Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner sails to victory

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Max Burkhalter, Luis Garcia

…What’s really been of interest is watching CFK (as she’s known here) win the charisma battle hands down. It even seemed that journalists covering her campaign for the country’s main news channel, Todo Noticias – owned by Grupo Clarín, a media conglomerate openly hostile to the government – had momentarily been sucked into the curious blend of glitz, glamour and graft that Fernández represents.

She definitely has something. Of course this mustn’t detract from the serious problems within Argentina. Inflation is unofficially around 25 per cent (the government has other ideas), corruption is still rife (the country continues to fare badly in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index) and the government is spending money like it’s going out of fashion.

Growth is admittedly high, with the IMF predicting a rate of 8 per cent this year – making it the fastest growing economy in the world after China. But doubts about its sustainability remain.

When Fernández speaks, these questions are relegated to second place. You see, this wasn’t an election built on ideas or policy. No laws in Argentina force candidates to debate with each other – which means Fernández decided not to even mention her opponents. Or much solid policy for that matter. She didn’t need to. With an uninspiring opposition bent on digging up economic dirt and fear in order to win votes, the incumbent could strike a positive note. Appeal to Argentines’ sense of nationalism or the country’s potential and you’re onto a winner.

It’s the optimistic tone that she’s done so well, especially since the death of her husband, former president Néstor Kirchner, who had a fatal heart attack last year. She’s stepped out of his more confrontational, Hugo Chávez-cuddling shadow and become more of a president in her own right. And a head of state that has gone for a calmer, more compassionate discourse. Fights definitely still exist – but if they’re going to happen then she’ll get her party henchman to dirty their hands.

What she possesses is blend of weakness and strength. No speech of hers goes by without her husky voice quivering a little and looking like she’s about to break down in tears. She speaks to people in an informal way, gently scolding the crowd when they started booing the mention of right-wing Buenos Aires mayor, Mauricio Macri, at Sunday’s victory speech. ‘Don’t be like that,’ she said. ‘I’m going to get angry.’ It’s a combination of populism and maternalism that fascinates people and, of course, draws comparisons with Eva Perón (exactly what Fernández wants).

Argentinians seem to accept that corruption is part of politics; it’s a case of whether you are more or less bent than your predecessor. They might find fault in Fernández – and recognize that all is not completely rose tinted – but they also believe that things won’t be better with any of the current alternatives. Speaking to one Argentinian, he mentioned his salary had tripled in the last two years. Although this isn’t the case for all, standards of living are rising and salaries (certainly in the private sector) are outpacing inflation. Social spending is up and poverty is down.

Argentina seems to have an ability to push the self-destruct button, often manipulated by international financial bodies in the past. Fernández is prepared to stand up to these institutions – but let’s just hope she doesn’t surge forward blindly in her final term if the growth fiesta comes to an abrupt end.

Haiti: a new breed of cartoon

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Max Burkhalter, Luis Garcia

…For one day – and one day only – the world’s attention was suddenly back on Haiti. International media outlets scrambled to publish the same figures about half the promised aid being delivered and the half million people still living in tent cities all over the capital.

But for Matt Bors, editor at internet comic publishers Cartoon Movement, these stories – largely based on interviews or statistics from international NGOs – lack one essential ingredient, a truly local perspective.

“I think a comic is just so much more immersive [than other forms of media],” Bors tells me via telephone from Portland in the US. “You’re immediately put into a place by somebody who’s there and knows what it looks like. It’s all realistically drawn too.”

The 28-year-old pioneers a relatively new breed of cartooning with its roots firmly planted in political journalism. Instead of swashbuckling fantasy or tongue-in-check satire – the mainstay of much cartoon work – this is genre based on real interviews and, more importantly, worded and drawn by local contributors. It’s their chance to give their own vision of the day-to-day realities in the impoverished Caribbean nation.

Cartoon Movement sent Bors, an American cartoonists, and his Dutch colleague Tjeerd Royaards to Haiti for a month in the summer. Their task was to track down the talent for a Haiti comic series, which they found in artist Chevelin Pierre – a self-taught cartoonist and one of the few in the country – and Jean Pharès Jérôme, a journalist at Le Nouvelliste newspaper.

The comic will be released as separate chapters at rough month and a half intervals, eventually forming a 75-page body of work. The first chapter, published to coincide with the two-year anniversary of the quake, focuses on tent city life in the capital. A second instalment to be published in February will examine the polemical issue of NGO money.

