Just in Time for World AIDS Day

Just in time for world AIDS day, a global day of action aimed at increasing awareness around the critical disease that continues to claim millions of lives each year, several advocacy organizations have issued Barack Obama a report card on his commitment to battling HIV transmissions and bolstering AIDS programs around the world. The U.S. president has earned a grade of a D+, hardly passing in his promises to combat the pervasive disease that affects so many people around the world, and making small strides in a positive direction. The grade was issued by the Global Access Project, Africa Action, the Treatment Action Group, and Global AIDS Alliance, and is based on the campaign promises that Obama had made prior to coming into office, taking into account all of the efforts he has put henceforth: the good, the bad, and the lackadaisical.

The main points of focus for Obama's performance assessment were global AIDS funding levels, scale-up of treatment, prevention efforts, and the expansion of global health efforts. Hopes had been built high prior to his presidency with a promise to double funding for AIDS programs around the world and to do the same for the number of HIV positive individuals receiving treatment, yet these goals have fallen to the wayside and his commitment to public health has wavered. And while there are some points of redemption in Obama's AIDS policy, particularly in his focus on prevention efforts and reproductive health, advocates around the world are questioning whether Obama may live up to earning his potential high marks.

In the face of rising treatment costs around the world, our president has chosen to flat-line spending on AIDS programming and research throughout the world, keeping the global funding levels set at what his predecessor had established. And although funds are being supplied for prevention efforts and care, critical treatment such as TB testing for all HIV positive individuals was not included. And because of a lack of proper funding, basic healthcare efforts such as doctors visits and medications for HIV are being stifled. By increasing access to antiretroviral medications so as to decrease individual infectiousness, and by facilitating access to healthcare clinics providing HIV-specific treatment and counseling, the Obama administration would have a significant impact not only on the lives of those living with HIV and AIDS around the world, but on the number of new transmissions each year. But according to his judges, Obama's lack of funding for these programs has "undermined his commitment to fund the U.S. fair share of the AIDS treatment burdern."

But our president's marks do improve in the realm of HIV prevention efforts, specifically as they are related to reproductive health and to substance use. In a monumental move, President Obama rescinded the ludicrous Bush-era Gag Rule within his first month in office. The Gag Rule was a global AIDS funding policy set up by the Bush Administration to prohibit the U.S. dollars from being used to bolster any reproductive health research or clinic that did not promote an abstinence-first paradigm. Obama should be congratulated for removing this measure which was completely out of touch with the real issues at hand, and his efforts to incorporate realistic reproductive health considerations into tackling HIV transmission reflect a highly refreshing perspective; especially in light of the World Health Organization's assertion this week that HIV is the #1 killer of women of reproductive age around the world.

And Obama is making large strides in the field of substance use as a primary contributor to HIV transmission, as well, having vowed to retract the federal measures which prohibited funding for needle-exchange programs. This matter hits close to home for Obama, as Washington, D.C. is one of the cities which has suffered most under this ban on funding programs which, in other cities like New York, have saved countless lives. D.C. is also one of the cities with the highest rates of HIV, with a staggering 3 to 5% of the population being identified as HIV positive. These issues are right at Barack Obama's backdoor, and his attention to them is critical.

But despite these various steps toward progress, President Obama has not yet fully fulfilled the U.S. pledge to expand its global health investments, contrary to the "Global Health Initiative" that was launched earlier this year in the White House. And while he had talked extensively about doubling the fiscal budget for AIDS-related spending, the levels of the Obama Administration remain constant with those of the Bush Administration, which essentially cripples the fight against global AIDS. And as Barack Obama had campaigned about setting the budget for AIDS research and prevention efforts, so far he has not. With hundreds of billions being spent on banks and on war, the proposed expanded budget for HIV would be just a tiny drop in the mighty American bucket. And with millions of people dying each year of this devastating disease, there simply is just no excuse for ignoring it.

