Bangkok, 30 September, 2015

I’ve often used the expression “drenched with sweat” in my life, but I’ve never actually been thus drenched. This time, though, on staggering out of the jungle after a six hour trek, my wife and I were were literally soaked through. We couldn’t have been wetter if we’d stood under a shower with all our clothes on.

A bit of background is in order. We were in the Malaysia’s easternmost province of Sabah, on the island of Borneo. We were visiting the Danum Valley Conservation Area, which is in one of the few remaining tracts of primary jungle in the province. We arrived there after driving down from the town of Sandakan, passing mile after mile of oil palm plantations. So dreary! And so depressing to think that beautiful jungle stood there not that long ago. But it’s hard to sell jungle, easy sell palm oil.

Leaving all those oil palms behind us for a few days, we wanted to see some jungle – and maybe, if we were lucky, some orang utans. Danum Valley is one of the few places in Sabah where orang utans still live in the wild, along with pygmy elephants, Sumatran rhinoceroses, clouded leopards, various other species of feline, several species of monkeys, and of course hordes of more humble forms of life, botanical and zoological.

So it was that we attached ourselves to a group of young people, part of that army of gap-yearists*, between-jobbers**, and others, who are all on the move these days across every continent, living cheap, telling tall stories about their travels, and swapping information on the good places to eat, sleep, and have fun along the road. They had hired a ranger from the Danum Valley Field Centre, where we were all staying, to take them on one of the shorter trails. Early the next morning, we took our place in the line which filed across a rickety suspension bridge and set off briskly into the jungle. At first, we commented appreciatively on the surroundings, looked eagerly into the undergrowth for signs of pygmy elephants (they had left dung piles and shattered tree limbs along the track), and inspected fearfully every overhanging leaf for leeches (there had been much excited chatter on the net about the presence of these horrible animals along the trails and we sported a set of bright green leech socks for the occasion). But gradually, in the sauna-like heat of the jungle, as we climbed up and down over successive ridges, our breathing grew raspy, the sweat stains on our clothes grew and coalesced until clothes and stains were one, our speed slowed to a crawl. We neither saw nor cared anymore about what was around us (which in truth was not much; at the very last minute, a macaque monkey was sighted high above us, otherwise a few millipedes and some leeches were the total of our bag). The only thing that mattered was to make sure that we lifted our legs high enough to step over the roots, branches, and other jungle paraphernalia that littered the trail. Some of the group kindly held back so that we didn’t get completely separated from the rest, otherwise we would still be in that jungle stumbling around in a total daze. When we got back to our room, we unsteadily peeled off our sodden clothes, stood for a minute under the shower, and then collapsed onto the bed, lying there in a stupor for a few hours.

So when we heard at dinner that our young friends had booked a ranger for an even longer walk the next day, we smiled and promised to be on hand to wave them off at breakfast. We kept our promise, wishing them a safe journey over our fried eggs. And then, after some more tea, toast and marmalade to fortify us, we ambled slowly back into the jungle to an observation tower, from which we had decided to watch jungle life in peace and tranquillity. Observation tower is a misnomer. It was actually simply an aluminium ladder encased in an iron safety cage, attached to one of the tall, tall trees that dot the jungle.
The ladder led to a wooden observation deck at the top and another half way up. It must have been all of 60 meters to the top deck (110 rungs; I counted). One of our young friends, between jobs, had shinned up the ladder as we lay, inert, on our beds the previous afternoon. His last job was as tester of the mechanical soundness of pipelines, and he informed us at dinner that it was his professional opinion that the whole contraption was exceedingly corroded and ready to peel off the tree at any moment.

With these words still ringing in my ears, I commended my soul to Jesus, Mary, and all the Saints, and started climbing, fixedly looking at the bark in front of me and pulling myself up rung by counted rung. My wife followed. We stopped at the mid-level observation deck for a breather before continuing on. Again, fix the bark and pull up rung by counted rung. We made it in one piece. We took a photo down the ladder we had just climbed.

But the view compensated for all the fear and the sweat to get there.


I like being in jungle canopy. At ground level, I find jungle quite monotonous. There are no sweeping vistas through the thick vegetation, and unless you are into insects there is precious little animal life on the jungle floor. Even the plant life is not that interesting, unless you like fungi (are they even plants?). If you happen to spot something in the trees, it’s hard to watch through all the intervening foliage. But in the canopy, or above it as was our case, it’s completely different. You appreciate the grand sweep of the jungle: the tall trees, the Lords of the place, the smaller trees greedily growing towards the light and waiting for their moment of glory when the Lords will be toppled by wind, rain, or sheer old age, the parasitical plants of all descriptions – lianas, vines, ferns – using these trees as their path towards the light, strangling, suffocating, and sucking their life juices from them; flowers, coloured leaves, and fruit peppering the whole. And above and through all this botanical profusion you see the silent flitting of animals. As we stood there, looking out over the canopy, we saw a butterfly which did a long glide past rather than flying drunkenly along as do most butterflies, the bright aquamarine streak of a bird shooting over the canopy (a kingfisher?)
several black squirrels, which scurried fearlessly up tree trunks and out along branches
and at the end, a troop of red leaf monkeys, who suddenly appeared out of the vines loading down a tree, gracefully jumped over onto the next tree, disappeared into the foliage, and then reappeared further along the canopy.
It was time to go. A new prayer, and down we went, rung by rung, all 110 of them.


