Monday, January 31, 2011

Rural activism: reflections on Egypt and some American anticedents

This weekend, the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution and the anti-government protests in Egypt seemed to hit a fever pitch. What had largely been neglected by American corporate media finally found an international stage. Egyptians in Cairo and Alexandria had bloody clashes with government police, armed with semi-automatic weapons.

This naturally led me to start searching for news articles regarding those Egyptians not located in large metropolitan areas. Unsurprisingly, there does not seem to be a lot of coverage, if any, of the current Egyptian uprising as experienced by rural Egyptians, despite the fact that numerous news reports still assert that over 50% of the Egyptian population remains in rural villages, rather than in the big cities.

Political commentator Adrei Fedyashin wrote an article today comparing the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. He speculated that the difference in the urban-rural population make-up between the two countries was one of the major differences that could explain why Tunisians were more successful in ousting former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali than the Egyptians have in convincing President Mubarak to step aside. "[President Mubarak] is perfectly aware that the anti-government rallies in Cairo and Suez, however massive, are still short of a nation-wide revolt. Indeed, an instant revolution is hard to bring about in a country like Egypt, where rural dwellers form the bulk of the population. Most favor caution and moderation."

Today at 10:30 a.m., Joel Beinin, professor of history and professor of Middle East history at Stanford University, posted his own piece on the likelihood of success for the Egyptian protesters on In the article, Beinin discusses how youth have largely been a the driving force behind the protests, using social media like facebook to organize themselves on a larger scale. Internet as an organizing tool has its limitations, especially in Egypt, however, Beinin says. "[The movement's] presence on the Internet has been considerably greater than in urban neighborhoods and rural villages where computer access is limited and illiteracy rates are high."

Whatever the likelihood of success of the Egyptian protests, it seems clear that Egypt's rural population has largely been left out of the media spotlight, if it indeed has been participating in the protests.

Usually when I think of protests, what comes to mind are images similar to those I remember seeing during the Prop 8 aftermath in San Francisco. People gathered in a major metropolitan city-center, using large construction tubes with hand-sized holes drilled in them to create a barricade against traffic (the people put their hands inside the tube and then hand-cuffed themselves together), shutting down a center of commerce and drawing attention to one's cause. But what happens when rural people want to do the same? Are the rural people of the United States similar to those described in Egypt, favoring "caution and moderation" over action?

I have a few pieces of knowledge that came to mind upon pondering these questions. What first came to mind were the protests held in Northern California and Southern Oregon, sometimes referred to as the State of Jefferson, in the early 1940s.

Long complaining of a lack of resources provided by each state to the rural counties, the people of Curry, Josephine, Jackson, and Klamath Counties in Oregon, and of Del Norte, Siskiyou, and Modoc Counties in California proposed that they secede from their respective states to form a new, largely rural state, named after the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. The people of the states of Oregon and California largely ignored the calls for secession from the rural counties. As relayed in an op-ed piece by Tim Hunt in the San Francisco Chronicle dated August 17, 2003, the secession movement was thought up largely to protest the lack of maintenance being done to the major roads and highways. According to, a website in support of secession, after the people in the states decided to secede, they camped out on Highway 99, barricading traffic and distributing pamphlets to travelers declaring their secession.

News crews were there to document the movement, and boasts that
"Hollywood newsreel companies were present to record the events, including the highway barricades. The State of Jefferson was off to a banner start. The newsreels were to air nationally the week of December 8, but tragically on December 7th Pearl Harbor was bombed and the State of Jefferson rebellion of 1941 came to an end. The people of the region went to work for the war effort and good roads were eventually built into the backcountry[(sic)] to access strategic minerals and timber."
Although the State of Jefferson still claims to have seceded in 1941, maps have not been redrawn and the secession has largely been forgotten by everyone except for those people living in the region.

Another fact largely overlooked by those people studying the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s is that much of the organizing that occurred of people of color in the South happened in rural schools founded to serve as inspiration to grassroots organizing for equal rights.

Rosa Parks, the infamous African American woman who refused to move to the back of the bus or give her seat up to a White patron, was one of the most famous students of the Highlander Center, located in New Market, Tennessee. A long time veteran of grassroots organizing, Parks spent years learning how to protest and organize from schools and organization which were largely located in the rural south. According to Paul Roget Loeb, who wrote a piece on "The Real Rosa Parks" on,

"Before refusing to give up her bus seat, Parks had been active for twelve years in the local NAACP chapter, serving as its secretary. The summer before her arrest, she'd had attended a ten-day training session at Tennessee's labor and civil rights organizing school, the Highlander Center, where she'd met an older generation of civil rights activists, like South Carolina teacher Septima Clark, and discussed the recent Supreme Court decision banning "separate-but-equal" schools. During this period of involvement and education, Parks had become familiar with previous challenges to segregation: Another Montgomery bus boycott, fifty years earlier, successfully eased some restrictions; a bus boycott in Baton Rouge won limited gains two years before Parks was arrested; and the previous spring, a young Montgomery woman had also refused to move to the back of the bus, causing the NAACP to consider a legal challenge until it turned out that she was unmarried and pregnant, and therefore a poor symbol for a campaign."
My knowledge of rural activism is largely limited to these two facts, but I am sure that there are many more examples of rural activism which has led to political change.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Malaysian rural rhetoric

After living in a rural village in Malaysia for 7 months, one thing was clear: I knew more about my small, adopted town, Matang, than most Malaysians did. While visiting the country's capital, Kuala Lumpur, a seven-hour bus ride from Matang, I would often see faces of sheer horror when I told the more metropolitan Malaysians where I was living. "How do you handle it?" "They are so uneducated there! So conservative!" "They are so poor, you must be so bored!" And, of course, I was always reminded that Matang was located in Hulu Terengganu, a province whose namesake meant something along the lines of "backwater," for a reason.

