Category Archives: White House

Painting the White House Green

The White House Kitchen Garden (Lelkund/Flickr Creative Commons)

An Educational Garden in the Most Famous Residence in Country

While many school and community gardens are created in playgrounds, on roofs, and in abandoned lots, today we will be visiting a garden that is most definitely not planted on a vacant property. The White House Kitchen Garden is instead located on the beautifully manicured lawns of the most well known residence in the country. The garden, visible to the general public passing by the White House, is located on the South Lawn. Over the past two years, it has become a symbol of health and sustainability, championing Michelle Obama’s cause of ending childhood obesity.

Despite the enormous popularity of the White House Kitchen Garden, the beautifully kept garden on the south lawn has not always been there. Throughout White House history, there have been various attempts to build and maintain a garden, but one of the only full functioning gardens was Eleanor Roosevelt’s victory garden. The victory garden was planted during World War II in an attempt to encourage others to do the same in order to alleviate food shortages produced by the war effort. Since the Roosevelt’s, however, there has not been a fully functioning White House Garden until the Obama’s came along.

Advocates of sustainable food have been pushing for a White House garden for decades.  In 1995, Alice Waters, the chef of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA and founder of The Edible Schoolyard Project, wrote a letter to President Clinton encouraging him to build a garden on the White House grounds in order to help create a demand for sustainable agriculture. “The present administration has the chance to invigorate public dialogue by turning our attention to how food must be at the center of our lives,” she says in her letter. “Talk about it; promote it as part of the schools curriculum; encourage the spread of farmers markets; and demonstrate it with organic gardens on the grounds of the White House and the Vice Presidential mansion.” While Clinton was initially supportive of a White House garden, ultimately, Hilary Clinton planted only a small rooftop garden that did not accomplish Waters’ goal.

Michael Pollan, a writer and activist who focuses on food and sustainability, wrote a letter to Barak Obama in 2008, right before he took office. “Farmer in Chief”, which was published in the New York Times, urges Obama to focus on food.  Pollan urges Obama to create a new victory garden movement, “this one seeking “victory” over three critical challenges we face today: high food prices, poor diets and a sedentary population.” The movement must begin, he writes, with the First Family. A White House garden will create a powerful image – “the image of stewardship of the land, of self-reliance and of making the most of local sunlight to feed one’s family and community.” Kitchen Gardeners, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting sustainable local food systems, led the “Eat the View” campaign, creating a petition for a White House garden that attracted over 110,000 signatures.

In the spring of 2009, the campaign proved successful when Michelle Obama created a 1,100 square foot garden on the South Lawn. Mrs. Obama started the garden to feed her own family, but also as part of her Let’s Move! campaign to help solve the problem of childhood obesity. The campaign encourages community gardens as “a way to engage members of your community or congregation around healthy, local food.” Mrs. Obama also adds that gardens can serve as an educational tool.

Garden Layout (whitehouse.gov)

And the Obama’s have used the garden for just that purpose. The Bancroft Elementary School, a DC public school located less than three miles away from the White House has been involved in the White House garden from its inception. Fifty students from the Bancroft elementary school helped Mrs. Obama clear a section of lawn and plant the garden in March 2009. Since then, Obama has hosted groups of students at the garden where she speaks to them about eating healthily and sustainably and engages them in planting and harvesting in the garden. The video below is a speech that Mrs. Obama made to students from Bancroft in March, 2010, one year after the garden was started.

The garden, like all presidential actions, is not without controversy. The Obama’s decision to keep the garden entirely organic provoked a response from the Mid-America CropLife Association, who wrote a letter to Mrs. Obama calling for the use of “conventional agriculture” in the White House garden, particularly the use of “crop protection products” (i.e. pesticides). Still, the Obama’s have maintained the plan to keep their garden entirely organic.

October 5, 2011 garden harvest. Michelle Obama harvested vegetables with students from the Bancroft Elementary School (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Less than a month ago, students from the Bancroft Elementary School again joined Mrs. Obama in the garden for the third annual fall harvest. Once the hard work of the harvesting was over, the students, together with the White House chefs, prepared grilled vegetable pizza.

Peter Ganong, a former resident of Washington D.C. has walked by the White House and noticed the activity in the garden. “I was inspired to see that gardening and a connection with the earth and food was a central part of the image of this white house,” he said. And that is exactly the goal of the White House Kitchen Garden – to inspire the public to connect with their food and the environment.

Finding a Middle Ground: the UN and Dodd-Frank

The UN Group of Experts on the DRC proposes a middle ground approach to both address the side effects of the Dodd-Frank Act and to allow its enforcement. Consumers can still take action, even as large and systematic change is necessary.

