Thursday, December 27, 2012

El Maiz Cabanita: Riego y Barbecho (Preparing the Land)

(Previous posts on maiz cabanita: first, second. )

Once the harvest has been completed, and while the activities of de-leaving, de-graining and using or selling the maize are still occurring, the cultivation moves into its next phase. During June and July, the land will be prepared for the the next planting, which starts in early August.

In Cabanaconde most land does not have a regular fallow period and it is possible to plant maize in the same chacra, year after year. I understand this is due to the natural volcanic richness of the soil as well as the organic fertilisation methods that are used.

The first thing to do after the harvest is over is to clear the crop stubble and fertilise the soil. The most systematic way to do this is by placing a flock of sheep and goats on one's chacras. The animals eat up the crop stubble, while their droppings and urine nourish the earth. In general, during the post-harvest period, all animals are allowed to roam free through the countryside, where their eating and defecating provides a general public service. However, those who are able will gather together as many as several hundred sheep and make them sleep several nights on their land. Most people own a few sheep: the large numbers are accumulated by renting or borrowing from others. In the day the animals are allowed to wander and eat freely; in the night they are herded together onto the chacra. Those who can afford it will employ a shepherd to sleep there; others may stay themselves.

Those who don't have the time or resources to have their plots of land cleared and fertilised by animals will sometimes just burn off the crop stubble.

The next step is irrigation. Rain usually only falls in Cabanaconde between December and March, so for the rest of the year farming relies on irrigation water. For more than 1,000 years, this has been provided by the Hualca Hualca river, flowing down from the snows of the eponymous 6,025-metre mountain (see picture above), although since the 1990s this has been supplemented by additional water from the Majes irrigation canal.

For anyone interested in these posts, or in Andean agriculture and livelihoods in general, I highly recommend getting hold of a book by US anthropologist Paul Gelles called Water and Power in Highland Peru. Gelles spent years living in Cabanaconde and today is remembered by almost everybody there as having become 'just another cabaneño' (a high compliment). He wrote in detail about the highly ritualistic traditional irrigation system in which a 'water mayor' allotted the water to individual fields in complex patterns based on the Incan division of the village into hanansaya and urinsaya partialities. The role of water mayor was an arduous one, as it involved controlling the flow of water, day and night, during a whole agricultural cycle. It was a customary office which most adult men were expected to hold at some stage in their lifetime.

Nowadays, that system has disappeared and water is distributed in a straightforward geographical pattern which Gelles' describes in his book as the 'State system' and which in the past was only used when emergency irrigation had to be undertaken in dry periods during the rainy season. A water mayor oversees the process, but this is now a paid role and held only for a single irrigation cycle.

The water follows something like a half-moon shape around the village: it starts in the sectors of Seccana and Ishicc, on the canyon side of Cabanaconde; moves up to Cabra above the village cemetery, across to Cutirca and Lihuay; then down the lower-lying southern side of the village through Ayrampo, Ccollcca, Cushqui and all the way to Auki. In each sector it flows down a principal canal, into smaller canals and is then diverted by individual farmers onto their own chacras. This is done by moving large stones and clods of earth in and out of the canals which run around the chacras.

Each farmer has to take their allotted turn to irrigate when the water has reached their chacra. The water flows 24 hours a day; there is no system of holding it in reservoirs during the night. Thus, many people have to irrigate at night time. I have only been to do this once (perhaps will describe in another post) but that was enough to gain an idea of just how cold and taxing this is. It's not even possible to be sure exactly what time the water will arrive, which means that people might have to wait around in the cold and dark for several hours.  

About a week to 10 days after the first irrigation cycle begins the barbecho, which involves turning over the newly softened earth with a plough. Ploughing is a central part of both the post-harvest and planting periods. I'll talk about that in the next post.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

El Maiz Cabanita: La Cosecha (The Harvest), Part II

This is part 2 of my series on maize cultivation in Cabanaconde.

As I explained in the previous post, the main objective of the harvest is to bring the maize back into the 'corrals' which are dotted around the village, often between houses. It is transported as entire plants, in bundles of varying size, depending on whether it is carried back by truck or by donkey.

The next step is to deshojar -- literally 'remove the leaves'. Each plant will have one to three choclos or corn cobs. You extract them by peeling off the leaves -- often a nail or some other sharpish object will be used to make an initial break in the leaves near the top of the cob -- then twisting the cob to remove it. This is might seem like easy work in comparison to some of the other tasks, but it involves long hours of repetitive work, in the hot sun, with lots of bending or squatting. This task is usually done by women: as with the harvest itself, many migrant labourers come from Puno or parts of Cuzco such as Espinar looking for work. At this time of the year in Cabanaconde you will see many of these women, with their distinctive dress of a bowler hat, sweater, knee-length skirt and long woollen pants (NB: not the woman in the picture, who is very much a cabaneña).

The choclos are then laid out on sacks or blankets to dry. How long this takes depends on the level of moisture remaining in the corn, although a week in the sun is usually sufficient. The next step is to desgranar or de-grain. The grains can be worked off the cob with the fingers: once the choclo is properly dried, they come off very easily. You now have grano seco, the primary form in which the maize is stored, used or sold. People in a hurry to sell some of their maize will sometimes remove the grains and leave them to dry loose, although this makes them even more accessible to the mice and birds which are a constant menace to the stored maize.

The maize can be white, yellow, purple or multi-coloured. Although they are all mixed and matched to a certain extent, each type has its principal uses:
  • White maize is the staple type used for cancha (toasted kernels), which is easily the most common way in which maiz cabanita is consumed
  • Yellow maize is the principal ingredient for chicha, although other kinds of maize are also used
  • Purple maize is used for cancha and also in chicha morada, which is a non-alcoholic refreshment common throughout Peru

A certain proportion of the grains are retained for use as seeds. These are usually selected from the largest, most well-formed choclos and are taken from the centre of the cob.

The maize plant minus the choclo is called chala. Although the dry, spiky stalks and leaves look pretty unappealing, they are useful as animal feed during the dry season.For example, during planting season, if someone has to hire a team of  bulls to plough their fields, they're usually also required to provide a bundle of chala,which can be worth S/. 15 ($7.50 NZD). Little goes to waste.

How the maize is used will depend on the family, and can depend on the total size of their crop, where family members are living, etc. The family of a friend of mine is not untypical: they have a significant amount of land spread across many different plots throughout the campiña around Cabanaconde. She told me that approximately 5 to 10 percent was kept for seed, 10 to 20 percent was consumed, and 70 to 80 percent sold.

Many people told me that cultivating maize wasn't very profitable. "You get back about what you put in" was a frequent comment. The price for much of 2012 was S/. 4 per kilo, which is relatively good by historical standards. However, there's only one harvest per year, most people have small plots of land spread through different sectors of the countryside, and there are high fixed costs for activities like harvesting and planting. From what I was told, a one of the smaller chacras would deliver perhaps 200 kilos of dry grain, while a decent-sized one might produce 1,000 kilos. Meanwhile, some estimated that planting alone might cost  S/. 300-400. You can do the sums.

