damages incurred since those damages will come in the future and will be relatively inexpensive. Remember cigarettes.
My grandfather died of throat cancer. I watched him suffer horribly, bed ridden for years, breathing through a tracheotomy. He was a heavy smoker. Remember the advertisement for Chestefield cigarettes showing a good looking man in a doctor’s white tunic holding a lighted cigarette. “The brand preferred by doctors” said the ad.
I don’t want to see my grandson die from cancer because of the food that he consumed or the environment that he lives in.
June 1, 2008
This week has been very busy in Québec on the politico-media scene. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the founding of the city of Québec by Samuel Champlain, and the city is out to make a splash. There are two competing visions of the celebration: that of Québec and that of Canada. Untold millions of dollars are being spent to make sure that the party is a big one. Equally impressive sums are being spent to spin the event for political purposes.
The celebration of the founding of Québec goes to the heart of the conflict between the ethno-cultural and politico-national identities in Québec. Stephan Harper, the prime minister of Canada, stirred up the shit when he referred to the founding of Québec as the beginning of “Canada”. Québec was founded by the French in 1608 and conquered by the British in 1759. The city itself was reduced to smoldering rubble by the conquering army. Not exactly an auspicious “founding”. As Joseph Facal, former Québec minister and outspoken separatist recently stated, the Québécois could have rendered the entire argument irrelevant had they decided in 1981 or again in 1994 to separate from Canada. The hubbub over to whom Québec city belongs (Québec or Canada) is the direct result of the incapacity of the Québécois to resolve the question of their national status once and for all. Or so it seems. Mr. Facal goes on to criticize the role of the Governor General, Michaëlle Jean who is, according to him, hogging the spotlight in an attempt to assert Canadian supremacy during the celebration. As he points out, the institution of Governor General is not a democratic institution but a hold over of the British colonial regime and would not exist had not the British conquered Québec by force of arms in 1759.
Michaëlle Jean, the Governor General of Canada, created bad blood amongst certain Québécois while in France recently. Her mission to France in the context of the 400th anniversary is perceived as an attempt by Canada to steal the thunder. At a military cemetery in Normandy she spoke of the celebration, focusing on Canado-French unity without once mentioning Québec. She is after all the Governor General of Canada. The prime minister of Québec, Jean Charest, although in France at the time was nowhere to be found.
Mrs. Jean was named to her post by the former liberal government prior to a general election in what was seen as a ploy to garner the immigrant vote (Mrs. Jean is of Haitian descent). If in fact her nomination was a political strategy, it did not work. The Liberals lost the election. Her nomination, however, was wildly popular in the Montreal Haitian community and rightly so. The daughter of refugees, by hard work and determination she rose to become one of Québec’s most popular television journalists. Since her nomination as Governor General, however, her standing in Québec is tarnished.
The institution of Governor General is an antiquated hold over from the days of the British empire. It is about as close as you can get to Canadian royalty. In fact, the Governor General is the representative of the Queen of England. Never mind that Canada has been independent of Great Britain for some time and that the Governor General’s real boss is the Prime Minister of Canada, Canadians, especially English Canadians relish the institution. The Governor General’s job is to go around the county cutting ribbons and having tea. The post is supposed to be absolutely apolitical, but in the context of the squabble between Québec and Canada it has an arrow in the Canadian quiver.
Some of the criticism of Mrs. Jean is directed against her husband Jean-Daniel Lafond. He is a documentary film-maker, born in France who became a Canadian citizen in 1981. As you can read on the website of the Governor General: “the spouse of the governor general plays a tangible role in defining and carrying out the mandate of the governor general of Canada. The spouse’s efforts enrich the influence of Canada’s oldest public institution. » Old colleagues of Mr. Lafond have taken to criticizing him publicly. Apparently, constitution in hand, he insists on being called “Your Excellency”. What is most galling to many in Québec, however, is the fact that Mr. Lafond, and to a lesser extent Mrs. Jean, were at least sympathetic to the separatist cause if not out and out separatists themselves. Not any more.
In response to her visit to France, Victor Lévy-Beaulieu, himself a hard-core separatist and respected author described her as the Reine Nègre, (the Queen Negro). Not easy to take since Mrs. Jean is black. However, Lévy-Beaulieu was quick to explain that the term “has nothing to do with racism. It’s not the color of her skin that I’m attacking, it’s her role and the way she assumes it. It’s the role of a reine-nègre.” In colonial Africa, the “roi-nègre” or King Negro was the local proxy of the colonial power, put in place to placate the population while doing the bidding of the European colonial masters. According to Levy-Beaulieu, Mrs. Jean’s position as the Queen’s representative should be above politicas, but he claims that she “is doing the dirty work” of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Mrs. Jean’s presence in France seemed to many in Québec to have crossed the line from gracious outmoded symbol of the past to political agent of the government.