Though the Dodd-Frank Act has already been passed, the debate regarding its impact on the Congo continues. Thus, it is necessary to revisit the differing views to determine the appropriate path forward. Two weeks ago I delved into these varying perspectives, but I would like to return to them with a specific letter in mind dated October 21, 2011. It is written by Fred Robarts, Coordinator of the United Nations Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) addressed to Chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Mary L. Schapiro.

Mary Schapiro, Chairwoman of the SEC, Photo Courtesy of Sarah Mamula / Flickr Creative Commons

The letter predates an upcoming report from the Group of Experts that will be translated into the official United Nations (UN) languages, discussed by the Security Council, and then released by the end of November. The UN contacts listed on the letter declined to comment on it before the report was published. The timing of the letter—purposely preceding the full report—is of particular importance given the fact that the SEC will soon finalize regulations coming from Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act. The Group of Experts seeks to influence these regulations; they want to ensure the SEC has as positive an impact on the Congo as possible.

The group’s conclusions come from a year’s worth of observations and investigations regarding “the activities of armed groups in the DRC and their sources of funding. The group has also evaluated the impact of due diligence guidelines for individuals and entities purchasing, processing and consuming minerals from the DRC…” Such due diligence guidelines refer to the investigation of a company’s involvement in a particular area of human rights concern.

The content of the letter represents a union of various views. It includes ideas aligning with both those who support the Dodd-Frank Act—demanding businesses stop purchasing minerals from conflict mines—and those who claim a diversification of approaches, especially politically, is necessary. The letter fully acknowledges the “important challenges regarding Dodd Frank” and the perspectives of those who oppose the act. Such “challenges” include the de facto boycott of Congolese minerals that the act has caused. Such an outcome occurred because smelters and electronics companies have, for now, stopped purchasing minerals from Congo—where the conflict mines are concentrated—since formal mine evaluation systems do yet not exist. Companies are compelled to end business with these conflict mines because Dodd-Frank demands they no longer conduct business with these mines. Thus, they have decided to pull out of the Congo altogether until these systems are in place and they know for certain where their minerals come from. As a result of this boycott, the letter speaks of the “increased economic hardship” faced in the Congo as a result of the Dodd-Frank legislation and the sudden lack of funds flowing into the conflict mines.

With this acknowledgment of Congolese adversity, however, the letter goes on to state that terminating or abating Section 1502 it is not the correct path. It advises the SEC to adopt the approach of mitigation, as well as to continue enforcing 1502. Rather than abandon conflict mines altogether, the smelters would reduce the degree to which they buy from such mines, and in the mean time, legitimate mine tagging and tracing processes would be established. The Group of Experts believes this mitigation tactic will reduce the impact of the de facto embargo. The letter sites the success of supply chain tagging already taking place in Katanga, Congo and Rwanda as evidence for possible success of tagging in the Kivu Region—the eastern region of the DRC where conflict mines are concentrated.

"Human Right Council - Special Session on DR Congo Sébastien Mutomb Mujing Representative Permanent of Democratic Republic of Congo ( Concerned country ) addresses during the Special Session on the "Situation of human rights in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo." Photo and Caption Courtesy of UN / Jean-Marc Ferre / Flickr Creative Commons

This approach seeks to find a middle ground. However, it ought not be viewed as a cop-out. Such a strategy tries to establish a delicate balance between maintaining economic stability in the Kivu Region, while also trying to terminate human rights abuses by militiamen.

Even with such an approach, the Dodd-Frank Act still faces extensive blame for causing economic ruin for Congolese in the Kivu Region. David Aronson, whose New York Times article I discussed two weeks ago, as well as Joseph Paul Martin, Director of Human Rights Studies at Barnard College of Columbia University, constitute part of a group of scholars and journalists who have presented such blame. Martin stated in an e-mail, “The [Dodd-Frank Act] will have little impact on the current mineral and human exploitation in the DRC, a system which was established 140 years ago and has been reinforced and expanded over the years since.” Laura E. Seay, assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College, also looks down upon the effects of the Dodd-Frank Act: “In the mines, you can actually pay for things with coltan, so the economy is not entirely a cash economy, but that is all shut down now.”

Contrary to such points of view, the letter from the UN Group of Experts on the DRC goes on to applaud the Dodd-Frank Act for the awareness campaign it has started and that it has forced electronics companies to take responsibility for their impact on human lives. Before the Dodd-Frank Act, there was no legal obligation for companies to respond to the outcome of their Congolese mineral purchases.

The letter concludes by addressing the political changes that, along with these international business efforts, would lessen the occurrence of human rights abuses. It states, “We must keep up the pressure on the DRC authorities to prosecute and punish [the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo] criminal networks involved in the minerals trade.”

The letter acknowledges the complexity of the conflict and that the solution will not be a simple process. Thus, it suggests a multipart approach to address the issue: both political and economic efforts must be simultaneously present to end violations of human rights—that occurred as a result of environmental exploitation—while also maintaining economic livelihoods.