For Bors, cartoons have an ability to make information interesting and accessible, despite the minefield of facts and figures they’re tackling. “There are a lot of complex factors,” he says, referring to the situation in Haiti. “There are all sorts of acronyms, there’s a lot of information and all sorts of statistics. So I think that comics are the perfect medium – they’re good for telling human stories and breaking down a lot of information, making it digestible to readers.”

Cartoon Movement, an online Dutch publisher with government funding, has built an important network of 139 artists spanning 75 countries. If something kicks off in the Middle East, Africa or the Americas, they can call on local artists to give their interpretation. The idea is to provide real stories based on concrete quotes and figures and explore the power of the internet to unite disparate groups and provoke debate. The web format also means the company isn’t constrained by printing costs or limited space issues.

The Haiti comic, initially released in English, is currently being translated into French and Creole. Cartoon Movement is also in discussion with several book publishers, while an international charity in Haiti is looking to publish an excerpt in Creole in its educational broadsheet that is distributed in the camps.

Bors admits that comics is a “really tough” environment to work in as conventional places to publish diminish. But hopefully with the power of the internet things are changing. Having already racked up trips to Afghanistan and Haiti, he’s desperate to get back there and do some drawing of his own this time. Work that deserves its place in journalism just as much as the more traditional forms.

Quinoa: good for you – bad for Bolivians?

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Max Burkhalter, Luis Garcia

It’s been named the Andean wonder-grain, hyped as a food source with the potential to solve the world’s hunger problems. The UN has even named 2013 International Quinoa Year in recognition of the crop’s high nutrient content. The publicity has pushed Bolivia, the largest producer in the world, yet the poorest nation in South America, into the limelight.

From London to New York, chefs are serving up quinoa as Western consumers’ hunger for new “superfoods” continues unabated. Bolivia’s exported crop, the majority destined for the US , grew 26 per cent between 2011 and 2012, in a trade worth $800m.

In the UK, high-street health food retailer Holland & Barrett has reported a 44 per cent increase in sales this year compared to 2012. If the trend continues, commentators suggest, quinoa could transform Bolivian society.

“As well as helping Bolivians eat more healthily it could generate higher incomes which would help lift a lot of people out of extreme poverty,” said José Luis Landívar Bowles, president of the Bolivian Institute for Foreign Trade, based in the city of Santa Cruz, the country’s economic powerhouse. “But there’s a lot of work to be done as the area of land actually used for quinoa cultivation remains small.”

But with every boom there is a flipside. International prices may have nearly tripled in the last five years, but domestic costs have also risen sharply, threatening to price an Andean population, that has consumed the foodstuff for 7,000 years, out of the market.

The village of Chantani is located on the edge of the Uyuni salt flat, a vast white desert stretching for 12,000 square kilometres that is visible from space. It is one of Bolivia’s major quinoa production areas. In April, growers harvest the seeds, turning the countryside into a kaleidoscope of red, black and white, the different colours of the crop.

But if the industry is thriving, it hasn’t reached Chantani. The tiny village of stone houses and a lone white chapel is abandoned. Before, everyone used to work the land. Now only three families are left, the rest having gone to the nearby town of Uyuni to look for better-paid work.

Despite the image of quinoa being an adaptable crop – part of this year’s UN campaign – 67-year-old Santos Quispe Cayo paints a different picture. “Sometimes you plant and get nothing back, due to a lack of rain,” the farmer says. “When I was younger there was quinoa everywhere.  It must be something to do with the climate.”

Cayo lives with his wife and son in Chantani, a picturesque setting in the foothills of Mount Tunupa, a snowcapped dormant volcano. As well as farming quinoa, he also runs a small museum for tourists focusing on local culture. He said that if it weren’t for the entrance fees, he would have left the village, too.

“We don’t have tractors here and we have to work with our hands, which is why a lot of people have left,” he added. When it comes to the price he’s paid, he explained he was unable to compete with farmers who use more modern machinery.

Silvana Ramos, a 40-year-old mother of two from Uyuni, said that the price of quinoa had gone up significantly in the last three years, forcing her to change her eating habits. “I like quinoa but it’s expensive, so I can only buy it once a month,” she said. “Muk’una, a local bread made from quinoa flour costs BS2.50 (23p) a loaf, and I have to buy for a family of four. I can buy five times that amount of normal bread.”