French president Nicolas Sarkozy was very gracious with the Governor General of Canada. Mrs. Jean was given the red carpet, invited personally by the French president to participate in the commemorative celebrations on the beach at Ouistreham Normandy. The Prime Minister of Québec, Jean Charest, who was in France, chose to stay away. Or was not invited. During the ceremony, Sarko said “We love Québec, but we love Canada too. We love them both”. Like in every ménage à trois, somebody will be the low man (or woman) on the totem pole. This is not Charles De Gaulle on the balcony in Montreal proclaming “Vive le Québec libre.” (Long live Free Québec)
A few days later French president Nicolas Sarkozy decorated Céline Dion with the Legion of Honor (La Légion d’Honneur). During the Céline ceremony, President Sarkozy, who’s approval ratings are at a historical low of 35%, made a point to attempt to clarify his Québec versus Canada policy. He stated that the French consider the Québécois as brothers and the Canadians (and their government) as “friends”. He said it twice just in case anybody missed it the first time. The Québécois are our “brothers” and the Canadians are our “friends”. What is worth noting is that no matter what he called them, and how much he attempted to appease all concerned, the French president could not avoid making a distinction between Québécois and Canadian. I am pretty sure he would have preferred not to have to address the subject, but he must have given it some thought before heading out for his jog.
All of this Québec versus Canada splash is playing out against the backdrop of the publication of the Bouchard-Taylor report. In an effort to find a “reasonable accommodation”, (accommodation raisonnable) to the problems posed by the integration of immigrants into Québec society, two commissioners were sent around Québec to hear public testimony regarding the treatment of immigrants and report their findings. Anybody who had an opinion could be heard. The question posed by the commission is just what to consider “reasonable” in accommodating the religious sensitivities of immigrant communities. Is it reasonable for a Sikh boy to wear a dagger to school? Is it reasonable for a Muslim woman to wear a veil when voting? The problem at the bottom of all of this is once again the question of identity. Most if not all of the immigrants to Canada come expecting to integrate an English language society. How is Québec to attract immigrants and therefore assure its future while insisting on the primacy of the French language? How is Québec to integrate immigrants from around the world? The answer lies in making “reasonable accommodations”, or at least that’s the theory behind the commission. While allowing immigrants to express their feelings if not vent their rage, the commission did little to resolve the problem, which is fundamentally the relationship of the people of Québec to their own identity. The report was well considered and forthright. The question that begs to be answered, however, is just what purpose will it serve?
And this just in: Québec Solidaire, the most Left wing and pro-feminist political party in Québec in response to the Bouchard-Taylor report supports the right of Muslim women students and civil servants to wear the hidjab (head scarf). According to Québec Solidaire, Muslim women employees of the government should be able to wear visible religious regalia even though such regalia symbolize the submission of women. Confused? Me too.
On Sunday May 25, I attended a concert at the Corona theatre in Montreal. The performance was of Anton Dvorak’s New World Symphony. The orchestra was formed of musicians from around the world each playing traditional instruments. There were players from Japan, Bolivia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Viet Nam, Costa Rica, Senegal, Chad, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Morocco and Madagascar each playing in his or her traditional style, and all playing at the same time. Under the direction of Luc Boivin, the orchestra performed my favorite symphony. The result was amazing. It was quite astounding to hear the melodies of Dvorak performed by a Bolivian pan flute or a gypsy accordion accompanied by African drums. The percussive elements were integrated into the piece with flair. What was so appealing to the standing room only crowd was not only the musicality of the orchestra, but the ideal it symbolizes. Here were musicians from around the world, most of them unknown outside of their communities, immigrants to Québec all, having fled the poverty and the politics of their home countries and living in Montreal. They played their hearts out. As Luc Boivin joked, they had to make their own “reasonable accommodations”. Musicians from around the world having never met before, each playing in a different and typical style, all playing together. I cheered and danced and cried.
I am not a Canadian citizen and therefore not officially Québécois. So it’s none of my business, but I am allowing myself this one suggestion. Take all the money spent for the upkeep of the Governor General (who knows?) and the Bouchard-Taylor commission ($5 million) and use it to subsidize this orchestra of the New World. Send them around the country to prove to everybody that people from all over the place can work together to create something beautiful. We’d all be better off. Québec and Canada too.
May 7, 2008
The Louisiana coast loses the equivalent of a football field every 38 minutes, approximately 25 square miles lost to erosion each and every year. Since 1930, over 1,900 square miles have been lost, an area larger than the state of Delaware.
The reasons for this land loss are well known: levees and canals.