However, it wouldn't be quite correct to call it a 'subsistence' activity. First, the maize is not primarily destined for self-consumption but is largely traded and sold in the market. It is a source of security for families in that, when needed, it can provide not just food but also cash.   Second, although revenue may not exceed expenditure by any great degree, production interacts with and dynamizes other parts of the economy. Certain stages of the cultivation cycle use a considerable amount of wage labour, especially now the practice of ayni (reciprocal labour obligations) has largely disappeared.

There's lots more to write about the economy of maize in Cabanaconde: the extent to which it's consumed, traded and sold; where and for how much; and how distribtion or accumulation occur. These topics are for future posts, and perhaps for further investigation.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

El Maiz Cabanita: La Cosecha (The Harvest)

I'm going to try to do a series of posts on what I've learned about the maize cultivation cycle in Cabanaconde. Hopefully it will be a little more interesting than it sounds. One the one hand, the cultivation of maize is thoroughly linked with local customs and life, and one can't really be understood without the other. On the other, it provides an insight into the reality of organic production in difficult terrain, something that is worth understanding for anyone who advocates this as a way of life.

I'm going to have to begin at the end of the cycle, since that's where I came in.

La cosecha (the harvest) occurs in May. It is one of the busiest times of the year in Cabanaconde and, according to some, involves the hardest sustained work of the year. But it's also exciting and joyous since it's the culmination of all the effort that's gone before.

There are several distinct stages to the harvest. The first is to cut the maize, or calchar, which I believe is hispanicized Quechua. This is done by hand with a serrucho (sickle) and is a relatively straightforward task, barring the intense sun which makes everything more difficult. The whole plant is cut; the choclo or corn will be separated later. The trick is to cut the plants to more or less the same length, so they will be easier to pile up and carry. You work in rows, forming small piles of cut plants with all the stalks pointing the same way. There is something of  a technique to cutting, since the maize stalks are weak at some points but very tough at others. If you do it right, you can cut with one swipe of the sickle and don't have to bend over too much.

The next stage is to amontonar or pile up the maize. An example of this is in the photo above. You have to gather together three or four of the cut piles and then carry the load to the edge of the chacra where the plants are deposited, again with all the stalks pointing the same way. The pile is generally about ten metres wide and several layers high. This is generally done when the maize will be carried back to the village by donkey; when it will be carried by truck it is sometimes left in individual cut piles (see following section for explanation). As a complete novice, I found this somewhat harder work than cutting, since there is a technique to carrying, and you have to negotatiate uneven ground and sometimes climb up a couple of terraces to get to the place where you leave the bundle.

Traditionally, the labour to cut the maize has been provided at least in part by migrants from outside the district, particularly from the upper part of the Colca Valley and the province of Espinar in Cuzco. I worked with a couple of guys from Espinar. The older guy said he had his cattle in Espinar and also worked as a bus driver: typical of many people in rural Peru who must work in multiple occupations to make ends meet. By preference, they were getting paid in maize -- 100-120 choclos (corn cobs) per day. This was equivalent to around S/.50, a reasonable day's wage by Peruvian standards. Rather than selling or trading the maize back in Espinar, they would use it for personal consumption. Five or six days work would provide enough canchita (dried, toasted corn kernels) to last them until December.

The next step is to cargar or carry the maize back to the village. There are two ways of doing this: by truck and by donkey. These days, trucks are preferred for most areas where the vehicle can park within a reasonable distance of the chacra.  The first step is to liar or bundle up the maize plants in the chacra where they have been cut -- the idea is to make bundles about as big as a person will be able to carry. You need to lay out a large number of ropes (about 50 per chacra), and the bundles are placed on top of the ropes. These are then tied up tightly, a task which requires two people.

From there, the maize has to be carried to the truck, which may be several hundred metres away, and then carried up a ramp made from a wooden board into the truck. This I found to be the most brutally hard task of any I have experienced so far.  I estimate that the maize bundles weigh an average of 25-30 kg, but the weight is dispersed, which makes it much harder to lift and carry. Sometimes even an experienced worker needs the help of another to lift the bundle onto his back. To then carry this weight the distance to the truck, including across rough ground and terraces, requires considerable strength. In the chacra where I worked, each trip to the truck required stepping up onto a terrace that was above my waist level. With the weight of the maize on my back, it was all I could do to lift my other leg up on to the terrace and continue the journey towards the truck. Note that the 3,300 metres of altitude also has to be factored into the physical effort required.

The day I went to cargar by truck, it was with a group of young local guys, who seem to be more involved in this phase of the harvest. They get paid (in cash) per "trip", which involves riding in the back of the truck to a particular chacra, bundling up and carrying the maize, and then unloading it in the corrals back in the village. The average trip is worth S/.20, and around three trips will fit in a day, so workers earn a decent wage. When trips are longer they may make S/. 80 or even S/.100. The owner of the chacra will also provide lunch and some beer or licor at day's end. This was given to me as evidence that, although maize cultivation hardly renders above subsistence level taken as a whole, it pays well at each stage (for example, compared to potato production, where apparently a day's work may only pay S/.20) and thus gives some dynamism to the local economy.

Nevertheless, the wages are certainly well earned. The young guys are accustomed to the work and take it in their stride, but the recognition that it's intense work creates a fair amount of machismo. When I went to cargar with the truck, the chacra's owner Liliana (about my age) tried to insist that I should just watch or should help with some peripheral task. However, when they saw I wanted to work, the young guys egged me on, as did Liliana's mother Señora Prudencia (who has spent most of her life in the chacra, unlike Liliana who is mostly dedicated to her shop in the village). Sweating profusely and breathing heavily, I managed to carry six loads to the truck, while in the same time the young guys -- who had already made two earlier trips -- carried ten.  Another factor is that the maize stalks and leaves are rather sharp and thorny and can shred skin. My hands had not yet become accustomed to farm work, and I had neglected to obtain some appropriate gloves, so by the end of the day I was bleeding from several points, and was actually dripping blood over the bundles of maize, inspiring further admonishments from Liliana that I should stop working and take a rest.

The other, traditional, way to carry is by donkey. These days, donkeys are only used for chacras that are very close to the village or that are too far away from the road for the maize to be carried there manually. The advantage of donkeys is that they can be brought right to the chacra and loaded there. This means less human labour is required, although there is still quite a bit of effort required to tie up the maize (in larger bundles) and lift and tie them on to the donkey. The disadvantage is that even with 10 donkeys, it takes several trips to and from the village to clear an entire chacra. The men have to run back and forth to the village with the donkeys, so the process can be just as tiring as with the truck and, importantly, takes significantly longer .

