Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Greece's economic woes- More than money

Police officers and firefighters protest against pay cuts in central Athens.

"The first hard part is over, the situation will calm down for a while," says Greek MP Eva Kaili as we talk on a hotel balcony overlooking Syntagma square in central Athens. She doesn't want to go and talk down in the square, saying," some people aren't well, or they might be too desperate and start shouting at us." That's coming from Miss Kaili, a former TV News presenter with the looks of a model. But it's not stalkers she's talking about. Politics here is well and truly on the streets as well as in parliament and it's ugly.

Syntagma square which we're looking down on, and the Greek parliament which sits just above it are now synonymous with the demonstrations and riots which have strained Greece as waves of financial disaster, economic contraction and austerity have washed over the populace. The economy has been in recession for five years now. When Eva Kaili says people are desperate, she is more correct than perhaps even she can appreciate.

While politicians in the parliament sit through to the small hours voting themselves numb over each article of each bill of cuts, Greeks out on the street are being pushed towards the financial edge, and over it.

In the offices of OEK, the 'Organisation of Workers' Social Housing' in downtown Athens I find a scene of chaos. Angry gatherings fill rooms and corridors as groups of staff argue and fret. The government has just announced that OEK, which provided housing support to people on low incomes, will be shut down to save money. Its functions and that of another government body which provided social support will be merged with a third office. The end result is that the seven hundred staff here may lose their jobs. None of them has a clue what is going on or what to do. Two weeks before, one of their staff had threatened to throw herself out of one of the office windows. She had been talked out of it but many Greeks can understand how she felt.

Fraught staff meetings at the offices of OEK. None of those present knew if they would keep their jobs.
 At Klimaka, an NGO which offers all kinds of social support to increasing numbers of desperate Greeks, I find the only phone in Greece people can ring if they feel like that worker and want a suicide prevention line. It is manned 24 hours a day by professional psychiatrists and counsellors who volunteer their time. But as staff there said, the numbers of calls had increased dramatically. Data for suicides in Greece was hard to obtain, but had also increased markedly from 2007 to 2009.

The only phone in Greece you can ring that's dedicated to  stopping suicide.
"I had a call from a lady standing on the edge of the fifth floor of a building," says Elena Bechiari, a psychiatrist and director at the centre, "she said she had a young child, that she couldn't pay her debts any more, that she had lost her job and didn't know what to do. She couldn't stand the pain any more and just wanted to end it all." The staff at Klimaka try to listen and give advice and then offer counselling sessions in person. But Elena admits they're desperately short of resources. Some of their services are government funded, but the suicide prevention line isn't one of them. It's a narrow thread of light for many Greeks struggling with the human costs of Greece's economic catastrophe.

Elena Bechiari knows all her volunteers work hard to help people, but fears how many people they aren't able to reach.
On the streets, Greek police officers and firefighters are protesting. The police are usually the ones on the other side of the protests, variously accused of unnecessary use of tear gas or hailed for preventing opportunist hooligans from causing too much damage. When we talk to them, they too are in a difficult situation. "Our pay has been cut by 30% already. Now they want another 20%. We can"t live on half our pay!" shouted angry members. Another officer’s comments reveal the mistakes made by many Greeks in an era of easy credit. "I took out loans for the house, the car. Now the loan repayments stay the same while my wages go down. I don't know how on earth I'm going to afford it."

Police officers demonstrating outside the parliament building they're usually trying to protect.
Plenty of blame lays with ordinary Greeks who took advantage of irresponsible banks lending cheap credit. The pay of many workers doubled after they joined the Euro in 2001. That was the government's fault as it went on a reckless spending spree. But Greeks in all sectors now grudgingly admit they ignored the warning bells in their heads that told them they couldn't afford to borrow.

The challenge now is not just the necessary economic amputations going on in the Greek parliament. It's managing the potentially tragic human costs brought about the demands of economic austerity.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Russia's arctic future- Whitefish from white rivers

Andrey hauls up a 'Shuka' (Russian for pike).

