Tag Archives: Photographs

Seoul: cyberspace, hospitality and Seolleung


I had the privilege of being invited to participate in the recent Seoul Conference on Cyberspace, which provided me with an opportunity to visit Korea for the first time.  Although most of the three days I stayed there was spent in the COEX Convention Centre, the organisers had also arranged for some of us to go on an ‘industry tour’ which briefly took us out into the ‘countryside’ to the south of the city last Saturday.  The  hospitality of our hosts was both generous and humbling.  I post below some photos that seek to capture that hospitality, and the energy, tastes and beauty that we all experienced.

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The slideshow captures images from the Seolleung and Jeongneung Royal Tombs,  the amazing music of Miji and the energy of TAL‘s Taekwondo performance at the Gala Dinner, Bongeunsa Buddhist temple, images from the conference, and some more general pictures of the Gangnam area of Seoul.

I left challenged and excited, determined to learn more about how the people of the Republic of Korea have transformed their economy and society in recent years.  Experiencing a tiny bit of Korea, makes me reflect all the more vividly on the observation that in 1960 Ghana and the Republic of Korea had the same per capita income, and I wonder all the more at the very different ‘development’ paths experienced subsequently in Africa and eastern Asia.

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Filed under Development, ICT4D, Photographs, Politics

Reflections on Montserrat – crafting a viable economy for 5000 people


The chance to work with the Ministry of Communication and Works on the tiny island of Monserrat in the Caribbean last week gave me a rare opportunity to reflect not only on the economic viability of many of the UK’s Overseas Territories, but also on the ways that people living in small island states cope in the aftermath of physical disasters.  Montserrat was devastated by Hurricane Hugo in September 1989, leaving some 11,000 of the island’s population of 12,000 without homes.  Ten people were killed, 89 were injured, and the cost of the damage was reported to be at least $260 million.  In the years afterwards, substantial reconstruction took place, but then in 1995 the island’s Soufrière Hills volcano became active again.  The island’s capital, Plymouth, was soon buried by more than 12 metres of ash and mud, which also destroyed the airport and harbour.  The southern part of the island became uninhabitable, and a strict exclusion zone was introduced to limit future loss of life.  Then, in 1997 a pyroclastic flow passed down Mosquito Ghaut, overflowing the valley sides and killing 19 people who were in the exclusion zone.  Subsequently, there has been ongoing volcanic activity, mostly consisting of ash falls in the south of the island, but in 2009-10 further pyroclastic flows also occurred.  This double disaster had immense impact on the island’s population, with some 8,000 people choosing to leave, primarily for the UK which had granted the islanders full residency rights in 1999, and British citizenship in 2002.

Although I broadly knew about the island’s history, it is impossible to appreciate both the impact of these physical disasters, and the resilience of the people without actually visiting the island, and standing on the hillside overlooking the devastated city of Plymouth.  Having spent a couple of days with Montserratians before visiting Plymouth, and appreciating something of their warmth and generous hospitality, I was left with an overwhelming sense of sadness just standing on the edge of an ash filled swimming pool overlooking the devastated landscape of the island’s former capital.

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Monserratians are determined people, and those who I met were adamant about not only their British citizenship, but also their love for the island and their wish to ensure that it has a viable economy for the future.  The cost of the necessary reconstruction and development is nevertheless very, very substantial.  Much is already being done: there are plans for a new harbour; geothermal drilling is underway to see whether it could provide a source of energy for the future; and a submarine cable is to be laid to support their international digital connectivity.  However, much still needs to be done to ensure that the island can once again be self-sufficient as it was before the volcanic eruptions.  The challenge is that it is extremely difficult to identify how best this can be achieved, especially with such a small population.

From my very short visit, it is not easy to see the niche areas that the Monsterratians can build upon to regain their economic vitality.  Thinking back to the late 1970s when the Beatle’s producer George Martin created the AIR studios, Montserrat was able to attract some of the world’s most famous musicians to its green and peaceful environment.  There are still beautiful landscapes on the island, but the nature of the recording industry has changed so much that it would be difficult to imagine such an ‘adventure’ working again.  Perhaps, though, George Martin’s house (Olveston House – on Penny Lane), which now serves as a most welcoming guest house for visitors, does indicate one way forward, in that the island could carve itself out as a niche for high quality, environmentally sensitive tourism.  It is certainly beautiful, and the people most friendly.  However, its airport is tiny, with the runway only able to take very small planes, and it requires a new, much larger harbour to attract cruise ships and yachts to the island. There remains, though, the inevitable “chicken and egg” problem: visitors will not come unless there are high quality facilities on the island, and few people are willing to invest without there being strong prospects for sufficient visitor numbers to enable them to recoup their investments.

On the more quirky side, any country has to turn to its strengths and opportunities.  The volcano itself is a source of interest to visitors on the neighbouring islands, with air tours regularly bringing people from Antigua to visit.  It seems a shame that Montserrat itself currently benefits relatively little from such initiatives, and it must be possible for innovative initiatives to be developed that could enable Montserratians to reap dividends from such opportunities.  For film makers wishing to produce films in apocalyptic settings, the old capital of Plymouth on Montserrat would make an ideal – albeit highly risky – setting!  The island is also known as the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean, not only because of its lush vegetation, but also because it was settled by Irish immigrants from St. Kitts.  The potential for its Irish heritage to be marketed much more strongly, could also foster enhanced tourism from Éire.  Some of the bays in the north of the island would also make ideal facilities for luxury yacht marinas, and their development could offer a very different kind of destination for those sailing the Caribbean.  Finally, the ultimate strength of any country is its people, and there is no doubt that better connectivity to the Internet will enable those who wish to stay on the island and build economic activity around the provision of digital services will  be able to do so much more effectively once the new cable is completed.  Already, one software company (Lavabits) is developing its business there, and with an educated population, well-connected to the diaspora living in the UK, there has to be further potential for the islanders to use the Internet, not only to attract tourism, but also to build a new digitally-based economy in Monsterrat.

