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The New European: A pop-up publishing project as messy as its Brexit shitstormspiration

12 Jul

A newspaper for annoyed Remain voters that is only intended to run for four issues met with a yawn from the media, looks like an A-Level In-Design project and has no clear editorial agenda. What’s the point?

Strong feelings have been aroused in me by a new newspaper launched last Friday, called The New European. I was made aware of it on the day of its launch when I came across a photo of its cover on Twitter; I then had a read of the press release about it from Archant, a publisher of local newspapers across the United Kingdom, and a look at the media coverage of the launch. I’ve had a stab at reviewing the media coverage, then the design and content – which makes for a long and possibly quite disorganised read. But what are blogs for?

The launch issue cover of The New European

The New European is a weekly newspaper being published under a ‘pop-up’ model, with Archant committing to just four issues and then letting sales figures decide if it continues. Its intended audience is those living in the UK who voted to remain in the European Union: it has been rushed out, from concept to news-stand, in nine days to capture the post-Brexit mood while it lasts. Its first print run was 200,000 copies selling at £2 apiece (or all four issues for six pounds if you subscribe) and editor Matt Kelly, also Archant’s chief content officer, has said that he would be “delighted” if they shifted 50,000 of those.

First, what is a New European? Who knows. No one’s saying. 

Having re-launched two magazines as their editor, and being a journalist, I take a serious interest in these things. So I’m disappointed with the lack of interest in the launch from the media itself. I have only come across one in any way substantive article about it – at vice.co.uk – otherwise there has been no thoughtful analysis. Merely, depressingly, cut-and-pasted quotes from Archant’s press release in workmanlike, disinterested news pieces, even from The Guardian‘s Roy Greenslade, whose only job at the paper is to talk about media happenings. Nobody appears to have contacted Archant or Kelly for any insight or comment that goes beyond repeating what is in the press release. Twitter hasn’t lit up about it either. Steve Hewlett, editor and presenter of BBC Radio 4’s The Media Show, broadcast every Wednesday, didn’t see fit to mention The New European in its launch week, though it got a name-check in The World This Weekend two days after it came out – but no mention of the content or response. The Daily Politics gave Kelly a spot, but Andrew Neil’s opening question missed the point, and he seemed to forget that Archant has only committed to four weeks: “So, what do you think are its chances?” Neil’s other guest, Miranda Green, a seasoned hack, editor and founder of a newspaper herself, basically gave a ¯\_()_/¯ when asked what she thought.

The shrugging text emoji, for the uninitiated, is used in social media contexts to convey feelings of meh-ness, of “nihilism, bemused resignation, and is a Zen-like tool to accept the chaos of universe”. These are sentiments the British voting public know well and that I think plague world-weary media workers too, to the point where too many of them think cutting and pasting from a press release counts as a publishable story. Shrugging text emoji man actually seems to sum up the media response to this launch. The problem is that if the media doesn’t care about the project, it won’t support it, and the newspaper will struggle to keep attracting attention. I’m sure the editor would say that A) its first crop of celebrity columnists is itself media support and B) the paper doesn’t need or desire media support. But that is the world we live in. Actually, Kelly knows that: he’s made sure that the Miranda Sawyers and James Browns are in there, saying anything at all, so they have a reason to tweet about this launch and tell their readers to go and buy a copy (though Sawyer seems to only have managed a re-tweet about it, not commenting herself). On Sunday night, after I tweeted Kelly enquiring as to why he ran a topless photo of one of his contributors, lads mags-era publishing guru James Brown, on the cover, Kelly tweeted back: “because I liked it. it’s a personal indulgence. I’ll pass on your wishes when I see him for breakfast tomorrow”. I’m quite po-faced about that response because it’s defensive and bitchy, not to mention being horribly “famous person A is my mate and that’s why he’s on the cover”, which I find grubby, but predictably media. My boyfriend thinks he was just being sarcastic – he also says I’m picking on the village idiot (the paper, not the editor) and that’s why much of the media has ignored it – but such flippancy would be even less palatable to me than sleb name-dropping.

Armchair experts

The New European presents its crop of media commentators as its ‘experts’ (challenging head on Michael Gove’s infamous comment that “people in this country have had enough of experts”, and right at the top of the cover), but they’re not. They’re hacks. I guess there are different grades of expert. For example, the government has been talking with the ‘Big Four’ consulting firms, mostly known by Average Joe for their skill in helping rich folk and big companies avoid taxes, about helping it navigate the way from Brexit vote to actual EU exit and beyond. Four days before The New European launched, KPMG appointed a head of Brexit, regulatory specialist Karen Briggs, bringing together various colleagues to form a crack team to help worried businesses ready for doomsday. Given that none of us have ever exited the EU before, these firms cannot claim any specific expertise in this area, but that is not an impediment. They are viewed as go-tos by government and business, so view them as your Brexit-makers. It is people like Briggs who The New European should get to contribute, so that readers can hear from the individuals who will really inform the political decisions that will shape our lives and those of our children. I don’t mind Louise Chunn‘s slim piece on women in leadership roles, but there are any number of people who can write on why women are suited to lead in tough times. We’ll find out in the coming months, I guess, whether – as Chunn postulates – “women, especially middle-aged women, have more empathy for others than men”. Her assertions come across as total cod science and are in very dangerous waters well contested by a range of informed commentators. Kelly is right to stick something about women leaders in the paper, given that’s the way it was going while the newspaper was in gestation; and we’re going to endure a lot more of that from the media as May’s premiership gets under way. But it doesn’t strike me as ‘expert comment’ to talk about women in the way someone working at, say, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in 1963 might. 

Kelly writes in his first editorial that Archant went with the newspaper format over other mediums because “print is committing” – a comment clearly at odds with the pop-up model – then added that, after its four week-long print run, it could turn instead into “a digital platform, or a social media community, or an event.

“Or it may just pass, like the summer wind; no more than a fleeting curiosity in a season of madness”.

Summer wind is a workable cliché here. The editorial approach inside The New European is consciously light-hearted (I wonder if a portion of that is down to its team being drawn entirely from existing Archant staff who are still probably doing their day jobs while contributing). The cover is just bizarre, dominated by a large cartoon of a dog’s thought bubble about stupid voters, and middle-aged publishing eye candy from a topless James Brown – there’s other stuff crammed on there, but it can’t divert my attention from a half-naked man looking like he’s about to start crying because it’s Sunday, he’s run out of croissants and it’s too damp to go on a Sainsbury’s run. I enjoyed his piece on his formative experiences holidaying in Germany and how it formed his European world-view, and I think it’s good that it’s in there. But that cover photo is actually the opposite of what he’s saying: that it’s good to go and explore Europe, not stay back for the comforts of home. It’s a great piece to introduce the more wiffy-waffy cultural half of the newspaper but it’s not right for the cover, and I don’t need to see him de-robed and starved of breakfast breads by the British climate to be compelled to read him. It really undermines the paper’s raison d’etre, which, even if delivered in a light-hearted way, is still very serious – discussing how we’re to shape a future relationship with the EU when we’re outside it and what we’ll lose in so doing, culturally, economically and in formative backpacking trips.