Large groups of donkeys carrying loads back into the village creates the potential for chaos, and for this reason it's important to have a system of traffic control. The photo below shows the order set down for when animals can be used to carry the harvest into the village from each sector of the countryside. Interestingly, it is imposed by the Municipality (local government) rather than by the Peasant Community, the autonomous organization of community members. In contrast, loads can be brought back by truck from almost anywhere at any time, which is another advantage of using motorised transport.

That covers the harvest itself, up to the point of getting the cut maize back to the village. In the following post I'll describe what happens next.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Little Blogging Gets Done in the Peruvian Sierra

I've just arrived back in Arequipa after more than two weeks in Cabanaconde and am suffering from mild culture shock, mainly in the sense of having to remember that in the city you do not salute every person you pass in the street with a "buenos días" or "buenas tardes".

So far, I 've managed to post even less frequently than I thought I would during this trip. It's a combination of a lack of adequate internet access in Cabanaconde and being extremely busy   I'm going to have to make do with a brief summary of what I've done so far.

I've spent quite a lot of time just soaking up the daily life in Cabanaconde and  I've participated in a number of aspects of village life, from a baptism and a syncretic ceremony involving tying flowers to a cross on top of a hill to working in the chacras (fields) in several different activities. The latter is incredibly hard work, partly owing to the nature of the work itself and partly to the fierceness of the sun. So far, I've observed and participated in the harvest, cutting the maize transporting it both by truck and by donkey (the former harder work, details in another post); I've also learnt something about the irrigation system and the barbecho (ploughing or tilling). The next big phase is the siembra (planting), which begins in August. I will aim to provide a more detailed description of the maize cultivation cycle in another post. For now, a gratuitous picture below.

I've made some quite good progress with a project to link tourism more closely with local people/local life through an alternative where tourists can make a visit to the countryside with local farmers and a local guide. I've made several appearances at community meetings to explain the concept, have organised my own meeting, and have established a "support committee" of two local people who will hopefully take over and run the whole thing when I leave. We've signed up about 25 people to participate and have obtained the support of the local mayor to develop a pamphlet and other publicity. I've set up a dedicated email address, web page and facebook page. Will post the links when they're a little further advanced.

At the other end of the spectrum , I spent a few days in Lima with a Peruvian colleague interviewing some functionaries from the Viceministry of Tourism for a book chapter we are (supposed to be) writing. I also attended a regional workshop in Arequipa run by the Viceministry of Tourism to update and revise the PENTUR (national tourism strategy).

Finally, with some local contacts in the regional government and a local NGO, we've developed some ideas for a couple of research projects that I'm quite excited about

Friday, May 11, 2012

Paro en la Panamericana Sur

For the third day running, transport and communications in the south of Peru have been paralized owing to a blockade of the Panamerican highway between Lima and Arequipa by approximately 6,000 "informal" miners protesting against government decrees declaring their activities illegal.

My personal stake in this issue is that I was supposed to travel to Lima tonight and had already bought my ticket. This can be postponed and is no big deal, supposing the strike is lifted in the next couple of days. Over time and repeated visits to Peru, I've come to understand that holding strikes and blocking roads can be an understandable, even necessary, response to the inability of groups of citizens to have their legitimate issues considered through normal institutional, democratic channels. However, such strikes and the way they are resolved also represent the inability of the State to exert authority (except in disastrously heavy-handed ways; viz, the tragedy at Bagua in 2009) and to act as a just, independent guarantor of the "public good". Rather, it seems that the State is merely a passive conduit for conflicting private interest, with the most powerful at any one time prevailing. While the government gave the Conga mining project conditional approval in spite of what seems to be the opposition of most of Cajamarca, here the Prime Minister hurriedly offered to modify its edicts to give the miners two more years to "formalize" their activities -- still not good enough for the miners to lift their strike.

The arguments behind the current miners' strike are considerably more dubious than in some other cases where citizen groups have opposed the (perceived) loss of their territory or livelihoods. Informal mining is undertaken by between 500,000 (official sources) and 1 millon (the miners' estimate) Peruvians, so is a significant source of employment and income. However, the uncontrolled use of mercury is severely damaging to the environment and has resulted in significant pollution of waterways in the areas where it is prevalent, including some leading into Lake Titicaca. It's likely that the majority of the population in districts affected by informal mining would not support its continuation. In addition, the untaxed income from informal mining is rather high, with a gram of gold (a conservative minimum collected per day) worth S/. 70, more than what is earned by the majority of workers in farming, commerce or services whose livelihoods are currently being put on hold.

The surprise manner in which the highways were seized meant that many vehicles were on the road and have been trapped at the various blockade points. Around 2,500 bus passengers are stuck between Kilometres 590 and 640 on the Panamericana and are suffering hunger, thirst, heat and cold. Already one elderly man has died from a heart attack due to the long distance he had to walk from the blockade in the sun. La Republica reports that the mayor of the district of Ocoña has declared a state of emergency, with agriculture and commerce paralized and a growing shortage of food, medicines, gas and petrol.

With tensions running high on all sides, tomorrow will surely produce some kind of (hopefully peaceful) solution.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Brief Notes from Peru

The weather has again taken a strange turn, perhaps even more extreme than in 2010. Lima should be starting to cloud over by now, but until my last day there it continued hot and sunny. The afternoon we went to the coast, you could see the sea fog trying to come in but burning up before it got on shore. Meanwhile, by April, skies above Arequipa should be cloudless but there's still a lot of cloud and haze around the mountains, with big cumulonimbus puffing up in the afternoons. The January to March period apparently saw the heaviest rains for many a year, so intense they damaged some of the streets in the city centre. Rain and even snow continues in the sierra and there is apparently likely to make some crop harvests late or significantly reduced.

Both Lima and Arequipa, especially the former, have seen rapid and significant modernisation of their vehicle fleet, which seems to have had a notable impact on pollution levels.

The issues of great debate in the national media continue to relate to exploitation of natural resources. The most prominent controversy at the moment relates to plans for a mine known as Conga in the northern department of Cajamarca, part of the mining project Yanacocha. This project was approved by the previous government but is opposed by the majority of locals in Cajamarca -- including the regional government -- because of fears of the impact it will have on water sources (four highland lagoons are slated to be used for depositing tailings from the mine). The current government ordered a review by a panel of international experts, which has recently been completed. Barely three days later, President Ollanta Humala announced that the project would go ahead, but with stronger conditions related to direct generation of employment, water storage and protection of the environment, as recommended in the international expert report. Early indications are that many in Cajamarca are not happy with this compromise, so debate and protest are likely to continue.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Impressions of El Metropolitano

I'm a minor conossieur of urban transport issues, and, as I've written on a number of occasions before, one of Lima's greatest problems has been the lack of the mass transit system that is enjoyed by pretty much every other Latin American city of a similar size, as well as by several that are smaller.

 Therefore, it's great to have an opportunity to finally try out El Metropolitano, Lima's new guided busway system. Similar in conception to Bogotá's Transmilenio, it at present has a single line running through the city centre from Independencia in the north to Chorrillos in the south.

