At the Front Lines of the Global Transition

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India’s Economy Slows As Condition of Water, Land, and Cities Deteriorates

India's stifling bureaucracy, ruled by paper and graft, is an impediment to development. Here, the water department in Haryana. Photo/Keith Schneider

India’s stifling bureaucracy, ruled by paper and graft, is an impediment to development. Here, the water department in Haryana. Photo/Keith Schneider

At the invitation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President Barack Obama arrives on Sunday in New Delhi, the first American president to honor Republic Day, the day that India’s Constitution took effect in 1950.

During the three-day visit, the president and the prime minister are expected to talk about trade, and technology, and diplomacy. There could even be some kind of statement on climate-changing emissions. India is the planet’s third largest producer of coal, behind China and the United States.

It’s not likely, though, that Prime Minister Modi will be as candid as he needs to be about India’s slipping economic development that’s due in no small part to the country’s worn and soiled condition. Nor can the prime minister be expected to acknowledge that a change in development strategy is desperately needed, one that recognizes the new conditions of this century, and fit what India is and can become.

Consequences of Runaway Development
As it is, the develop-at-any-cost approach that India has pursued for 35 years, an economic construct of the 20th century, has turned India into a mess in the 21st. During four long reporting trips to India over the last two years for Circle of Blue, trips that brought me to 11 of India’s 29 states, I found cities that are grimy. Water is wretchedly polluted. Air is among the dirtiest and unhealthy in the world. India’s countryside is a tyranny of garbage and litter. Roads are in terrible shape.

Doing business in India, especially for the foreign corporations Modi wants to lure to his country, is a test of personal and executive resolve. Two of the most significant impediments are India’s suffocating bureaucracy, and the shortage of electricity.

Indian governments still do most of their business on paper, literally walking thick files from one office to the next for signatures. Decisions on new buildings, mines, power stations, and industrial plants are inordinately slow. They’re also influenced by “chai pani,” tea and water, the not terribly well-hidden payoffs that agency personnel expect and business executives provide.

Electricity demand, meanwhile, is vastly outpacing supply. Brownouts and blackouts are endemic in almost every part of the country. India’s utilities last year produced 237,000 megawatts of generating capacity, less than a quarter of US generating capacity and about 20 percent of China’s. Ten percent of that electricity is stolen and 20 percent more is lost on India’s inefficient and old transmission grid. Four hundred million Indians, roughly a third of India’s nearly 1.3 billion people, live without electricity.

Coal dominates India's electricity production. Here, a plant under construction in Tilda. Photo/Keith Schneider

Coal dominates India’s electricity production. Here, a plant under construction in Tilda. Photo/Keith Schneider

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Boquete, Panama Is Banquet of Coffee, Flowers, Water, and Rainbows

Following a day of picking, workers haul sacks of ripe coffee beans to be weighed and emptied into a crushing bin.

Following a day of picking, Finca Lerida farm workers haul sacks of ripe coffee beans to be weighed and emptied into a crushing bin. Photo/Keith Schneider


BOQUETE, Panama
— A mile high in the western highlands, near the border of Costa Rica and in the shadow of 3,474-meter (11,398 feet) Volcan Baru, a dormant volcano that is Panama’s tallest peak, lies a convergence of water, sun, soil, and altitude that produces superb coffee. The very same union of God-given natural bounty also yields a prodigious bounty of beautiful flowers and an afternoon banquet of rainbows that arc, mountain range to mountain range, to form half-halos of color above this handsome valley town.

For a generation now, and with the help of a sizable community of ex-pat Americans and Canadians, Boquete (pronounced Bo-ket-ay) has merged its century-old coffee-producing economy with contemporary pursuits like hiking, white water rafting, and farm-to-table restaurants. The result is a tourist town set by the fast-flowing Caldera River that resembles Telluride, Colorado, enjoys the sunny weather of Santa Barbara, California, has the authentic and gracious charm of Saint-Malo, France, and the steep and clean wild rivers and challenging cliffs of Banff, British Columbia.

Most of Boquete’s 6,300 residents are said to be intent on preserving these assets as the foundation of a sustainable economy that is thriving. This is no small feat in a mountainous, water-rich region that is a study in fluid mechanics and kinetic energy. Rivers are big and move downhill with authority in western Panama, which is attracting intensive hydro-electric power development.