I’ve driven four hours across frozen lakes and tundra in a huge wheeled all terrain vehicle called a ‘Trackle.’ I’m standing on the snow covered ice of a river in Russia's far northern Yamalo-Nenets region. With me is Andrey Ryazanovich. He’s been pike fishing since he was a boy. From holes in the ice of the river stand little red flags. Most are leant over to one side, indicating the baited hooks suspended in the water beneath have been bitten. Starting with the first one, Andrey pulls up the line to reveal a large pike, thrashing about in the winter air. Each one goes into a trailer on the back of his snowmobile, ready for the pot later.

In the end we catch upwards of ten pike, each between 3 and 6 kilogrammes in weight. As Andrey comments, "80% of the local villagers come fishing. It's a valuable supplement to our diet and a wonderful way to enjoy the countryside here." 

Racks of whitefish salted and drying. They will stay here for five days before being packed into cans.

Four hours drive back into the regional capital, Salekhard, I see that fish isn't just for personal consumption here. The local fish factory processes whitefish, humpback whitefish, muksun (lots of different types of whitefish) peled, ide, and more. They are all northern freshwater fish. An institute in the Siberian city of Tyumen, hundreds of kilometres upstream and to the south (most of the rivers across the northern half of Russia flow south to north, emptying into the seas around the Arctic ocean) gives out quotas each year for the amount of fish that can be caught and processed. This year the total quota was 9000 tonnes of which this plant processes 2500 tonnes. Private fishermen do the catching then sell their fish to the plant.  

Most of the staff at the Salekhard fish plant came from its soviet predecessor.

Like so many enterprises in Russia these days, this plant is descended from a soviet one. That was shut down in the nineties and this one opened in 2000, taking most of its staff from the old plant. Also like so many more modern Russian industrial enterprises it couldn't have happened without help from the state. The french, german and scandinavian machinery here and the modern quality standards were beyond reach until government money poured in. For a kick start from soviet times it seems government money really was needed, but now the plant is doing well on its own. When I asked the plant's technical director, Tamara Romanova, if they sold their goods internationally she replied that, "we'd love to, but we haven't even got enough stock to supply the domestic market. We know our fish are very popular all over the place, but we'll need more fish and more capacity to supply them abroad."   

Tamara Romanova, who studied in a fish institute and has worked with them all her life. 

Some of the fish are covered in flour which is then toasted to make a breadcrumb type coating. Most fish are sold in various vegetable oils with or without sauces.

The Salekhard plant processes thousands of tonnes of  fish, based on variable annual quotas.

Both the local fish industry and the local government want to increase production of canned and processed fish from what is still a very unpolluted environment. They've caught on to that here too, Tamara telling me, "we don't add any chemicals to our fish and we won't in the future unless we absolutely have to. We know the sales potential of a natural product and we start off with one anyway." With growing industry in the region, and pressure to increase quotas its too soon to say if pollution and overfishing could become a problem. But for now fish holds pride of place with reindeer as arctic flavour of the month, every month.  

Andrey Ryazanovich with his prize pike of the day. But will it become even more hefty when he tells the story to his friends? Well I suppose it wasn't the one that got away, but of course he told me about the 30kg one that did.  

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Russia's artic future- The reindeer's tale

With its wide splayed feet, thick fur and wet nose digging under the snow for winter grass the reindeer is central to life for Russia’s northern tribes. It is their food, their transport and their business. In return the herders protect their animals from predators, help them give birth and try to stop them dying from wounds or illness. Groups of Nenets and other northern tribes will follow reindeer herds all their life, packing up their ‘chum’ tents and moving on with the grazers.