On Thursday I  and a friend rode El Metropolitano from the central city to the end of the line at Chorrillos, from where we found our way to the beach to eat cebiche, and then doubled back to Barranco to pick up El Metropolitano back into the centre. On Friday I took a couple more rides around rush hour. On the strength of my experience so far, I'm giving El Metropolitano a B/B+.

 In making an evaluation, I'm not including any consideration of the extent or coverage of El Metropolitano, which is obviously inadequate at the moment but will hopefully be improved over time. I'm only taking into account the features of the service that currently exist. Details below.

The Good
  • The buses are modern, clean, quiet and internally uncluttered with seats that are comfortable enough and leave enough space for those standing; there are also plenty of grips to hold onto if you're standing.
  • Although I haven't tested how it handles the peak of a Lima summer, the bus was comfortable enough in Thursday's 25 degrees.
  • The payment system is straightforward: you purchase a single card and load money on to it at the same machines, which are available at all stops. These are easy to use, although I would recommend having coins to pay with.
  • It's good value: a single journey is S/. 1.50 (about $0.75 NZD) regardless of where you get off.
  • The platforms are simple and unobtrusive. The barriers are easy to negotiate with your card: the single price allows the added benefit that you only have to zap in when you enter and not when you get off. When you zap through the barrier it shows how much money you have remaining on your card.  The boarding and getting off processes are relatively efficient, through electronic doors in the platform barrier that align with the bus doors.
  • Although there's only one line, there are some minor variations through the centre of the city and three different express services.
  • It's clear that the infrastructure and investment required for this service has been much less than for a train or metro. Expansion along existing road networks is feasible without prohibitively grand public works. Yet El Metropolitano moves with similar speed and smoothness to a metro. If Tony Randall reads this, I'd say it provides support for consideration of guided busways as a serious public transport alternative.
The Bad

  • The buses are crowded, with standing room only in the central section of the route even during the middle of the day. At rush hour they're packed like sardines. I'll acknowledge that many metros around the world can also be very crowded, but this is usually only in the central four or five stations of a line and only during rush hours. From my experience, I'd say that around a third of the entire route is standing-only for most of the day. I wonder whether this is due to a deliberate trade-off to keep prices low in return for a level of discomfort assumed to be tolerated by Peruvians. If so, I think this is short-sighted.
  • Unlike trains or metros, El Metropolitano has to stop at traffic lights, although this is not much of an impediment on the stretch immediately south of the centre, where it runs through its own bus tunnel for a while (similar to Brisbane!), then follows the expressway.
  • The ticket machines don't give change. You can understand that this keeps things simpler, but beware of trying to buy a card or top it up with a large-denomination note.
  • There is an almost amusing paucity of information, including some of the easiest things to get right. On Wednesday I wandered down to the central station to see if I could find out something about the service in general. I asked in vain if anyone had a pocket map or pamphlet that explained the services. "Hmm, I think there used to be something like that but not any more" was the general reply. El Metropolitano has a website that does explain many aspects of the service, but nowhere does it tell you the pricing system! (I had to ask at the station to find this out).
  • Unlike almost all metros, there is no stylized map in the interior of the buses that helps you map your progress, and, importantly, realize very early if you're going in the wrong direction. On the station platforms, there are helpful stylized maps of the different route variations (eg, showing the stations that the express services stop at). But unlike most metros, there are no street maps of the area surrounding the station. It's assumed you'll just know where to go. Therefore, although El Metropolitano is an improvement to public transport in Lima, it does not yet provide the more intangible services of security and orientation to the stranger and citizen, which are offered by the best mass transit systems

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Back to South America

In the tradition of this blog I have to announce without any warning that I'm back in South America and am writing this from Lima, Peru. I arrived yesterday afternoon and am currently battling to overcome jet lag. It's the end of summer and still very pleasantly warm, although the low cloud drifting in from the ocean is starting to win its annual battle with the sun.

There's been a bit of a blog hiatus as I've been very busy with academic work and all the practical things related to getting this trip underway -- including moving out of my Wellington flat, storing my things, and cleaning the place from top to bottom.

This trip is going to be more than six months -- my longest since 2004/05. What I'm hoping to achieve are several vague but related things. It will help a future evaluation if I list them here:
  • Tie off some of the extra details related to my research on tourism in the Colca Valley, mixed in with co-authoring a possible book chapter with a Peruvian colleague
  • Work with one or more of the local NGOs to carry through some ideas for a couple of small projects that ocurred to me when I was doing my Master's research
  • Spend some sustained time in small rural villages and the countryside, learning more about agriculture, herding and how people deal with day-to-day life
  • Visit some different parts of Peru (I'm thinking Huaraz and the northern sierra) as well as spending some more time on one or two of the other Andean countries
  • Come away with some concrete and describable ideas for PhD research

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Chinese Factory

One of the interesting things that appeared early in the new year was this report from the New York Times on the reasons Apple makes its products in China. (Some further background: this long report on working conditions in the factories of Apple's suppliers, and this follow-up report).

The NYT article and some discussions of it have concluded that making things in China is not about worker wages, but about workforce flexibility, readiness and 'appropriate' skill levels:

“[Foxconn] could hire 3,000 people overnight,” said Jennifer Rigoni, who was Apple’s worldwide supply demand manager until 2010, but declined to discuss specifics of her work. “What U.S. plant can find 3,000 people overnight and convince them to live in dorms?” 

This is disingenuous. The reason you can have an army of workers practically on site ready to leap out of bed at midnight and start making i-Pads is because they'll put up with it for what they get paid. In the end, this comes back to cost.  There are actually plenty of Americans prepared to live in barracks and jump to attention when needed. However, I'm guessing that Apple or other companies wouldn't be prepared to offer the same pay, benefits and pensions that one receives in the military.

It's also worth deconstructing the ahistorical statement that "if it weren't for the factory jobs, they'd all be unemployed and even poorer" This [long] piece by John Bellamy Foster and Robert W McChesney on  global stagnation and China argues that the "floating population" which does the majority of the most menial and hazardous work in Chinese factories was created by a complex process of proletarianisation during the post-Mao reform period, including the disestablishment of state-owned enterprises and (sometimes illegal) land privatization. The authors argue that this has created a reserve army of labour and enabled superexplotation. They cite figures showing rapidly increasing inequality in China and a steep drop in consumption, and particularly wages, as a share of GDP.

Then, just to complicate matters, you can read this news item on an announced wage rise by Foxconn and evolving labour market dynamics in China, with people now apparently more reluctant to migrate to the coast, forcing factories to relocate to the interior; and the Chinese administration desperate to increase the GDP share of consumption to counteract depressed export markets.

Could it be that the theorised capitalist development pathway of modernisation, labour absorbtion, and Kuznet's U-shaped curves is actually happening in China?  Will the contradictions of capitalist production necessitate a Fordist solution? It's worth noting that the Foxconn factory workers' reported new wage of $400 per month is about 50 percent more than the minimum wage in Peru, which for many workers in the formal economy is the standard wage. Will China become a middle class country even more rapidly than its southeast Asian neighbours? Will low-wage manufacturing eventually move to non-oil producing African countries, repeating the cycle?