Setting the ‘agenda’

Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland has the first ‘spread’, of sorts, with a note on the emerging ‘Left Behind’ – Brexiteers who reside in poorer parts of the UK, who allegedly voted to leave as a protest at being left behind by politics and society. His two-column piece is jemmied between three very large images of street demonstrations in the past year or so. The stand-first devotes most of itself to bowing to Freedland’s profile instead of telling me what I’ll gain from reading the piece, and there are no cross-heads in the article, which makes the reading experience a little breathless. The top of each page that carries the name of the sections, called the folio, introduces the 12-page section this piece is in as ‘Agenda’, a well-trodden, safe-as-houses name for a front-of-book section that you don’t really know how to name, but need to make sound vital, ‘newsy’ and authoritative. It means bugger all and can’t really help persuade me that the copy is worth a look, since a weekly newspaper can’t easily deliver ‘newsy’. It cannot set the agenda, or any agenda worth setting, when the main columnist in its launch issue has opened his editorial by writing that the government is without a prime minister, and then six days later, we have Prime Minster May by default. Such is the velocity of things at the moment. So The New European literally carries yesterday’s news. That said, Archant says that each issue should be treated as a collectors’ item. But I can’t see why anyone would look back at this paper versus another well-established one for a set-in-aspic record of such astonishing times as these.

The “What’s on in Europe” spread. Photo @UnitedKingdomEU

The second big editorial spread in Agenda is simply comprised of large-font, space filling quotes from around Twitter, with big screen grabs of a selection of Brexit-themed internet memes: the Teresa May/Game of Thrones one, the shadow cabinet resignation bingo one, the MEP face-palming at Nigel Farage being rude one. The kind of editorial fluff that unpaid, overqualified interns are employed to compile from an easy hour online for the ‘and finally’ or ‘from the web’ corners of a newspaper – one that actually has to earn its keep every day or week – takes a starring role in the launch issue of The New European. Pages 8 through 11 carry what those in publishing usually call ‘nibs’ – 50-word articles – in a column all the way down the left and right hand sides of each spread, the purpose of which is not explained, but seems to be a roll call of interesting things that have happened around the EU. Some are genuinely interesting nuggets for post-work drinking banter. I now know that in The Netherlands, national carrier KLM has developed a trolley that can dispense draught beer at high altitude, but has not yet received the necessary permission to use it. Then there are irrelevant factoids such as German band Beginner launching its international tour.

Towards the back half, after its slew of superstar columnists where most editors think their readers are starting to get weary, is much of the ‘celebrating Europe’ stuff you can flick through half-asleep on the Tube. It’s much more magaziney than newspapery. There’s a page devoted to a photography competition seeking images of Europe; a spread devoted to “What’s on in Europe”’; a piece by young journalist Josh Barrie – he has no byline and I’d never heard of him, but Twitter says he’s online editor for Town & Country House – about his jaunt around some of Europe’s more quaint backpacking attractions way back in 2011; a spread of smart-phone photos taken last week in Glasgow; a piece about watching the footy in Prague and a listicle of the ten best cafes in Paris. A sort of Metro newspaper for the metropolitan, Eurostar and EasyJet generation (that’s me), but not just the social media generation, suddenly giving-a-shit 48 percent, then? Yes, but then a map of The New European‘s subscriber base tweeted by Kelly suggests that subscriptions have been taken out in very many non-metropolitan areas of Britain, including Plymouth, Norwich, Chester, the Kent coast and south Wales.

The New European’s subscriber map. Photo @mk1969 (Editor Mark Kelly)

Columnists Suli Breaks, Ajit Niranjan and Jonathan Freedland are saying the same thing from different perspectives. Wouldn’t it have been a better use of their copy to create a big four page feature comprising all three articles about the topic of the relationship between Remainers and Brexiteers, and how and why Remainers can and should reach out to them, to lead the way forward, whatever your background? That could have been a strong and diverse cover, a call-to-arms. But instead – surprise! – the white, middle aged, famous media type gets the first spread on page 4 and the not-white, younger, less established writers saying the same thing languish together on page 19.

Demonstrating integrity

Inconsistent use of and incomplete bylines is poor practice and it means I can’t tell sometimes what is what, so integrity is called into question. Some articles have detailed bylines (Jonathan Freedland; Dr Paddy Hoey, Osman Ahmed) and others carry nothing but the author name. So I can’t tell if the pieces on pages 8-9 are letters sent in by concerned and opinionated readers, or commissioned articles by journalists? Both have the email address letters@theneweuropean.co.uk sitting directly under the author names. I don’t know if this is saying that these are independent opinions sent in by readers and the editor is inviting more, or if it’s saying that these are articles written by journalists and the editor invites readers to respond. The first on the spread, written by Angela Jameson and spanning both pages, is about jobs being under threat in Hull because agreements to build wind farms have been put on hold after the Brexit vote. Who is Angela Jameson? Why does her letter deserve almost two pages? If she is writing a letter – not a column – she must be a business leader, perhaps a consultant? Nope! She’s another hack (sorry – ‘expert’). The second letter/article, about English Remainers who are threatening to move to Scotland, is by Mark Nicholls. Who he, you ask? Yup! A freelance journalist who runs a news and features agency. I literally have no idea what either the title or the stand-first on a piece about the Tour de France piece means so I haven’t been persuaded to read it – and who is Michael Bailey, the author? He’s one of Archant’s sports writers, Twitter tells me – hence the subject matter. So say that in his byline!

This authenticity thing. I have no problem with journalists writing things – if I did I’d be out of a job – I just want The New European to be clear why people are writing things because context is so important. There are articles on things like the idea of reintroducing Lynx to rural Britain, on something called Tauromania, and a piece by a bloke called Steve Snelling about the Polish in Britain that only state the author name and no information that explains why it is them writing and not some other hack.

Perhaps this is not poor design and signposting, but just that Archant and Kelly don’t think readers care much who is writing or what their legitimacy is. I’m coming at this as a curator of communities around magazines and their brands, where enfranchising your readers by connecting them to your contributors – making them your contributors too – is the goal. You need to demonstrate legitimacy and transparency to deliver that, which means crystal clear and complete contributor bylines, stand-firsts, making sure readers understand who they’re reading and why and how they can get in touch to agree or disagree with these views. Legitimacy can be found in famous contributor names, but Miranda Sawyer’s views on Brexit are no more valuable than my mum’s just because I know her name. She isn’t an expert. Repeat after me, everybody: hacks are not experts. They collect, collate, understand, distil and communicate other people’s experiences and opinions in ways their readers can access, enjoy and learn from. They are not experts when it comes to a newspaper talking about Brexit and calling the section where much of this comment is housed ‘Expertise’ is just pushing it a bit too far. Calling the section for James Brown’s piece ‘Eurofile’ comes across dated – I get the play on words but wouldn’t something like ‘Citizen’ or ‘The European’ be a bit slicker and more focused on the person writing than the newspaper acting as a file of stories of people who like Europe? But that is a very personal thing, and section names can cause very intense debates.