Discovering Truth Through Action

Today marks the ten-year anniversary of the monumental protests in Seattle, which rocked the city to its core, halted the odious goings-on of the World Trade Organization, and created the conflict which came to be known as the "Battle in Seattle," as a result of the violent outcome of police intervention on the streets. The protestors of those days have been praised for their tenacity and their bravery, as they clashed with officers, refused to back down, and refused to allow the imperialist agenda of the WTO to continue. At the time, the agenda of capitalist globalization was left largely unqualified, and it took hundreds of arrests and the shut-down of the down-town area of one of America's largest cities for people to take notice of the issue. For this, Walden Bello writes in Yes! Magazine about the truth that was brought to light because of these audacious protestors, who took a stand against injustice and put a temporary wrench in its works in his article "The Meaning of Seattle: Truth Only Becomes True Through Action." To read it is to reflect back on a time when the wool was removed from our eyes, and the outrage of thousands became the the burden of millions. It is to relive the shock that was experienced that day, and the lessons that have been learned thereafter. To read it is to remember a time when the concept of Democracy was ripped open and reconsidered, and people's freedom was a wild, unhinged force to be reckoned with.


Flower of the Week

Have you ever seen anything like this other-worldly Passion Flower from Kyoto, Japan? Its unique beauty captivated and enchanted me at first sight, and its intricate anatomy continues to fascinate me still to this day. Mother Nature must be quite the avant-garde artist ;-)


Iceberg, right ahead!

Ok so this isn't really a joke, but more like something from a frightening apocalyptic tale in which the benevolent majesty and power of the earth is unleashed, and transformed into a dangerous, vengeful force. According to the Associated Press, hundreds of icebergs which were once a part of a massive ice floe in the antarctic are now slowly, gracefully, ominously gliding across the ocean towards the southern island of New Zealand.

A maritime warning has been issued to ships in the area, as chunks of ice which average to be about a mile in depth are drifting farther north, in larger numbers than can be considered normal or appropriate for the area.

Climate change is undoubtedly culpable in this scenario, as Neil Young, a scientist working for Agence-France-Presse, has postulated. He told the AP that "If the current trends in global warming were to continue, I would anticipate more icebergs as the large ice shelves break up." Certainly this is a massive symbolic reminder that we cannot afford any further politicization of an issue which is, more than anything, at the pith of our very survival.

Perhaps if the icebergs were floating nearby Copenhagen there would be more of a rustle?


The World Peace March is Coming

A very exciting, very quiet tremor is sending its vibrations across the globe through the footsteps of thousands. Can you feel it? All over the world, people are joining together in the simplest of human activities: the nomadic stride which has held us together throughout so many years; the delicate tread of the peaceful warriors who are owning their responsibility to mankind and to mother earth, and taking part in a magnificent act of unity so strong that it will take the power of the whole world to accomplish it. They are marching to illuminate the important pledge of love and non-violence that we all must take to ensure a salubrious future on this planet.

For the first-time ever, peace-lovers around the world are becoming united in a massive march for solidarity from continent to continent. The World Peace March, an extensive journey from New Zealand to Argentina, commenced this October 2nd on the anniversary of Mohandas Ghandi's birth, will be covering the span of all inhabited land on earth- so as to reach as many souls as possible and promote the ideals of peace, love, and understanding.

And as for New York City Residents, THEY will become WE next Sunday, November 30th, as the city welcomes the arrival of the march to North America. We will be traveling across the river on the Brooklyn Bridge, with as many smiling souls as possible, into city hall to represent the message of peace that has been carried for so many miles. And as the delicate stampede that has touched so many already will grow ever stronger, the hope that it carries in the our spirits' capacity for progress through love will shine that much brighter.

As the manifesto of the walk reads, "We are in motion, traveling around the planet to strengthen the voice that is clamoring for a human world.... We are thousands, we will be millions, and we will change the world." What a beautiful movement to encompass all of humanity across all of the earth!

