Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Dateline: 600 Feet Below Ground Somewhere in India

Several years ago, after safely returning to the surface from my 5th reporting visit to the coal-mines of Eastern Europe, I decided that as far as the mining industry is concerned I had very much "been there, done that". Unlike the poor men who have little alternative but to grind out a living down some of the deadliest pits in the world, I was there by choice. And from then on, I chose not to return to some of the most cramped and potentially deadly working environments on the planet.

So, it was with some trepidation that I travelled to Jadaguda, 900 miles south-east of Delhi, at the invitation of the Uranium Corporation of India Ltd (UCIL).

It's the operator of India's uranium mines - and the folks at UCIL were good enough to allow us to record a significant chunk of "Beyond Fear" 600 feet below ground in one of their mining complexes.

Never having visited a uranium mine, I wasn't sure what to expect. It's not like a coal-mine at all: you can't actually see the uranium, which has to be detected through various radiation tests before the mining engineers can be told where to deploy their drills.

Once deployed, they mine around 2500 tons of rock from the cavernous, spacious tunnels that have been dug in the ground here. That rock is then pulverised; the powdered rock is turned into a slurry; and it's from that slurry that the uranium is derived.

Ramdendra Gupta, the head of UCIL, used to work in India's deepest gold mine. He transitioned to the uranium industry because, he says, it has "growth potential."

It certainly does. As India's population grows and its economy rises, the country has a desperate need for new sources of power. Currently, the country's nuclear power stations only supply 3 per cent of India's electricity. Mr. Gupta wants to see that figure rise seven-fold.

The Bush administration wants to help him get his way.

The proposed US-India nuclear agreement will permit co-operation with India's civil nuclear program, and allow the country to import supplies of uranium, even though it's one of only 4 states that fails to honor the Non Proliferation Treaty. (North Korea, Pakistan and Israel are the other three).

Critics of the deal say it will doom the global non-proliferation regime, and that the US is being inconsistent by permitting India to develop its nuclear program - both civil, and military - while insisting North Korea and Iran cannot develop theirs.

Indian officials tell us their country's democratic fiber is strong, and that as a rapidly-rising power in the region, they both need a nuclear program, and can be trusted with them. The redoubtable Mr. Gupta also points out that UCIL has been mining uranium here since the 1960s, and that India's nuclear program will continue whether the deal with the US goes ahead or not.

You'll hear more of his views in "Beyond Fear: America's Role in an Uncertain Role" - the first American radio program to have been recorded, in part, down an Indian uranium mine.

--Simon Marks

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Ex-Rebel with a Cause

While the 2004 tsunami will long be remembered in history books as an unprecedented natural disaster, the big wave isn't the only hardship Aceh is struggling to overcome.

For decades before that fateful December day in 2004, Aceh was embroiled in a conflict for independence from the Indonesian government. As unbelievable as it seems, the tsunami's death and destruction helped bring about the one thing many in Aceh had been hoping for for years: peace.

A landmark peace accord was signed in 2005 and the province's first democratic elections were held last December. A former rebel commander was elected governor.

Much of the humanitarian aid flowing to Aceh is directed toward the immediate needs of food, housing, and infrastructure. But a small portion of the United States Agency for International Development's (USAID) assistance is funding projects aimed at securing and keeping the peace.

In the small mountain village of Ronga Ronga, nearly an eight-hour drive from Banda Aceh, former fighters of the Free Aceh Movement are helping to construct a new town market.

The project, implemented by the International Organization on Migration (IOM) with assistance from USAID, will provide more than a dozen new stalls for Ronga Ronga's merchants. The community, in consultation with IOM, decided collectively it wanted a new market.

It is here that Jocelyn and I meet Joni, a charismatic 27-year old with a boyish grin.

He joined the Free Aceh Movement in 1999 after he says he was beaten and tortured by the Indonesian military. Joni quickly moved up the ranks and ultimately commanded a platoon of fighters, many of whom remained by his side during our visit.