Perhaps a newspaper with a four-week life may simply not think like that. But I don’t think life expectancy or medium excuses these simple housekeeping rules on reader experience.

A final whine. The outside back page with 48 facts about something to do with the number 48. Please, no no no. Stop it. It’s screaming ‘we didn’t know what to do with this page’ to me. You want people to pay for the newspaper over the next three weeks, either on the day or by subscription. Stick a house ad there. If someone reads and enjoys the paper and then see on the final page how they can subscribe or share their views on it, they can get on their smart-phone and do it while the mood takes. That page should work harder for the project than 48 things about the number 48, though at least now I know how how old Kylie is.

The New Day, which lasted barely three months and had an apolitical agenda just as The New European has taken, is still fresh in the memory. What was the point? Launching on the back of the Brexit vote result shock but stating that it is not a political paper and will not invite politicians to contribute, nor write about the political processes involved, is a strange decision for a newspaper trying to capture the mood of millions of people who are pissed off about the most important political event for the UK of the new millennium. And please, por favor, bitte, s’il vous plait,  per favore, proszę – Matt Kelly, stop telling people you’re capturing “the zeitgeist” or that you’re being “zeitgeisty”.There is already barely a wet cigarette paper between being British and any episode of The Day Today right now.

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Bolivia’s doble aguinaldo

7 Jan
I wrote this just before Christmas for the news briefing of the Bolivia Information Forum, about Evo Morales’ decision to double the annual Christmas bonus for state employees – and to enforce private businesses to pay it too. There is very little space in the briefing to discuss all the ramifications of the decision, be they political, social, and financial, as well as what it says about the trajectory of the Plurinational state today. I await late February and the deadline by which private businesses are legally bound to pay the double bonus. And I wonder what would happen if such a measure was taken in the UK!
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Double Aguinaldo: Private business on board, but some will struggle to pay
On 20 December, the Bolivian government issued a decree that brought into force the double bonus, or doble aguinaldo, a payment equivalent to one month’s salary to all salaried workers. This is in addition to the bonus, equivalent to one months’ salary, to employees each Christmas. The Supreme Decree 1802 states that the double payment this Christmas is intended to reflect the fact that economic growth is above 4.5%. The doble aguinaldo is to be paid each year for as long as growth remains above that point. In 2013 Bolivia expects to register growth of 6.5%, slowing to 5.7% in 2014.
Potosi, now a down at heel city in Bolivia but once the centre of the Latin American silver mining trade.

Cerro Rico at Potosi, now a down at heel city in Bolivia but once the centre of the Latin American silver mining trade.

Christmas bonus payments equivalent to one months’ salary are common in Latin America. Critics have suggested that the doble aguinaldo is a political tool that Evo Morales is using to buy votes in the run-up to the 2014 national elections. Bolivia has around 400,000 state employees on an average monthly salary of $500.
The decree also requires private enterprises to pay their employees the double bonus, leading to criticism that doing so would push up inflation and make them less competitive. Daniel Sánchez, the president of the Confederation of Private Business of Bolivia (CEPB), met with Labour Minister Daniel Santalla and Finance Minister Luis Arce to negotiate the terms of the payment. As a result, a memorandum of understanding was signed giving private businesses extra time, until 28 February, to pay the bonus to their employees. State employees meanwhile were to have received payment by 31 December.
Several municipalities have said that they will have trouble meeting the requirement, despite the decree stating that, where this is the case, the Treasury will transfer the necessary funding. Meanwhile, smaller businesses, non-governmental organisations and the Catholic Church in Bolivia have said that they will find it next to impossible to fund the double bonus.
Less has been made of the fact that some 70% of Bolivia’s urban and rural workforce are in informal employment, meaning that the vast majority of individuals will not receive any bonus. Pensioners were quick to take to the streets to protest against their not receiving the doble aguinaldo, though they managed to negotiate a 3% increase in their pensions from 2014 over and above inflation.

Educate me, please! Why I don’t like Gustu, Klaus Meyer’s Bolivian restaurant

16 Dec

A piece of rather long-form journalism coming up below. This is not so much a restaurant review as a review of a restaurant concept.

Have a read.

Bolivia doesn’t disappoint Western eyes set upon it for the first time. On my first visit in 2007, walking across the border with Argentina at dusty La Quiaca onto dustier Villazon on the Bolivian side, I was agog as four-foot tall octogenarian women, teal-stained and creased of face and bent almost 90 degree over, race-walked past me with several bags of cement slung over their backs. In my brain, two synapses met and made love: one, all the clichés I’d boiled up about what I expected Latin Americans (never mind Andeans, never mind Bolivians) to look like, gathered from travel guide books and Flickr photo galleries, and two, the bit where you learn something brand new that only The Road can teach you. That mixture of the expected with the unexpected is what well-heeled gap year students come to find in a place like Bolivia – that, and the cocaine.

But what do well-heeled visitors, expats and gringo inhabitants of the country want of the place? In my opinion, not what Gustu has to offer – well, not yet, anyway.

Gustu is one of several high-end restaurants across the Andean countries that has opened to cater to the region’s emergent middle classes, who mingle with said expats and gringos. They all have the means to enjoy the extraordinary ‘authentic’ culinary riches of the region, but packaged up in a thoroughly chic, modern and sanitary (read, ‘safe’) environment. Un poquito de Londres en los Andes, or un peu de Paris perhaps, or Copenhagen, where founder Klaus Meyer is from.

Gustu is all about gastronomy; not just food, but the experience around it, is the vision. And as the founder of Noma, voted best restaurant in the world in 2010 and 2011, Meyer knows how to give monied punters what they want. Noma’s thing is the wrapping up of Nordic cuisine, produce and culture in a world-class, two Michelin star environment. Forbes magazine describes it as a place where at least one dish in every meal “makes you glad to be alive”, which helps when you leave a couple hundred quid poorer.

Gustu, La Paz. Photo: El Deber

Gustu, La Paz. Photo: El Deber

Gustu is a repeat of this idea, but in very different cultural circumstances. It’s somewhat the grown-up version of the Andes’ hostel trail, where foreign gap year kids congregate with their equal numbers from other rich nations, llama jumper-breasted, to enjoy the infamous marching powder among the reassuring safety of their peers. I take no issue with those scenesters: they’ll be stacking shelves and selling hedge funds soon enough, so let them blow off steam and try old wine in new bottles.

But Gustu is a jarring upgrade on the concept of something new in familiar surroundings, with its waitresses in thigh-grazing, black corduroy pollera and matching black shirts. It is too little of Bolivia inside an Ikea pastiche of a European dining experience. It neither satisfies the genuinely curious visitor with sufficient local ‘authenticity’ nor delivers enough first-worldliness to draw La Paz’ nouveau riche week after week. It just isn’t much fun to be with, or to look at – and I visited twice, just to be sure.

It’s unusual for a restaurant reviewer to tackle décor before food, which will be mentioned last here, but that’s what you consume first in any restaurant, and the first cut is the deepest. To return to my maiden voyage over the border, I had my mind (enjoyably) bent by the sight of all Bolivia’s authentic madness, the elderly women, their bright pollera with their bowler hats, the frontier wilderness mixed in with breathless mercantilism.