In fact such is the Nenets’ dedication to the reindeer, they rarely see much of each other. A family or small group of people with two or three tents and accompanying sledges seems to be the standard unit that trails along after the herds through the ten month winter and short summer. However, around March each year the Nenets allow themselves a break from their harsh and lonely lifestyle. At festivals all across the Russian far north Nenets and other herders gather. The theme of the festivals could probably be little else, the reindeer.

Skills honed in the months on the tundra are cause for lively competition. In one contest entrants try to throw a lasso over an upright pole. In another two competitors sit opposite each other with feet pressed against a wooden board. They then try to pull a stick from each other, usually with the other contender being pulled on top of their opponent.

Two competitors wrestle over a stick in front of an audience of their contemporaries.

To demonstrate, strength, endurance and balance others hurdle metal rails continuously back and forth until they fall.

Jumping the hurdles. This man managed to keep going until about two thirds of the way back before falling.

But the main even of the Nenets’ celebrations is reindeer racing. Five animals pulling a driver on a sledge hurtle out for hundreds of metres on a frozen lake or other flat surface. Then they come thundering back again, driver whooping and screaming to drive them on. Well at least that’s how it’s supposed to go. It seems the main challenge with reindeer is keeping them running in a straight line. Time after time drivers failed in the first ten metres, their reindeer charging round in uncontrollable circles. With two or more teams competing in some races in can become really quite hectic, with reindeer almost plunging into the crowd at some points.

The tricky test of the reindeer race. This driver wasn't quite quick enough for his deer and fell off the back of the sledge, much to the amusement of the crowd, and him.

The most difficult period of the race seemed to be the start. These reindeer have spun in a circle and are now charging straight for the crowd.

At last,  a straight run. This reindeer team is about to cross the finish line having managed to keep going straight. 

After a day of herder hi-jinks I was ready for the long road back. But on the way we were stopped in our rough snow tracks. There around us was the real thing, a herd of thousands of reindeer grazing in the wild. Of course they most likely had owners. But we could see their tents nowhere. They might even have been at the festival. Some nervous animals moved away from us but other, more curious specimens trotted up to us, sniffing and eating from my hand. What a sight, to see an icon of the wild north grazing under a setting polar sun.

The Nenets' main source of income is selling reindeer meat. It goes far abroad and fetches a handsome price. In fact it’s rumoured that 2000 reindeer are ‘equivalent’ in value to a flat in Moscow. But the Nenets don’t kill the reindeer themselves. The animal is, understandably, sacred to them. Instead, when the time comes they give the bloody task to hired teams, usually from other ethnic groups in the far north. Such is the proximity that herders have to their reindeer, it’s not unreasonable to see them as something more than just herders and herds. They don’t just travel with each other, they rely on each other.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Russia’s arctic future- The heli-doctors of the tundra

The helicopters can never stay in one place for long.

I’m in an ambulance speeding away from the central hospital in Salekhard, the capital of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Region in Russia’s far north. We skitter down rough, snowy tracks and pile out into a storm of icy wind. It comes from the downdraft of a helicopter’s rotas, blasting snow into our faces. I follow the doctors and am ushered urgently inside by a pilot beckoning from the door. They’re ready to go and there’s not even time to take it all in.

I am allright, by the way. As we lift up to the thrub of this Soviet workhorse’s blades I’m thinking about our destination, a tiny village even further north called Laborovaya, the kind of place you think people wouldn’t actually live in at all. But they do. A baby is sick there and the doctors have been called.

The trees beneath us are, like their human counterparts here, frontier dwellers. They’re thin and squat, starved of nutrients by the winter climate and the permafrost under the ground. They stand in wind blasted belts and clusters that diminish even further as we cross the tundra.  And yet as we fly north over the endless expanse of snow drifts, we see outposts of humanity here as well.  A village that might in the short summer be a small river port. A railway and road with a few lorries and a train picking their lonely way between distant loading points. And at last, as even the human settlements dwindle, we see our village, clinging to an elevation in the surrounding tundra.

A village in the tundra on the way north.