Boquete, Panama, in the mountains close to Costa Rica, sets in a valley below Volcan Baru, the nation's tallest mountain. Photo/Keith Schneider

Boquete, Panama, in the mountains close to Costa Rica, is set in a valley below Volcan Baru, the nation’s tallest mountain. Photo/Keith Schneider

A friend, Osvaldo Jordan, who is a biologist and political scientist, took me to the other side of the mountains, closer to the Caribbean, to see the tropical river valleys where new dams are proposed for a report later this month for Circle of Blue. “There are different definitions for defining modernity,” Osvaldo told me. “The biggest challenge for Panama is to find the right definition.”

A portion of that new definition rests in Boquete. In town there are lovely restaurants like the Art Cafe, which serves exquisite French dinners for a fair price and Punto de Encuentro, where Boquete’s best breakfast is served. Olga, Punto’s owner for 17 years, gives customers a hug and a kiss hello, and a hug and a kiss goodbye.

Coffee Tree Heaven
On a slope of Baru above Boquete, about 300 meters (1,000 feet), is a microclimate that supports about 50 small farms that are competitive internationally for producing some of the world’s best coffee. One of them, the Finca Lerida farm, was founded in 1911 by a German engineer who spent much of his time assisting in the construction of the Panama Canal. Down the road is the famed Hacienda La Esmeralda, owned and managed by the Peterson family, that became a station on the international coffee map with its mild and delicious Geisha variety coffee, the best of which sells for $153 a pound — when it can be found.

Cesar Caballero, a tour guide at Finca Lerida, explains the art of sun drying coffee. Photo/Keith Schneider

Cesar Caballero, a tour guide at Finca Lerida, explains the art of sun drying coffee. Photo/Keith Schneider

With prices like that, Boquete’s coffee farmers aren’t afraid of telling visitors that money really does grow on trees. Coffee trees love this place. The rich volcanic soil, bright sunlight, and afternoon clouds that surround the trees in a moisturizing mist, turns seedlings into mature producing trees in less than four years. The trees yield clusters of red fruit, smaller than cherries, that are sweet when eaten raw. Read More

Jim ‘Jet’ Neilson’s Panama Run

Jim "Jet" Neilson with one of the rocket cars he stores in Panama. He's struggling with Panama officials to stage an event to run another of his jet cars in Panama City.

Jim “Jet” Neilson with one of the rocket cars he stores in Panama. He’s struggling with Panama officials to stage an event to run another of his jet cars in Panama City. Photo/courtesy of Jim ‘Jet’ Neilson

PANAMA CITY, Panama — Jim ‘Jet’ Neilson is an American race car driver, born in California and raised in Hawaii, whose living and reputation is entirely based on a tool box of risky virtues. He designs, builds, and drives jet cars so powerful and fast that the main attraction of a Jim ‘Jet’ Neilson event — aiming a jet on wheels down a long straightaway — concludes in less time than it takes to sneeze.

Plainly, Jim Jet is comfortable moving more quickly than most men. “24-7 and fast,” he told me last week. “We go that way all day, every day.”

One of the delights in reporting from nations outside the U.S. is meeting genuine characters. The Maltese entrepreneur who opened a pizza restaurant in Urumqi, a far west desert city in China. The English plumber growing organic vegetables near Barcelona. The Canadian artist building solar plants in Qatar.

Which brings us to Jim ‘Jet’ Neilson and his often frustrating, but soon to be successful sojourn in Panama. About six years ago, when he was 56-years-old, Jim joined the growing crowd of American baby boomers who saw in Panama’s fabulously warm winter weather, and Panama City’s chic and affordable lifestyle, an opportunity to spend time in a developing Central American tropical paradise.

Jim "Jet" Neilson aboard the Mirna in Panama City. Photo/Keith Schneider

Jim ‘Jet’ Neilson aboard the Mirna in Panama City. Photo/Keith Schneider


A Fast Drive in Panama

Not nearly ready to put his jet cars or his career on blocks, he proposed what he thought was a can’t miss opportunity for attracting more attention to Panama. He told Panamanian authorities that for a fair sum he would pilot one of his cars on a city boulevard at speeds approaching 350 miles per hour, faster than any car had ever been driven in Central America. Since 1986, when he started driving jet cars, similar jet car runs on highways and drag strips had attracted huge crowds.

