26 02 2011

Sleepily browsing the world wide web this morning when a mysterious by-line caught my eye:

“You should message me if you can give me some intelligent feedback on… www.Avaaz.org

My curiousity having been sufficiently aroused by the fact that I had never heard of this website, I cautiously typed it into Google to find out what it could be about. What I discovered was exactly the type of website I have been looking for to write a post about for the past few months, ever since the online conversations sparked ongoing protests across North Africa and the Middle East.

Avaaz – which means “voice” in several major language groups around the world, is an online forum where registered users can take actions including signing petitions, funding media campaigns and direct actions, emailing, and lobbying governments, towards a large range of issues. Their strength comes in numbers, and the fact that they focus on the things they agree on. Avaaz seems to garner strength from individualism, and rather than trying to find consensus about the specifics of any one issue, each member decides individually where to focus their efforts and whether they will participate or not in any given campaign or movement.

The result is phenomenal – for example perhaps not everyone shares the same view points on gay marriage or whether being gay is something you choose or something you are born with, but when almost half a million people sign a petition to stop the passing of a bill which would sentence gay Ugandans to death, suddenly you see that there are over-arching human rights concerns which many agree on.

Some of the descriptions of Avaaz.org listed on the site include:

“Avaaz is closing the gap between the world we have and the world we want, one campaign at a time.”


A transnational community that is more democratic, and could be more effective, than the United Nations.”

— Suddeutsche Zeitung


Avaaz is a global web movement to bring people-powered politics to decision-making everywhere.”

While Avaaz is only a few years old (2007), it has already had a major impact internationally in forums such as climate change, human rights, the international sex trade, emergency response, state corruption, protecting natural resources, and the list goes on… Some of Avaaz’s concrete achievements are listed below:


  • a drive for a “million-signature Citizen’s Initiative in the EU” for a moratorium and independent testing and regulation of Genetically Modified crops.
  • almost $700,000 raised for an intensive, long-term campaign to fight the “rape trade”–the sexual enslavement of women and girls around the world
  • strong backing for indigenous communities “petitioning Chevron’s new CEO to clean up his company’s toxic legacy” in the Amazon.
  • support for a democratic resolution to the January 2008 election crisis in Kenya — tens of thousands of Avaaz members asked their foreign ministers to refuse to recognize any President until Kofi Annan’s negations could produce an acceptable compromise.
  • worldwide pressure for democratic rights in Pakistan during the November 2007 crisis, and an ad campaign in Pakistan calling for President Musharraf to end the state of emergency.
  • a global call for a WTO ruling to ban subsidies for dangerous corporate overfishing of the world’s oceans, in which Avaaz members sent tens of thousands of messages to their trade ministers.
  • an effort to increase transparency in the UN’s selection of the next High Commissioner for Human Rights that “made international headlines through a blog” and a fake job advertisement in The Economist.
  • a petition, rally, and protest video supporting efforts to oust Paul Wolfowitz from the World Bank after the May 2007 corruption scandal
  • a call for regional governments to increase aid donations to help Mexico cope with flooding in November 2007
  • co-hosting, with Chatham House, David Miliband’s first speech as UK Foreign Secretary — and bringing him questions from Avaaz members around the world.


I plan to join Avaaz and dig a little deeper into their campaigning process over the next few weeks. I’m sure that the mass appeal of being able to have a real impact on international issues will bring Avaaz.org more and more to the centre stage of how the internet can be used to have a real impact on the real world.

– Sarah Topps

(I’d also like to say thanks to Arteri, who originally directed my interest towards this site.)

What can kill you in less than 3 hours, and be treated with salt and clean water?

9 11 2010

No, it’s not a jellyfish sting, or lethal poison – the surprising answer is Cholera.

According to the CBC, over 7000 people have been infected in Haiti over the last week, resulting in the deaths of 500 individuals, many of whom could have easily been saved if Haiti had the proper infrastructure in place to treat them. There has been no cholera outbreak in Haiti for around 50 years, and the initial reaction was one of confusion as many Haitians just did not know how to avoid the disease (BBC News).