As you might expect, I resented this negativity. Yes, Matang was rural and poor, and much more conservative than the rest of the country, but people were educated and just as capable as their fellow Malaysians in Kuala Lumpur. It bothered me that the city-dwellers thought of Matang as "uncivilized," and certainly spoke about their compatriots as "others" they could not understand.

I was reminded of these perceptions recently in an article in The Star, Malaysia's most widely-read English publication. In this story from January 25, 2011, the author begins by describing how a child from a Penan settlement in rural Sarawak accidentally kicked over a kerosene lamp in his sleep, burning down his longhouse and those of 300 other villagers. The author then continues to describe the settlement's health and environmental problems. Yet, the story is not about development or addressing social and economic disparities, but rather it is about relief, and largely focuses on how Mercy Malaysia, a Kuala Lumpur-based humanitarian organization, has come to the settlement's rescue to rebuild and provide volunteer medical care.

While it is extremely admirable that there are aid organizations willing to travel to remote places to help out in what are, to be sure, very dire situations, the rhetoric in the article was reminiscent of my experiences with the Malaysian rural-urban divide. It characterized the rural residents as passive, helpless, "others," describing "their shy demeanors" and "curious stares," and how they anxiously pleaded, "will you come back for us?"

Of course, I have never been to this community, and it does appear to be an entirely different level of rural than where I lived, but I have a hard time imagining that the Penan residents are such passive, starry-eyed fans of their non-rural counterparts. It seems that when characterizing "the rural," the tendency is either to idealize residents as just simple, grateful, happy people, or to discount them as uneducated and unintelligent.

Either way, the effect is the same. Essentializing rural people and places creates a perception of rural areas as lower, less-important communities. For impoverished rural communities, this essentialization leads to the belief that they will, from time-to-time, need rescuing, but nothing more. For impoverished communities in the developing world, this rhetoric will have to change if social and economic inequalities are to be effectively addressed.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Uneven development, neglect of rural populace drove the Tunisian revolution

NPR's Eric Westervelt filed this report about the Tunisian "Jasmine Revolution" yesterday under the headline, "Rural Tunisians Hope Revolt Brings Jobs, Opportunity." The story's lede, which follows, elaborates on the rural angle, noting that the uprising began in rural Tunisia, where it is seen as a "jobs revolution."

Pent-up fury in the country's rural interior over endemic unemployment, and a long-standing sense of regional inequality, fueled the nationwide revolt. Protests in the capital by students and many from the country's middle classes played a key role in toppling the autocrat. But it all began — and casualties were by far the highest — in the rural hinterlands.

The story seems to be one echoed in so many countries in the developing world: uneven development leaves rural residents jobless and, ultimately, hopeless. This was a theme, for example, of the 2010 uprising in Thailand, which was ultimately squelched. (An earlier blog post about the Thai situation is here, and a recent update is here.)

Back to Tunisia, Westervelt quotes Taoufik Hamdouni, 29, who lives in the same village as the man who set himself on fire after he was humiliated by a local official who was harassing him about his vegetable stall in Sidi Bouzid, which according to wikipedia has a population under 4,000. Hamdouni says:

"Ben Ali was stupid because he was not interested in the center or south of the country," Hamdouni says. "We've been marginalized for a long, long time. You see the differences between the regions. Even those of us with degrees have to look for work in the tourist towns as laborers and such, and we get bossed around by people who aren't even educated."

Seething anger at a sense of regional neglect was exacerbated by widespread local corruption, says Hamdouni's friend Marwan Chokri. Local government and party officials would shake you down or ask for a kickback to get an interview, to get to the top of the list, to get a license — you name it, he says.

* * *

Ben Ali came from the Tunisian coast, so there was an added sense in the rural areas that the ousted dictator favored the coastal resort towns while people here got nothing.

The U.N. estimates unemployment among the country's young rural population at greater than 25%, but Tunisians believe it is much higher.

Westervelt concludes, quoting a resident of Sidi Bouzid, that if the revolution does not lead to job creation, it will be seen as a failure.

Bison ranching takes hold in the plains

Read Kirk Johnson's story in the New York Times here, under the headline "Plains Giants Have Foothold on Tables." Johnson's story features a father-and-son team, the Goulds, in western Kansas, who shifted part of their century-old beef ranch to raising bison last year. Here's an excerpt:
The Goulds, with 40 animals as a start, made their first delivery of buffalo meat, also known as bison, to friends here in Denver last week. They are opening a themed restaurant on the Kansas-Colorado border supplied by the ranch, and planning bison hunts for tourist-visitors.
With prices and American consumption of buffalo at all-time highs — though still minuscule in volume compared with beef, chicken or pork — a new chapter is clearly beginning for one of the oldest animal-human relationships on the continent, dating back millennia before the first Europeans arrived.
Many of the ranchers raising buffalo are new to ranching--and committed to grass-fed product. Retail vendors, on the other hand, say grain-fed product is the way to go because it delivers greater consistency.

Rural Arkansas town takes swipe at Confederate flag

The city council of tiny Marshall, Arkansas, population 1535, voted this week to impose a fine of $1,000 on anyone flying any flag other than the Arkansas state flag or the flag of the United States of America over city hall. Repeat violations are subject to a fine of $5,000. The city council's decision came after Marshall's mayor, Jim Smithson, flew the Confederate flag over city hall last week, including on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. An earlier news report from the AP (no longer on the web) indicated that Arkansas also commemorates Robert E. Lee's Birthday in mid-January. That fact is not included in this story by a Little Rock television station.

Marshall is the county seat of Searcy County, population 8002. Searcy County is a persistent poverty county in the state's Ozark mountain region. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, no African Americans lived in Searcy County at the time of the 2000 Census.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Am I not rural?