Of course, no one knows. But one thing is for sure: in earlier cycles of capitalist development, improvement n wages, working conditions and labour rights didn't just happen automatically: they had to be fought for in distinct political struggles. So, it's always relevant to do what is possible to support these struggles, even if it is just putting consumer pressure on companies like Apple.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Aconcagua Gear by Category #3 Feet

This is the third post discussing the gear needed on Aconcagua. Here are the first and second posts.

Trekking footwear

You need some robust footwear for the 3-day trek to base camp, over dry but often rather rocky terrain. I wore my reliable Asolo leather tramping boots, which for long walks are just as comfortable as shoes. A couple of people struggled with blisters. For me, they can be completely avoided by having boots that fit properly, combined with the right socks. A couple of the people in the group wore running shoes all the way to base camp. They got away with it, but I personally wouldn't recommend this. Given the terrain, running shoes aren't great either for keeping your feet and ankles protected or for security of footing.

 Double plastic boots

 These are quite possibly the most important single item of gear. Keeping your feet warm and dry is essential high up on the mountain. The gear list insisted on double plastic boots as obligatory. Literally getting cold feet is one of the main reasons for failing to summit Aconcagua.

 The main options presented by the gear list were the Asolo 8000 and Scarpa Inverno (known as the Vega in the UK). I ended up getting the Scarpa boots since they were the only ones the local gear importer could get in an appropriate size (andI'd like to thank Bivouac for all their help with this). They were perfectly adequate: robust, plenty warm enough with the factory liners, and easy enough to get on and off. However, the Invernos were very large and clunky. They made a duck-like gait basically inevitable, and they were so broad they created some problems for fitting gaiters and strapping crampons. Thanks to some advice from a local ski store, I inserted some silicon wedges into the heels, which notably reduced the duck-like gait. If I had my time again, I'd like to try the Asolos. A couple of team members had these and they seemed to be smaller and less clunky while being just as warm. On the other hand, some of the reviews suggest they aren't great for wide feet (like mine).

 It's worth noting that I ended up getting a pair of the Invernos at least 1 1/2 sizes bigger than my usual boot size, which was not due to wearing thicker socks. Boots are one of the things that you really must try before you buy (or have the option and time to exchange if you buy online).

The gear list specifically advised people on the Aconcagua expedition not to bring Himalayan-style boots with integrated gaiters such as the Millet Everest, since it's thought that they may suffer damage on the sharp scree of Aconcagua. As it happened, several expedition members did bring these boots, and they turned out to be ideal in the heavy snow we experienced. So, they can work out well, and might be an option if you're planning to use them on further expeditions to the Himalayas or Alaska. But you can risk damage if conditions are dry.

A piece of advice: don't try to delay wearing your plastic boots by continuing from Base Camp up to Camp 1 in your trekking boots. This will simply mean that you will have to carry your plastic boots at some point and you'll put off getting used to them. At the speed you will be walking up the mountain, plastics are perfectly acceptable.  

Special liners Adventure Consultants recommended getting some Intuition liners to wear instead of the factory liners in our plastic boots. These are specialist liners made by a small Canadian company using an innovative foam developed in New Zealand. They can be heat molded to better fit your boots and feet. The liner made for climbing boots is called the Denali. They are said to be warmer, lighter and quicker-drying than factory liners. I took the advice and sent away for some Intuition liners, based on my foot measurements. When they arrived, they turned out to be too small, even after heat molding. The company very kindly (and quickly) agreed to replace them with the next size up. However, even these were a bit tight around my toes, even after more heat molding. In the end, I took them to Argentina but at base camp decided to go with the factory liners, which fit perfectly and were plenty warm enough. There are people, including a couple of our guides, who swear by the Intuition liners. If you decide to get these, make sure you have the ability and time to get the right size and ensure they fit your feet and boots.

 Regardless of which liners you end up using, when you are at the high camps you need to sleep with them in your sleeping bag to help them dry out.  


For almost any long trekking or climbing expedition, I wear liner socks. I find that by wicking away sweat to the outer sock layer, they keep my feet drier, warmer (and, paradoxically, also cooler in hot conditions). I find that cheap, synthetic liners from the Cool Max brand work best. For outer layers I usually wear Icebreaker merino socks, of varying weights depending on the conditions. However, for Aconcagua summit day I got the thicket, warmest synthetic mountaineering socks I could find. These were reserved, unworn, for the day itself, along with a clean pair of liner socks.

 In a previous post, I suggested that you could get away with fewer base layers, maybe only one set, on the high mountain. However, I do not recommend skimping on socks. Having something clean and dry on your feet makes a big difference, and I did not regret taking 5 full sets of socks with me. Above 5,000 metres, where it's freezing cold and doing anything saps precious oxygen and energy, your priorities become clear. I think I only managed to clean my teeth 2 or 3 times after we left base camp. But on a snowy afternoon at camp 1, I made a special effort to trudge down to a mostly-frozen stream. Using a small lump of soap and numbing water that gushed beneath a hole in the ice, I washed my dirty liner socks (to be dried by being hung up inside the tent and then joining the growing collection of items inside my sleeping bag).  

Footwear around camp

The gear list advised us to take some old running shoes for river crossings and wearing around camp, and some down booties for wearing in the tent and around camp. I used the running shoes for the one river crossing and then left them at base camp. The booties turned out to be redundant inside the tent, and useless in the deep snow we had at all our camps. As I've suggested previously, I would replace both of these with a pair of sandals, or maybe some old tennis-style shoes that can be really squashed up.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Thinking Alike

I doubt that Danyl McLachlan reads this blog let alone takes any inspiration from it. Most likely, the similarity of his latest satire to the analogy at the end of my previous post is a case of independently arriving at the same view of the relationship between the government's stated priorities and what it is actually doing.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Joining the Dots in New Zealand

I'll outsource comment on the latest welfare reform news to Gordon Campbell. who once again makes the point that:

...welfare is not the root cause of the problem. Blaming the welfare system for the current existence of poverty is like seeing the incidence of Third World diseases in this country, and blaming it on the existence of hospitals. Similarly, the social safety net does not cause people to live in poverty and be out of work – it is an effect, not a cause. And the current state of the welfare rolls is precisely what you would expect to find when the jobs market is barely off its sick bed after the global recession.

Also, Danyl Mclachlan, who puts things into context with posts and home made charts here, here and here

Meanwhile, ongoing cuts to the public service are now seeing some push back, while so far they haven't really even achieved their stated objective.

The welfare reforms and public service cuts have this much in common: they have been presented as being about economics, but really they are about ideology. As Campbell and many other commentators have noted, increased burden on the welfare system is a result of economic conditions, not a cause. Similarly, so-called reforms of the public service bear little relation to any of the big challenges facing New Zealand.