Both Ramos and Cayo say that they only became aware of the health benefits of quinoa recently, but that they had an idea all along. Cayo, with weather- beaten skin but not a single white hair, explained that his mother died a few months ago aged 100 and without a stoop. Ramos mentioned cases of people who had lived to 105 and 110 in nearby villages, thanks, she says, to the local diet.

But the prices at the market in Uyuni show how quinoa is becoming a luxury for low-income households: a kilo costs BS30 (£2.80), whereas the same mount of rice costs between BS7 and BS9 (65p to 83p). Quinoa farmers are choosing to sell their product at market instead of consuming it themselves, or, in the case of Cayo, stockpiling his most expensive product – black quinoa – waiting for the price to go up.

While previous government figures showed that domestic consumption had declined, the latest numbers from Bolivia’s National Statistics Institute say the trend is upwards. From an annual per capita consumption of 0.35kg in 2008, the figure rose to 1.11kg in 2012, with predictions for this year rising to 2kg.

In conversation with The Independent, Bolivia’s deputy minister for rural development, Victor Hugo Vasquez, denied that there had been a dip in local consumption and blamed journalists for “belittling” the crop.

“It’s not what you think: that quinoa is expensive and people can’t afford to buy it,” he said. “At the moment we don’t have the right marketing channels within the internal market. But this is something we’re building, although it’s going to take time.”

He also cited Bolivians’ eating habits rather than economic difficulties, saying that people preferred to sell quinoa “in order to buy chicken or Coca-Cola.”

While rural consumers’ and farmers’ attitudes towards quinoa may be changing, new consumers are also discovering the benefits of its earthy flavours. In April a high-end restaurant, Gustu, opened its doors in the southern part of La Paz. Set up by Claus Meyer, co-founder of Noma restaurant in Copenhagen – a regular winner of “world’s best restaurant” awards – the aim is to promote the diversity of Bolivia’s cuisine and also train a new breed of local restaurateurs and chefs.

Among the gourmet 15-course tasting menu, quinoa appears in various guises, although the price (BS925, or £87, with alcohol pairing) means it is unaffordable to all except tourists, diplomats and the Bolivian elite.

For Walter Schmid, 47, a Swiss chef who opened his Oberland restaurant in La Paz in 1992, attitudes are changing towards local ingredients. A growing middle class and a steady economic environment, with GDP predicted to grow by 4.8 per cent this year according to the IMF, have helped. “When I first opened, Bolivians didn’t want to eat llama or quinoa,” he said. “Fast-forward 15 years and everyone is asking for them.”

With a science conference on quinoa staged earlier this month in La Paz, and a world summit in Ecuador in July, Latin America clearly recognises the importance of the “pseudo-cereal” to its future.

“Bolivia is producing a food that is fundamental for humanity,” Vasquez said. “In a world faced with climate change and food insecurity, we’re providing an alternative.”

Bolivia remains the largest producer in the world, but it will also have to stave off competition from other Latin American nations – and emerging markets if the UN campaign is successful.

For now, the challenge remains keeping the price low for the poor sections of society and making sure the boom, if it continues, changes growers’ lives for the better.

QUINOA: WHAT IS IT?

Quinoa is a type of salt-tolerant goosefoot plant, a grain-like crop consumed mainly for its edible seeds. The “pseudo-cereal”, which comes in several varieties and colours, and traditionally grows in the dry climate of the Andean mountain range, has been cultivated in the region for more than 7,000 years, becoming a food staple. As well as Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador are also major producers.

Quinoa contains almost double the amount of protein as rice, with similar energy and carbohydrate levels, properties which has seen its popularity soar over the past five years. It’s also high in minerals such as calcium, magnesium and potassium. It’s the only vegetable foodstuff that contains all the essential amino acids, trace elements and vitamins, as well as being gluten-free. Indeed, Nasa has said it is the perfect nourishment for long-distance flights due to its life-sustaining nutrients

Deity dancing

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Max Burkhalter, Luis Garcia

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Part-sermon, part-rock gig, a new breed of church service is spreading God’s word – and boosting record sales.