My hometown, Dunsmuir is one of the first settlements in the Cascade mountain range, which stretches up all the way to Canada. Boasting a population of something less than 2,000 and situated at least 45 minutes from any large settlement, it easily qualifies as rural under the US government definition as described by authors, Brown and Swanson.

However, nestled deep in a canyon, Dunsmuir's main income generator is historically the Southern Pacific Railroad, not crop production or other agricultural activities. So, when I read the W.K. Kellogg Foundation's Perceptions of Rural America, a broad survey based investigation into American impressions of rural life, I questioned my own rurality.

The results of the Kellogg survey indicate that America, both rural and urban, conceptualizes rural life in terms of the idyllic family farm. This image remains in public perception despite that farming has almost ceased as a way of life for most of historically agricultural based America, which is now dominated by the service sector. Apparently, the perception of agricultural-rural is so prevalent that deviations are hardly worth noting. Yet, if the Kellogg Foundation were to ask me for impressions of my own rural life, agriculture would be farthest from mind.

I am more familiar with a culture supported by minimum wage service jobs in the tourist industry, seasonal and migrating construction labor, a water plant, and a few state institutions including the post office, elementary school, and high school. (The railroad, having adopted new and improved technology, long since stopped employing the town of Dunsmuir.) Agriculture is a completely foreign occupation to me. Because Dunsmuir is so small, I know my neighbors well enough to suggest that they are as unlikely as I am to describe their lives as agricultural.

Dunsmuir's story is not insular. Thousands of small towns spot the Cascades, Sierra Nevadas, Rockys, Appalachians, etc. These towns historically rely on non-agricultural industries including, inter alia, mining and tourism; and some have loud voices in our nation’s politics. Most notably, the coal industry which often operates in sparsely populated mountainous regions, plays major roles in the political constituencies of states like Wyoming and Kentucky. Environmentalists’ concerns over the effects of mining, places these communities in the center of raging political debate.

In additon, many mountain towns serve as vacation destinations. They hover outside national parks such as Yosemite and Yellowstone and ski resorts in famous locations like Aspen and Tahoe. They are visited and enjoyed by urbanites and ruralites from around the country.

Given that mountain communities seem like an obvious, visible, and deviating sub-category of rural,I have to assume one of three things about the Kellogg survey: either the surveyors (1) failed to ensure inclusion of mountain towns, or (2) failed to make a distinction between types of rural life and the number of mountain respondents were too small for their impressions to register statistically, or (3) the mountain respondents did not identify as rural.

Regardless of the reasons for the Kellogg results, studies such as Kellogg's increase the alienation of mountain people from rural identification. If the identifying marker of rurality in American perception is agriculture, mountain residents cannot connect with the prevailing American understanding of rurality. This is my own expirience. Unfortunately, this alienation may have real consequences for residents who, by internalizing the agricultural-rural definition, may miss public benefit opportunities for rural areas provided by the state and federal governments.

Monday, January 24, 2011

A rural state of mind

I grew up in Modesto, California, a place that no one could label rural while keeping a straight face. If we agree with the Census Bureau that a settlement with at least 2,500 people qualifies as “urban,” then Modesto has not been rural for at least a century. Indeed, by the time my mother’s family moved there a little over fifty years ago, the population stood at around 40,000. Today it is over 200,000. The city does still rely heavily on agriculture, with Del Monte, E&J Gallo, and Foster Farms dominating the local economy. But when other key employers include a major junior college and three large hospitals, it’s difficult to contend that the place suffers from the lack of resources that often helps distinguish a rural community from its urban counterpart. Whatever statistical criteria we choose to apply, Modesto is urban.

So then why does it feel rural? Why is my instinct – before I sit down and think about it – to categorize my hometown as a small community set apart from the urban world?

I have two complimentary theories. Given that I’m writing largely about my own perceptions of Modesto, each theory is based almost exclusively on personal experience. The first has to do with my memories of and associations with the city. As a child walking to elementary school, I often smelled either cows or tomato canneries, depending on which way the wind was blowing. As a member of my high school’s cross country team, I ran along creeks and canals past orchards and pastures. My aunt and uncle raised horses on a ranch on the outskirts of town. In short, I have always been acutely aware of Modesto’s intimate connection with agriculture, even though I grew up in a solidly suburban neighborhood and couldn’t tell you the difference between a walnut tree and an almond tree.

My second theory has to do with contrast – with what Modesto most assuredly is not. Despite the hardy (crazy?) souls who commute to San Francisco every day, Modesto is quite distinct from California’s major urban centers both in terms of population and culture. More to the point, though, my experience has been that the Central Valley as a whole is perceived as very different from the most urban parts of the state. If the Bay Area is full of technophiles and hippies, and Los Angeles is overrun with surfers and movie stars, then the Valley is the land of cow towns and limited electricity. Beyond my innate sense of the place, then, the stereotypes I have encountered about Modesto have only reinforced its rural features in my mind. Compared to a place like San Francisco, Modesto is not perceived as merely a different kind of urban, but as not urban to begin with.

My point is not that Modesto is objectively rural despite its obvious urban features. Rather, I simply believe that rural can be a state of mind – a feeling or understanding that a place is not part of the culture emanating from urban centers. This can have positive effects, as in feeling free from the “rat race.” Alternatively, it can lead to a sense of being cut off from resources and opportunities. In any case, my personal experience is that rural psychology can find its way into communities that don’t meet many or even most of the traditional criteria that define rural.

The popularity of "True Grit" as a reflection of nostalgia for the rural?