The arrival of Europeans in Louisiana marked the beginning of attempts at flood control. The annual flood of the Mississippi and its tributaries was (and is) a threat to agriculture and to human habitation. After the great flood of 1927, the US Army Corps of Engineers completed the levee system on the Mississippi. The river would be heretofore held in a virtual straightjacket. As a consequence, the alluvial sediments that have for eons replenished the marsh every spring fail to arrive. In 1963, the Corps of Engineers finished its flood control project on the Mississippi with the construction of the Old River Structure, a control dam at the confluence of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers, 200 miles north of New Orleans. The structure permits the control of the water level in the main branch of the river. The floodgates are opened when and if the water level gets too high. The structure accomplishes another function: it prevents the main channel from following its natural course which would be to flow into the Atchafalaya. Without the structure, the river would eventually abandon the channel that leads to New Orleans with a disastrous effect on shipping along the river at the ports of Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
The other main culprit in coastal erosion is the 80,000 miles of canals which cut through the marshes. The great majority of canals were dug for oil exploration. These canals allow the intrusion of salt water from the Gulf into the freshwater marsh. As a result, the aquatic plants are decimated and the roots systems that are the cohesive element of these “trembling prairies” disappears.
Quite simply, South Louisiana is floating away. The alluvial sediments which up until the 1930s were responsible for the creation of new land no longer arrive. With every acre of land loss the natural protection against tropical storms is reduced. Each 3 miles of marsh diminishes the level of the tidal surge by 1 foot. In 1960 there were approximately 100 miles of swamp between New Orleans and the Gulf. Today that number has dwindled. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused additional land loss. In addition, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) has caused additional loss. This canal was built in the 1960s to allow marine traffic to access the Gulf directly without having to travel the sinuous meanders of the river. The project was responsible for the transfer of more dirt than that moved during the construction of the Panama Canal. MRGO has not actually been utilized very much. It did, however, destroy 217 acres of swamp due to salt intrusion. With each acre of land loss goes a corresponding area of natural protection for the city.
The threat to New Orleans is made more acute by global warming. One of the effects of which is an increase in the frequency and violence of tropical storms. The situation is made even more menacing by the increase in sea level. A recipe for disaster.
According to Torbjörn Törnqvsit, director of the National Institute for Climatic Change Coastal Reasearch Center, sea level along the Louisiana coast is rising at a rate 4 to 6 times higher than in the preceding 1000 years. 6000 years ago, sea level worldwide was approximately 15 feet lower. Since the retreat of the glaciers at the end of the last ice age, sea level has been rising. Before the Industrial Revolution, the rise was on the order of one half millimeter per year. The rate of sea level rise at Grande Isle, south of New Orleans is currently 10 millimeters per year, 20 times higher.
To make matters worse, south Louisiana is sinking. The causes for the subsidence are multiple and complex but the extraction of minerals (oil) and the draining of marshes for residential development are major causes. Louisiana is facing a critical situation. The good news is that the state of affairs along the coast is serving as the laboratory. The lessons learned in Louisiana will eventually be used to good advantage for the protection of coastal areas around the world. It remains to be seen, however, if viable solutions will be found to restore the Louisiana coast and protect the cities of New Orleans, Houma and Thibdeaux. Unfortunately the political leaders are unable to come to grips with the situation. In Louisiana, employment takes precedence over coastal protection. The economy is the determining factor in the politics surrounding coastal restoration and the community as a whole seems unable to make the hard choices that will be required to preserve the natural environment and the human community of south Louisiana. There is no plan for the future 50 or 100 years from now. Should we be unable to solve the problems, Mother Nature will solve them for us one way or another.
On December 31, 1925, Percy Viosca, a biologist working for the Louisiana Department of Conservation addressed the Ecological Society of America at its annual conference in Kansas City. “Man-made modifications in Louisiana wetlands, which are changing the conditions of existence from its very foundations, are the result of flood protection, deforestation, deepening channels and the cutting of navigation and drainage canals. Time is ripe for an enormous development of the Louisiana wetlands along new and intelligent lines”. Unfortunately Viosca’s words went unheeded and we have seen devastating erosion and astounding land loss as a result. Today, Viosca has been replaced by a new generation of dedicated and far seeing ecologists: Oliver Houck, Mark Davis and Tyrone Foreman being but a few. The question is whether their words will go unheeded as well.
The solutions to the problems of the Louisiana coast are well known. The question is whether our society (Louisiana and the USA) is prepared to take the measures necessary to restore the coast. Here are 10 points, taken from the report of Oliver Houck, Tulane University environmental law professor, published in September 2005. As yet, none of the measures have been implemented.
- Make the maps. Not simply a flood protection map, but a map describing clearly what we can reclaim, what we hope to save and what we are prepared to abandon.
- Re-evaluate the funding. There are several projects which are on the verge of financing which have never received close scrutiny and, which if implemented will have a tremendous impact on the city of New Orleans and all of South Louisiana (i.e. the Morganza Project, see report October, 2006). We need to re-evaluate everything that touches the coast with the maps (#1) in hand. Otherwise, the developers and the politicians will control our fate.
- Free the sediments. 50 years ago, 400 million tons of current born sediment flowed past New Orleans. Today, we are down to 80 million tons. These sediments are contained within the levee walls instead of spilling into the marsh and wind up in the Gulf of Mexico rather than rebuilding the wetlands. Every bit of sediment must be directed into the marsh.
