Review: The Stoat Rebellion

The vole pilot, an illustration from Aubrey Fossdale’s The Stoat Rebellion. Image courtesy http://thestoatrebellion.wordpress.com

 

BY ANTONI BELL

 
Like most people, I have a good friend who happens to be obsessed with anything related to weasels. Pretty much all my knowledge on weasels and weaselly animals (stoats, ferrets, otters, etc) is the result of our long friendship, and study of these often misunderstood animals. We share a passion for writing, so it’s no surprise these two interests directed us to a curious book called The Stoat Rebellion, by Aubrey Fossdale. Such a title brings to mind some whimsical adventure in the English countryside, but the premise is far darker than I expected; Social inequality between stoats (everyday working animals) and the rest of the woodlands society (weasels, voles, hares, and badgers) erupts into a civil war.

The most striking thing about the book is how deadly seriously the subject matter is treated. This isn’t a lighthearted book; it draws a lot of political and social aesthetics from the Vietnam War era, though the action is more in the style of World War Two. There is no hint of parody or even an Orwellian-style political allegory. It uses woodland animals as its characters, and expects the reader to accept that. It reads like a genuine historical account, with a strong focus on the workings of the military, and interviews with various characters woven in between. Despite this sober writing style, the book also features rather rough and at times amusing illustrations.

The setting of the book is from 1965 to 1977 in England, where the animals run their own society and government as a separate entity from humans, almost hearkening back to Kenneth Grahame’s classic Wind in the Willows. The animals are certainly smaller than humans, but use human shotguns as a form of light artillery, run their own air force and navy, wear uniforms, and carry .101 calibre rifles. Since real least weasels would fit in your hand, it’s safe to say that these talking animals are bigger than their real-life counterparts. Much of the story focuses on Section 22, a tough airborne regiment recruited from yard workers and former prisoners.

The book is minutely detailed and well thought out, but there are some oddities. There is a minor subplot about DDT, a harmful chemical insecticide, being sprayed in the countryside and causing a genocidal crisis for the animals. This part of the story was not integrated well with the main plot about the civil war; it was only mentioned briefly throughout the book. Another chapter switches focus to a group of refugees fleeing the war to New York. Whilst interesting as a self-contained snippet, it also seemed to be a distraction from the plot.

Should you read The Stoat Rebellion? If you’ve got a Kindle, it’ll cost you the grand price of a dollar. Enjoyment depends on an interest in history, military accounts, and woodland animals. Overall, I had a good time reading it. However, with such a niche target audience, it’s easy to see why, save a few positive reviews on Amazon, this book remains obscure.

 

LINKS:

Aubrey Fossdale’s blog: http://thestoatrebellion.wordpress.com

Finding Sanctuary: Child soldiers in the Congo

“The wounds they carry inside will take a long time to heal.” Photo: Endre Vestvik/flickr
 

Child soldiers in the Congo struggle to live normal lives post-conflict. EUNICE CHIN spoke with Congolese ‘peace builders’ about the struggles of reintegrating these traumatised young victims.

Rebel groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and its neighboring regions continue to trigger disruption, despite the signing of a UN-backed Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework by 11 African countries in February.

The ongoing violence in the east and north-east of the DRC has resulted in the displacement of more than 2.2 million people since 2012. But thousands of people in conflict areas have no choice but to stay. Among them are the peace building organisations and the ex-child soldiers who are in the process of being reintegrated into the community.

Last August, the UN Mission for the Stabilisation of Congo (MONUSCO) expressed “deep concern” over 150 documented incidents of child recruitment by the M23, the Mai Mai groups, the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR) and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) since the beginning of 2012.

UNICEF estimates that 4500 children serve in militias across the Democratic Republic of Congo, while at least 1700 child soldiers are active in North Kivu alone. Children are forcibly conscripted into insurgent forces and government militias, abducted at gunpoint from villages, markets, schools and foster homes. Poverty and hunger drives some parents to willingly surrender their child to armed groups, or force their child to volunteer as a way to guarantee regular meals and medical attention. Some become soldiers to protect their families from rogue forces or to avenge the deaths of loved ones, while others are lured in by the promise of wealth, power and an end to hunger.