Believe it or not, that seems to be the subject of Frank Rich's column in yesterday's New York Times. He comments on the widespread popularity of both the 1969 original and the recently released remake, and he attributes this to several factors. Having credited the Coen brothers' fine film-making for the popularity of the latter version, Rich speculates that the "the latest “True Grit” juggernaut also has something to say about Americans yearning at a trying juncture in our history — much as it did the first time around." Rich doesn't use the words rural and urban, but he suggests them, elsewhere commenting on both films' popularity with a "national mass audience and elite critics" alike.

Rich recalls that the first version of the film appeared in the midst of anti-Vietnam sentiment, writing that even "the Times critic, Vincent Canby ... put it in a year-end list of bests dominated by such antiestablishment fare as “The Wild Bunch,” “Easy Rider,” “Midnight Cowboy” (that year’s Best Picture Oscar winner) and the ultimate anti-Western, Andy Warhol’s sexually transgressive “Lonesome Cowboys.”

Canby called the film “a classic frontier fable that manages to be most entertaining even when it’s being most reactionary.” Rich goes on to re-characterize reactionary as "retrograde," describing the plot as involving a 14-year-old girl (Mattie Ross) who hires a retired federal marshal (Rooster Cogburn) to avenge the death of her father by tracking down the man who killed him. (Incidentally, young Mattie Ross is from Yell County, Arkansas, in the Arkansas River Valley, which today has a population of only about 20,000.  She goes to Fort Smith, Arkansas, on the Oklahoma--then Indian territory--border, to settle her father's affairs).

I'm not sure what's so reactionary or retrograde about it. Obviously it is a period piece, set in the late 1800s. But here's what Rich says:
Like classic Hollywood Westerns before it, “True Grit” in all its iterations has an elegiac lilt. Uncivilized hired guns like Rooster may have helped tame the West and dispatched bad guys, but they were also capable of lawlessness and atrocities. ... Ultimately, law, religion and domestic institutions like marriage — which Rooster failed at — had to prevail if America was to grow up. For a weary mainstream 1969 audience, and not just a reactionary one, the restoration of order in “True Grit,” inevitably to be followed by Rooster’s ride off into the sunset, was a heartening two-hour escape from the near-civil-war raging beyond the theater’s walls.
As for the popularity of the remake, Rich attributes it to what he believes is America's current need for an escape. But he also opines that one of the "most stirring" things about the new “True Grit” is "its unalloyed faith in values antithetical to those of the 21st century America so deftly skewered, as it happens, in 'The Social Network.'"

The rest of the column compares "True Grit" with "The Social Network" in terms of values, specifically the rule of law, along with issues like elitism and corruption. I'm not sure I clearly grasp what Rich is trying to convey, though he writes of the appeal of loyalty and a "clear cut sense of morality and justice." He implies that these are lacking in the tale depicted by "The Social Network."

In the end, Rich's column leaves me wondering if he is suggesting some appeal to the simplicity of earlier times--and of rurality itself, even though he has mocked these in his own earlier columns.

I am also reminded of this NY Times item from the magazine this week, "Only Cowgirls Run for Office." In it, Rebecca Traister suggests that the cowgirl ideal or type is peculiarly American and one on which female politicians in the U.S., have often drawn--or at least reflect. She lists Hattie Caraway, Jeanette Rankin, and Ann Richards as examples, and she notes that while states like Kansas, Arizona, and Texas have had multiple female governors, eastern states have rarely elected women to the post. An excerpt from Traister's story follows:
What we do have, to serve as the foundational fantasy of female strength and individualism we’ve agreed upon as embodying American power, are cowgirls: Annie Oakley, Calamity Jane, the outlaws, frontier women and pioneers who pushed West, shot sharp, talked tough and sometimes drew blood. Frontier womanhood has emerged as one of the only historically American models of aspirational femininity available to girls — passive princesses and graceful ballerinas not being native to this land — and one of the only blueprints for commanding female comportment in which they are regularly encouraged to invest or to mimic.
So, there you have it: Part of the appeal of Mattie Ross and "True Grit" may be the same frontierswoman icon that also draws us to the Gabrielle Giffords and Sarah Palins of our fair country.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Medical marijuana's future in rural Lake County?

A January 4, 2011, Lake County Board of Supervisors (BOS) meeting on a new medical marijuana ordinance quickly turned into a heated discussion over the role the substance is going to play in the county’s future. Rural Lake County has a 24.6% poverty rate and an 19.2% unemployment rate. The county is struggling to survive on agriculture and tourism. The county’s two largest industries are wine and cannabis. Many believe that cannabis is now Lake County’s leading cash crop.

There is much debate over proposed medical marijuana ordinances in rural northern California. Many local governments are considering drafting ordinances that would address marijuana cultivation in a context similar to any other agricultural product. Currently, the quasi-legal medical marijuana is being cultivated on small private properties, which is comparable to a small family-owned wine vineyard. The “illegal” marijuana is often cultivated by Mexican Cartels, who manage thousands of plants on public and private properties in remote areas. On August 4th, 2010, a Lake County Sheriffs officer shot and killed a Mexican national tending marijuana plants approximately 10 miles from my father’s house. The debate over cultivation is a hot topic in Lake County, but the January 4th BOS meeting centered on another source of controversy, medical marijuana dispensaries. Lake County’s Community Development Director, Richard Coel, held a three-hour public hearing to discuss the drafting of a proposed ordinance to govern Medical Marijuana dispensaries, focusing on how they should operate and where they should be located. As expected, the hordes both for and against marijuana aggressively expressed their opinions.