The claim that it's about "moving resources from the back office to the front line" is misleading. (It would be interesting to do a discourse analysis of what is actually being signified by "back office" and "front line", but that's for another post.)  The main point is, there just aren't that many resources to move to the front line. Public servants are a small part of the workforce, and the bureaucracy makes up a tiny fraction of the costs of public services. In another moment, I'll try to put together a summary of this book chapter on the history of the public sector workforce in New Zealand.

 It's not very surprising that few savings have been achieved through the job cuts to date, since, as I've argued before, you could disestablish the entire bureaucracy and all its functions, and you still wouldn't save very much.  

A friend of mine who is a self-styled centrist argues that it's a question of swings and roundabouts. Centre-left governments, he says, will by inclination tend to expand government functions, implementing ambitious new programmes and being reluctant to diestablish any existing ones. Centre-right governments will tend to be more sceptical, trimming and making efficiencies. If you accept that argument, you might expect a rightist government to maybe be a bit stingier with their departments' and ministries' budgets. They might reorganize a bit and make some changes where there's evidence the benefits will outweigh the costs. You wouldn't, however, expect them to respond to a range of serious economic, social and environmental challenges by making the elimination of public service jobs one of their most important policy platforms.

Then, it's hard to find rational arguments for beating up on welfare recipients during a recession, either.

I've been trying to come up with an analogy for this approach. The best I could do so far is that it's like repsonding to the discovery that your house has some serious leaks by deciding to clean out your cupboards.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

The Paradoxes of Neoliberalism, New Zealand Style, Updated

A while back I asked in a post why the more-market ideologues in New Zealand were so obsessed with privatizing public assets: shouldn't the John and Jane Galts be heroically creating new products and marketing them to the world?

This op-ed from financial analyst Brian Gaynor, discussed here by Gordon Campbell, documents what has resulted from this obsession over the past 30 years. In 1981, the majority of New Zealand's largest listed companies originated in the private sector and had an export orientation. Now, says Gaynor, the sharemarket is "ruled by former state-owned or monopolistic organisations." Seven out of the 12 largest listed companies were formerly owned by the government or local authorities. Not one is export-oriented.

So, in the brave new world of deregulation, trade liberalisation and free markets, it seems capital in New Zealand has become much less dynamic and outward looking.

Friday, March 02, 2012

New Blog Reading

My new favourite blog is The Realignment Project, which presents a progressive, social democatic vision (In the US context) that is both broad and detailed. Its co-founders are Steven Attewell and Daraka Larimore-Hall, two PhD students at the University of California Santa Barbara who are also active in the Democractic Party. 

Their discussion of inequality is a good starting point, but I particularly like their posts on the politics or urban design and transport, such as High-Speed Rail in an Age of Ideology and Public Sector Aesthetics - Why They Matter

Thursday, March 01, 2012

More on Wellington Transport: the Bus Review

The Wellington Regional Council is undertaking a second round of consultation on its review of bus services. After a first round of consultation, it has prepared some proposals for how to reorganise routes to respond to people's desires for greater frequency and more services in the evening and on weekends, within the current budget.

The WRC reports that it has followed "best practice public transport design principles" in designing the new routes. The main change is that routes are divided into three tiers: 'core', 'secondary' and 'peak only'. The core routes would run along main corridors with a 15-minute frequency, 7 days, early morning to late evening. The secondary routes are more suburban-oriented branches and loops, most with an all-week 30-minute frequency. The peak-only routes are a combination of local loops to fringe areas and more direct routes from suburbs to the CBD in peak hours.

The trade off for the increased hours and frequency is that more journeys will require a change of buses than at present, many through major connection points such as the Cable Car, Wellington Station, Johnsonville, Kilbirnie, Brookly and Karori Tunnel. WRC says connections will be free for travel on the same company, and major connection points will offer shelter

After having a look and applying the proposed new system to places I or people I know have lived, I'm cautiously positive. The Brooklyn area in particular would be much better served than at present. On the other hand, some of the idiosyncratic northwest-southeast routes will go: it would no longer be possible to get a bus from right outside by house in Northland to a couple of blocks away from my friends' house in Berhampore.

Nevertheless, I think the trade offs are probably worth it. Frequency and extended hours are a major selling point of a public transport system, making a difference between it being a convenient, consumer-centred service and something you're relegated to when you don't have a car. One of the things that I like about the metro systems in large international cities is that you can just show up at the station and be confident that the next train will be along soon. It's a different experience from having to organize your day around being at bus stops at very specific times or facing an interminable wait in the wind and rain.

So, I'll provide a qualified endorsement of the WRC's proposal, with the following conditions:

-- the frequencies and extended hours are as promised
-- the connections are as seamless as they promise
-- cash-paying passengers get the same transfer rights, i.e. it isn't some mysterious process available only to those with a Snapper card
-- the Cable Car should also be a free transfer

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Now for Something on Wellington Transport Geography

Following my previous partly-informed comments about urban development in Christchurch, I'll add some thoughts on the place where I actually live.

Many of the discussions of transport and urban planning in Wellington seem to divide along broad ideological lines. On the one hand are those who have an "all cars all of the time" mentality and want to build as many motorways, flyovers, tunnels and bypasses as it will take, with those not travelling in cars little more than an afterthought. On the other hand are those who would like to see a complete alternative infrastructure, often emphasizing light rail (I'm not sure what the deal is with light rail -- for me, it hardly grabs the imagination like, say, fast inter-city trains or a metro system).

I don't mean to go all Matthew Yglesias here, but there are some technical improvements that don't require commitment to any one vision of the world.A simple thing that would clearly improve central Wellington would be some kind of bridge or underpass across the northern end of Waterloo/Customouse/Jervois Quay, preferably at Whitmore St opposite the Lynx ferry terminal. Wellington has an impressive waterfront, a mostly public space with good recreational opportunities. It is well linked to the central city at the Courtenay Place / Cuba St end by the City to Sea bridge. However, Wellington's CBD also has a centre of gravity at its northern end, which is home to the government sector, the railiway station and the stadium. This connection of this area with the waterfront is severed by four lanes of traffic roaring along Waterloo Quay.  To cross to the waterfront, one has to wait for the lights or a break in the traffic, which sometimes takes several minutes.

I mostly notice this as an annoyance when going for runs, which tend to start from a base in the northern end of the city. But it's also a clear flaw in what is otherwise, by New Zealand standards, a relatively pedestrian-friendly urban layout. Wellington's city centre is mostly well connected to the hills and water to its south, east and west. The northern CBD-waterfront gap is one of the kinks in this flow. Another, of course, is the ugly bottleneck at the Basin Reserve.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Round the Bays Again

The time has come around again for the Wellington Round the Bays Half Marathon. Two years ago I blogged about how I hoped to achieve a personal best time, and how I was ultimately disappointed. Looking at the results now puts things in a slightly different perspective. The course is not a particularly quick one, with a winning time in 2010 of 1:12, and an average time of 1:55. Last year the winning time was the same, and the average time even slower, at just on 2:00. In 2010 I finished in 1:34:35, which put me almost exactly half way between the winner and the race average. I was 115th out of 1,060 runners, although only about 975 finished (the linked post was incorrect in saying there were only 574 runners). I'm an ungainly runner, and have never trained really consistently, so I guess that's not too bad.