- Free the rivers. Levees must be cut at strategic places and the natural currents permitted to flow. The price of restraining the rivers will ultimately prove too great.
- Eliminate chemical fertilizer. Chemical based agriculture is responsible for the pollution of the coast. It is time that the federal government (and the state government!) recognize this reality and impose controls.
- Heal the marsh. We have the technology to revitalize the wetlands. We need to use it.
- Stop coastal erosion. We know all to well the consequences of land loss. And yet, oil exploration canals are still being dredged and wetlands are being dried for residential development and agricultural exploitation. Each inch of wetlands lost will be hard to recover. We have to stop land loss immediately.
- Leave place for natural processes. Roads and railroads must be elevated. Floodways need to be opened. Oil installations, port facilities and oyster beds have to be consolidated. And areas must be placed off limits to development.
- Dare to think retreat. Residents of the coastal zone are in jeopardy. Oil exploration and port facilities can be maintained through insurance premiums, but this is not the case for residential development. As we are seeing, it is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain insurance for low lying areas near the coast. It will be hard to abandon areas into which people have settled, but the cost of maintaining residential areas in flood plains will ultimately prove to be too high. We can do it ourselves or have Nature do it for us.
- Admit the reality of global warming. The Louisiana ostrich still has its head in the mud. Global warming needs to be recognized as a permanent reality if we are to plan effectively. Like it or not, tropical storms will be more frequent and more violent in the future. And the sea level will be higher. Both will have a significant impact on the coast.
April 2, 2008
There is an expression well known to the barflies among us which came to mind after my first few days in Paris this spring: Coyote ugly. According to the urban legend, a coyote will chew its foot off once it is caught in a steel trap. This is a metaphor for the situation some of you might have had the misfortune of finding yourselves in. After a night of libertinage, imagine awakening to find yourself sleeping alongside a human being whose physical appearance is repugnant. It is well known that the consumption of alcohol hinders good judgment. In the throes of alcohol-induced jubilation, one tends to find potential sexual partners more attractive than would be the case if one were sober. This often leads to a disturbing situation the next morning. Coyote ugly. The sense of the phrase being that rather than awaken the newly acquired and physically repulsive partner, one is capable of chewing off one’s arm. That’s the feeling I get in Paris these days.
Nicolas Sarkozy was elected president of France in the equivalent of an alcohol induced frenzy. His closest competition, the Socialist Ségolène Royal, was way behind. Sarko promised to solve all of the problems confronting French society by getting tough. First of all, he would take care of the restive immigrant population by finding jobs for the good ones and getting tough on the bad. Secondly, he would fix the moribund economy. No more free ride. The welfare system would be overhauled and the French economy made more competitive and more American-like. What France needs, claimed Sarkozy is a kick in the pants, and he was just the guy to use the boot.
French society has always tended toward the bitchy, at least as long as I have been coming here. The French have evolved complaining into an art form. Never have I seen, however, disgruntlement verging on despair. When Mitterand was elected, there was a great euphoria. The country was incredulous that the Socialist had come to power. This wave of jubilation lasted through his first term in office and spilled over into the second before disillusionment crippled the government. The result was the return to power of the right. When Chirac came to power, there was, once again, a sense of satisfaction and the belief that his conservative policies would ultimately solve the social and economic problems in France. This lasted through his first term and propelled him to a second mandate. In his last election, in 1995, the country was again uneasy. To the general surprise, however, the threat to Chirac’s government came not from the leftist Socialist party, but from the right wing, anti-immigrant Front National of Jean-Marie Lepen. Ultimately Chirac proved unable to deliver on his promise of reform, and was abandoned by the population.
In the last presidential election, French men and women rallied around the diminutive Minister of the Interior who had been in charge of controlling the riots that had set the suburbs of Paris on fire in 2005. Sarkozy was gonna kick some ass and get France back on track. It has taken only a few months for disappointment to set in. In contrast to his predecessors, Sarkozy’s popularity has plummeted in record time. It is not the fact that the French have turned on their president, but the relatively short time that it has taken. Coyote ugly. The French are debating whether they should chew off their collective paw. Cinderella has turned into a pumpkin.
Municipal elections were held in France last week. The result was a resounding victory for the Socialist party. Under the French system, the office of mayor has an importance which is much greater than the equivalent in the US. Although the comparison is far from perfect, the mayors of France collectively have a power somewhat equivalent to that of the governors of the states in the U.S. The political party of a mayoral candidate has as much influence in getting out the vote than his or her personal popularity. That the country resoundingly voted for Socialist mayors has less to do with the competence of the individual candidates than with sending a message to the president, and that message is: we don’t love you any more.