Directly from the World Health Organization website: “Cholera is an easily treatable disease. Up to 80% of people can be treated successfully through prompt administration of oral rehydration salts (WHO/UNICEF ORS standard sachet). Very severely dehydrated patients require administration of intravenous fluids. Such patients also require appropriate antibiotics to diminish the duration of diarrhoea, reduce the volume of rehydration fluids needed, and shorten the duration of V. cholerae excretion. Mass administration of antibiotics is not recommended, as it has no effect on the spread of cholera and contributes to increasing antimicrobial resistance. In order to ensure timely access to treatment, cholera treatment centres (CTCs) should be set up among the affected populations. With proper treatment, the case fatality rate should remain below 1%.”

Cholera is a disease which is believed to have originated in India, and which thrives in disaster-type situations like this one, such as floods, hurricanes or earthquakes which disrupt normal water treatment routines. The original outbreak is believed to have started approximately three weeks ago, but the number of cases have drastically increased since Hurricane Tomas struck last Friday, causing flooding across western Haiti. Unfortunately the bad news continues to grow, as one of the rivers which has been identified as a source of the epidemic is soon expected to overflow with excess water.

The best intervention strategy for reducing cholera deaths is through a combination of  controlling the disease spread through provisions of safe water, proper sanitation and immediate education about the disease to the affected population group. Infected individuals can be difficult to identify since most are asymptomatic, but insuring access to quick treatment to those persons who do show signs of the illness helps to prevent further spread and save many lives. Providing safe water and sanitation is a major challenge, particularly in emergency situations, however it has been shown to be the critical factor in reducing the number and spread of infections.

Perhaps this is another opportunity for the use of SODIS (solar disinfection of drinking water) to be taught and used as a weapon against the further spread of this deadly disease. This simple method of disinfecting drinking water can be readily achieved by filling a clear plastic bottle with collected water (which has low turbidity) and leaving it out in the sun for more than 6 hours. (Stay tuned for a more in-depth follow-up post about SODIS, how and when it works, and benefits of using it to disinfect water.)

Written by Sarah Topps – 2010

Read more: http://www.cbc.ca/world/story/2010/11/07/haiti-cholera-toll-rises.html?ref=rss#ixzz14l2qWRgI

Geothermal Power: An underrated alternative source of energy

30 03 2010

For today’s post I am very excited to introduce my friend Peter Buchanan as my first guest writer for ReachFWD.

Peter is currently studying Petroleum Engineering at the University of Alberta and he hopes to study geothermal electricity at grad school. He was explaining the concept to me and it sounded so interesting that I asked him to write a brief explanation for my readers on ReachFWD.


When we think of alternative sources of energy, renewable resources that can reduce our dependency on fossil fuels to meet our energy needs, often the most vivid pictures that come to mind are wind and solar power. Evidently, this is because the sun and the wind are so ubiquitous in our daily lives. We can feel their energy so it is only natural to notice them. This is probably why geothermal power, another renewable source of energy has been largely overlooked until recently.

Geothermal power comes from energy generated by heat in the earth. The material that makes up our planet gets hotter and hotter as is gets closer and closer to the core of our planet. This energy can be seen on the surface in the form of hot springs, geysers and volcanoes. There is an essentially infinite amount of energy beneath our feet, waiting to be utilized.

(Diagram from www.geo-energy.org/basics.aspx)

Geothermal Energy is not new; the first Geothermal Power Station was build in 1911 in Larderello, Italy[1]. Since then, it has become a common source of energy in places like New Zealand, Iceland, The Phillipines and the Geysers in California. Typically it works like this: Two wells are drilled into a geothermal reservoir (rock hot enough to transfer sufficient energy to water). The geothermal reservoir may contain water or steam in network of pores and fractures that make up the rock or it might be dry. Hot water is extracted from the wells and its energy is used to drive a turbine which generates electrical power. The cooled water is then re-injected down the other well where it reheats and continues in the loop.