From the beginning of our time on this planet, human bodies have been built to walk- and there has always been a reason and a purpose for this universal gift. Now, let's let that purpose be clear: we want a safer world, a global community, and ensured positive future for all generations to come. And as the marchers approach your town, will you join them? Will you add your voice to the thousands, become the millions to call for peace? The tremors of their footsteps are growing closer every day, the vibrations are growing stronger... can you feel them? Will you join them? ;-)



Protecting the Growers

The bounty of legislation being written to ensure the quality and safety of food products in the United States is seemingly endless, with all sorts of sensible, predictable titling and rhetoric. There is the Food Safety and Tracking Act, the TRACE Act, the Safe Feast Act, and the recent Food Safety Enhancement Act, among a multitude of others which serve to enforce safety regulations on food processors and producers across the United States. Still, there are often many questions left unanswered with these types of legislation, such as why private firms are being hired to audit food processing plants in place of government authority, why antibiotics are still so rampantly used and loosely monitored, why pesticide use continues to increase, and why small organic farmers who produce the safest foods the natural way are still left out of so many major dialogs and considerations in agricultural legislation.

It seems as though, with the majority of agricultural measures, there is very little protection for organic producers, and to be sheltered by the USDA's organic certification umbrella is a costly endeavor that not many small farmers can easily afford. And as safety laws are becoming ever more stringent, the burden placed on small-scale organic and sustainable farmers grows heavier.

Thankfully, there are a handful of representatives who are seeking to provide provide protection for organic growers facing increasing regulatory constraints. In the new Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009, a bill that will increase the power of the FDA in overseeing the food system, several senators have expressed their commitment to easing the burdens placed on sustainable agricultural practices. Jeff Merkey of Oregon, Al Franken of Minesota, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and Michael Bennet of Colorado teamed together to write up a letter addressed to Chairman Harkin last week to help organic farmers comply with the new legislation.

And it worked! The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), which had advocated vigorously in advance of the bills passage for family farm rights, and to ease the regulations against organic farms by merging FDA efforts with the established USDA organic certification rules, responded to the unanimous passage of the bill this week with an overall positive outlook, although is still pressing the FDA to be more forthcoming about how the new regulations will impact sustainable farmers, and is urging lawmakers to include the Growing Safe Food Act to the food safety bill. The act was coined by Senator Debbie Stabenow of MI, and would require an implementation of educational programs, funding, training, and other support for farmers and food producers. NSAC vowed that they would continue to fight for the inclusion of the Safe Food Act into the bill.

The health and safety of our food should always be at the top of our legislative priority list. However, overregulation of small-scaled and sustainable farming practices is not the answer to food safety concerns. Local and organic farmers should be supported and bolstered, and the gigantic industrial food system is what should be met with equally gargantuan legislation to protect us against its profit-geared agenda that frankly lacks any true regard for safety. Hopefully the passage of this new legislation will reflect the concerns of the NSAC, small farmers, the representatives that support them, and the consumers who want to trust in an agricultural food system that is safe and healthy for everyone.


Flower of the Week

A Radiant Hibiscus from my very favorite place on all of Staten Island...


He got it.

Another victory for grassroots human rights campaigners! The group Basta Dobbs, a faction of the immigration reform organization Presente.Org, is claiming victory over the resignation of right-wing political pundit Lou Dobbs from his regular post as a CNN news anchor. After a detailed, high-tech campaign involving a petition signed by over 100,000 people, a YouTube Video, a text-messaging campaign, radio PSAs and a series of events in 18 cities throughout the country, the group was successful in putting pressure on the president of CNN, claiming that Dobbs should be released due to his controversial and discriminatory opinions, particularly in regard to his vilifying views on immigrant groups in America. His remarks have often been racist and offensive, and his position on a trusted news network was considered to be dangerous for public opinion. But now he has gotten what was coming to him: the loss of his ability to disseminate inappropriate content to TV audiences. Basta Dobbs has released the following statement:

"Our contention all along was that Lou Dobbs -who has a long record of spreading lies and conspiracy theories about immigrants and Latinos - does not belong on the "Most Trusted Names in News," said Roberto Lovato, co-founder of Presente.org... "We are thrilled that Dobbs no longer has this legitimate platform from which to incite fear and hate."

This is a significant step in the name of community empowerment. Once again a small group of marginalized people have been effective in challenging seated power, refusing to accept or condone discrimination. And once again they have been listened to, and their concerns have been addressed. Hopefully other pundits with malevolent agendas will take a lesson from Dobbs' fate, and reconsider the propagandistic material that they distribute to the public, before someone drops a house on them, too!