Sarkozy’s can best be characterized as brash. In an encounter which seems to typify the style of the newly elected French president, upon meeting a farmer who refused to shake his hand (so as not to “dirty” himself according to reports), Sarkozy replied, “Fuck off, you little asshole” (Casse-toi, petit con). What is remarkable is that almost everyone that I meet refers to this episode and makes the comparison with Chirac. Once, when Chirac was heckled by someone in the audience who called out “Asshole”, he replied, “Nice to meet you, my name is Jacques Chirac.” These two anecdotes have become part of French folklore, but go far to illustrate the perception of the new president as a egomaniac addicted to bling-bling whose personal behavior borders on the pathological. His celebrated divorce and subsequent marriage to model turned pop singer, Carla Bruni is seen by most Frenchmen as Sarkozy’s own business. However, his apparent craving for recognition and his association with the rich and famous is seen as undignified, particularly when many Frenchmen are facing a dismal economic future. In an effort to seem more presidential, Sarkozy of late has taken to laying wreaths at war monuments and toning down the media attention he apparently craves.
Not to change the subject, but speaking of Coyote ugly, George W. Bush will leave office with the U.S. economy in shambles and mired in a senseless war which has cost billions of dollars and thousands of U.S. lives as well as hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives. Two thirds of all Americans believe that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake. On the fifth anniversary of the invasion, George W. Bush maintained fervently that “deposing Sadam” was the “right thing to do”. The king has no clothes. We have squandered billions of dollars and untold thousands of lives, have lost our standing in the world, and are mired in a futile war with no end-game apparent. And yet, Americans do not seem to upset with the situation. Maybe we should import French people to teach us how to march in the streets, or at least how to complain. American democracy seems headed down a dead end. Most of us seem happy to watch sports on TV and eat junk food. Coyote ugly. But who’s the coyote and who’s the ugly?
Which bring us to my final topic: I hereby support the candidacy of Barak Obama for president of the U.S. Senator John McCain was just in Paris visiting President Sarkozy. McCain was on his way back from a mission in Iraq. Trying to appear presidential. In an obvious attempt to pander to the French, he proclaimed, “the U.S. needs to listen to its allies more.” Oh, please. A good American, and certainly a war hero, but he is evidently unable to break with the knuckle-headed policies of the current president that got us in this shitty mess to begin with. “We’ll stay in Iraq if it takes 100 years,” he has said. He also proclaimed himself honored by the endorsement of George W. Bush. The same George W. Bush whose campaign spread the rumor that McCain had an illegitimate black bastard child during the South Carolina primary in 1999. If McCain is elected we’ll have to chew off more than a paw.
My endorsement of Obama is based on one single reason. I am not impressed by his message of “Change”. That’s a pretty easy sell when everything seems to be going to hell. Hillary Clinton seems to me to be more experienced, a better organizer, perhaps even a better leader. But it’s hard to say what somebody will do once in office and confronted with the tremendous challenges of the U.S presidency. I have no problem with having a woman president and I would support Hillary in the event that she is nominated. My reason for endorsing Obama, however, comes down to one thing.
If you go back to March of 2003 in the archives of the monthly reports posted on this web site, you will note that I opposed the invasion of Iraq and predicted that we were getting into a “Viet Nam with sand”. Would that I had been wrong. I remember well the collective lunacy that gripped my country. Where were the “Two thirds of Americans who think the invasion of Iraq was a mistake” back then? Idiots were spray-painting over the French inscriptions on the street signs in my hometown to avenge the fact that French president Chirac dared contradict George W. Bush, and refuse to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Apparently reasonable American journalists were serving as propaganda tools for the government, embedded with combat units in a disgusting effort to cheerlead the invasion. The popular pressure to support the invasion was enormous. Most everybody was for the war. Most everybody that is but me, Bill Nevins and Barak Obama (just kidding, there were millions of us). It didn’t cost me anything, it cost Bill Nevins his job, and it could have cost Barak Obama his political future. Going against popular opinion is something that few politicians seem ready to do, especially with nationalist sentiment rising to a fever pitch (You’re either with us or against us) In this day of “policy by the numbers” (i.e. driven by the polls), it is encouraging to think that there is a politician who chose to resist popular pressure and the relentless drumbeat of the warmongers to follow his own convictions.
I am supporting Barak Obama because he has given me the feeling that somehow in the cesspool of money run national politics, there is someone motivated by principal, who is not afraid to defy the powers that be. For having given me that hope, I support Obama.