You’re a long way from it here. For a start, Gustu is a million miles (and two hours of tailbacked traffic) across town and away from the bulk of La Paz civilisation, in the white, wealthy quarter of Calacoto. Here, men in army fatigues guard romantically-lit private streets from sentry boxes. Once arrived, yes, Gustu beckons you into Copenhagen with its understated entrance. But on stepping in, it’s dead quiet. No music plays. It’s a bit cold, and the aircraft-hanger like walls are painted a flat clay grey. There are no photos, paintings, sculptures, no pieces of Andean art, nothing to get your mind into gear for a new and exciting experience costing more than most natives’ monthly wage. Compare that with Noma’s interiors – yes, grey, but a lighter, warmer, tonal grey – with furs draped over easy chairs, rustic brick walls and aged wooden beams. Something to feel, to look at, to be inside of.

Not so much at Gustu. A couple of small couches at the entrance next to the bar are made up in what is presumably Gustu’s take on ‘Andean’ fabrics: stripey, colourful and rough. The same fabric hangs down from the high ceiling in the form of long lampshades. Colour, yes, but not Andean or Bolivian colour. I’ve come for dinner in some sort of clown prison. Take a trip to the ethnographic museum in the centre of the city to discover the breadth, intricate beauty and meanings of regional textiles. They aren’t just there to be pretty for us foreigners. Patterns vary by region, tribe, age, family, ayllu, trade, ritual, time of year – but they all say something, flora, fauna and human life in the Andean cosmovision, in ambers, maroons, shocking pink, neon green, and earthy brown. Stripey yellow and red is no kind of Bolivia I’ve known, and sits badly with the deadening attempt to Europify with empty grey walls. What is perplexing about this is that Gustu’s interiors were overseen by a Pacena fashion and homewares designer, Joyce Martin. I wonder what the brief was.

I search the faces of other diners to check the clientele: of maybe 15 tables, only about four are taken, on both visits. The one within earshot is a trio of American journalists having the food explained to them by Jonas, the blonde, Danish restaurant manager and sommelier. Behind me stuck in a corner is a young, monied-looking couple with a small baby, looking rather miserable. A couple of yanqui tourists sit way over the other end of the place, and then there’s myself and my two friends, a photographer and a music teacher, both from La Paz.

Wheat..and chaff

Before our starters come the bread rolls. Part of Gustu’s business plan, Jonas tells me, is to open a bakery in the city; he tells me that Bolivian bread is awful. The rolls are fine, nothing like the ones I’d been eating for breakfast at my friend’s house near El Alto – but no better. The butter was served on a little slate with a silver butter knife: Paris was interrupting rudely, as Parisians do, and I felt positively dainty manhandling it onto my roll. Is this the cosmopolitanism that local visitors want of this place, I asked myself, and if so, do they know if this is what Europe feels like? I found myself bristling again looking at the small grey knotted serviette in which the bread arrived, undone by the waitress on the table as if setting down Huckleberry Finn’s worldly belongings. I looked through the printed menu for the explanation of this ritual, and glanced at the walls for gringo helping signs, but the waitress made no attempt to translate. I didn’t understand.

The aguayo in action. You'll see this everywhere in La Paz. Photo:

The aguayo in action. You’ll see this everywhere in La Paz. Photo: Jaime Ravallo Camacho, Flickr

I asked my friends what this was all about. They suggested that it was supposed to emulate the aguayo, the large square of hand-woven fabric used by Andean peoples to carry foodstuffs to and from the market – these are trading and agricultural peoples – to carry wawas (babies) on backs up and down mountain passes or on city buses, and to serve food or coca leaf in a traditional apthapi ritual, something I was lucky enough to attend myself on my trip this year. I could see this was an attempt to incorporate something very Bolivian into the Gustu experience, but why not use the Andean textiles aguayos are made with, instead of a boring grey cotton napkin? Make the breaking of bread a Bolivian statement in the colours that travellers will see on the streets.  Wawas continue to be carried in aguayos, and stallholders continue to trade their wares on them. Why hasn’t Meyer brought his clueless foreign diners into his vision with a simple explanation of that history and meaning, without so much as a paragraph on the menu?

I mentioned that I visited Gustu twice. My first visit was aborted after my two-hour trip there because my friend, a Bolivian who lives in Germany, didn’t turn up. But Jonas calmed me down with a cocktail of Singani, orange and thyme. Singani is the national eau-de-vie, a brandy-like spirit distilled from Muscatel grapes, served warm up in the colder reaches. It’s not a drink I like, but clothed in citrus and finished with a sharp little Sunday roast herb edge, it was a pleasingly innovative turn on a Bolivian tradition.

Other visitors might not know what Singani is; and perhaps they’d enjoy their visit more if they were told. Jonas has written about his plans to get big wine producers to mentor Bolivia’s winery minnows and capture this new world. I think he could really make it happen for Bolivian wine. I can only hope that with this, he tells the story he finds to Gustu’s guests.

Onto the food. My costillar de lechon, pork cooked gently in milk and butter served with onions and pears, was good. There wasn’t much of it for 115 Bolivianos, but that’s haute cuisine for you. My friends had the llama with chuno, the former of which is out of many locals’ price range these days, but the latter – a grey, freeze-dried potato – a dietary staple for the masses. I liked Jane Black’s review of Gustu in Food & Wine that reveals Meyer’s first llama meat delivery showed up wrapped in a blanket (possibly an aguayo?) in the back of a taxi. Now that is authentic! It brings back memories of taking lanches (a bastardised version of the word ‘lunch’ I have seen in Bolivia and Brazil) in the central market of Potosi, the historic silver mining city where for the first time, I clapped eyes on meat butchery Bolivian style. A very portly lady presided over an ancient, flaky wooden beam, over which huge sides of cow flapped in the breeze just a few steps from where myself and two travelling friends were wolfing down bowls of steaming sopita.

It wouldn’t pass an official inspection back home. But it’s how many Bolivians really live.

Absent Andes

Not much of human life is here at Gustu yet. The lack of ambience and community in Gustu jabbed me in the back throughout dinner and left the biggest impression. Jonas explained that he just didn’t know why it was so quiet, that this was really unusual. I went on a Wednesday and a Friday night, and both were the same. Fair enough, restaurants need some time to get the word out and punters in. But I think Gustu will continue to struggle attracting first and repeat customers beyond the first flush of glowing publicity it has enjoyed. Meyer has himself spoken about the difficulty Gustu has persuading Bolivians to visit, indicating a fundamental problem with his vision here.

For what it’s worth, my dining partners said they would come again, but maybe for a special occasion – though our bill came to 750 Bolivianos, a little more than the average monthly household income (in a country where not too many people are in regular salaried employment). And other local friends were not keen on trying it at all.