This multi-solution system is directly relevant to consumer involvement. In addition to pressuring electronics companies to establish mine evaluation systems and to decrease purchases from conflict mines, consumers must also encourage U.S. legislative leaders to support Congolese government involvement.

Dodd-Frank Hits the Congo

Though Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act seeks to create a more globally responsible corporate America, there is now evidence of negative consequences from this legislation. What is the next step for consumers when activists and economists take opposing sides?

Last week I discussed the various steps the United States government, both national and local, had taken to prevent American companies from purchasing conflict minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). While such government action appears to be a positive step forward, many journalists and economists are taking a stance against efforts like the Dodd-Frank Act. They are focusing on the fact that, as a result of this Act, smelters have begun to embargo Congolese minerals in order to be absolutely certain they do not purchase raw materials from conflict mines. Because these smelters currently have no way of evaluating which mines are conflict-free, they have stopped purchasing Congolese minerals altogether. They want to ensure they respond to the demands of electronics companies regarding social responsibility. After all, electronics companies are the ones purchasing mass quantities of minerals from smelters.

These electronics companies have acted largely as a result of consumer and activist demands, asking they solely buy minerals that have come from conflict-free mines in the DRC. In turn, smelters’ decision to purchase minerals from other countries—such as Canada, which they are certain has conflict-free mines—has caused economic hardship for many Congolese citizens who depend on mining to sustain their livelihoods. This unfortunate outcome, however, cannot simply be blamed on human rights activists. In overall advocacy and consumer education efforts, they have not only pressured the government to pass legislation such as Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act; activist messages have also—for years—advocated for coupling this legislation with on-the-ground aid in Congo.

"President Obama Signs the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act President Barack Obama delivers remarks and signs the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, July 21, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)" Photo and Caption Courtesy of Nancy Pelosi / Flickr Creative Commons

David Aronson, a journalist and blogger focused on Central Africa, wrote an article for the New York Times called “How Congress Devastated Congo.” Aronson openly criticizes the Dodd-Frank Act in his article and describes the detrimental economic effects it has had on local Congolese—many of who depend on the activity of the minerals trade for their income. In an interview, Aronson explained the premature nature of the Act stating, “The problem with Dodd-Frank is entirely that [the U.S. government] put the restrictions in place before the mechanisms [to identify legitimate mines] were ready.” He explained the proper course of action would have been for the government to have spent “another extra couple of years to…certify the mines and the minerals as being clean” before enacting legislation such as Section 1502. With regard to human rights organizations, Aronson criticizes them for advocating for what he thinks is a faulty solution. He believes such “groups should have focused their advocacy on…clean[ing] up the evaluation system before restricting trade.”

Mine certification tags: As smelters leave the DRC, other efforts seek to establish legitimate mine evaluations Photo Courtesy of Sasha Lezhnev / Enoughproject.org / Flickr Creative Commons

Naama Haviv, Assistant Director of a Los Angeles based non-profit, Jewish World Watch (JWW), that seeks to combat instances of genocide and mass atrocities, commented in an e-mail regarding the perspective of individuals aligned with Aronson’s beliefs. Haviv clarifies, “The push for conflict minerals legislation always included a push for alternative livelihoods programs in the short term—in fact, Dodd-Frank also required the State Department to put a plan in place to support the development of a conflict-free supply chain politically and economically on the ground in Congo.” Thus, it is evident activist groups were fully aware of the economic implications of this restrictive mineral purchasing legislation, as well as what actions would remedy the negative side effect.

Mineral certification paperwork: An evaluation process that must be well established in order to bring smelters back to the DRC Photo Courtesy of Sasha Lezhnev / Enoughproject.org / Flickr Creative Commons

Thus, as a consumer, one may be asking which side to take and whether or not to continue pressuring electronics companies to be responsible for their supply chains. It appears a conscious conglomeration of both sides is necessary. Just because the U.S. government has responded to longstanding activist pressure does not mean the problem is solved. At the same time, simply because certain negative results have come from the Dodd-Frank Act does not mean, in the long-term, it will be solely harmful. In fact, because of these negative repercussions in the Congo, consumers now face the need to advocate even more strongly for “alternative livelihoods programs in the short term,” as Haviv describes. This is a complex matter with a complex solution; however, activists—and economists—can still create definitive change through targeted advocacy for a practical solution. It is in smelters’ best interest to eventually return to the DRC to increase their access to mineral supplies, thus driving down prices; however, it is not realistic to depend on them to establish their own mine evaluation systems based on their currently uninvolved response to the matter.

Daniel Hamermesh, Professor of Economics at The University of Texas at Austin, suggests Americans ought to “do something to mitigate the impact of our well-intentioned legislation on small producers in the Congo.” Such action is possible, starting from the consumer level. Consumers can write to government representatives expressing that the current outcome of the Dodd-Frank Act is only one portion of the solution, for local livelihood protection programs must too be utilized to solve the current Congolese economic stress.