This year, I've gone through so many health and fitness issues since (and some before) summiting Aconcagua, that I'll just be happy to finish, let alone beat my previous time. Weather conditions are not looking too bad: it should be quite cool with light winds at the race start time of 8:00 am, although there's likely to be both sun and some wind as it progresses.

I'll only post an update if my result isn't too embarassing.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Continuance of History

A really useful summary piece on the growing interest by mainstream thinkers in burgeoning inequality and the contradictions of global capitalism. There are some good contributions in the comments section as well.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Inequality and Social Values

An interesting debate has been playing out in the wake of Charles Murray's recent book which laments the decline of traditional values in white working class Americans over the past 30 years. Although Murray apparently has no real analysis of howor why this has happened, the answer is, naturally, reduced welfare entitlements.

I recommend reading this detailed and careful take-down by prominent conservative and former George W Bush speechwriter David Frum. Frum is especially critical of Murray's failure to take seriously the links between social changes and declining economic opportunities for the working class.

New York Times columnist David Brooks isn't happy with Murray's critics, who he accuses of "crude 1970s economic determinism". Brooks cites what he claims is overlooked sociological and psychological research showing how the environment in which people live and grow up create feedback loops which affect their behaviour.

I'm far from being a dogmatic materialist (although I believe there's usually a materialist story to be told). I think that social and cultural forces have real effects and are not just the epiphenomena of economic struggles. In fact, even most people who openly call themselves Marxists accept something similar these days. You can agree that sociological and psychological factors are important and still insist on seeing them in the context of change in the wider political economy.

So, you might think that Brooks isn't really disagreeing with anyone. But in one sentence he recognizes that "no matter how social disorganization got started, once it starts, it takes on a momentum of its own. People who grow up in disrupted communities are more likely to lead disrupted lives as adults, magnifying disorder from one generation to the next". A couple of paragraphs later he's saying: "I don’t care how many factory jobs have been lost, it still doesn’t make sense to drop out of high school." In other words, he would really like to put the blame on "poor decisions" and to join Murray in telling the working class to buck themselves up.

What's at work here is what I call the conservative's individual/group conflation. Conservatives like to point to examples of people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps as evidence that environment is not destiny. They accuse liberals (in the American sense) of belittling personal responsibility and they stress that with discipline and determination anyone can beat the odds. Yet most thinking liberals agree that personal responsibility is important and recognise that people are able to respond creatively to their circumstances, at an individual level. What they doubt is that a whole group which is systematically disdvantaged can all beat the odds -- otherwise they wouldn't be "odds". Disadvantaged groups will, on average, have poorer outcomes. And economic circumstances -- both absolute and relative -- are a pretty big part of what determines disadvantage.

As Frum notes, if you're honestly interested in a loss of social cohesion from 1960-2010, you also have to ask why various favoured indicators of "values" improved from 1910-1960, during a period of growing economic equality.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Buying the Farm

The debate about the Crafar Farms sale has been very interesting, kind of a development studies case study evolving in our back yard. With today's decision by the High Court that the Overseas Investment Office incorrectely applied the conditions of the Overseas Investment Act, the plot thickens. I recommend taking a look at the judge's report, which is relatively short, highly readable and raises some interesting questions.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Opinions on Coffee and Cricket

For a change, here are a couple of opinions I agree with.

Australian food writer Michael Symons puts his credentials behind two claims I'm happy to make but can't really back up: the flat white is one of best ways to drink coffee; and its art has been perfected in Wellington:

As an Australian food historian, I declare that it started in Australia, where it often remains weak, murky, fluffy and under-appreciated. It was then perfected in New Zealand, more particularly, in Wellington. It's impossible to find a better morning coffee anywhere. I know, because I've tried.

I have some time for the view that you shouldn't put anything at all in espresso coffee and that its best form is its purest: what we call the 'short black'. But there's something about a cup full of strong coffee mixed with creamy milk -- most importantly, it lasts longer, and better accompanies a conversation.

I can't claim to have coffee-researched as widely as Symons, but whenever I'm away from Wellington for a while, it's what I miss most. In Brisbane I was frustrated in my search for acceptable coffee, even in Italian-owned places. Melbourne was better. From memory, London and Paris were as mediocre as Symons reports. In coffee-exporting Latin American countries you can generally get a fresh-tasting short black if you find somewhere with an espresso machine, but they have little idea how to make coffee with milk. Italy of course is the home of espresso: from memories of my last trip there years ago the coffee was excellent, but the tendency to serve it with lukewarm milk meant that the overall experience differed from this antipodean's preferences.

This should not be cause for complacency: in New Zealand, the average standard is that not that high,  It's still common to find watery, bitter, single-shot coffee, with milk served in excessive quantities and sometimes burnt. In most centres you have to seek out somewhere with a good local reputation. Even in Wellington, some of the speciality outlets have expanded too quickly at the expense of quality control.

Symons provides some admirable trans-Tasman history, and traces the stories of Supreme, Havana and L'Affare, among others. However, for me the best coffee in Wellington (and therefore possibly the world) is from the little hole in the wall cafe on The Terrace next to the Reserve Bank, which trades as the Gibbston Coffee Company (I know this only because it appears on my Eftpos transactions; the business has no apparent title and the stenciled lettering on the window says only 'coffee'). This has sacks of unroasted coffee beans stashed on the floor, a roasting machine that looks like something out of  Leonardo da Vinci drawing, and a single espresso machine, leaving barely enough space of the constant flow of customers. 

Meanwhile, with careers drawing to a close, Ian Chappell considers the legacy of the the era's three great batsmen: Ricky Ponting, Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara. I agree with his ultimate preference for Lara. You can't go past Tendulkar for sheer weight of runs and longevity. Ponting has played some incredible innings, such as the rearguard 156 at Old Trafford and the dominant 140 not out against India in the 2003 World Cup final.  But Lara's combination of technique, elegance and mental concentration just surpasses the other two. Playing in what was a relatively weak West Indies team (Ponting never had to face McGrath or Warne), he often seemed to stand single-handedly between oppositin teams and victory. If you had to choose someone to bat for your life, it would be Lara.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Observations on My Vacations 2: The Continuing Dominance of the Automobile

One day when I was down south for the holidays, I drove my rental car from my parents' place in Rolleston to my sister's in Kaiapoi. The plan was to take my nephew and niece for a swim and maybe to a movie.