A bottle of Tarija Aranjuez red. Get in my belly! Photo: http://vinodetarija.blogspot.co.uk/2011/02/aranjuez-duo-tannat-merlot.html

A bottle of Tarija Aranjuez red. Get in my belly! Photo: vinodetarija.blogspot.co.uk

Sure, maybe some wealthy locals will enjoy the prisonesque walls if they think that’s the height of Western opulence. There is strong demand in Bolivia for foreign things. The same food presented in a regular food stand or cafe would cost around 20-30 Bolivianos, and many people’s mum’s make delicious, fresh specialties for the daily family meal that rival Gustu’s. So there is a gap for Meyer to bridge with the locals. Bolivians know their food is good; they love to eat. A first-time gringo diner may be unaware of the sheer variety of foods that are unique to the Bolivian topography and climate systems: jumbo pods that contain not peas but something akin to candyfloss, potatoes that are brown on the outside but shocking pink on the inside.

Apparently, Gustu is compiling a registration of all the weird and wonderful foodstuffs his team come across. Its team is gathering a lot of information about the biodiversity, cultures, histories, cultivation and uses of Bolivian produce. But none of that is made available to diners, despite the time and money the Melting Pot foundation puts into training its young charges on all of this. Before one tastes the ceibo flower, one sees it on the plate, and has the chance to marvel at just how far from home they are. So why not provide some details, some photographs for the punters – in the menu, on the walls, through the waiters’ descriptions?

There’s no excuse for the lack of atmosphere. La Paz is a city of intellectuals, of artists, of dreamers, and Bolivia’s population is young. They stand at a unique crossroads in Bolivian history, inculcated with all the regional stories, cultures, beliefs, traditions and habits of this complex country, but with both feet firmly in the 21st century, with its J-Pop, network games, smartphones, women engineers and worldly ambitions. Its many creatives strive against a lack of funds and materials to produce work in all media rivalling the quality anywhere, and reflecting their own take on what it means to be Bolivian. Any number of those creatives would surely throttle a chance to hang their work on these very large walls, to be seen, to be heard. But they are shut out here. My dining partners both play cello in the city’s youth orchestra. One of them is also a member of the iconic Wara rock-classical orchestra, pride of the city. But they play for free, smuggle knock-off Chinese-made cellos in on overnight buses, study from books of photocopied text, and they’ve never had access to string wax nor horsehair to replace their bows. Still, they sound incredible and they would not be out of place at the Royal Festival Hall.

Why can’t some of their players be drafted in to play intimate, low-key sets in one of the very draughty corners of Gustu, to welcome in diners with the sound of cosmopolitan Bolivia set against the most earthy of Bolivia’s riches – its food? Why is Gustu’s take on Western chic so deadening to the senses when an intensity of home-grown expression sits on its doorstep? Much has been made of the Melting Pot foundation bringing in disadvantaged young Bolivians to train up in the gastronomy business. Why, then, do I only see white faces cooking up my food through the plate glass window to the stainless steel kitchen – but distinctly local youngsters in all-black outfits doing the serving and saying very little?

Questions abound from the strangeness of the Gustu experience. Surely Meyer is aware that Bolivian wine, while unknown in Europe and Northern America, is very gluggable? On a boozy night out to some very tacky nightclubs in Cochabamba, a city one day’s bus ride from La Paz, I bought too many bottles of Tarija Aranjuez red from the local cornershop at 25 Bolivianos each (£2.20) and enjoyed every slurp of what tasted like a leather-and-tobacco Bordeaux. (I almost bled through the eyes when three bottles of it, bought in duty-free at La Paz airport, were taken off me at Madrid airport.) Tourists with money will be making a pilgrimage south to the Tarija wine region and the vineywards on their organised tours, only just now opening up. Why is Gustu sneaking these wines out without making something of it for pig ignorant gringo punters like me? My dining partners seemed to be having out of body experiences sipping the rose we ordered, but the waiting staff didn’t attempt to explain to me the story or location of these wines. Yes, I need an English translation, as most of Gustu’s visitors will. If you’re asking people to pay for the Europe-in-Bolivia experience, and you want to educate and delight them, then help them out with staff who can answer questions in the international language of business about the produce on offer. It may sound pretentious, but that’s the reality of seeking out gastro-tourist dollars. Meyer isn’t maximising his golden opportunity to showcase Bolivia.

Most of the reviews Gustu has had are glowing; the next big thing in gastronomy, another triumph for Noma’s founder, yadda yadda. These reviews are written by people who are not usually familiar with Bolivia, are sent on paid-for press trips with the quid pro quo of a positive review, and always appear to contain surprise that Bolivian food isn’t slop gathered by the hands of homeless children from open sewers. I think it’s clear that these reviewers go to Bolivia expecting bad food in a poor country, and come away relieved to find something that speaks to their Western sensibilities about experimentation and first-class surroundings, not to mention hygiene. It’s that safety factor again.

Fair enough. But is that all there is? The offering is, to me, not enough – not exciting, adventurous, Bolivian enough, while the Eurocentric touches come across as bland. A couple of purple potatoes and some llama steak washed down with a Singani cocktail is not worth the air fare, nor the long taxi ride to the splendid isolation of Calacoto in an empty clown prison. Meyer has a large space into which he could easily invite Bolivia and become a Hadron Collider of local and global cultures. The vision needs a lot of engineering.

White House decertifies Bolivia for the 6th time: An exit strategy for an internationally-overstretched Obama administration?

2 Dec

I wrote this note in late October, on commission from the Bolivia Information Forum, before getting sucked into other work that meant it got put to one side. Some weeks after, Evo Morales surprised us by publishing a long-awaited government report on the extent of coca production in Bolivia needed to sustain traditional uses, among other useful bits of information that observers had waited some years for. I have not incorporated that here because my piece intends to put forward an idea: that is, that decertification by the US of Bolivia is not a simple case of the Western aggressor versus the poor little Indian boy. I propose here that persistently decertifying Bolivia’s anti-narco efforts is part of a larger effort in the States to diverge from activities that, on a cost-benefit analysis, make less and less sense to be involved in – such as its ‘war against drugs’ in Bolivia. Have a read.

White House decertifies Bolivia for the 6th time: An exit strategy for an internationally-overstretched Obama administration?

On 13 September, the White House ‘decertified’ Bolivia for the sixth year running, in its annual round of such actions. To decertify a country means it is not deemed adequately compliant to United States and international counter-narcotics strategies. Significantly, the US can then decide as a result of decertification to withdraw a range of its aid packages (excluding counter-narcotic and humanitarian aid), impose trade sanctions or even fines on the offending government.

Few may be surprised at the US’ apparently heavy-handed policy approach to Bolivia and its counter-narcotics performance, given the extremely fractious relationship between the two nations. But the repeated decision to decertify Bolivia since 2008 does not chime with the country’s performance in reducing coca grown for non-traditional purposes, cracking down on cocaine production, and on narco-trafficking. By its own estimation, the US says that Bolivia’s pure potential cocaine production fell by 12 percent in the year while hectares of land given to coca production fell by 2 percent. But it accuses Bolivia of failing to control the diversion of licit coca into the illicit cocaine production chain, and says that it has not developed or executed a national drug control policy. It does not mention Bolivia’s Strategy to Fight Drug Trafficking and Reduce Surplus Coca Leaf Cultivation 2011-2015.