While there are various types of geothermal plants, the three most prominent types are: Flash steam, Dry steam and Binary Cycle.

Flash steam plants work when high pressure, high temperature water coming up the producer well are directed in to a large vessel. Because of the large pressure difference the water flashes into steam which is used to power the turbine.

Dry steam plants are used when the wells produce only steam. This can be the case in very high temperature reservoirs. The steam from the reservoir directly turns the turbine and is then condensed into water and re-injected into the ground.

Binary Cycle plants use a working fluid (commonly iso-pentane) with a lower boiling temperature than water to turn the turbine[2]. Hot water from the reservoir heats the fluid in a heat exchanger. The fluid then boils to turn the turbine, while the water is re-injected in a closed loop. Binary Cycle plants allow for lower temperature reservoirs to be used.

(Diagram from: http://www.nevadageothermal.com/s/HowGeoWorks.asp)

If geothermal power is so clean, efficient and abundant, why isn’t it being used for all of our electricity needs across the planet, you ask? Until recently, geothermal power was not viable from and economic or technological point of view in most areas of the world. In places like Iceland, New Zealand and the Philippines where hot reservoir rock can be found close to the surface it was used but in many areas of the world the resource would be too deep to drill for economically if even possible.

(Diagram from: http://www.cangea.ca/what-is-geothermal/)

Fortunately, with today’s advancements in technology such as binary cycle plants and enhanced geothermal systems (EGS; where rock is artificially fractures to allow for more permeability in the rocks and more flow/heat transfer) many new geothermal resources may be unlocked in the near future. Geothermal power is not likely to ever completely replace fossil fuels, however combined with other renewable sources of energy it has the potential to contribute to a much larger percentage of the world’s energy consumption.

Pros of Geothermal Power:

  • Clean and renewable with little or no emissions.
  • Reliable. It doesn’t depend on the weather to produce electricity, so it is always on.
  • Many of the engineering concepts are very similar to Oil & Gas, so we have a head start on the learning curve.
  • Can already compete economically in some regions and the list of regions is growing.

Cons of Geothermal Power:

  • Requires a large initial capital investment (like all power plants) which can take time to recover the costs.
  • Not economical in many regions.
  • Reservoirs can be depleted of heat locally, but will regenerate the heat over time.
  • Not enough awareness!


  1. Larderello Worlds First Geothermal Power Station, Renewable Energy UK,  http://www.reuk.co.uk/Larderello-Worlds-First-Geothermal-Power-Station.htm
  2. How Geothermal Works, Nevada Geothermal Power, http://www.nevadageothermal.com/s/HowGeoWorks.asp
  3. What is Geothermal, Canadian Geothermal Energy Association, http://www.cangea.ca/what-is-geothermal/
  4. Basics, Geothermal Energy Association, http://www.geo-energy.org/basics.aspx

A Road Map to World Harmony

4 08 2009

I always have trouble when people ask me to explain succintly what I am learning from my degree (International Development Studies) and why I am taking classes in so many different areas. Last year I had made a rough diagram which attempted to demonstrate how all the areas were interconnected – i.e. agriculture is affected by environment, women’s rights are affected by religion, modern-day governments are affected by political geography, which in turn is affected by history etc.

Areas of Study - Interconnections

LANG = language, EDUC = education, NUTR = Nutrition, RELG = Religion, AGRI = agriculture, GEOG = geography, ECON = economics/economy, ENVIR = environment

*since making this diagram, I have added a few more areas to my degree, and there are certainly more which could be connected, these are just my chosen areas of focus.

More recently, Toyota has released an interesting interactive website showing the same idea as shown above, but with suggestions on how we can improve on the problems which face the world, including energy, education, health and coexistence – just to mention a few.

I thought about trying to duplicate it on here somehow, but it’s probably best to just explore it yourself.