Both sides made good points, for example, the pro-marijuana speakers produced facts of medicinal benefit while the opposition argued that many people claim medical use as a cover for recreational use. Pro-marijuana supporters felt economically discriminated against and outspoken marijuana critics wanted stern rules or a complete ban on dispensaries. One comment by Lower Lake attorney Ron Green causeed great controversy. Mr. Green suggested that medical marijuana could provide the county with a specific new strain of tourism. This sparked attorney Peter Windrem to counter that the medical marijuana tourism suggestion “is a nightmare” and that some of Lake County’s medical marijuana activity has “gotten out of control.” During the BOS discussion, District 5 supervisor Rob Brown, just back from New Years in Las Vegas, called Mr. Green’s idea about Medical Marijuana tourism “the biggest joke I’ve ever heard in my life.” District 5 is home to Konocti Harbor Resort, which closed down last year and was the county’s primary tourist attraction. I grew up and worked at Konocti Resort. People often consumed marijuana and alcohol on the premises, and alcohol was by far the more dangerous substance. At the January 4th meeting, “representatives” of the Lake County wine industry took a break from wine tasting to advocate vigorously for stronger enforcement of the dispensaries and for the marijuana prohibition in general. Whether because of economic or moral concerns, the wine industry has seemingly taken special interest in marijuana laws.

Another hot topic was Lake County’s own recently completed health assessment, which highlights high substance abuse numbers for the county, especially amongst its young people. Gary Lewis, former District 3 Supervisor said that he is “disgusted with the direction this county is going” and that a local high school superintendent pleaded for help against marijuana, because so many students are coming to school high on the drug (on the plus side, they are at least attending class and students have shown interest in horticulture for their marijuana grows).

However, the problem is actually even more complicated than that. I attended school K-12 in Lake County, and my father teaches predominately poverty-stricken teenagers at a Clearlake school. Many high school students will skip class during harvest season (October-November). Students have been known to be absent for reasons like protecting their maturing plants from thieves or making money trimming (processing) marijuana buds. In an unfortunate way, these kids are realizing that they need to start planning and preparing for their future. Lake County has no college or university (only satellite classes from Mendocino College and Yuba College), and I believe higher education could be a solution to many of the unintended consequences of the marijuana prohibition.

One very positive result from the public meeting was that it facilitated an exchange of ideas. For example, Attorney Ron Green and retired District 1 Supervisor Ed Robey submitted their own draft ordinance to the county, which would increase the number of dispensaries, allow for C2 zoning, and set up a licensing procedure. The licensing system would be similar to West Hollywood’s system, rather than the staff’s plan of minor or major use permits. The licensing system seems to be more rational, but it may be more difficult to adopt in a rural environment. Community Development director Coel made some good points in favor of the use permit process. He told the BOS that Lake County doesn’t have a business license program and that the use permit process is better because the entitlements accompany the property. Community Development Director Coel stated:
any ordinance regarding medical marijuana dispensaries in Lake County must balance the needs of all residents, both the needs and concerns of persons who use medical marijuana and the needs of property owners in both residential and commercial areas of the county.
It is important to analyze this statement in a rural context, as the residential and commercial areas of rural counties are often difficult to distinguish.

The January 4 BOS meeting was merely to discuss forming a draft, so the controversy is only in the preliminary phase.  How is a dispensary any different than a pharmacy or a bar? Are coffee shops (on-site ingestion) similar to Amsterdam or Napa Wine Tasting going to be authorized in the new ordinance? What about the ordinance regarding “medical” marijuana cultivation? If the answer is a progressive medical marijuana ordinance, such an ordinance could be a swift step in the direction of a healthy cannabis industry.

Read a related post here.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Dirtying the Heartland, and no one cares

The worth of land as a resource is a measure used to value rural lands and the people living in them. People living in rural areas create their identities often centered upon the "wealth" of the land they live on. That wealth can stem from many valued things beyond just the actual physical resources mined from the land. The value of a rural area can also be the beauty derived from the view of the land or it can be derived from a number of other attachments to rural areas. If the health of the land is so important to rural populations lives and livelihoods, why then do rural oil spills in the US receive far less media attention and clean up efforts than oil spills that happen in urban areas? I would like to compare two oil spills, both from 2007, and their respective responses from the media and towards environmental clean up.

On July 1, 2007 a flood related oil spill leaked over 70,000 gallons of oil into the rural lands around Coffeyville, KS, just north of the Oklahoma border. Later that same year in November a ship leaked 53,000 gallons of oil into the San Francisco Bay. I was in both areas for both oil spills and saw first hand the incredibly varied responses to such similar disasters.

Coffeyville is north of where I was raised in Oklahoma and south of where my best friend lives in Kansas. I drive through Coffeyville usually a handful of times every year. When I drove through Coffeyville in 2007, I saw something I had never seen before, have not seen since and hope to never see again. It was like a giant had walked through the land painting a foot thick smear of oil across everything at about 12 feet up, and then had sprinkled oil all over the ground for miles around. I arrived days after the water had receded from the flood and just after FEMA had taken over the small town. The media was not present, and as I learned when I called my friends on the West coast, no national media coverage was reporting this massive oil spill. I thought that as time passed more people would come to know about this accident. I was wrong.

The media coverage given to the Kansas oil spill remains limited even to this day. When you google search it, few hits come up and most are not national media sources. Compare this to the similar oil spill in the bay in 2007, and it is the opposite. The search returns tons of hits, many from national news sources. The oil spill from SF even got its own Wiki page! The immediate response was similar as well. In Kansas, only local, and some state wide news, was reporting the oil spill. Later that year when the Bay oil spill happened, I could not find any national media that wasn't reporting on the disaster.

The clean up effort further supports that the oil spill in Kansas was considered less important socially and environmentally. To this day there is an active count of every bird harmed by the Bay area oil spill. The only animals referenced in the news concerning the Kansas spill were a handful of rescued dogs. There were no lack of injured or killed wildlife in Kansas but for some reason they were valued less than their urban SF ocean-side counterparts.