March 5, 2008
In the history of the Cadien/Cajun community of Louisiana, there are three major events. First and foremost, the Deportation from Nova Scotia in 1755. Secondly the Civil war, and finally, the Second World War. Once the USA entered WWII in 1941, practically the entire male population of South Louisiana (as well as the rest of the country) between the ages of 18 and 35, went to war. Many of the young Cajuns had never been farther than the parish line. Many did not speak English. When they returned to Louisiana, after years in the armed services, fighting in every major theater, their identity was profoundly altered. They were proud to be Americans, a term that represented for their fathers an outsider to the French speaking community, as well as someone of whom to be wary. In terms of musical culture, most young Cajuns of their generation shared the American fondness for big band swing. But there was a current, less visible, running underground like the aquifer that flows unseen beneath the South Louisiana prairie. That current was what is called today “Cajun music”,
Most of the Cajuns who went to war and returned were still young men. After the terrible years of the war, they, like most of their American counterparts, wished to have fun, to dance, to fall in love. This desire to let loose contributed directly to the post-war dance phenomenon in Cajun culture. Before the war, dances were communal affairs, house dances which the entire family could attend. After the war, numerous dance halls sprung up. The basic social relationship was altered. At a house dance, the strong tradition of hospitality obliged the host to open his door to any and all who arrived. At the dance hall, or Fais Do-Do as they came to be called, entrance was based, at least for the men, on the ability to pay the ticket price. Alcohol was sold, and thus minor aged children were excluded. The dance tradition of South Louisiana had changed ambiance: from a family gathering, it had evolved into a night club..
A chain of “Fais Do-Do” crossed the Cajun prairie: La Poussière, The Triangle, The China Ball Club, Hick’s Wagon Wheel. These dance halls were integral to the evolution of modern Cajun music. There was no town, no area of the prairie where one could not find a dance hall on a Saturday night. These dance halls created regular employment for a growing coterie of musicians. They contributed to the institutionalization of the genre as the repertoire become more and more standardized. The orchestra evolved as well. The diatonic ten button accordion remained the principal instrument although modified to include a microphone. The fiddle was also a mainstay, but to these instruments were added the peddle steel guitar and the modern drum kit. Playing two or more times a week, the dance bands became more and more sophisticated: Lawrence Walker, Blackie Forestier, Ambrose Thibodeuax, Jimmy C. Newman, Larry Brasseaux, Belton Richard, Aldus Roger and other accordion player-band leaders enjoyed great popularity. Aldus Roger and his Lafayette Playboys were tremendously well-known thanks to the advent of television. Every Sunday morning on KLFY, Channel 10, Aldus Roger broadcast a very popular television show. Sundays will always be associated with an extended family dinner at my grandmother’s house, and the soundtrack was Aldus Roger. With his cattleman’s small brim Stetson and his Buddha-like gaze, Aldus Roger revolutionized accordion playing, incorporating lightening riffs and western swing harmony into the style. Radio shows were likewise very popular, KSIG in Crowley and KROF in Abbeville broadcasting Cajun music live on the weekends. The musicians who was to have the most influence on future generations, however, did not have a radio show, much less a television broadcast. Practically blind and killed tragically at the age of 27, Ira Lejeune would create the songs which have become the heart of the Cajun repertoire.
The life of Ira Lejeune is the archetypical example of the blues. Legally blind, wearing glasses thick as the bottom of a Coke bottle, Ira Lejeune was physically unable to work in the fields. In the rural economy of South Louisiana in the 1940s and 1950s, this meant that he was confined to the lowest level of a rural, underprivileged society. Even the most successful musicians were obliged to work at other jobs in order to survive. Aldus Roger was a carpenter. Lawrence Walker was a farmer. Ira Lejeune, however, could do little but play music. He played in the cafés, passing the hat, during the week and in the dance halls on the weekend. His style was awkward. He played sitting down, while all of his contemporaries played standing. His playing was considered “too fast” for dancing, and his band was perhaps the least popular of all. His legacy, however, dominates the tradition. He recorded 24 songs, most of them in his kitchen on a “portable” recorder. These songs have become the heart of the Cajun tradition. Single handedly, Ira Lejeune was responsible for the resurgence of the accordion.
In 1948, Ira Lejeune recorded the “Valse du Pont d’Amour”, the Love Bridge Waltz. This song, released on 78-rpm disc would shake up popular music in South Louisiana. The dance hall tradition would never be the same. The Love Bridge Waltz was a phenomenal success and although its author would never know the success his talent deserved during his lifetime, his legacy will dominate Cajun music forever. One night upon returning from a dance, the car in which Ira Lejeune was riding had a flat tire on highway 13 between Eunice and Crowley. While one of the musicians repaired the tire, Ira ambled about. He probably never saw the car that hit him. By the time he arrived at the Crowley hospital, he was dead. He was 27 years old.
Two years before the release of the Love Bridge Waltz, another song was released on 78 which would have a similar impact, but this time in the Black Creole community of South Louisiana. The song was called Ma Tee Fee (Ma Petite Fille) and the artist was called Clifton Chenier. Clifton was the pioneer and in effect the creator of a style of music which has come to be called Zydeco. In 1950, he was working as a laborer in Houston Texas. It was there that Clifton met Lightning Hopkins. Until then, he had never heard the 12 bar blues. That meeting was for Clifton and epiphany. Returning to Louisiana, Clifton abandoned the 10 button diatonic accordion of his father and began to play the chromatic accordion. This allowed him to play the three chords of the blues style. Clifton also modernized the Black Creole orchestra, adding drums, and saxophone.