Henri Bura Ladyi, dubbed “Africa’s Schindler” by The Independent, has worked on rehabilitating child soldiers for 10 years as the director of the Congolese church-based organisation Centre Résolution Conflits (CRC).

“The fighting between militia groups and the national army is like a cycle,” Ladyi told New Matilda via Skype. “And every time, children are victims of this.”

Floribert Kazingufu, the founder of the Chirezi Fondation, starts a process known as “DDR” (demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration) by contacting the child’s family, local authorities and army officials in the child’s community to gain their support in negotiating the liberation of children from the rebel groups.

“Sometimes we are taken between two fires: the government army, and armed groups,” Kazingufu told New Matilda via Skype. “This is why it is important to have friendship with both groups. Without building trust, this process is very dangerous.”

Because of the importance of children to the militia, negotiating for their release is no easy task. Ladyi once persuaded a rebel army leader to free 100 children in exchange for 25 goats.

But other peace builders refrain from supplying means to rebel groups altogether. “What they do is illegal, so we don’t give them anything,” Mumbere Kiserivwa Kizito, who is the coordinator of Passion for Souls Mission in DRC (PSM/DRC) told NM in a Skype interview.

When the rebel army leaders agree to discharge the children, groups such as the Mai Mai perform rituals to permanently sever the children’s ties to the group and cleanse them of the acts they committed under the rebels’ control. The end of this ceremony marks the beginning of the children’s new lives.

Former children are found in such destitute states that it can be disheartening for peace builders. Ashamed of having been used as pawns to harm others, the children often “hide within themselves,” Kiserviwa said.

“We don’t pay attention to their condition,” Ladyi points out. We just know that they are children, under eighteen years old … we need to take care of them. We need to bring them to the good condition of life. We need to make them really become children.”

There are three phases of action for the children’s societal reintegration. The first is to try to reconcile children with their families. This can be a gruelling charge for peace building organisations—there is no guarantee that a child’s family can be located. Sometimes, children return to their villages only to find that the place they once called home had been completely deserted, or to hear of their parents’ death at the hands of rebel forces.

On the rare occasion that they are reunited with their parents, a number of difficulties may arise. Peace builders often have to resolve conflicts which are, in most cases, rooted in the parents’ mistrust of their children.

“Some parents can say: ‘No, no, we cannot accept the child because he took our bikes, he sold this. We are … obliged to pay these back.’ It can be a bike, a goat, a cow. Anything related belonging to family, belonging to the parents,” Ladyi explained.

The second stage is to work towards a child’s psychological and social wellbeing. “This is to help him to be able to think about new things, and not think about what happened when he was active in the bush,” Ladyi said. The third and final step is the development of a means by which children can financially sustain themselves in the future so they can fully steer clear of violent livelihoods.

The struggles children face in their reintegration are pervasive—at home, in their community, and in school. There are no special education centres for former child soldiers. The rebel groups set schools on fire, destroy peace-building organisations’ campsites, terrorise communities and massacre children. Their actions are fuelled by resentment of former child soldiers’ progress, Ladyi explained.

Members of the M23 meet local chiefs and demand that they identify and handover ex-child soldiers who had escaped their group, according to “worrying reports” that MONUSCO continues to receive.

Some children who have lived in the village their whole lives are comfortable with ex-child soldiers in the community. But Ladyi says the problem is when discrimination starts.

“This is what is creating the cycle. You can see those children return to the bush because they were stigmatised. They are victims of being treated badly by other children,” he said.

Former child soldiers who have successfully been reintegrated into the community also offer their support to younger boys and girls who are in the process of rehabilitation. The reason why only three months is allotted to the reintegration program is for the lack of time and the enormous amount of children still serving in the rebel forces.

“Every two-three weeks,” Lady explained, “we can find another 20-30 children again. We need time to deal with the new children.” The complete process of societal reintegration can take up to five years.

Amid these obstacles, one that proves to be the most challenging is the organisations’ lack of funds and adequate resources. They are short of finances for recreational materials, clinics, the salaries of teachers and specialised counselors, transit centres and reintegration centres.

“Without that, sometimes we do the work but at the end of the day, when the children don’t have something to do to enable them to live, they finish the program just to go back to the armed groups again,” said Kazingufu.