The legal response mirrors the greater value placed on the disaster in SF. Although both accidents were possibly caused by employee negligence or error, the Federal government responded almost immediately to the Bay area spill while limiting its engagement with accountability for the Kansas leak (which was the bigger leak!). To this day, private recourse remains the primary path to recovery for those harmed by the Kansas disaster.

If America values its idealized rural lands so much, then why do disasters like the one in Kansas go relatively unnoticed to most of the country? Could it be because rural lands are not valued for what they are intrinsically but for how they can be used? Once a rural land is used up, burned out or other wise ruined, say by an oil spill, we can just move onto the next idealized rural land and use it up to the extent of its resourcefulness.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A penny a pound more for Florida farm workers

The New York Times reported yesterday on an increase in pay for Florida farmworkers. The dateline is Immokalee, Florida, a Census Designated Place with a population of 15,376. The story's lede follows:
After fighting for more than a decade for better wages, a group of Florida farmworkers has hashed out the final piece of an extraordinary agreement with local tomato growers and several big-name buyers, including the fast-food giants McDonald’s and Burger King, that will pay the pickers roughly a penny more for every pound of fruit they harvest.

Farm laborers are among the lowest-paid workers in the United States, and the agreement could add thousands of dollars to their income.

Though the hamburger chains and others agreed to the increase years ago, the money they have been paying — an estimated $2 million now held in an escrow account — could not be distributed to tomato pickers until the state’s largest trade association, which acts as a middleman, agreed to lift a ban preventing their farms from passing along the extra wages.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Whose environment?

Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Freedom, depicts the turmoil within an upwardly mobile family. The family is educated, they live in a newly gentrified area, and as things spiral within, and on the outside the family still maintains their respectable middle class fa├žade. This family has no relation to rural America, except in the context of the work that Walter, the father, performs. Walter works for a foundation that wants to protect a warbler in the rural, mountainous areas of West Virginia. In seeking to create the natural preserve to protect this creature, Walter must purchase the land from the men and women inhabiting the area and repurpose it for coalfields that will eventually become the preserve. The link to preservation and social responsibility is somewhat tenuous in the context of the novel, but the interesting question the situation brings up is what impact environmental protection has upon rural America?

On one hand, federal assistance enables farm and ranches susceptible to such environmental conversion to be protected, even under the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) regulations. For example, one regulation (FRPP) protects those areas that have been converted to non-agricultural uses and those individuals whose livelihoods rest on ranching and farming. In fact, the FRPP provides assistance to ensure that rural stability and development of the area still exists, even if the area has been converted to a preserve or has become urbanized.

While such regulations can be an important means of ensuring that these individuals maintain their livelihood, on the other hand, it is important to consider the environment when we make concessions for individuals who have staked their lives on the land. One contentious example includes Bill Clinton’s Grand Staircase-Escalante Memorial land designation. In 1998, Clinton designated 1.7 million acres of Utah land as federal wilderness area. By doing so, Clinton ensured environmental protection of an area that many environmental groups had sought to preserve. Yet, at the same time, certain plots of this same land had been assigned as Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands to be managed to produce funds for the state school system in this rural area. Many locals and critics claimed that this land could no longer be developed for the sake of Glendale’s schools or businesses. Glendale, Utah – where the Monument is located – has a population of 355 as of the 2000 census.

Clearly, these two issues strike much contention between rural communities and environmental groups. Such a balance, however, may be difficult to strike because of the two different frameworks that the groups come from. Rural communities may see taking such lands in the context of their lives – in the present – thus taking their livelihood has the effect of immediacy. Environmental groups tend to see the world in a more broad sense, perhaps, where they look to the future and tend to forget the immediate impact that such federal actions may have. While federal regulations seek to sustain rural communities in the wake of urbanization and preservation, the tendency may be to emphasize the growth, development, and protection, rather than those individuals that these grandiose words actually affect.

Brown's budget proposal may have disparate impact on California's rural counties

When Jerry Brown returned to Sacramento as Governor of California, he brought with him a promise of a tough new budget, calling it “a tough budget for tough times.” The proposed budget has caused some rural counties to wonder, “Was that a promise or a threat?”

According to Brown, the budget will require sacrifice from every sector of the state. The budget proposal is seeking $12.5 billion in cuts, and perhaps more importantly, a historic realignment of state services. Many rural jurisdictions including Humboldt County are fearful that this realignment could have a disparate impact on their local agencies.

Humboldt County Administrative Officer Phillip Smith-Hanes elaborated on the potential realignment of services, saying that health and human services will have the biggest hits, followed by further reductions to In-Home Supportive Services. Another important aspect of funding that will disparately impact rural counties is the elimination of the Williamson Act payments for the current fiscal year.

Under the Williamson Act owners of farm and ranch land can sign a contract in which they agree to keep their land undeveloped in exchange for a break on local property taxes. The loss in local revenue was traditionally reimbursed by the state. Under the new proposals counties will receive a lump sum of funding and it will be up to the counties to delegate the money to their agencies as they see fit. That is they can fund what is most important to their residents, and underfund or not fund at all programs that are deemed less important. This shift in responsibility may leave rural counties with a serious disadvantage. Smaller areas may have less capacity for raising funds locally, and many may not have enough experience or sophistication to properly handle the distribution of state funds.

Smith-Hanes said he's also concerned about Brown's call to realign fire services, with Brown saying that with increased urbanization, fire responsibility should fall to local jurisdictions rather than the state. ”That would be lovely if we're talking about San Diego County, but much different if we're talking about Humboldt County because we don't want the state dumping a bunch of fire responsibilities up here,” he said. Many rural counties have a higher proportion of the state’s forests and thus a higher proportion of fires. In addition, in places like Humboldt County working on a fire crew is one of the few good jobs many residents are qualified for. Smith-Hanes added, “The reality is there are places in the state like Lake and Humboldt counties that won't be able to fund their services to the same extent as Napa or Marin. That's one of the challenges we at the Legislature will have to grapple with.”