Further, it appears Bolivia is treated differently by the White House to the other two major Latin American cocaine producers, Colombia and Peru – the former being the top producer by considerable margin, while Bolivia is the smallest. Yet neither Colombia nor Peru are decertified by the Obama administration. Colombia’s government, a long-time US ally, appears at pains to comply with US counter-narcotics policies; meanwhile, though, its cocaine production of cocaine has grown, and modern Colombian methods of production allow it to produce more, faster.

So why does the White House continue to decertify Bolivia?

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A very typical store in Bolivia, containing a variety of foodstuffs and drinks, home essentials, and green bags of coca leaf. These are used in tea, or to chew – as has been done for thousands of years in the Andes. Photo: Meredith Kohut – http://meridithkohut.photoshelter.com/gallery/Bolivian-Coca/G0000QNl9Qt1qSwo


The tone of Bolivia-US relations in the six years that Bolivia has been decertified cannot be ignored. Evo Morales’ decision in 2009 to expel the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) caused much consternation for the Obama administration, significantly reducing its ability to directly influence the country’s own policies and practices, and, it has said, reducing Bolivia’s transparency. Far from noting any numbers showing that Bolivia has slipped in its counter-narcotics performance, in its Memorandum of Justification for the 2013 decertification, the US put the DEA expulsion at the top of its list of reasons.

The DEA expulsion was topped and tailed this year. In February, Bolivia re-adhered to the United Nations 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs with a new reservation allowing for traditional uses of coca, staunchly objected to by the US; in May, Morales expelled USAID from Bolivia. In July, the Bolivian presidential plane became the subject of international outrage when it was denied entry into French, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian airspace, seemingly under behind-the-scenes pressure from the US which apparently believed whistle-blower Edward Snowden to be aboard with Morales (see BIF’s Special Briefing, 10 July 2013).

The justification offered by the White House in its repeated decertifications of Bolivia focus on its alleged “demonstrable failure to make substantial efforts to adhere to its obligations under international counter-narcotics agreements and take certain counter-narcotics measures”.

Is Bolivia, while a perpetual irritant to the US in rhetoric and ideology, slipping down the list of strategic priorities? Is it possible that decertifying – more than a political stick with which to beat Bolivia as punishment for the DEA expulsion – is a useful way for the US to gracefully reverse out of its self-imposed policy and aid responsibilities in the country at a time when the White House’s focus has dramatically shifted to the Middle East?

To repeatedly decertify the country builds the sense that Bolivia may never measure up to US or international counter-narcotics expectations, with the implication that Bolivia has no intention of co-operating nor a genuine desire to exit the cocaine trade. So far, though the White House has said it could withdraw various kinds of aid, or impose fines or sanctions on decertified countries, it has typically applied a ‘waiver’ so that this has not occurred. Removing this waiver, having built sufficient justification over many years of decertifications, would provide the US its reason to stop spending money on a country of diminishing importance, money whose influence on the Morales government and policies is questionable, and that is much needed elsewhere. Despite criticising Bolivia for a lack of transparency and co-operation on counter-narcotics efforts, which it says was seriously exacerbated by the DEA expulsion, in the 2013 Memorandum of Justification the US said it would close its La Paz-based International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs section by the end of this year. This move is at odds with its protestations for more co-operation and transparency, but will save the US money and effort.

A gentlemanly exit from its Bolivian funding exploits would be in keeping with a broader US shift away from worrying about its “backyard”, despite US Secretary of State John Kerry’s blunder in calling the region that (used by Morales to justify the USAID expulsion). In April this year Kerry announced a 14 percent cut in State Department spending in Central and South America .Other forms of US-Bolivia co-operation are strained and some may come to an end anyway. The US is one of Bolivia’s most important trade partners, but the key 2001 US-Bolivia bi-lateral investment treaty was terminated by Morales in June 2012, though it remains in force for another ten years.

The DEA, alongside USAID, was arguably the US’s most significant and important aid and intelligence tool in Bolivia, and the expulsion of both agencies hurt its legitimate involvement and influence there. But Bolivia is a distraction from Obama’s efforts to manage the US out of budget-busting exploits in Afghanistan, Iraq and the region at large. Yet to simply back out of US counter-narcotics commitments or aid in Bolivia may jeopardise other more fruitful, but relatively fragile regional relationships at a time when these neighbours are making fresh co-operation efforts with one another via trade blocs such as UNASUR. However, by repeatedly decertifying Bolivia’s efforts, it may be signalling a dwindling interest inside the internationally-overstretched Obama administration in an expensive and combative relationship that brings little benefit at home or abroad.

The notion that the US sees decertification as an exit strategy would make more sense than the US’ current justification for this repeated action, which does not tally with Bolivia’s numbers regards counter-narcotic achievements over the period in question. The closure of the International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs section may be the first sign affirming this. When, in 1996 and 1997, Colombia was decertified and faced sanctions, the US faced minimal retaliation risk because then-president Ernesto Samper was deemed in the pay of drug traffickers, and Colombia therefore deemed a weak state. Though Colombia was a US ally, “for most US officials it lacked strategic significance in areas beyond drug enforcement,” according to Coletta Youngers at the Washington Office on Latin America. Similarly, Bolivia may increasingly be seen as less strategically significant to the US now, and decertification may be a symptom of this new reality. What this may mean for Morales, converse to any sense that it may be a wholesale victory to see a US withdrawal from Bolivia, remains to be seen.

The White House’s decertification process is itself rather muddled. While it states that a country’s presence on the list of decertified countries “is not a reflection of its government’s counter-narcotics efforts or level of co-operation with the United States”, it adds in the same stroke that: “one of the reasons major drug transit or illicit drug producing countries are placed on the list is the combination of geographic, commercial, and economic factors that allow drugs to transit or be produced, even if a government has carried out the most assiduous narcotics control law enforcement measures”.

Wanderlust: Five reasons to get friendly with Bolivia

21 May

Earlier this month I managed to squeeze in the first piece of journalism I’ve done since I began my life as a Master’s student in October 2012. I was asked to write a blog for Wanderlust, a monthly, British travel magazine – one of the finest – about my experience travelling in Bolivia. The published piece is below – have a glance. I am going back to Bolivia in June for my fieldwork – studying the consumption of second-hand clothing in La Paz and Cochabamba – very exciting times! I only passed through La Paz on my last trip, so this time I’ll have a fortnight to see what it’s all about (and I’m particularly excited to visit the National Museum of Art, which seems to contain a boatload of old religious art, one of my favourite things).

Cochabamba's La Cancha market

Cochabamba’s La Cancha market


The World Economic Forum says Bolivia is the world’s unfriendliest country. Melanie Stern shares her five reasons why the intrepid should ignore and get there pronto

The World Economic Forum’s 2013 Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report put Bolivia first in a list of ten countries it deemed the least friendly for visitors. In the category “attitude of population towards visitors” Bolivia ranked top of the least friendliest nations after Venezuela, Russia, Iran and Pakistan, among others.

I’m sure intrepid travellers thought two things in response: that sounds odd, and why don’t I see for myself? Bolivian people are definitely friendly – they are curious about visitors, eager to help you get the best out of their country and they want you to leave happy.