California Seeks to Lessen the Conflict of Minerals

California uses the impetus of the federal Dodd-Frank Act to take action on a state level against conflict minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo. What impact can one state have?

On July 15, 2010, the United States Federal Government passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank Act). The Act’s mission is “to promote the financial stability of the United States by improving accountability and transparency in the financial system, to end ‘too big to fail’, to protect the American taxpayer by ending bailouts, to protect consumers from abusive financial services practices, and for other purposes.” Embedded in this 848-page, Wall Street-focused document are five and a half pages that address the conflict minerals trade in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This brief mention provides just enough space for the United States Federal Government to require companies who file with the Securities and Exchange Commission to disclose their mineral sources, as well as to demand the State Department confront this illicit minerals trade.

This trade refers to the gold, tin, tungsten, and tantalum internationally exported from mines in the DRC. These minerals are incorporated into everyday electronics, such as cell phones, computers, and digital cameras. Many consumers have voiced their concerns regarding the involvement of electronics companies in this corrupt trading system. The trade is ridden with controversy because of the violent Congolese and Rwandan militias in Eastern Congo that control the mines. They take advantage of the DRC’s natural resources to personally profit from the land’s raw materials. In the process, they rape and kill Congolese citizens, subject mineworkers to desolate conditions, and construct an environment of economic hardship. As chronicled by several human rights organizations, such as Jewish World Watch and Enough Project, these militiamen constantly seek to reinforce their position of control and to keep citizens impotent.

“Gold from eastern Congo. The war in Congo is fueled by a thriving gold trade today, with armed groups controlling mines and earning an estimated $50 million last year from selling gold and minerals. This gold is from a day's work at Kaniola mine” Photo and Caption Courtesy of ENOUGH Project / Flickr Creative Commons

The State of California uses this federal act as momentum in its construction of state Senate Bill 861, authored by Senate Majority Leader Ellen M. Corbett. The goals of this bill surpass those established in the Dodd-Frank Act. According to a press release from Senator Corbett’s office, this bill “prohibits the state from contracting with companies that use minerals sold by the militias in their products.” The bill takes national legislation and applies stricter enforcement on a local level. Naama Haviv, Assistant Director of Jewish World Watch, explains in an e-mail the relationship between the national and state regulations saying that SB 861 terminates “State contracts with companies that fail to comply with the Federal reporting requirements laid out in Dodd-Frank.” “California becomes first state to pass conflict mineral legislation,” boasted a The Christian Science Monitor headline on September 14, 2011. This article, as well as a previous one from April 13, 2011 entitled “California takes decisive step against Congo’s conflict minerals,” applauds California for using the impetus of the Dodd-Frank Act to create further restrictions for businesses whose mineral sources are involved in the environmental and humanitarian conflict in the Congo.

A representative in Corporate Responsibility at Intel deflected any potential concerns regarding business repercussions from SB 861 stating, “If you are in compliance [with the Dodd-Frank Act], the California [legislation] is irrelevant.” Thus, unless electronics companies fail to comply with national legislation, they will not be deeply affected by SB 861. Furthermore, it appears California consumers need not fear negative outcomes on their electronics products as a result of the state bill. At the same time, it is crucial to note the way in which SB 861 strategically implements another layer of enforcement and ensures businesses remain aware of their global impact.

Within the activist community, California’s efforts are being seen as a decisive step forward to terminate the corrupt Congolese mineral trade. Laura Heaton, writer and blog editor for the non-profit Enough Project, and author of last month’s The Christian Science Monitor article, praises California’s deeper enforcement of the Dodd-Frank Act as “indeed a step forward” and “a huge victory for activists.” She also commends the immense progress of the federal act itself: “the fact that [this] piece of legislation was championed by a broad bi-partisan coalition in Washington is no small accomplishment.” Activists and consumers have long been pressuring the government to take action on this matter and to hold electronics companies responsible for their financial contribution to major human rights violations.

With regard to Senate Bill 861 specifically, Senator Corbett was quoted in a press release from her office saying, “This legislation will help cut off the cash flow, and support, for lawless militias engaged in heinous human rights violations.” Congressmen Henry Waxman (D–CA) also commented on this bill in an e-mail saying he “appreciate[s] the California State Assembly’s efforts to end the trade of these tainted commodities.” Even though companies such as Intel do not appear concerned about economic implications of the bill, it is important to note that California has the eighth largest economy in the world. To display the economic weight of this bill, Senator Corbett’s press release reveals, “California spends $8.9 billion annually in state contracts. The legislation is supported by 28 U.S. investment firms with assets totaling $130 billion.” SB 861 was passed in the State Assembly on September 8 and was signed by California Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. on October 9.