Clifton Chenier’s music was influenced by Black American music, the blues, but always remained unique and uniquely South Louisiana. His brother Cleveland was the first to play the “frottoir” or rub-board, modifying the clothes-washing rub-board into a large metal big which he hung across his chest, playing with metal beer-can openers. Thanks to Clifton, Zydeco took a modern, urban direction, but the root always stayed the same. Amédé Ardoin, cousin of Bois-Sec Ardoin, had the greatest influence on Clifton Chenier. It might seem surprising given the distance between Cajun music and Zydeco today, but the greatest influence on Ira Lejeune was likewise Armédé Ardoin.
Although Cajun music and Zydeco represent two distinct styles today, they share the same root and sprang from the same cultural context. At the beginning of the 20th century, in a situation which recalls the creation of Jazz in nearby New Orleans, on the Attakapas prairie of Southwest Louisiana, a variety of influences came together in the creation of a new musical style unique to the region. Amédé Ardoin was a black man. Amédé Breaux was a white man. When I listen to their recording of the 1930s, I cannot tell them apart. The various ethnic influences; French-Acadian, German, American, Irish intersected. The outcome was a new and entirely unique musical genre. After WWII, white Cajun music and black Zydeco parted ways, each influenced by different American sounds which came from outside of Louisiana. The isolation of the French speaking community of Louisiana was forever broken by the advent of American culture following the Second World War. The introduction of the drum kit would have a significant impact, the Cajuns and the Black Creoles responding differently in their approach to rhythm. The difference was as remarkable and as different as Poitou is different from Senégal. And yet, although Cajun music and Zydeco have evolved into two absolutely distinct musical styles, if we go back a few generations, it is apparent that both styles sprang from the same root. In the incredibly rich melting pot of early 20th century Southwest Louisiana, French speaking white people and French speaking black people would take the diatonic accordion popularized by German immigrants and create a new and singular style of dance music which is being enjoyed throughout the world today.
February 6, 2008
American Indians placed hollowed out gourds around their campsites in the spring and summer to attract purple martins (progne subis). In addition to their acrobatic flight and cheerful song, the largest of the swallow family is particularly known for its healthy insectivorous appetite. Purple martins around the home is bad news for mosquitoes which is good news for people around where I live. The relationship between homo sapiens and progne subis in North America is centuries old.
We have supported a purple martin colony chez moi almost since the construction of the house in 1981. I have watched with great pleasure the generations follow one another (the oldest purple martin on record was 13 years old). I anxiously await their return in the early spring. I have protected the colony from rat snakes and house sparrows. Hearing their twittering song make me feel good. The flight of the fledglings in June is always a joyful time, the joy mixed with some nostalgia since it is never long after the young chicks learn to fly that the whole gang will abandon the cages and take to the fields. Hearing the call of their ancient instinct, they will form huge flocks of hundred or thousands of individuals, roosting under bridges in tumultuous throngs. One fine autumn day, a North wind at their backs, they will take to the sky, headed across the Gulf of Mexico toward their wintering ground in Brazil. In the spring of 2007, for the first time in over 25 years, the cages were empty. My purple martins did not return.
There is an old Cajun legend that pretends that the purple martins return on Mardi Gras day. Since carnival swings between early February and early March every year, the veracity of this rural folk tale defies belief. I am here, however, to testify. I have never known a Mardi Gras on which a purple martin scout did not arrive. Usually it will happen early in the morning. Walking around the yard, I will hear a whistle. I never pay much attention, but at one point, it will hit me: they’re back. I will have put up the cages for some time, being careful not to clean them out too much since a little dried mud is helpful in starting the construction of the nest. It is fabulous to imagine that a small bird can time the arrival of his spring migration of more than a thousand miles to coincide with a French Catholic holiday, especially since the date changes every year. Strange but true.
The scout will turn around the cages for a day or two, falling precipitously from the sky. For a few days, he will be the only swallow I see. However, soon enough, he will be accompanied by others, females as well as males. The males will make a show, dive-bombing and bolting off, their eyes filled with love. Purple martins form permanent couples, returning each year to the same spot. Several days after the arrival of the first bird, the cages will be occupied and the nest building begun.
It was Mother’s Day eve, 2003 that our purple martin colony had its worst moment. In the evening twilight, I noticed a shadow moving up the pole to one of the cages. My heart fell. A Texas rat snake (Elaphe obsoleta indheimer) had invaded the colony The Texas rat snake is a friend to the farmer. Non-venomous, and fond of mice and rats, my relation with the rat snake was “live and let live”. But when the snake invaded the purple martin colony, it had crossed the line. My wife Claude and I were dumbstruck. We hadn’t the vaguest idea of what to do. Climbing up a ladder in the dark to remove a three foot snake didn’t seem particularly appealing. The rat snake kills its victims by suffocation like the python. In the silence of the night, it seemed that we could hear little bones breaking.