Bolivia is emerging strongly from a long history of post-colonialism and neo-liberal economics, and its infrastructure is adequate for the needs of keen travellers. Part of the fun of experiencing a nation in Bolivia’s phase of development is negotiating a new culture and can be readily navigated by anyone with common sense.

Most people who spend time in Bolivia don’t forget it in a hurry, and they come away with new friends and an enriched view of the world. Follow the bumpy roads, the frigid plains, eat where the locals eat, and you’ll be duly rewarded.

Here are five reasons why you should get to Bolivia now.

1. Experience first-class trains at third-class prices

Any UK resident who commutes to work by train can forget the gnawing rage of exorbitant prices for late, cancelled, dirty and overcrowded trains. Bolivia’s train network is tiny – most of the network has fallen into disuse because the bus network is so vast and convenient – dirt cheap, squeaky clean and takes you through two completely different, dramatic landscapes. The seats are well padded, recline a little, the toilet is clean and stocked with paper (more than can often be said for the UK’s local trains).

One trip visitors should enjoy: going north from Tupiza (the stopping off point to horse-ride in the lonely, ferrous quebrada where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are said to have made their last stand), take the train to Uyuni, the town where tours across the famous salt plains begin. The train leaves around 6.30pm arriving in Uyuni around midnight. The benefit of an evening train in is that, amid the endless lunar-like, uninhabited landscape, the unimpeachable darkness draws your eyes upward. You’re rewarded with an incredible soot-and-diamonds skyscape.

Bring a blanket for the ride (buy a good fleece in the market at Tupiza, and treat yourself to a polar jacket while you’re at it; they’re dirt cheap and very useful in high-altitude Bolivia). Then cosy up and keep taking in the big chunk of star-gazing that this train trip affords you.

2. Unmissable markets and unique food

If you’ve heard anything about Bolivia, you’ve heard that it’s poor. You equate poor with lack of food, or decent food. But that’s not true in Bolivia where market food stalls are an unmissable part of a visitor’s experience. Take the salteña, Bolivia’s answer to the pasty (and incomparably tastier). It’s a palm-sized, American football-shaped baked pastry shell consisting of boiled egg, perhaps some chicken or beef, chillies, maybe an olive or two, garlic, onion, sugar and spices,and parsley. Grab a handful of serviettes with your purchase; part of the experience is that the juice inside the shell runs down your hand as you munch. After a few goes, you’ll master it.

La Cancha market in Cochabamba, a city that marches on its stomach, is good for a tasting trip. Try silpancho, meat schnitzel with rice, fried plantain, onion and beet salad and a lively picante sauce. Wander through the vegetable market taking in all the colours and varieties of the freshest produce that you just don’t find in even the biggest supermarkets.

If you’re up for a beer made from corn fermented by human chewing, get your hands on some chicha – it’s a traditional beer but has an acquired taste!

3. Volunteer somewhere really different

Travelling to a poor country, you might be inclined to get your good on. There are many volunteering and gap-year companies operating in Bolivia, as well as lots of NGOs. These are a good way into volunteering in Bolivia: and you’ll come away with new skills and a wealth of experiences.

Want to build an eco-farm for local Chapare residents as an alternative to the cocaine trade? Want to see inside Bolivia’s health system and lend your expertise? Want to work with animals that only exist in this part of the world? Bolivia does it.

While you’re volunteering, you’ll work with local people, and regardless of your level of Spanish, you’ll be taken under-wing. You’ll eat together, party together, hear about real life there for better or worse, learn how to swear in perhaps several indigenous languages, and get golden tips on travelling onwards to places the usual tourists will miss.

Bolivians are well aware that their world and your world are very different; ask them the questions about Bolivian life and politics, and get under the skin of society. If you choose to live with a local family (which many volunteering companies organise), double all of that and throw in a lifelong friendship. Bolivian families are protective. If you’re young and female, do all the things you want to do, but phone your host and let them know you’re going to be out late. Even if you’re in your 30s. They’ll sit home worrying otherwise, because while you’re with them, you’re part of the family. You’re no hostel guest – they want to spend time with you.

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4. View Bolivia’s best landscapes

So many tourists only pass through Bolivia for a couple of days, on their way to Peru or elsewhere. The intrepid should extend their stay and jump on a bus to see a bit more. Most Bolivians use the bus network to travel the country and the wider Latin American region. With such incredible biodiversity, and such diverse ways of living (houses on sticks in the rainforest, self-built apartments on the city limits, crumbling colonial outposts in the ancient cities and in the Eastern missions area, gated and guarded villa-style mansions for the few wealthy), bussing it doubles up the travel-learning experience.

Each city has a big bus terminal with all the bus companies selling tickets from little offices next to one another: visit a few to ask how much they charge (ida is one way,ida y vuelta is a return), and ask to see the bus if you want to know what you’re getting into.

Trips may be several hours or they may be overnight, or all day. On smaller routes going through villages and isolated areas, you can expect to travel alongsidecampesina (indigenous) women in pollera and pigails, transporting anything from chickens to potatoes or clothes for sale in the markets, other foreigners, and locals of all persuasions. The ladies selling snacks will be there if your bus is an overnight one.

Enjoy the scenery, the hairpin bends and the craggy mountain passes, or the steamy cloud forest climbs, as well as long tracts of Inca road or Spanish colonial pebble dash that make the bus rumble. Take your polar coat, a big bottle of water, some biscuits, your iPod, a little torch and some toilet roll (toilet stops on the way won’t stock it).

Any bus traveller coming into La Paz at first light will be open-mouthed at the sight, as the bus begins to descend from the mountains into the valley of El Alto, the sheer scale and steepness hits you in the face, millions of tiny houses battling gravity to cling to the mountainside, and a million lights blinking with promise.

More locally, Bolivian city transport relies on colectivos (shared taxis) and micros(minibuses) – always have a few Bolivianos in change handy to pay, and have your camera ready to take snaps of the carnival-styled micros that look more like they’re ready to cart diablada dancers. The designated stops micros have are known to locals but not marked on the road; to ask a driver to stop you need to holler ‘en la esquina, por favor!‘ (the corner, please!) to them in enough time for them to stop. It’s not always a corner they’re stopping at, but that’s a catch-all term for a stop. Be loud or be unheard.

5. Colonial culture

The city of Potosi in Bolivia’s south (the world’s highest city at 4,000 metres above sea level) might at first seem quite depressing, but it’s a must-do if you want to understand more about Bolivia’s people and history. A roughshod, down-at-heel little town at first sight, Potosi was the centre of the Spanish empire for 500 years because a little mountain there, cerro rico, continuously produced enough silver to bankroll the expansion of Spanish power across the continent and to Asia.

Today, old churches are the lone representatives of the grandiosity and wealth that characterised the colonial city. You can enter the mines in cerro rico (still in operation) with a guide who is a former miner and a local, who can bring to life the story of the mine and the ruinous legacy for the Bolivian and indigenous people making up the mining community – as well as for the Bolivian national personality. In the centre of town is the Casa de La Moneda, the site of the old colonial mint, now a museum for the mint’s original technologies and for an incredible collection of colonial religious art which, interpreted by a guide, complements your understanding of how silver and Catholicism refashioned Bolivian society.