The Right to Choose

In the vernacular of American dogma, freedom is a central aspect to the terminology which serves to create and uphold social value and provide meaning to our lifestyles. We invoke the our constitutional right to freedom for almost every challenge, and boast on how our society is unique in that it provides us with the chance to live and be "free." When the buffoonery of our leadership is questioned, or the over-indulgence of our culture is criticized or warned against, we simply resort to our favorite catchphrase: love it or leave it.

But for many the choice really is not so easy. The freedom to "just say no" has been revoked from many in our country, and the choices that decide the fate and well-being of their lives are often made difficult or almost impossible, depending on the type of contract that they sign.

I am talking about the United States Military, and the soldiers who somehow lack the fundamental right to just say "sir, no, sir." I'm talking about the fact that 43,000 of the troops currently deployed abroad are deemed medically unfit to serve, but are deployed regardless. 17% of troops currently in Afghanistan fall under this distinction. I'm talking about the 260,000 homeless veterans, 6,000 of whom are female; about the countless cases of PTSD; about those who are silenced, coerced, and forced back into service despite the completion of their term; about Robert Murchison, a soldier at Fort Carson who shot himself in the leg to avoid re-deployment; about the mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, and children who find their loved ones permanently changed upon their return from war; about the 30,000 more souls that President Obama is pondering sending into war, beginning next March. I'm talking about the average of 10 suicides per month at the Texas military base of Fort Hood, Texas, prior to this past July. And I am also of course talking about the highly-publicized tragedy that took place there last week.

These are men and women who are far braver than I am, to risk their lives in the name of that same freedom in which we love to bask. Yet they are given little or no options once they have served their duty, and are faced with intense pressure as soon as they begin to show a reluctance to fight. The fact is that war is an atrocious situation, and if a person is brave enough to do it once in your name, than they should have the freedom of choice as to whether or not they'd like to return. But still they are sent into life-threatening, sanity-threatening situations, where they occupy a land on which they are not welcome. This is a kind of imposition that is downright disrespectful to all involved, and as was shown by the behavior of Major Hasan at Fort Hood last week, can be extremely dangerous.

In Kurt Vonnegut's famous novel, Player Piano, the character of a foreign Shah visiting the United States is revisited throughout the story, and is positively baffled by the operations of this country's soldiers. He mistakenly refers to them as siki, or slaves, and is confused when he is corrected because of their intensley imposed submission. This puzzlement is not far-off from my own. Why must this continue? I am thoroughly confused. For all of the money we spend on defense, can't they increase care and counseling and treatment through the armed forces? Or must soldiers continue to seek solace elsewhere?

There has been a proliferation of coffee houses such as the 'Under the Hood Cafe,' located directly across from Fort Hood in Texas, which seek to serve as shock absorbers: places for the troops to seeks counseling, legal advice, and support. As the war against the war movement intensifies within the armed forces, more resources are needed to maintain the health and well-being of our returning soldiers, in order to maintain a cohesive and sane environment for our military. They have given so much in the name of our freedom, and deserve to be fully taken care of when they return. They also deserve the right to choose their own fate, and if need be, to be able to freely say "sir, no sir!" without reproach.

Happy Veterans Day to all those who have served and are currently serving our country.


Get What's Coming

Lou Dobbs forgets that journalism is a noble profession, one that implies a high mind of reasoning and integrity, commitment to fact, and above all respect for those who are being reported to. It might not be his fault, but he has completely lost sight of the meaning of his job, and has taken his position as a disseminater of information to a volatile and potentially dangerous level by prevaricating stories from a biased and highly subjective point of view. This is disrespectful to us as his viewers, who have the right to hear forthright and impartial news.

Specifically, Dobbs has made inappropriate and equivocal claims about the people who are at the pith of the immigration debate, and such behavior from a man who claims to sit on a pedantic high horse is threatening to the sovereignty of independent thinkers across the country. Quite frankly, Mr. Dobbs is a liar who has the potential to exacerbate violent racist tendencies in the United States against people of foreign decent.

But he is being called out. And like his fellow right-wing pundit Glenn Beck has taken it upon himself to call for the firings of government officials appointed by our voted-in representatives, now the people are calling for the firing of this slanderous man. The group presente.org has taken action, and released a video which focuses on CNN's hypocrisy. The network released a four-hour documentary focusing on Latino immigrants in the United States, yet still continues to employ a man who disseminates hateful and racist messages to his viewers. This truly is hypocritical, as was stated by El Diario, a Spanish-language newspaper based out of New York.

