Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Green and Black?

How many farmers have been questioned by the police on suspicion of stealing crops while working in their own fields? Not many I would wager, but David Mwanaka and his wife have enjoyed such conversations 5 times in the last 4 years. They are black. Are these facts by any chance related?
We met David in his field of maize beside the junction of the M25 and the A10. He came here from Zimbabwe in the nineties when his work as a journalist in Harare became impossible under the Mugabe regime. His background may be exotic but his immediate concerns are commonplace: a soaking year and a terrible yield. He grows `white maize’ a variety familiar to the African palette and loved by specialist stores in many British cities. But this winter there is too much left un-ripened and destined to feed the chickens. Farming fires him, he’s passionate about the husbandry of his crops and the chance to grow more. By contrast, he sees conversations with the police as minor, almost amusing, incidents which he blames, not on them, but on the statistical fact that black farmers are rare. Yes, he agrees, members of the public are jumping to race-based conclusions but this doesn’t seriously wind him up. For David, getting angry about rural racial ignorance is as pointless as railing against the weather and much less relevant to his business.
So does it matter that there are so few ethnic minorities living, working and visiting in the countryside? There is a lot of guff talked about splits between town and country but, for me, this is the most marked social contrast: urban Britain is multi-ethnic, rural Britain is not. The reasons for this fill up academic theses and it is definitely too simplistic to blame it on rural racism, certainly of the overtly hostile type. Though as `the only black in the village’ you might stand out; some embrace this, some hate it, others just ignore it.  Economics plays a big part as country living tends to be expensive and black and Asian communities tend to be less wealthy.  Plus it is culturally more difficult with friends, faith groups and families largely city-based.
It matters because rural Britain is a treasure that we should all share. There is a danger of being patronising here. Luckily, Pammy Johal and her team save me from that fate. They are drawn from different cities across Scotland’s central belt and before that from Pakistan, Zimbabwe, South Africa and the Caribbean. We meet in Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park as Pammy trains them up to be confident in the outdoors: map reading, mountain bikes and weather-proofing traditional dress. No one’s telling them to be out, they’re just having a good time.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Ashes to Ashes

I don’t think I’ve ever been offered a bunch of roses by a government official before. A touching moment but the reverie was slightly undermined by the accompanying words: “Can you see any white fly or leaf miner damage in the foliage?” Not necessarily the stuff of romance.
The plant health inspector lacked amorous intent and was simply manning the front line in the battle to keep diseases out of the country; a line drawn, in this case, through a warehouse on an industrial estate just outside Heathrow. The cavernous interior was full of aluminium air freight crates and the beeping sound of reversing fork-lifts. One of the great joys of the job is seeing the industrial process behind things we then take for granted in our fridge or living room. Pallets stacked with spring onions from Mexico, pink roses from Zambia, and something called Christmas Rudolf flowers from China. One box was ripped and the head and shoulders of the ‘Red-nosed One’ were poking out.
Anything with roots and soil is scrutinised closely, flowers are considered lower risk but samples are still taken from most consignments and studied under a microscope. The inspectors find something troubling most days.
But – and it is a pretty big but when we consider the ash tree disease – they are only inspecting material from outside Europe. Within the EU free trading rules mean you cannot interfere or inspect goods without a very good reason and, sadly, a highly lethal fungus with the potential to destroy huge swathes of our deciduous woodland wasn’t a good enough reason to stop importing ash tress by the lorry load from areas where the disease was rampant.
Earlier in the week I had been at a conference on ash die-back recording interviews for the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Costing the Earth’. It was a gathering of the top European tree disease experts held in Lithuania which happens to be one of the countries where it was first spotted more than 15 years ago. Experts there described Europe as a black hole pulling in plant pathogens from across the world and then, once in the continent, free commerce rapidly spreads them to every corner. I know it’s pretty difficult to stop fungal spores blowing in the wind, but that doesn’t mean we have to give them a free truck ride across the channel.   Maybe we could ask if they’d like a bacon sandwich or a piece of rotting wood to keep them going.