The main market in Potosi might freak you out: butcher women hang man-sized slabs of meat over flaking, high beams of wood, no sanitation equipment to be seen. But don’t miss a chance to have lunch in the market – try the broth, a sort of minestrone with jumbo-sized pasta or loaded up with quinoa. Bolivians may lack the finer things, but they know how to use spices and flavour to perk up any food, and they’re always pleased to see visitors are willing to judge them not by home standards, but by their own unique riches.

Melanie Stern is a business journalist and is currently completing a Master’s degree in Latin American studies at University College London, focused on Bolivia. You can read more of her reporting on Bolivia at her blog, melstern.wordpress.com and follow her on Twitter @melvstern.

BBC News: How China’s growth ambitions drive global commodities

24 Aug Opal mining in Coober Pedy, Australia. Nothing whatsoever to do with this article except it's a form of mining, and a photo I took myself. 2007.

My latest news feature for BBC Business News Online– published today.

A bit of blather first. What’s kinda funny is that I visited a mine this week – I was at Big Pit in Blanaevon, Wales, on Monday. I’m a big, big fan of mining and visiting mines: I’ve been to the salt mines in Austria, iron ore mine in Broken Hill, Australia, opal and gypsum mines in Coober Pedy, Australia, silver and tin mines in Bolivia and now a coal mine in Wales.

I think it’s fascinating and important to see how the resources we never think about but that shape our lives come out of the ground, and to know the conditions the people who haul it out the ground have had to endure.

I got lucky on the Big Pit tour because one of my fellow tour-takers is a mining engineer having worked extensively in South Africa, and he told us that it is still law in South Africa that every mine must still have a canary. In this technological, safety-savvy era I’d have thought that method of checking for gas build-ups was long gone, but sometimes the simplest, cheapest methods are the best.

On my mine tours I’ve observed every level of safety preparedness – from world-class cutting-edge super machines, down to nil. Right now as you read this on your laptop or mobile, children are mining the raw materials in Latin America, Africa and Asia that will eventually be made into the components that make up your laptop or mobile. And the chances are, they are not wearing any of the safety gear you’d hope, the shoes and clothing you’d hope for very hot/very cold/very wet conditions, may not have access to water or sanitation or proper ventilation as they work, and are likely to be missing out on both education and decent pay and rights. (Let’s not even start on the topic of why children are working at all). So mining is worth reading about as we should not walk through life ignorant of this: though these are not issues I had a chance to explore in the piece below, you can Google all of that stuff and learn at will. Or go and visit a mine.

One more quick note. If you’re interested in the big cheeses running big mining firms, I interviewed the finance director of Rio Tinto, the FTSE-100 resources giant, a couple of years ago. You can read that interview here

And here’s the BBC piece.

Australia’s resources minister, Martin Ferguson, has caused a stir with his assertion that the country’s mining boom, one of the biggest drivers of its economic growth, is “over”.

Opal mining in Coober Pedy, Australia. Nothing whatsoever to do with this article except it's a form of mining, and a photo I took myself. 2007.

Opal mining in Coober Pedy, Australia. Nothing whatsoever to do with this article except it’s a form of mining, and a photo I took myself. 2007.

As he acknowledged, the state of the global economy has depressed demand for Australia’s minerals and led to sagging commodity prices.

But those commodity prices have not just taken a tumble in Australia.

They have fallen globally, seemingly because Chinese economic growth has finally started to slow.

That is in part because European demand for its products has slowed. So China has started to produce less of those products, and needs smaller quantities of raw materials such as iron, copper, zinc and gold to do so.

Could Mr Ferguson’s call on Australian commodities also be true for the global commodities market at large?

Exit the dragon

You know how you so frequently see “Made in China” stamped on the back of your toys, phones, in clothing labels, and on your food packets?

To make that volume of products that quietly dominate our lives, China has had to suck in a huge amount of the world’s commodities.

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in 2010, China consumed 40% of the world’s base metals – aluminium, copper, lead, tin, zinc or nickel, all widely used in manufacturing the gadgets and goods we use every day – and 23% of the world supply of major agricultural crops like wheat and corn.

And to build the cities, roads, ports and factories needed to produce that stuff, China has staged a construction boom – upping its need for commodities even more.

But Chinese policymakers have decided it is time for their economy to move away from that.

Thomas Helbling, a research chief at the IMF, said that China’s latest five-year plan for growth “strives to move the economy from investment- to consumption-driven growth”.

In other words, it wants to stop pumping cash into importing commodities and building infrastructure, and focus on selling products and services to its growing middle class instead.

Changing it up

As China buys less raw material, the effect of its dominance becomes apparent and global prices are now going down.

That is having an impact on economies as a whole, as Australia’s Mr Ferguson suggested.

Australian mining giants recently disappointed the country’s politicians. One, BHP Billiton, said it would put on hold its Olympic Dam extension project, reportedly worth as much as $30bn, which it was hoped would create 25,000 jobs in South Australia.

Some thought BHP Billiton’s decision was evidence of China’s change in growth expectations beginning to impact global demand, and other economies as a whole.

And having been protected from global recession by their mining boom, Australians do not want to hear that this is now under threat.

But BHP Billiton said it thought shrinking commodities demand would stabilise in 2013, including from China.

Ruchir Sharma, head of global emerging markets equity at Morgan Stanley, told the BBC that China’s economy was simply maturing, but that resulting lower global commodity prices could be good for emerging markets.

“China is moving to a much lower growth trajectory,” Said Mr Sharma.

“It is maturing, just as Japan did in the 1970s, [South] Korea in the 1980s and Taiwan’s economy in the 1990s.

“It has become too large to grow that quickly, and it is becoming less commodity intensive.”

Mr Sharma thought lower commodity prices would benefit a lot of developing countries such as Turkey and India, and even developed countries including the US.

And he added that the price of oil was more likely to fall than to keep rising, in his view.

“If China’s slowdown is managed right, it will be OK,” he said.

Supply and demand

One thing that has kept commodity prices high has been the lack of supply to meet a huge growth in demand.

The demand has been fuelled by China’s stellar growth, as it has become a major producer of the mobile phones and cheap T-shirts we use daily.

Commodities businesses all over the world have grown quickly off the back of that demand, making investments in mines, oil exploration, and boosting soybean production in Brazil, among other things.

But those investments often take time to bear fruit.

So commodities companies such as BHP Billiton are now deciding that the reduced demand for their products from China make it harder to justify investing in those projects for the moment.

For example, Jim Rodgers, co-founder with George Soros of the Quantum Fund, told the BBC that a lack of farmers played a starring role in a recent spike in food prices – grain, corn and soybean being critical parts of the food supply chain.

“The main determinant to commodities is supply and demand,” said Mr Rodgers. “We are running out of farmers because nobody has gone into agriculture for the past 30 years.”

The US, France and Mexico have said they may convene an emergency meeting at the end of August to address the high price of grain.

But Mr Rodgers does not think commodity prices will decline.

“I don’t see any significant new supply to bring this bull market to an end,” he said.