The pool in Kaiapoi  was closed so we drove out to Rangiora. From there we headed across to the Shirley mall, targeting a showing of Puss in Boots. It turned out the cinema was closed by the earthquakes, so instead we had lunch at the mall, then headed back to Northlands mall to catch The Adventures of Tintin (NB: may be a little scary for some younger children). After that, we drove back to Kaiapoi, and from there I drove the rental back to Rolleston.

The day was a sweeping, somewhat dizzying tour across northern Christchurch and its environs. I sat back while my sister navigated 80km/h ring roads, wide boulevards and spacious, multi-storey car parks. I conclude: the geography of doing things in Christchurch is a series of bubbles linked by automobiles.

It's a contrast to Wellington, where the geography is stacked vertically, and for most of the places I have to go the quickest way to get there is walking, with the bus a fall-back option if I really need to get over the other side of town.

There's some kind of path-dependency going on here, but I'm not sure what it is. Is everything desgned around cars because things are so far apart, or is the other way around? At any rate, there's mutual reinforcement -- and, as the previous post pointed out, the evolution of this urban shape has been cemented by the earthquakes.

I can kind of see how this state of affairs has evolved. A factor in the South Island, even more so than in the north, is that once you have a car there's much else that is opened up: back country, mountains, coastlines, resort towns. As reported in my previous post, I made flying visits to Queenstown and Hanmer Springs, and was able to appreciate that an automobile not only gets you to the main destination, but from there to the remote spot at the start of the track or the climb. It's also an extremely useful mobile storage device once you've checked out of your accommodation. 

I also understand that another fundamental factor that drives the the yearning for a back yard.

Yet, although this may have come about because of choices, the default settings now close them off. An increasing amount of urban planning doesn't even consider the non car-driver. For example, as Riccarton Mall has slowly eaten up the surrounding streets, it's become gradually more impregnable to pedestrians. On foot, you can't really get in from the west, and from the south you have to negotiate a car park with no apparent pedestrian entrance.   The same is true in my home town of Rolleston, which has mushroomed from a tiny village to a bustling district centre of 8,000 in less than 15 years . There's a single new commercial space right at the centre of a very spread-out residential area. It's a given that most people will "drive to the shops". There's no safe and obvious way for a pedestrian to enter some of the spaces there, either.  You don't quite get arrested for walking yet, but in some environments it's not far off

Christchurch apparently used to be known as the "city of cyclists". I remember seeing a photo of from the 1960s or 1970s with a great phalanx of cyclists pushing off from an intersection either in the early morning or late afternoon (I assume they were commuters). The place is still as flat as it's always been, but these days peddling two wheels is a lonely and not particularly safe trade.

Even if this were sustainable, it would be really unfortunate, and it's not even inevitable. You can have the "freeways between suburban pods" urban model and still make the in-between spaces much friendlier. Designate the corridors along which the "inter-hub" traffic can move swiftly; then in the "local" bits, reduce the speed limit, narrow the streets, put in dedicated bus and cycle ways. A classic example is Amsterdam, where you can still drive your car in the city -- you just have to give priority to the cyclists and the trams. But even Brisbane, a truly enormous sprawl that's not known for urban sophistication, has dedicated busways, kilometres of cycleways, and a walking path along much of the length of its river. There are other ways to do things.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Observations on My Vacations, 1: The Transformation of Christchurch

I've just spent approximately three weeks in the South Island, including Christmas, New Year, two weddings and trips to Hanmer Springs and Queenstown. As usual, this has inspired me to have partially-informed opinions on things, about some of which I intend to write a series of posts. The posts will be, probably in this order:
  • The Transformation of Christchurch
  • The Continuing Dominance of the Motor Vehicle
  • The Cafeterisation of Provincial New Zealand
The Transformation of Christchurch

Any discussion of Christchurch these days immediately devolves to the series of earthquakes that have battered the area. This is fair enough, given the human tragedy and unplanned destruction that has occurred. However, in the longer term, I think the earthquake will be seen as accelerating a transformation that was already happening.

I visit Christchurch on average a couple of times every year, and have the opportunity to draw a contrast both with my more youthful memories and with Wellington. Every time, I get something of a shock at the sprawl, the acres of space dedicated to car parks, the aircraft carrier-sized big box retailers, Riccarton Mall slowly consuming the surrounding streets.

The days are long gone when Christchurch was an "English" market town ordered around its central square. Rather, it has become a loosely ordered regional connurbation that links the port and airport with intensifying farming on the plains, giant malls, sprawling suburbs, clusters of services and manufacturing, and the satellite towns to the north, west and south that are gradually merging with the outer suburbs. Its role model is Auckland, and beyond that, the ribboned cities of the American west and south.

Public discussion of the "rebuild" of Christchurch has tended to focus on what might be made of the central city. But I think that's something of a distraction. The earthquakes that have so undermined the swampy centre and east have pushed traffic and activity to the west, onto the gravelly ground of the plains, ensuring that the city's centre of gravity will ultimately settle there.

The string of further sizeable quakes that kicked off on December 23 have solidified this process. Already, ideas about the "rebuild" are being scaled down and there's talk about the temporary "pop-up mall" in shipping containers on Cashel St becoming a semi-permanent feature.

There may well be something attractive to come out of a central city redevelopment If the opportunity is not taken to create a space completely friendly to pedestrians and cyclists, there's truly no hope for humanity. However, this is unlikely to be the city's commercial heart. To obtain any sort of insurance, permanent structures in the area will need to have the highest level of earthquake safety, making them expensive to build, own, and of course rent. The central city will be unlikely to be abuzz with small businesses; nor will it be a bohemian den of students and artists.

I can see it eventually becoming an "old town" of parks and gardens, some government services, boutique retailers, maybe some bars and cafes. It should be friendly to tourists and local visitors alike. Hopefully there'll be ruins that are preserved and turned into museums and memorials and the condemned land in the northeast will be transformed into landscaped recreational space. Meanwhile, the mallification of the city will continue apace, and it's most dynamic activity will be based around distributed centres in Riccarton, Papanui, maybe Sydenham/Addington.

I actually like some of the longer-term changes that are in the works, in that they acknowledge what the city has become and make something coherent out of it. The new express route linking Rolleston with the southern motorway will make sense of the weight of population that's shifted there and end the pretence that a country road gently working its way through the outer suburbs can support the roaring semi-trailers, the tourists and the burgeoning commuter traffic. The four-laning of Russley Rd and the proposed flyover at Memorial Ave will eventually create a genuine north-south bypass. These road systems should produce a better functioning regional hub that links the northern and southern hinterlands.

How sustainable this is going to be as oil gets inexorably more expensive, I don't know. For that reason, but also because I'd just like to see it, I hope there are some plans for the parallel development of alternative transport options. If the satellite towns are going to continue to grow, these could improve the viability of a commuter rail service along the existing lines. As new motorways are developed, this could create the space for protected cycle routes along the older roads. However, given the apparently universal assumption that everyone has a car and drives it everywhere, all the time, I'm not getting my hopes up.