Joni is a self-described contractor. He tells us he provided wood and other construction materials for the market. He won the job after IOM determined a portion of the work must be provided by former combatants.

Illegal logging is a problem in this part of Indonesia, so it is very likely the wood Joni supplied to the market project came from less-than-legal sources. Even so, he says the market planning process brought a level of unprecedented transparency; transparency he and aid organizers hope will rub off on government and community leaders.

Joni is using the money he made as a contractor on the market project to purchase several chicks and to finance a small chili farm behind the home he shares with his grandmother and other family members. The small plot of hot peppers is cut into the hillside of thick jungle cover a couple hundred yards behind Joni's house.

Joni hopes the first chili crop will earn him 5,000,000 Indonesian Rupiah (roughly $541.00). He says he will add his profits along with money from other ex-rebels to expand the chili farm and possibly add a small coffee operation. Joni will know in about a month whether or not his first chili planting will yield maximum results.

Meanwhile, work on the market continues. On the day we visited, two men were hand preparing concrete for a section of the market's open floor.

Reviews of the market are mixed. One woman told Jocelyn she is looking forward to moving her small business into a "clean" stall. But this fish seller says she doesn't want to move her rickety, wooden stand.

Her stand sits precariously along side the main road in Ronga Ronga, perfect for drive-up purchases.

She fears she will lose business if people have to get off their motorbikes or leave their vehicles and walk the extra 20-30 feet to the new market.

As our driver carefully navigates the narrow, twisting, and long road back to Banda Aceh, I can only hope the market project and Joni's chili crop is successful. Both projects may seem small, but they have the ability to bring a sense of economic stability to a region in desperate need of peace and security. Joni bluntly told me what he would do if his crop fails and if he can't find additional contracting work. He simply said he would "rob" from people to make ends meet.

--Kristin McHugh

Reality Strikes Again

I have spent quite a bit of time driving around Aceh in the past few days. Amid the obvious destruction and reconstruction, the beautiful tranquility of this small part of the world is front and center everytime I leave the hustle and bustle of Banda Aceh.

The breathtaking views from the road are like scenes from an exotic travel poster (and my photos clearly do NOT do justice to what my naked eye can see).

From the moment that I arrived, I've had these lingering, nagging thoughts. When (not if) will this region suffer another devastating earthquake and tsunami? Will all of the reconstruction come crashing down again?

So I was a bit startled to learn upon arriving back at my hotel from an extended trip to Aceh's highlands that a powerful earthquake struck western Sumatra this morning. The quake and at least one powerful aftershock caused extensive damage near the epicenter and killed dozens.

I was around 500 miles from the the epicenter, and I can honestly say that I didn't feel a thing. But the idea that my nagging thoughts could come true at any moment will likely keep me awake a bit longer tonight.
--Kristin McHugh

Sunday, March 4, 2007

It's All About the Benjamins

If you've ever traveled overseas to an out-of-the-way place, you will know that converting US dollars into local currency is not easy. The age, condition, and serial numbers of US bills, things we don't think twice about in the States, are of the utmost importance overseas. Bills that don't meet the "required" specifications command less on the exchange market or are outright worthless.

Local banks and businesses say American dollars are always welcome in Banda Aceh. But I quickly learned this week that only a small percentage of what is in circulation is acceptable. No one will accept a US bill of any denomination printed in 1996. The reputable bank in a busy shopping district also won't accept bills with the slightest crease or tear. Even worse the same bank will not accept any of the new color US currency. Never mind that that colorful stack of Indonesian Rupiah the bank teller handed me is full of less-than-perfect bills.

Keith Porter and I have run into similar problems in Africa and the Middle East, so I wasn't surprised when the bank teller rejected the first few bills I handed her. I wasn't prepared for her to reject nearly all I had intended to change. It turns out, nearly 75% of the currency I have is not acceptable or commands a rate so far below the exchange value that it isn't worth my time to trade it.