Over 100,000 people have already voiced their opinion by signing a petition calling for Dobb's release. And unfortunately this movement is not being documented by the mainstream news media. Instead they are publishing sob stories on how Dobbs now feels targeted because of his views. In response to Dobbs claiming that his first amendment rights have been challenged, the co-founder of presente.org, Roberto Lovato, has said the following:

"You and others have suggested that we are seeking to abridge your free speech. Such arguments exhibit a shallow understanding of what the First Amendment projects. You are free to voice your opinions, just as we are free to encourage CNN to cancel your program. There is, quite simply, nothing in the Constitution that guarantees you a national news platform from which to spread misinformation, and invoking its protections is only a distraction from the real conversation. That conversation is about the future of CNN." (read the full article here)

Very well said, indeed. It is obvious that the group is not backing down from its demands, and as the movement gains more momentum, hopefully it will also gain in more attention. If you would like to view or sign the petition being sent to Jon Klein, president of CNN, click here.


Flower of the Week

"Aint forgot about the flower, deep underneath the crowded streets, sproutin in between the cracks.." -lyrics borne

A brave, defiant sunflower off the side of Richmond Terrace, Staten Island.


Hemphasis on Fashion!

(written for the Green Festivals blog page)

This year, as spectators and participants shuffled through the massive entrance to Washington, D.C.'s Convention Center for the 2009 Green Festival, there was a [perhaps not so] surprising new element added to the layout of the event. Veterans who had been used to an eclectic mix of sustainable vendors and inspiring setups were by no means disappointed, as many of the returning favorites were right at the gates: Better World Books, My Organic Market, and Organic Valley Farmers among them. Yet, standing proudly right at the door, was a bright-lime colored station wagon with the bumper sticker "Let U.S. Farmers Grow Hemp:" a hemp seed oil-powered wonder, and an unmistakable addition to the Green Festivals family. It was driven in by the owners of Capitol Hemp, a store in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C., which is dedicated to the sale and promotion of industrial hemp products.

Absurdly enough, while hemp products are legally imported for sale in the United States, it is the only legally-sold crop that U.S. farmers are not allowed to grow. Meanwhile, it has proven to be a prolific business for Canadian hemp growers who sell to the U.S., and a fine sampling of such folk were present in full hemp gear at the Washington, D.C. Green festival!

One of the busiest sections of the festival this year was what was known as the "hemp pavilion," centered around a large lectern made out of... you guessed it! Hemp! The advocacy group Vote Hemp was there, passing out petitions for festival goers to send to their representatives, urging them to support a measure which would allow our farmers to benefit from growing the sturdy and versatile crop. And all around were hemp products of all imaginable sorts: pants, shoes, garden gloves, candles, dog treats, boxers, hats, snacks, t-shirts, etc. etc. etc. Basically, any type of product imaginable was there, and it was all made out of hemp!

Perhaps the most entertaining treat of the weekend was the hemp pavilion's organized hemp fashion show, where the various vendors submitted pieces for enthusiastic volunteers to model. Each outfit was skillfully, creatively, and colorfully put together- putting to rest any myth about hemp not being a comfortable, attractive material to wear. The designers went all out, and the models bore it all- from boxers and robes to silk-blends and wedding dresses, the world of hemp wear was all a flourish!

It was truly inspiring to see hemp promoted in such a way that would make it appealing to mainstream American audiences. After all, the plant has been used by humans for over 10,000 years, and has been labeled by many as a "wonder plant," having hundreds of uses: from food and clothing to powering a vehicle. And the display at the Green Festival was a stepping stone for American society which, for all of its boasts of capital incentives and ingenuity, has not yet fully embraced hemp for the highly productive and beneficial crop that it is! Now, as some states are torpidly coming around to the idea of hemp farming, is the time for us to support this fantastic market, and to VOTE HEMP! And hopefully in the years to come, "meet me at the hemp pavilion" is a sentence that can be used not just at the green fest, but in everyday life :-)