In one run on a Las Vegas highway to open a new hotel Neilson reached a top speed of 391 miles per hour, the world record for driving on pavement.

That’s not fast. It’s dare to be dead nuts. It’s also the sort of daredevil event that people love to watch. Robert Craig “Evel” Knievel, the motorcycle racer, became an American icon staging the same sort of events, featuring speed, guts, and a real question of whether the main actor would be alive when it ended.

The Panamanian authorities haven’t been nearly as enthusiastic about a jet car event as Jet Neilson hoped. Permits took years to be granted. Details haven’t been easy to work out. Expenses have become draining.

A Strong and Likely Start
Jim Neilson was born in Van Nuys, California in 1953 and as a child moved with his family to Hawaii with his father Lorenzo Neilson, a fishing captain in Kona, and Verla Neilson, who worked in Hawaiian real estate. He’s the oldest son, and second oldest child in a family of two girls and three boys.

His racing career was influenced by an early moment that produced a small safety measure for the sport. “I was five years old,” he remembers. “My Mom and Dad took me to a quarter midget racetrack at a large shopping mall in Southern California.

“A good friend’s son was racing there. So they asked my Mom if it was okay to put me in the car and just idle around in the pits. He would be standing on the rear axle. My Mom said okay.

“Quarter midgets start by pushing on the pedal. They are a live start and quick acceleration. Well! When they got me started he said, ‘Just give it a little gas.’

“I floored it and never lifted my foot off the pedal. I shot across the parking lot full throttle, in heavy traffic, on a Sunday. I hit the median curb and high-centered it still at full throttle until they ran over and shut me off.

“My Mom said she was horrified. She told me when I was older that she did not know how I weaved through traffic without getting hit. After that weekend they changed the rule nationally. No driving in the pits! It was kind of funny the way my Mom used to tell the story,” Jim says, laughing.

Crashes That Didn’t Kill

Then his face darkens. His mother died in 2012. “This will be the only record run that my mom will not be at,” he says. “She was always there to support me fully even though she hated me racing.”

Jim 'Jet' Neilson's jet car that could set the Central American speed record on pavement in Panama City in the spring.

Jim ‘Jet’ Neilson’s jet car that could set the Central American speed record on pavement in Panama City in the spring. Photo/courtesy of Jim ‘Jet’ Neilson


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Panama’s Water-Rich Eden Confronts Snake’s Temptation

North of Panama City, Lago Alajuela drains parts of Parque Nacional Chagres, a biopreserve that is home to over 50 species of birds and a rich harvest of tilapia. Photo/Keith Schneider

North of Panama City, Lago Alajuela drains parts of Parque Nacional Chagres, a biopreserve that is home to over 50 species of birds and a rich harvest of tilapia. Photo/Keith Schneider

PANAMA CITY, Panama – Quebrada Ancha, a community that settled in Panama’s thick forest 50 years ago, lies at the northern end of Lago Alajuela, a freshwater lake built by the United States at the end of the Great Depression to control floods in the Panama Canal Zone.

It takes 20 minutes in a fast 40-foot dugout boat to get there. In early morning’s luminous light and cooling breeze the trip is a passage across a water-rich green paradise. Fish eagles dive for tilapia. Hummingbirds swarm in the tangled branches of small trees. Grapefruits and oranges, papayas and mangos, coconuts and bananas ripen in a geography of wild bounty.

The long path through the forest to the community’s center is like striding down a tropical produce section.  Sugarcane and ginger and breadfruit, pineapple and marañon Curaçao, which looks like an apple and tastes like a pear, grow abundantly in the forest. Honey is collected from wild bees that nest in the village’s hives. Fresh fish is abundant.

A number of Quebrada Ancha’s adults were children when they arrived in 1976 with their families from central Panama; refugees forced out of their homes by the backwaters of the 260-megawatt Bayano Dam. Quebrada Ancha’s phenomenal natural riches now support about 100 adults and children, and attract foreigners who visit with increasing frequency.