* young persons, normally school leavers waiting to go on to University, who have decided to take a year off and travel the world. It can also apply to somewhat older persons who have decided to take the year off between undergraduate and graduate schools.
** even older, but still young, persons who have decided that they are fed up with the boring job they have and want to see the world, or have decided to change jobs and want to see the world before they start working again, or simply decide that it’s now or never if they want to see the world.

Dipterocarp: http://images.travelpod.com/tw_slides/ta00/da3/d08/towering-dipterocarp-bilit.jpg (in http://tripwow.tripadvisor.com/slideshow-photo/towering-dipterocarp-by-travelpod-member-dan-melanie-bilit-malaysia.html?sid=14302472&fid=tp-8)
Kingfisher: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a6/Ein_Eisvogel_im_Schwebflug.jpg (in https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingfisher)
Black squirrel: https://worldbirdwatching.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/mamilanutria.jpg?w=500&h=374 (in https://worldbirdwatching.wordpress.com)
Red leaf monkeys: http://il2.picdn.net/shutterstock/videos/5039030/thumb/1.jpg?i10c=img.resize(height:160) (in http://www.shutterstock.com/video/clip-5038946-stock-footage-rare-red-or-maroon-leaf-monkey-presbytis-rubicunda-in-the-jungles-of-borneo-this-is-a-beautiful.html)
Other pictures: ours


Bangkok, 9 September 2015

Fairly often, I walk past the Bangkok office of FAO (the Food and Agricultural Organization, not the Schwartz of the toys), and with time the logo of the Organization, which is placed on the gate of the building, has seeped into my consciousness.

FAO icon

As it’s seeped into my consciousness, I’ve begun to look at it more closely. Let me give you a more formal view of the logo so that we can study it together.


It’s a simple design, as all good designs should be.

And it’s profoundly colonialist, or at the very least extremely euro-centric.

Let me explain.

What we have here is a stylized head of wheat with a motto in Latin, “Fiat Panis”, “Let There Be Bread”. OK, you may say, so what’s the big deal? FAO is there to eliminate hunger, bread is perhaps the most fundamental of foods (remember Marie-Antoinette’s comment “let them eat cake” when told that the peasants had no bread), and wheat makes bread.

Oh really? The Thais eat bread? And the other South-East Asians? How about the Chinese? The Koreans? The Japanese? Rice reigns supreme here. And while the people of the Indian sub-continent consume bread (naan and roti come to mind), they also consume huge amounts of rice, as well as substantial amounts of sorghum, millet, and maize. Talking of maize, in its birthplace, Mexico, and in much of Central America, it is still the major cereal consumed (think tortillas), while the Spaniards and the Portuguese carried it off to all corners of the globe, so that not only the Indians but the Chinese and many other Asians now also eat large amounts of maize. The same is true of Sub-Sahara Africa – it’s the most consumed cereal in that part of the world, along with millet (many of whose species originated in Africa), sorghum (also originally from Africa), as well as lesser-known grains like teff in the Ethiopian highlands, fonio in the savannah areas of Western Africa, and Africa’s own variety of rice along the rivers of Western Africa. And although the Europeanss who colonized the Americas brought with them the habit of consuming wheat, not only maize but other grains, like qinoa, or its close relative kañiwa, or even amaranth, have hung on.

But FAO, created in the aftermath of World War II, was very much a creation of Europeans and neo-Europeans (the countries in the Americas and Australasia which were colonized by Europeans and whose elites probably ate bread and not tortillas or the local equivalent). Of the 37 original countries who signed up to the FAO when it was created in October 1945, 29 were Europeans or neo-Europeans. Of the remainder, 4 came from the Arab region, also wheat eating. Of the three Asian signatories, India (as we have seen) eats quite a bit of wheat, especially its northern regions where the-then Hindi political elite came from (I’m a bit puzzled that India signed up, though; it was still a British colony). That leaves the Philippines, who no doubt just followed the US lead, and China, represented by the Nationalists who were anxious to keep their friends in the West during their fight to the death with the Communists and so who weren’t going to make a fuss over anything so trivial as a logo (maybe they didn’t even notice it).  As for Liberia, the one lone African signatory (the others all being colonies and therefore not counting as countries), given its history it also no doubt followed the U.S.’s lead.