The cool kids walking into the venue look like they’ve stepped off the streets of Brooklyn. Dressed in ripped skinny jeans, oversized T-shirts and trainers, hardly anyone seems to be over the age of 25. Despite the torrential downpour of almost biblical proportions going on outside, they’ve still managed to mostly fill the 800-seat space. But they don’t stay seated for long. Indeed, as soon as the lights come up they’re on their feet, hands raised above their heads. But this isn’t a rock concert; in fact it’s a weekly, Tuesday evening church service led by The Belonging Co in Nashville. Worlds collide in Tennessee’s booming capital. While everyone in LA seems to be a struggling actor, here in country music’s long-time fiefdom they’re all aspiring songwriters or producers. Yet despite the flowing alcohol at the tourist-trap music bars that line the downtown strip on Broadway, Nashville is also one of the US’s most pious metropolises, a buckle in the Bible Belt where residents will joke that there’s a church on every corner. The Belonging Co – founded by Australians Henry and Alex Seeley three-and-a-half years ago – fuses these two worlds. “They moved here because they felt God telling them to go to Nashville,” says 24-year-old worship pastor Andrew Holt as the musicians warm up. “They began meeting musicians who weren’t going to church on Sunday because they were on tour. The church started in the basement of their house.” With the two-hour service in full swing – held on a Tuesday alongside the traditional Sunday one so that musicians back from their weekend gigs can attend – Holt moves to the front of the congregation next to the raised stage. The Belonging Co – with its “charismatic” worship that borrows from evangelicalism – is clearly influenced by Australian mega-church Hillsong (see panel, page 105). There will be Bible readings later but for now it’s about the music, as one worshipper near Holt drops to his knees in a trance, starting to gently rock backwards and forwards.
The two musicians helping provoke such communion are husband-and-wife duo Kari Jobe and Coby Carnes. The pair lead what’s known as “worship music”: a way to praise God through lyrics flashed up on a big screen behind the musicians. “You’re never gonna let me down,” belts out Carnes, face creased with concentration, as the crowd sings along. But this isn’t some hippy-dippy Jesus lookalike strumming a guitar, nor are these stuffy hymns followed by lemon-drizzle cake. It’s pure pop, with the razzmatazz of a stadium show. Both Jobe and Carnes are signed to ccmg (Capitol Christian Music Group), the largest Christian music conglomerate in the world, accounting for more than 40 per cent of the US’s output in the genre. The record company is headquartered in a red-brick building south of The Belonging Co’s downtown venue in the suburb of Brentwood.

The group may now be owned by Universal but the same family has been at the helm since it was born as Sparrow Records (still the flagship label) in 1976. It was originally established in LA but the combination of churches, Christians and musicians meant that Nashville seemed like a logical move in 1991. Sat in one of the boardrooms, ceo Bill Hearn is describing his father – and founder – Billy Ray, whose presence still looms large over the company despite his death a few years ago. “He wore his hair a little long; he was progressive and kids loved him,” says Hearn with a smile. Billy Ray founded the world’s first contemporary Christian record label, Myrrh, before forging his own path. Not that it was always an easy one. “My dad was the first minister of music ever to bring drums and electric guitars into Baptist churches back in the 1960s,” he adds. “They resisted it but eventually they saw that it drew young people, so they realised they had to embrace it even though they didn’t really like it. They thought it was secular in nature and the devil beat.”
Skip forward to the present and contemporary Christian music now has a firm market foothold. But both Hearn and ccmg president Peter York – sat across from Hearn and part of the company almost since inception – remember when contemporary Christian music was practically relegated to the status of contraband. They say it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that bookshops stopped selling CDs under the counter and in brown paper bags, scared the older clientele would refuse to shop there if they found out what was going on. A lot has changed since then, none more so than the musicianship. “Our goal is to make the bestquality music we can make, not just the best-quality Christian music,” says York.
Yet Christian music – which represents about 3 per cent of US audio consumption share and sells more than jazz and Latin combined – continues to be unique. Because while it can span anything from pop and rock to hip-hop, it still gets lumped together as one genre. “Christian music is the only genre that is categorised on the lyrical content and lifestyle of the artists, as opposed to the music,” says Hearn. Which means clean living and singing about God, whether from a lifestyle point of view (rock, pop et al) or in exultant praise (worship music). Down in one of ccmg’s studios, 17-year-old Riley Clemmons – raised just north of Nashville – is testing a few lyrics. Precocious and polished, she is the latest signing and set to release her debut album at the start of next year. A self-confessed mega-fan of Ariana Grande, she says her style mixes pop influences with southern gospel. “I think that Christian music has to keep up,” she says. “Now is the time that the moment is starting.”