There is much work to be done but successes aren’t unknown. Former child soldiers have walked into Ladyi’s office asking for job references; he has also been invited to their weddings. Ladyi once visited a village where many reintegrated children lived and saw that 30 per cent of the houses had been built by ex-combatants.

“This is an indicator that reintegration is positive,” he said.

 

Eunice’s article was published in New Matilda on July 15, 2013.
 

Great leap forward: cloningthe Gastric Brooding Frog

The Gastric Brooding Frog giving birth. Photo: Department of the Environment.

 

BY JACK CORBETT

 
Cloning an extinct species has long been a staple of science fiction, but is it about to become a reality?

When Jay Savage first discovered the golden toad in 1966, the species became a poster specimen for the biodiversity of Costa Rica. While it lived in a small area, roughly 10 square kilometres within the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, the toad was abundant; over the course of 17 years, nearly 1500 individuals were counted every year throughout their limited range. Then, in 1988, only 10 toads were found. The next year only a single male was located and after that the species promptly vanished, finally being declared extinct in 2004.
 


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Environmentalists have noted a swift decline in amphibian populations worldwide over the past few decades, of which the Costa Rican golden toad is only one of many. A combination of climate change, habitat destruction and the spread of the fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis are believed to have contributed to this, and as a result the background extinction rate – which has remained relatively constant through history – is nearly two hundred times what it should be.

One of the most notable victims of this extinction is the gastric-brooding frog, an Australian species which disappeared a decade after its discovery in 1981. The frog was named after the way it hatched its young: shortly after mating and spawning the female would swallow the eggs and brood them inside her stomach, the baby frogs being expelled once they had grown. The frog represented a completely unique family, as no others in Australia have been observed to hold this ability.

The gastric-brooding frog had barely been discovered when it was driven to extinction, which is believed to have been caused by the destruction of its habitat. Like the golden toad it was confined to a small area of forest in southern Queensland, and even slight changes to its environment could have had a disastrous effect on the population. A few years after it disappeared a subspecies was discovered but, within a year, it too had died out. Since then the frog has been frequently cited as a victim of human interference, though not to the same extent as the Thylacine.

Thanks to a recent breakthrough, though, this may no longer be the case.

In March, a group of researchers from the University of New South Wales announced they had cloned embryos of the gastric-brooding frog as a part of the Lazarus Project. The project, headed by Dr Mike Archer, also responsible for heading a project based around cloning the Thylacine, is one of several de-extinction projects across the world, and is the first to have made such a major leap forward in creating a living embryo.

The embryos were created using somatic-cell nuclear transplantation, or SCNT, the same process used to create Dolly the sheep. In this process, the nucleus of a living cell is removed and transplanted into an egg cell which has had its own nucleus inactivated. Just like Dolly, the Lazarus Project represents a major step forward for cloning, but with the gastric-brooding frog an entirely new set of hurdles have presented themselves. The chief challenge for the project is that there are no living gastric-brooding frogs to use as egg donors; the closest that can be used is a distant relative, the barred frog.

‘The challenge for the Lazarus Project is that the frog we’ve been using as a host species – the one which we got the eggs for SCNT – only breeds pretty much once a year. So we only had, really, one go a year for about a week in which to do these trials,’ said Dr Archer. ‘In all the SCNT projects we’ve been involved in related to the Lazarus Project, it’s always the nucleus that’s being moved is a different species than the egg into which we’re putting it. So it’s a sort of cross-species cloning, which is a very important distinction between what happened with Dolly and what we’re doing.’

Dr Archer also mentioned the impact that Jurassic Park, both the film and the original novel by Michael Crichton, have had in bringing attention to de-extinction. ‘Michael Crichton, in his introduction to the book Jurassic Park… he’s quite honest that he wrote this book to scare people to death about ever thinking about [cloning]. He’s gone, but you have to say “what a colossal failure”, if that was his purpose. All he’s done is excited the next generation of people to think about the possibility.’

Despite the initial success with the embryos, they didn’t survive past a few days, failing to move past the gastrulation stage of development. There was fear that the DNA being used was of poor quality, but tests with fresh DNA halted at the same stage of development. Despite this setback the Lazarus Project’s team remains optimistic, and are possibly even more excited now than they were at the start of the project.