– Sarah Topps

Land Grabbing

6 06 2009

Yesterday I received an email from the Canadian Association for the Study of International Development (CASID) about a new website being launched by GRAIN a small international non-profit organisation that works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems.

The new website, http://farmlandgrab.org,  was launched last week to serve as an open forum to discuss the growing problem of out-sourced food production.

African Charter Article# 21: All peoples shall freely dispose of their wealth and natural resources for their exclusive interest, eliminating all forms of foreign economic exploitation.

The new website has news, reports, videos, and audio interviews to help people track and understand what is going on. Anyone can register and upload material. The site serves as an active forum for debate and proposals on how to turn things around, with free and open space to write your own piece, comment on someone else’s, or create new sections.

20 million hectares of good cropland worldwide has already been signed off to foreign investors.

One article that I read on the site mentions an article written by the Economist in their previous edition (May 30th 2009 ed.) but unfortunately I couldn’t find the story they referenced. Here is the article – on Food Security or Economic Slavery? – written on June 1st.

More on this topic to come soon, as I find it quite interesting, but would like to spend more timing forming my opinion.


(The following is an excerpt from the email I received on the CASID listserve)

“This new site is an improved version of the site initiated by GRAIN last year which provides an open, up-to-date, and easy to search library of over 800 articles, interviews, and reports on farm land grabs around the world – published since the outbreak of the food crisis in 2008.

The global trend to buy up or lease farmlands abroad as a strategy to secure basic food supplies, or simply to get rich, is not slowing down – it is getting worse. The scale is becoming more apparent now, with researchers counting some 20 million hectares of good cropland already signed off to foreign investors, or soon to be, worldwide. More countries and corporations are getting involved, from Sri Lanka to Congo or Hyundai to Varun. Farmers’ organisations, human rights groups and other social movements are agitating against this obscene approach to feeding their countries, while at least one government, the Ravalomanana regime in Madagascar, has been brought down because of its involvement in such a deal.

Next month, through a move by the Japanese government, which has a direct stake in locking down its own outsourced food supply, the Group of Eight most powerful countries are going to release a set of criteria to make these deals look “win-win”. The words will be smooth, but people won’t be fooled.

Like its predecessor, this new website contains mainly news reports, videos and audio interviews to help people track and understand what is going on. However, its role as a public clearinghouse on otherwise secret deals will be stronger:

  • The new site is open-publishing, meaning anyone can register and upload material.
  • The website will contain as many land grab contracts as possible, releasing them into the public domain because the secrecy surrounding these deals is unacceptable. (Please contact us if you have any such documents to share. Anonymity will be respected.)
  • The website will serve as an active forum for debate and proposals on how to turn things around, with free and open space to write your own piece, comment on someone else’s or create new sections.

This land grab blog is an open project. Although currently maintained by GRAIN, anyone can join in posting materials or developing it further.”

*In October 2008, GRAIN published “Seized: The 2008 land grab for food and
financial security“, one of the first overall analyses of this new trend. It is
available in English, French, Spanish, Arabic and Bahasa Indonesia.

*GRAIN also maintains a landgrab resource page bringing together GRAIN materials,
other organisations working on the issues, and relevant actions & events. There
are also a number of land grab maps from various sources.

Post written by Sarah Topps

The Power of Back-Linking

18 05 2009

Now that the blog has been running for about 6 weeks, I’m really starting to see how my traffic fluctuates, and on which days it sees more readers and why. The biggest difference seems to come from what I tag things with (affecting search engines) and links to my page from other websites – whether other bloggers, or Facebook, or my friends and family or just from people who decide they like what I’ve written and pass it on.

The magic of the internet and the huge power of social change or education through blogging comes from back-linking and word of mouth. The more people that know about you and share links to your site, the more traffic you will get, and thus the circle continues. I was very excited today when I was reading a blog by a friend who I met while doing volunteer work through AIESEC in Morocco, Caitie Hawley, to read that she was linked to Nisha Chittal’s blog which is a decently well-known dot.com about politics and social change.