As my friends and family will tell you, I always have at least one or two backup plans. So I will be able to eat and pay my bills here this week. But my personal experience at the bank illustrates just how difficult it can be to adapt to a different set of norms.

In the 26 months since the tsunami, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is learning that cultural differences can get in the way of good intentions. USAID's flagship reconstruction project here is a planned 150 mile road connecting two important cities in Aceh province. The road system here was less-than-ideal before the tsunami. A solid transportation system is critical now to help rebuild the region.

A large sign just outside of Banda Aceh marks the beginning of the planned road. USAID is financing the actual road construction while a complex Indonesian system is responsible for acquiring the land necessary to complete the new road.

But there is little evidence the "new" road will be completed anytime soon. Cost overruns, land acquisition problems, government red-tape, and local complaints about a temporary road adjacent to the showcase road have brought the planned project to a near standstill.

A new report issued by the US Government Accountability Office heavily criticizes USAID for its management of the road project. The latest plan trims 60 miles from the original proposed length. The shorter "new road" will then be linked to a section constructed by the Japanese.

So far, USAID officials in Indonesia won't talk on the record to Jocelyn and I about the road project. But in the March 2nd edition of The Jakarta Post, USAID's deputy director for Indonesia cited unforeseen issues brought about by an "exceptional" disaster.

The spokesperson for GAM, the Free Aceh Movement, acknowledges there have been problems but he believes the issues have been ironed out. He also says the problems with the road project should not overshadow the good work USAID and others are doing to help rebuild Aceh.

Perhaps the best people to judge the road project are affected landowners. This man and his family in the tiny village of Meudheun, more than two hours outside of Banda Aceh, will lose their current home when the section of pavement in front of his house is widened. He supports the road project, but he has yet to sell his land. He says the money offered is less than the land's value, and he's holding out for more.

Much closer to Banda Aceh a 23-year old affected landowner exclaimed, "USA good," when we asked him whether or not he is happy about the project. He told us he plans to use the money he earns from the sale of his land to rebuild and fulfill his dream of becoming a teacher.

In the end it seems whether it is a road project or currency exchange, it all boils down to the value of the Benjamins (Franklin, that is... the face on $100.00 US bills).

--Kristin McHugh

Friday, March 2, 2007

Banda Aceh: One Moment In Time

Driving through the bustling, traffic-jammed streets of Banda Aceh, it is difficult to imagine that much of this city was washed away by the 2004 tsunami. So perhaps it is fitting that the Indonesian lounge singer at the first (and only) "5-star" hotel here was belting out an off-tune version of Whitney Houston's "One Moment in Time" as I walked through the lobby this evening.

It took only a few moments to change the face of Aceh province forever. In the coastal areas, all that wasn't damaged by the near-record earthquake on December 26, 2004, was swept into the ocean a few hours later.

I was horrified as I watched the television coverage of the tsunami 26 months ago, so I was expecting the worst as I landed in Banda Aceh. I was surprised by the hustle and bustle. Ahmady, the local journalist guiding Jocelyn Ford and I around Aceh, is somewhat surprised too. He says there was little traffic in what is commonly called "pre-tsunami" days.

Don't get me wrong, signs of the tsunami are everywhere. Empty garbage strewn lots dot the landscape....

...while temporary housing structures of all kinds sit next to newly built homes of all sizes.

If I didn't know there was a tsunami I could easily mistake Banda Aceh as a developing, if not thriving, coastal community. But then the huge ship still sitting on top of a house roughly a mile from the beach quickly snaps me back to reality.

The post-tsunami aid is full of good intentions, but it has also created some new problems. For example, some communities get better houses than others.

As I watch the sunset on a beach on the outskirts of Banda Aceh, it is clear progress is being made, but the pace of that progress may be as difficult to judge as the time it takes to get across town in the midday rush-hour.

--Kristin McHugh