It was a real privilege to spend time on the island.  I admire the resilience, fortitude and determination of those whom I met, and I greatly appreciated their warmth and generosity.

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Filed under Caribbean, Commonwealth, ICT4D, Photographs, Politics, UK

Valuing the impact of wind turbines on rural landscapes: Conca de Barberà


I have been lucky enough to spend a few days walking in the Conca de Barberà county, or comarca, in Catalunya, and was very surprised – and indeed saddened – to see the visual impact of large numbers of wind turbines almost wherever one looked.  The selection of images below gives an indication of the scale of the issue:

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Whilst it was a cloudy day, and the images do not do full justice to the visual impact, especially around the small village of Flores, these pictures do convey something of the dramatic change they have made to the landscape.  Moreover, standing next to them one can also most definitely appreciate the noise impact they have – no longer are these hilltops a place of silent reflection, tempered only by the song of birds and the occasional dog barking in the villages nearby!

This raises very real questions about how landscapes are valued, and the politics of energy.  There have been many attempts to place a ‘value’ on landscape change, but these have mostly focused on somehow trying to calculate an economic cost of the change, often in terms of the loss of income.  Thus, if an area has previously gained an income from tourism, and the landscape change means that this is reduced, then it is clearly possible to estimate such a loss.  Other measures draw on the amount that people would actually pay not to have a change imposed on a landscape.  However, it is actually extremely difficult to place any kind of economic value on the emotional impact of a landscape change.  This area of Catalunya is at the heart of the Ruta del Cister, the triangle of Cistercian monasteries that were built there from the 12th century onwards.  The impact of the wind turbines has completely transformed the peace and tranquility of the landscapes, in a way that no simple economic measure can ever grasp.  Although some people might  think that these human feats of engineering have an attraction of their own, representing progress that no medieval Cistercian nun or monk could ever imagine, I find the juxtaposition of these two cultures concerning and depressing.

Reflecting on this dramatic transformation, I started to think further about the two kinds of power that this transformation represents.  On the one hand, the wind turbines represent the physical power of a new means of producing electricity.  However, each turbine actually only produces relatively little power. Estimates vary hugely, but as a general figure it is often argued that one turbine can produce enough energy for around 500 households a year – depending on the efficiency at which they function.  All the turbines in the images above therefore produce really rather little electricity, but at a very significant change to the landscape.  This transaction reflects a second kind of power, political power, since it illustrates yet another way through which a largely urban population exploits rural areas for their own interests.  This despoliation of the landscape is nothing other than a means through which the urban bourgeoisie seeks to maintain its ever increasing patterns of consumption.

Surely it would be much ‘fairer’ for the environmental cost to be paid by those living in urban areas, by for example constructing new styles of energy efficient housing and taxing air conditioners, rather than destroying the rural landscapes that they rarely visit, either physically or in their imaginations!

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Wildlife in Costa Rica


Staying with friends in Costa Rica provided a wonderful opportunity to spend  Sunday exploring something of the landscapes and wildlife of the country.  The photos below, mainly from the Carara National Park on the Pacific coast, provide an interesting comparison with those that I took recently in the tropical rain forests of southern Sri Lanka.  At least we avoided the leeches this time!

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Trinidad rain and sunshine on the north coast


A Saturday free (apart from those pesky e-mails) in Trinidad provided a great opportunity to get to know the island a little better (e-mails should be for offices, and people with nothing better to do!).  Thanks to Clint Ross for taking Marcel and me on pot-holed roads, through torrential rain, and avoiding the snake on the way…  It has to be one of the first times I have ever taken a spare day after a conference to go exploring. I must learn to do this more often.  Sorry to all of those still wanting a reply to an e-mail – I’m thinking of revising my policy specifically to exclude sending e-mails at the weekend!  I will have to find time to come back to the Asa Wright Nature Centre and go for long walks in the hills…

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Exploring Wuwei


Thanks to the wonderful hospitality of my assistant Chen Fei’s family, we were introduced over the last couple of days to the fascinating diversity of the area in the vicinity of Wuwei, in north-west central Gansu.  The city is situated along the Hexi corridor, leading westwards into central Asia, and has been subject to numerous cultural influences.  We had a kaleidoscope of experiences, including visiting the tomb where the famous bronze galloping horse treading on a flying swallow was found, wandering around the Confucius temple in Wuwei, walking in the desert at the edge of the city, learning all about how to serve and drink different types of Chinese tea, and then finishing up walking in the mountains near Tianzhu and being entertained by Tibetan dancers over lunch.  It was a brilliant time, and owed everything to the generosity of our hosts.

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Arrival in Lanzhou


We arrived in Lanzhou  from Beijing last night.  What a difference from my last visit almost exactly six years ago!  The Yellow River remains the same, but the number of high rise buildings and the amount of traffic are vastly increased.  Two dinners and a lunch later, the food has been wonderful – thanks so much to the generous hospitality of our hosts.  Today was relatively relaxed before we go out into the field on Monday – an opportunity to see some of the efforts of the local government to beautify the banks of the river: reconstructions of the old waterwheels, Longyuan park dedicated to dragon culture, statues of traditional folk stories, and a new wetland park full of beautiful flowers and walkways through the rushes.

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Filed under China, Photographs