Nisha recently wrote about 25 ways to use your blog or social media to create change, and I found her suggestions quite interesting, and also that I had already instinctively done at least a few of them in trying to keep the blog interesting for my readers:

1. Start simple: write a post on an issue you care about. Chances are, most people don’t know much about it. Inform them.

7. Highlight nonprofits that are creating change, like this one: Global Giving.

11. Write about your experiences with volunteer or nonprofit work. >>> This one’s coming soon guys!

12. Write your own ideas on how global human rights issues can be alleviated.

15. Discuss how social media plays a role in the non-profit community.

16. Write about advocacy in digestable ways for would-be donors, supporters like The Girl Effect video.

17. Highlight events related to advocacy efforts.

18. Interview or profile someone involved in social justice/human rights efforts like Vandana Shiva.

25. Include a link in your blog to great websites that allow you to make a difference with just a click, like The Hunger Site.

These are the ones I particularly liked from Nisha’s blog, but there are SO many ways to use new media such as blogging to get the word out there and be heard…I also find it interesting that the three people involved this time are also all linked through the global student network AIESEC.

Feel free to send me links to your own blogs or websites and I will pass on the magic of internet traffic!

– Sarah Topps

The Land Tenure Debate

14 04 2009

hernando-de-sotoHernando de Soto Polar, a famous Peruvian economist, first suggested giving title to land as a way to use globalization to fight poverty at the most basic level in his book: The Other Path in 2000, and has since won international acclaim for his suggestion. Hernando de Soto himself explains the process best, using the simple analogy of an apple at a 2001 speech in Brussels:

I hope by now you have noticed that I have an apple here on the desk. This apple is my apple. […] what makes this my apple is a consensus about its ownership. However, if we look closely at this apple, there is nothing on or in it that says it is mine. Nothing in the physical context of the apple gives us that information. A stolen apple and a legitimate apple both look the same. […] Nothing in the apple says whether I can pledge it, lend it, deposit it as a guarantee, use it as collateral, or whether I can export or import it or cut it up among partners. In other words, the commercial and social life of my apple is not determined by the apple itself, but rather from the rules which we establish among ourselves to allow the apple to be traded and be attributed with commercial and financial functions that allow it to be globalised. […] Globalisation as we know it today is only possible through law that provides rules and through neatly organised standards that provide information.”

De Soto estimates that there are millions of dollars trapped in what he calls ‘dead property’ around the world due to the fact that its owners do not have official title to their land. Over 80 percent of the assets owned by the poor in developing countries cannot enter the market because they have no legal representation, he claims (De Soto 2001). Through changing property law, he sees us overcoming these hurdles and connecting a further 4 billion people to the capitalist land markets of the world. Giving title to property, he argues, gives the poor leverage to change their ownerships into capital – collateral or credit, will stem development as they take on entrepreneurship and not stay trapped in their subsistence agriculture or other small livelihoods (De Soto 1986).

De Soto’s idea was revolutionary and captured the minds of many, but not everyone agreed that his solution would work in all cases. John Bruce questions whether just handing out titles to plots of land is necessarily going to help the poor, arguing that “Tenure change cannot create more land” (Bruce 1993). He explains that giving title to those who informally own the land is useful if there is a system in place to recognize that legal title, if it is carefully documented when the title to the land changes hands and if there is a market – i.e. a demand for the land which is being titled. If there is no one who wishes to buy the land, he argues, then it is not helpful to be able to legally sell it and banks will not be willing to give you credit for such undesirable collateral (Bruce 1993).

Speaking specifically of indigenous lands, he says that critics of indigenous tenure systems often fault the indigenous for being unwilling to recognize the sale of their land, or to make investments in the land which cannot be converted to liquid assets. He also notes problems with community-sanctioned land use; certain innovations may tie down land use for longer than is appropriate, destroying the ecological balance or disrupting the community commons (Bruce 1993).