Children of the Ancha community in Panama greet visitors in native costumes. Photo/Keith Schneider

Children of Quebrada Ancha in Panama greet visitors in native costumes. Photo/Keith Schneider

Coffee, Not Forest Clearing
In a shift that is representative of Panama itself, the residents of Quebrada Ancha see in their largely unspoiled territory potentially useful new ways to thrive in the 21st century.

For instance, instead of burning forests for new farm lands, a practice that drains nutrients from the soil, the village cultivates shaded and permanent hillside plots. In some they raise coffee bushes that in 2014 produced 75,000 pounds of coffee beans for sale to roasters in Panama City, about an hour away. A portion of the harvest also is dried in the sun, roasted over open fires, and available in the village for $9 a pound. Quebrada Ancha’s location on a high bank above the lake, set amid a grove of shade trees, is a delightful perch for savoring the strong and delicious village brand.
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Worcester Redevelopment in the New York Times

A generation ago Worcester’s weary downtown served as an impediment to attracting students, said college administrators. Today, the city’s sidewalks and stories are alive with shoppers, office workers, and students.

A generation ago Worcester’s weary downtown served as an impediment to attracting students. Today, the city’s sidewalks and stories are alive with shoppers, office workers, and students.

WORCESTER, Mass. — Though College of the Holy Cross was founded here in 1843, and eight other prominent institutions of higher learning followed, it’s taken most of the last two centuries for this sizable New England city to consider itself a college town.

It does so now. From one end of the city’s 245-acre central core to the other, Worcester’s primary boulevards are steadily filling up with the civic equipment that is attracting new residents, and keeps the 35,000 college students who study and live here satisfied. They include a busy public transit hub, comfortable and affordable housing, new restaurants and watering holes, computer stores and coffee shops, a world class performing arts theater, state-of-the-art biotech research facilities, incubators and office space for start-up companies, and renovated parks, including one alongside City Hall with an ice rink larger than the one in Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center.

Today the New York Times published my article on Worcester’s redevelopment. I am familiar with the city. A long time ago I dated a young woman who attended Clark University, one of the city’s fine colleges. Worcester was a beat up place at the time, certainly not the kind of city smart new college graduates thought they’d settle in. Worcester is no longer that city and it shows.

The newest project in Worcester’s revitalization portfolio is CitySquare, a $565 million, 12-acre mixed use development just east of City Hall. It replaces a two-story, 1 million square-foot downtown shopping mall that took up almost 10 percent of Worcester’s central business district.

The former Worcester Center Galleria, built at a cost of $127 million, thrived for a decade after it opened in 1971, and then went dark by the turn of the century. The mall was demolished in 2012. In the two years since, Worcester spent $59 million burying utilities, preparing building sites for new construction, and reconstructing and connecting four streets in the district to the city’s street grid.

Market interest in CitySquare has been strong, according to city data. In 2013, Unum, a Tennessee-based insurer, opened a $76 million, 214,000-square-foot, seven-story office tower alongside an 860-space parking garage. The St. Vincent Cancer and Wellness Center finished a $30 million, 66,000-square-foot treatment facility.

Across the street, the Worcester Regional Transit Authority built a $14 million, 14,000-square-foot bus transit hub that is alongside the city’s 103-year-old Union Station that was reopened in 2000 after a $32 million renovation. The station is a stop on Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited between Boston and Chicago, and hosts 20 commuter trains daily to and from Boston that serve 1,500 passengers.

In 2014, the city and The Hanover Insurance Group, Inc., the primary landholder and CitySquare development manager, finished agreements with Roseland Property Company to build 370 market rate rental apartments in a cluster of five-story residential buildings at a cost of $90 million. The first 263,479-square-foot building will hold 239 apartments. The second 142,130-square-foot building will hold 131 apartments.

Next door to the apartments will be a $36 million, six-story, 126,000-square-foot, 150-room Marriott hotel.  The hotel sits atop a two-level, 243,000-square-foot parking deck large enough for 550 vehicles. Construction of the parking deck is underway. Construction of the residential project is scheduled to start in the spring of 2015. The hotel construction follows.
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