While these changes may help at the state level, it also can create cash flow issues at the local level, by reducing jobs and lowering salaries of those working for county agencies and in education. In rural places like Humboldt County these are often the only decent paying jobs for the educated and uneducated alike. It is yet to be seen if the budget proposal will be adopted by the legislature, but rural counties have reason to be apprehensive.

The wave: Familiarity in rural New Mexico

My father moved from my hometown of Monterey, California to rural New Mexico (the town of Cochiti Lake, population ~2,500) in 2004 or 2005, about a year before I graduated from college. My father's move marked the first time that anyone in my family encountered a rural place for any extended period of time, and the reasons for his move could be the subject of an entirely separate post.

I have only visited him twice since he moved, and both times were some of my only encounters with "rurality." Cochiti Lake is a very small community of non-native people who lease the land on which their homes are built from the Cochiti Pueblo, and who live for all intents and purposes entirely on Cochiti sovereign land.

Cochiti Lake has one gas station, with a convenience store attached. Across the street from the gas station is a golf course. To acquire any additional amenities, most of the non-native people living on the pueblo must travel by car--there are no buses that travel to Cochiti Lake--the forty-five minutes to an hour to reach the outskirts of either Santa Fe (to the North) or Albuquerque (to the South). It is no surprise, therefore, that most of my encounters with space out near my father's home were done by car, specifically sitting in the passenger seat of his red Dodge Ram 2500.

Driving the country roads that connect the pueblo to U.S. Route 85, two things become immediately apparent.

One, many people die on the roads returning to the pueblo. One cannot drive more than a mile without seeing a roadside memorial dedicated to someone. When I asked my father what the cause of the deaths were, he said that some were car accidents, but most were caused by exposure. Apparently because the Cochiti Pueblo has chosen to make their land dry, many people would drive off the Cochiti land to drink alcohol, and try walking back in the freezing winter temperatures, only to succumb to the weather before making it home. Apparently, this happens all over the state of New Mexico on dry, rural pueblo land.

Two, everyone waves. It is hard to explain, but every car we passed on the way out to the pueblo and back, the driver would lift his fingers off of the steering wheel and wave at the driver in the passing car. At first, when I saw my dad do it, I thought perhaps he knew the people we were passing. Eventually, I asked what he was doing. He said that out on pueblo land, the Native Americans--and some non-natives in the know--waved at every passing car. He said that he believed he got waved at so often, initially, because in his large, lifted truck with tinted windows, he looked like he could be Native American himself.

In our travels throughout the state of New Mexico, whenever we drove onto pueblo land, people began to wave. The sociologist in me, of course, has many questions about what this symbolizes to people out in the harsh desert setting of rural New Mexico. Was my dad's observation accurate--that only the native people in New Mexico are firmly attached to the wave? Do the constant reminders of the harsh climate and difficult terrain--embodied in the roadside memorials--create a need in people to connect and affirm each other's humanity? Is the wave a result of some age-old custom that southwestern pueblos used in passing long before the car came into existence? Is the wave something that exists in many rural places, outside of New Mexico and the southwest entirely?

What might Jerry Brown’s proposed state budget mean for rural CA?

Facing a budget deficit of $25 billion, last Monday California governor Jerry Brown announced his 2011-2012 state budget proposal, which was both lauded and criticized for its honest and stark ideas for getting the state out of the red.

In addition to calling for $12.5 billion in higher education and health program cuts and $12 billion in new taxes, the governor’s proposal lays out a plan for restructuring the relationship between Sacramento and local governments. As Brown explained in his proposal:

The budget proposes a major shift in the state‑local relationship by reversing the trend of consolidating control and budget authority in Sacramento. When fully implemented, this proposal will restructure how and where more than $10 billion in a wide range of services are delivered.

As expected, the Left has taken issue with the reduction in social services and the Right has insisted the tax increase is unrealistic. No matter the political maneuvering, what might the budget proposal actually mean for rural California?

Proposed cuts include the following:
  • For Healthy Families recipients: increased premiums, increased co-pays for ER visits and hospital stays, and elimination of vision care.
  • For CalWorks recipients: enrollment reduced from five years to four years, grants reduced by $90/month per family of three, and reduced funding to counties.
  • For SSI-SSP recipients: grant reduced by $15/month for low-income elderly, blind and disabled individuals.
  • For Medi-Cal recipients: new requirement of co-pays, limits on doctor visits, spending caps on certain medical equipment and non-life-saving drugs, elimination of adult day care services, and reduced rates paid to health providers by 10 percent.
  • Developmental Disability services will face $750 million worth of cuts in 21 regional centers.
  • Most local libraries’ state funding will be altogether eliminated and low-attendance state parks will be closed.
  • Over $1 billion in local transportation revenue will be used to pay state transportation bonds.
  • Over $900 million in business tax relief in depressed areas previously designated as enterprise zones will be eliminated.
  • Local governments will be required to house juvenile offenders after the state Division of Juvenile Justice is eliminated in June 2014 and county jails will be required to take on some state prison inmates.
Because rural areas often include many of the poorest Californians, the social services cuts will undoubtedly have a significant impact on the rural parts of the state. Increased reliance on local governments will also put a strain on already-overstretched rural counties.

Consider the impact of just one example: the state prison-to-county jail transfer. The governor's plan to transfer many state prison inmates to county jails ignores the fact that county jails are themselves overcrowded. While jail overcrowding is a significant issue in cities, rural areas face the same obstacle. For instance, jails in Sacramento, Placer, Yolo and El Dorado counties are all at least at 90% capacity. In Yolo County last fall, the county had to release about 30 inmates early due to budget constraints. Yolo County Sheriff Ed Prieto explained:
We're maxed out pretty much all the time. The only thing we could do is release county inmates to make room for state inmates.
The governor's budget, if passed, will only require more rural areas to ignore their locality's security concerns in light of the economic realities of running a county jail.