The last transport route we passed, with lorries and trains travelling long, lonely routes. 

Laborovaya, swept by the wind on its small escarpment.

When we touch down a local takes us on his skidoo to the village centre. Laborovaya has maybe two hundred residents but it serves a wide area as a contact point for groups of Nenets, a nomadic people who were herding reindeer here long before the Russians arrived.    

A legacy of the Soviet Union is that most of these small settlements have a small government building in them that acts as a doctor’s surgery and general administrative point. Two parents were waiting inside. One father had brought in his child with red eyes and an unknown complaint that had struck a number of times before. Another woman, Svetlana Laptander, had come from her home in a nomadic tent with her crying baby son. The baby was fine but she had problems with her breast and couldn’t feed him. The doctors decided they would all have to go in the helicopter back to hospital. Svetlana wasn’t happy about this. She’d been to hospital before. “They kept me there for a month,” she complained. “All I wanted to do was go back home. The deer need us to look after them.”

Doctors inspect this child that has been brought in with a repeat complaint of red eyes and a temperature.

Head doctor of the service Vladimir Brodsky consults with his colleagues on what to do with the children.

Svetlana Laptander and her baby son are taken to the helicopter. She's not happy about leaving her home and reindeer but agrees to go.

On the way back we saw some of the herders tents out in the tundra. We landed to meet them and check their health. They invited us inside and I saw inside the only space the Nenets have that’s separated from the snow and cold outside. Around a steaming pot on the stove seven family members sat on blankets and chatted. All were healthy enough with some family member or other regularly ducking in or out of the wind. Having established all was well enough here we were already being beckoned back to the helicopter. The pilots have a difficult time here. They can’t refuse a call if they can fly and they have to negotiate treacherous weather conditions, sometimes flying right up to the edge of Russia’s arctic coast. If they can’t fly or land the service has monster truck type ambulances called ‘trackles’ and even makes use of ex-army tracked vehicles to navigate winter storms and summer swamps to try and reach wounded villagers or herders. They don’t always succeed. The chief doctor of the regional service, Vladimir Brodsky, tells me how one of his patients died in the helicopter. And everyone in the service knows of the burnt patch of ground where a helicopter crashed trying to land, killing the doctors on board.

Our first glimpse of Nenets herders on the tundra beneath.

As we draw closer we see that the Nenets have come out to see us as well.

Vladimir Brodsky greets the herders outside their tents.

Inside the family gathers to chat, tired or otherwise.
We can only stay a few minutes before it's back to the helicopter .

 There has been controversy over whether this service is worth the effort. The Soviet Union tried to put all of its nomadic peoples into villages. They stayed for a while but their life here is governed by the movement of their reindeer herds. When their herds moved away from the villages that had been built for them, they moved away and abandoned them. Some have suggested the Nenets be encouraged, or even forced into reservations like other nomadic peoples elsewhere in the world. There it would be easier and cheaper to make sure they are well cared for, goes the logic. Vladimir Brodsky says the air medical service costs 400 million roubles (nearly $14 million) a year to run. But he rejects the idea that’s it’s a waste of money, saying that the Nenets might be hard to find but that their way of life shouldn’t be degraded. “These people work hard. They are good people with real value for Russia. The least we can do for them is to provide this service.”

Vladimir Brodsky and his fellow doctors and assistants are well used to their loud, rattling trips to the furthest reaches of the Russian far north.

When we landed I was straight back in an ambulance. The pilots had their kids to pick up from school. The patients had to be taken in to a ward for a proper checkup.  The weather doesn’t look like it’s going to get much better for Russia’s air medical service. The villages and herding camps don’t look like they’re going to get any closer. And it doesn’t seem like the pilots or doctors will have much of a let up in the pace. As I thanked the last pilot he replied, “you’re welcome, come back again.” He was smiling and content, ready to fly out once more as part of the lifeline of Russia’s north.