‘We haven’t got a tadpole, and we haven’t got a frog,’ explained Dr Archer. ‘So we’re a long way from the finishing line, but we’re a lot further in the race than we thought we’d be.’
 

Interview: Neil Perry,chef for all seasons

To cook well, find the best ingredients: chef Neil Perry in his kitchen. Photo courtesy Rockpool Group.

 

BY NICK HICKS

 
Whether you’re a foodie, stay-at-home Mum, builder or chef in the hospitality industry, odds are you’ve heard of prestigious “three hatted” chef Neil Perry — Member of the Order of Australia and idol of young chefs everywhere.

Perry owns and operates six restaurants with partner Trish Richards. Before his signature restaurant Rockpool on George celebrated its 23rd birthday in 2012, he had opened a restaurant each year: two versions of the Rockpool Bar and Grill, and a successful Chinese venture called Spice Temple. He has filmed several television series, including Rockpool Sessions and Fresh and Fast. He is a also busy consultant for QANTAS.

Three years ago Perry added induction into the TAFE Hall of Fame to his list of accolades.

Perry’s goal is to constantly improve upon his success, and to commit to his food mantra, that the cornerstone of good cooking is sourcing the finest produce.

NH: Chef, thank you so much for your time this morning, I understand that you and your 600 staff are very busy. Just so you know a little about me, I’m a student at Petersham TAFE studying Journalism, and I am excited that you have accepted my invitation to be interviewed via Twitter. I have to ask you: how old were you when you first started cooking, and when did you realise the culinary world was you?

NP: Ever since I was young I was always surrounded by food working on the farm, and I was heavily involved in fresh produce and the preparation of meat. It wasn’t until I was 26 that I realised that this was going to be my career, and that’s when my passion for food and seriousness towards proper preparation really took off.

I’m interested in your celebrity status. When was it that you first realised that you were famous?

I’m not into the tag of being famous as such, I find working with the finest produce, the best suppliers – our real heroes – and bringing out the best in food by seasoning properly so continuously rewarding. Our suppliers and the fine purveyors are the heroes who deliver and hold the ingredients, we are the ones that make them shine even further. If I had to pinpoint a moment, it would be when you are in the supermarket and multiple people stop you to talk to you about your show on TV. This was around the year 2000. I guess they feel that they own a piece of you as you are in their living rooms.

You have an amazing career: you have fame, a television presence, young chefs looking up to you, a beautiful property, your picture in the Hall of Fame at Ryde TAFE and a multi-million dollar consultancy deal with QANTAS. What’s next for Neil Perry, what can the master do next?

I have no desire to enter another facet of the industry, but one thing that you can expect is the things we do well being done even better in the future. It’s all about constant improvement now, and not becoming complacent as there is always room for improvement and new things to do regarding food. I have over six restaurants and 600 staff under me, so I feel that I have enough on my plate. It’s crucial to do the basics right such as using proper oils, seasonings and spices and they form the flavour base, there’s no point going further if you don’t get the basics right.

What is your favourite ingredient to use and why?

I enjoy extra virgin olive oils, Murray (River) salts and anything to do with the seasoning of food, they are so crucial and the types are endless. The cornerstone of good cooking is sourcing the finest ingredients.

What was the highlight of your career to date?

Recently I received the award of The Order of Australia for contributions to society, younger people in the industry and in general recognition of my career. This was a great moment to get such great recognition from the government and apart from working with fine ingredients, the most rewarding moment to date. It’s awesome to know you make a difference.

This may be difficult for you to answer, but if you weren’t a chef could you ever picture yourself doing anything else? Was there such a thing as a back-up route for Neil Perry?

I never thought of any other career which was not food related, honestly. Ever since I was young I was wanting to know more and my family was very into food, so I guess the family history basically answers that question.

Chef, thank-you so much for your time, it’s been great interviewing you, and I wish The Rockpool Group more success in the future.

That’s not a problem at all. Thanks, mate.

 

LINKS:

Rockpool On George: http://www.rockpool.com/sydney/
Spice Temple: http://www.rockpool.com/sydney/spice-temple/
Rockpool Sessions: http://www.lifestylefood.com.au/tv/neil-perry-rockpool-sessions/
Fresh and Fast: http://www.lifestylefood.com.au/tv/neil-perry-fresh-and-fast/