On one hand, the budget may be hailed as a much-needed tightening of California's fiscal belt. But as the LA Times' Editorial Board points out, perhaps the cuts are too reliant on already-strained rural residents and their local governments. Both are struggling with the impact of a years-long recession that has only deepened and prolonged the poverty already rampant throughout rural California.

As the governor attempts to garner political and popular support for his plan across the state, the potential effects of the proposed budget on rural Californians may come to light. Whether such effects matter to those in Sacramento remains to be seen.

"Brother's Keeper": A rural town takes on the Big City

In 1990, Delbert Ward, a poor dairy farmer in Munnsville, New York, was charged with murdering his brother William. The case and town became a media hot spot, and people all over the country followed the murder trial. The story of the Ward Brothers and Munnsville was documented in the 1992 film, "Brother's Keeper."

This weekend, on the recommendation of a friend, I watched the "Brother’s Keeper" for the first time. Although released in 1992, many of the issues that we are discussing today in the context of law and rural livelihood are the same. This film clearly, and emotionally, depicts many of them: poverty in small rural communities, the tight-knit nature of the town, rates of illiteracy that correspond to the poor economy, and stereotypes associated with rural communities and how they are depicted in the media.

The film opens juxtaposing audio recording from Delbert Ward on the stand at his murder trial, with visuals of him trudging through the mud with his cows. The scene would be serene, were it not for the District Attorney’s questions piercing through the calm. Slowly the story unfolds of how Delbert is accused of murdering his sick brother William, with whom he has lived with and shared a bed with his entire life.

Interviews of the Ward brothers reveal that they are poorly educated and live in a dilapidated house in near poverty conditions. Interviews with the people of Munnsville explain how well the community knows one another and views the case against Delbert as one of big city attorneys taking advantage of a simple man who would never hurt anyone.

Throughout the film, residents of Munnsville are surveyed on their thoughts about Delbert's guilt. Most say they either don’t think he did it, or if he did, had a good reason to do so. Like he might have put a cat out of its misery, Delbert might have taken William out of his. Either way, he was not guilty.

The public defender, acutely aware of the larger battle that is being waged in the courtroom, holds community meetings, divulging what would seem to be confidential information about the case to the the local public. The murder trial of Delbert Ward becomes Munnsville versus New York City. Village versus City.

Watching "Brother's Keeper," led me to think about lack of services, specifically legal resources available in these impoverished rural communities. Delbert had a good attorney, but not every murder trial receives the kind of attention that his did. The official poverty rate in the U.S. in 2009, was 14.3%. Other contributors to this blog have written about services to rural communities being slashed, I assume the rural communities on the low end of the economic spectrum are worst off.

Additionally, much of the case against Delbert Ward revolved around a confession he did not write, nor could adequately read. This made me think about literacy rates in the United States and how they correspond to our prison inmate population and statistics of arrest. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the prison population in 2009, was almost 2 million. According to a study entitled "An Exploration of the Relationship between Recidivism and Education," the reading proficiencies of the prison population in 1992 was substantially lower than that average household population. It would be interesting to further investigate the role that illiteracy plays in confessions that lead to imprisonment.

"Brother's Keeper" is a great documentary, illustrating many legal and social issues that face rural communities. I highly recommend it.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Recovery Act and rural California

At least with regard to unemployment, the sour economy does not seem to have affected rural communities differently from urban ones. Rural and urban areas certainly vary from state to state, but rural and urban unemployment rates offer a similar – albeit bleak – picture of economic health across the United States as a whole. California fits nicely into this generalization. In 2009, the last year for which data is available, the unemployment rate for rural California stood at 12.5%, slightly higher than the urban rate of 11.4%.

This data does not contradict the image of recession ravaging our urban centers, but it does augment the picture. If unemployment is at least as bad in rural communities as it is in urban ones, then we must consider Oakdale as well as Oakland. People are out of work everywhere, and the need for recovery therefore extends well beyond the limits of our major cities.

That being the case, I was interested to see how rural areas are being treated under a centerpiece of the federal government’s recession legislation, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (Recovery Act). Passed nearly two years ago, this bill’s stated purposes are to save existing jobs, create new jobs, and spur economic development in both the near and long terms. These are broad goals, and an overview of the Recovery Act’s rural impacts would accordingly be far too extensive for a blog post. I therefore offer merely a snapshot by examining Recovery Act funds spent in rural California last year through USDA Rural Development.

A great deal of Recovery Act funds went to basic municipal services like police, fire, schools, and libraries. Bishop received a $38,250 grant to help purchase “a four-wheel drive police vehicle, K-9 Officer and related equipment.” The Woodlake Fire Protection District in Tulare County received a $120,000 loan and a $50,000 grant to obtain a new fire truck. Covelo received $100,000 for computers, furniture and other essential equipment as part of a major library renovation. Kern and Mendocino Counties each received grants to buy bookmobiles. Complete with broadband-equipped computers, these vehicles are designed largely to increase rural access to the internet.

Among municipal services, though, water attracted special attention. Between February and October 2010, the California office of USDA Rural Development distributed $11,707,850 in Recovery Act loans and grants related to obtaining, treating, and delivering water in rural communities. This accounted for more than one-third of the total $30,945,240 in Recovery Act funds granted or loaned by that office during that time period.

However these federal funds affect the specific problem of rural unemployment, they should assist in creating “stronger, more vibrant rural communities” by increasing quality of life. Hopefully they will realize the Recovery Act’s goal of job growth for the targeted communities, but they are at least a move in the right direction toward safer, healthier, better educated rural populations.