Bruce argues against these critics, saying that: “The causes of insecurity are diverse, and many have little to do with the rules of indigenous systems. It may arise from the abuse of power by traditional land administrators in hierarchical systems, or from their ineffectiveness in enforcing rules in political or economic circumstances which have undermined their authority. Competition between ethnic groups, land grabbing by new elites, and such arbitrary government action as taking without compensation or granting concessions inconsistent with existing rights are emerging sources of insecurity of tenure that may prove in the long run more serious than deficiencies in the substantive rules of indigenous systems” (Bruce 1993).

*The following is an excerpt of a paper I wrote on the land tenure debate in Peruvian indigenous communities*

“Despite growing international pressure to recognize and protect the rights of indigenous communities, and the fact that Peru signed and ratified the ILO Convention 169 on the group rights of indigenous peoples, Peru made very little progress in these matters during the 1990s (Smith, et al. 2003). This was due mainly to the Fujimori government and the state’s non-interventionist neo-liberal stance – little attempt was made to protect the communities, focusing instead on individual land titling: exactly what Hernando de Soto had recommended (Smith, et al. 2003). Unfortunately, this was not in the indigenous communities’ best interests, because they generally had no individual rights to the land they were using – particularly in the case of the Machiguenga and other neglected Amazonian groups.

While de Soto’s arguments may hold true for urban slum dwellers and highland indigenous farmers, the jungle-dwelling Machiguenga and the island-constrained Taquileans had very different starting points and neither is an appropriate case for implementing de Soto’s theories in order to gain credit access.

The Taquileans already had title for their lands, but could not use it for collateral to gain credit access because of community consensus that non-Taquileans should not be landowners on the island of Taquile. In addition, Taquileans had already created their own access to capital due to their burgeoning tourist trade.

The Machiguenga on the other hand, had a strong desire for capital, but have two restrictions on gaining title to their lands for use as collateral: first, they require the use of a wide range of land for their traditional type of subsistence swidden-fallow horticulture, and secondly, as Bruce has pointed out, there needs to be a demand for the land before it is worth taking as collateral by banks, who manage the credit. The sustainable use of their forest reserves involves moving their dwelling and their field to a new location about every five years (Henrich 1997).

These constraints on the Machiguenga may change as more and more of them become involved with western-style labour markets and as the demand for the natural resource bases contained within their land (such as gold, timber, forest products, natural gas) increase. Then the Peruvian government may be faced with the dilemma of trying to reconcile the sale of precious nature reserves by the so-called conservationist indigenous groups, the Machiguenga among them, to resource extraction companies, with the fact that it is a simple and legal (currently) way for those indigenous people to advance their own development, and obtain the things that the westernized world sees as so desirable: health care, education, houses, electricity etc.

Alternatively, the individuals in the Machiguenga group may suffer because their community leaders are trying to freeze-frame their culture and way of life and if the land rights are communal, then individual actors are disempowered to make choices about their own futures because they can’t legally sell their land and go elsewhere.
Infosheet 6 v  4 0

Entirety of the above article written by Sarah Topps © April 14th 2009

If you are interested in reading more about Hernando de Soto’s work – read this interview with him by PBS.

Bruce, J. “Do indigenous tenure systems constrain agricultural development?” In Land in African Agrarian Systems, by T. Basset and D. (eds.) Crummey, 35-56. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993.
De Soto Polar, Hernando. “Most People Cannot Participate (Speech) .” Brussels, October 21, 2001.
De Soto, Hernando. The Other Path. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1986.
Henrich, Joe. “Market Incorporation, Agricultural Change and Sustainability Among the Machiguenga Indians of the Peruvian Amazon.” Human Ecology 25, no. 2 (1997): 319-351.
Smith, Richard Chase, Mario Pariona, Ermeto Tuesta, and Margarita Benavides. “MAPPING THE PAST AND THE FUTURE: GEOMATICS AND INDIGENOUS TERRITORIES IN THE PERUVIAN AMAZON.” HUMAN ORGANIZATION 62, no. 4 (2003): 357 – 368.

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