Finally I had an idea. I had a large transparent plastic bag. With it in hand, I climbed up to the cage and passed it ever so gently over the top, thereby trapping our unwanted visitor. I duct-taped the bottom and we went to bed. The next morning the snake was in the bottom of the bag, apparently worn out and short of breath. Now what?
I have a friend who works for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. I called him thinking that he would come over and fetch the snake. After all, it’s his job. But it was Mother’s Day Sunday. The best he could do for me was to leave his snake stick out and invite me to come over and get it. A snake stick is a baton of approximately three feet in length with a trigger on one end and a clamp on the other. Within an hour, the snake was in the truck on the way to his new home. We found a spot, sufficiently far away, in a small woods near a winding bayou. We liberated the snake, wished him well and returned to see to our swallows.
The colony had been decimated. Of the twelve pairs of mating adults, three pairs remained. I was afraid that they would abandon the site. This was in May, only a few weeks before the fledglings took flight. I never saw another swallow that summer. The following year, on Mardi Gras day, 2004, my heart raced when I saw the first scout. The purple martins were back. For the next three years, the colony re-established itself. I looked forward to the spring of 2007 when the population would be at its pre-rat-snake level.
On February 20, 2007, while walking about the yard, I saw him. I was surprised, as usual. I knew that the purple martin was one of ours. Our colony is distinguished by a genetic anomaly. The birds all have a white spot on their secondary feathers. This bird had the spot. The next day he came back accompanied by 2 females. All morning long that little group flew, dropping onto the cages like kamikazes, gently posing on the roof. They returned for several days. And then nothing. I waited for a few weeks before taking down the cages, invaded by house sparrows.
I wonder about the decline of the colony. Is it due to an unhappy accident, a tropical storm that surprised my birds en route? The Amazon forest, the winter ground for the purple martins, is being cleared at an alarming rate, a territory the size of Delaware sacrificed to the chain saw each year. Were my birds the victims of habitat destruction? Or was the problem local? Purple martins prefer open space around their habitations, primarily to avoid possible predators. I have planted hundred of trees some of which were intruding into the purple martin landing strip. Had they simply decided to go elsewhere? It didn’t seem that the trees had grown so much over the course of the last year.
Was the problem a problem of nutrition. I live in an agricultural zone in which pesticides are used in quantity. The local government has a program of mosquito control. Every so often in the twilight, a poison truck will pass leaving in its wake a fog of insecticide aimed at ridding the country of mosquitoes, which happen to be the favorite food of my birds. Purple martins are exclusively insectivore. No bugs, no birds. I will probably never know the exact cause of the disappearance of my colony, but one thing is sure: the swallow population in North America, as well as that of all migratory species, is in danger.
Since the 1960s, avian migration has been studied with the aid of radar. The pioneer of this research is former LSU professor, Sydney Gautreaux. Dr. Gautreaux is currently at Clemson where he directs the migratory bird research (http://virtual.clemson.edu/groups/birdrad/index.htm). According to the scientific analysis, the population of migratory birds in North America has fallen 50% since 1980. It is impossible to count with absolute precision the billions of birds which cross the Gulf of Mexico each year during their annual migration. It is possible, however, to evaluate the numbers by studying the density of the radar clouds. From February through the peak migration of April and May, millions of birds will cross the Gulf of Mexico at night. By scrutinizing the radar returns, an approximate number can be determined. Due primarily to habitat destruction, the number of migratory birds has been falling precipitously over the last 25 years. And there is another reason for concern: global warming.
In a new book published by Island, entitled NO WAY HOME, David Wilcove explains that climate change may have serious and irreversible consequences for migrating species: birds, sea turtles, whales, wildebeests, wild salmon, etc. In the case of the birds, the problem is one of nutrition. The phenomenon of bird migration is extraordinary. Although many of its details remain clouded in mystery, the basics are understood. Why migrate hundreds or even thousands of miles when there is an abundant food source in the tropics, the winter ground of most North American birds? The answer is that by so doing, the migratory birds avoid competition with tropical species for nesting territory and nutrition. By undertaking their annual journey, the birds occupy a nesting territory relatively empty of competition. The strategy must have some reward since it is estimated that up to 80% of bird mortality occurs during migration. Over the course of thousands of years, the birds have evolved their strategy to take advantage of food sources all along their migratory route as well as on the nesting grounds themselves. For insectivorous species like swallows, that means having insects present. Ideally, the birds will arrive on the nesting ground at about the same time that the insects are plentiful. Global warming risks throwing a monkey wrench in the process. With increased temperatures, insects will hatch earlier than previously. The birds, however, are cueing on luminosity primarily to undertake their journey. Which means that they could arrive too late to take advantage of the peak insect season. No bugs, no birds.
Mardi Gras this year is February 5. Early. I have my cages ready to go up. One morning, I am hoping to se that first scout splitting the ether like a purple thunderbolt, and pulling up gently to pose on the roof of his home.
January 1, 2008
Chers amis, with my very best wishes for a New Year filled with love and good music. The regular monthly report will begin anew on February 6.