So wheat it was on the FAO logo. But did they really have to add the Latin motto? Such a super European thing to do! Have something in front of you which looks like a heraldic shield, and slap a Latin motto onto it (it was put there by FAO’s first Director-General, by the way, a Brit; why am I not surprised?). I mean, as a European who had Latin as part of my education (very unwillingly, I should add), I like the motto. It gives an apparent nobility, a timelessness, to a simple message: let me eat. It also reminds me subliminally of my (European) Christian upbringing – I’m old enough to remember Sunday masses in Latin, where of course bread is central to the liturgy. It also reminds me of a line in the New Testament (I wonder if the British Director-General had this in mind when he chose the motto), when Jesus is being tempted in the desert by the devil. At one point, the devil says to him (in the Latin Vulgate version) “Si Filius Dei es, dic lapidi huic ut panis fiat”, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Turning stones into bread: a nice description of farming. But all this is very, very elitist, holding meaning to a tiny percentage of the world’s population. It means nothing to the Chinese or Indian farmer, or the campesino in Latin America, or the African subsistence farmer eking out an existence on the edges of life. Yet they are the clients of FAO, not me, white, educated, and urbanite.

So I think we need to redesign FAO’s logo. I’m open to all and any suggestions, but here are my thoughts. First, throw out the motto; let’s keep to the one universal language that we all have, images. Just as an example to encourage us, UNICEF, which has its office next to FAO’s, also has its logo on the gate.

unicef logo

No words, just an image, and of course an absolutely universal image of mother and child. This is what we should aspire to.

My first thought is that the logo should recognize that we all eat lots of different foods all over the world. We can’t have all of them on the logo, but we could have those most eaten. For example, I read that the ten most eaten staple foods in the world are maize, rice, wheat, potatoes, cassava, soybeans, sweet potatoes, yams, sorghum, and plantain. So why not shove all of of them into a cornucopia like this one, so dear to Americans around Thanksgiving and put it on FAO’s logo?cornucopia iconAfter an initial burst of enthusiasm, I hesitate. First of all, I am committing exactly the same sin which I am accusing the original designers of, cultural imperialism. Who, outside of the European and neo-European countries, has ever heard of cornucopias? This was a Roman invention, attributed to several Gods and Goddesses having to do with food and agriculture. Of these, I prefer the Goddess Abundantia, for no other reason than it’s a pretty cool name.


As you can see, she is nestling a cornucopia along her left arm.

Abundantia’s name also happens to show the second big problem with cornucopias. Her name gave us our word “abundance”, and that is indeed the purpose of the cornucopia, to show the overflowing fruits of the earth – that’s why it pops up at Thanksgiving, when everyone is gorging themselves. But abundance is not what 90% of FAO’s clients have. I think it would be rather a slap in their face to flaunt so much abundance.

Why not move away from the fruits of farming to the act of farming itself? And here I’m thinking of the act of ploughing – not completely universal, I grant you, since herdsmen don’t plough, but still pretty symbolic of farming from time immemorial.

egyptian ploughing

Some sort of simplified picture like this could do the trick

hand ploughing-2

although obviously this particular picture carries a lot of European cultural baggage: the horse, the way the man is dressed. But I’m sure a professional designer could come up with something less fixed to a certain time and place. Of course, fitting all of that in a readable form onto a logo might be a challenge. Perhaps the picture should be just the plough itself, something like this.hand ploughAgain, after an initial moment of enthusiasm, I hesitate. I could be accused of wanting farmers to stay in the Stone Age. Why not have a modernist, aspirational logo like a tractor, which no doubt every farmer, sweating away as he ploughs his field with his ox or horse or other beast of burden, would devoutly wish for? Something like this:

tractor logo

But frankly I don’t like tractors much; I have a rather contrasted relationship with this piece of agricultural machinery. So I’ll nix that idea.

After some thought, I suggest we should go for something much simpler, something much more fundamental, something much more basic: this

planting-3aAfter all, once you strip out all the technology, all the sophistication, all those damned tractors, isn’t that what farming is essentially about, nurturing a plant to grow?


FAO logo: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/db/FAO_logo.svg/2000px-FAO_logo.svg.png (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_and_Agriculture_Organization_of_the_United_Nations)
UNICEF logo: http://www.somalicurrent.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/UNicef.png (in http://www.zwallpix.com/unicef-logo.html)
Cornucopia icon: http://www.clker.com/cliparts/1/8/a/5/128509193232136462thanksgiving-cornucopia-large.jpg (in http://www.clker.com/clipart-71521.html)
Statue of Abundantia: http://arachne.uni-koeln.de/images/Abbildungen/FADatenbankabb0488/BA-Museum-Neg-NrBard115_2211,05.jpg (in http://arachne.uni-koeln.de/browser/clarac_index.php?view%5Blayout%5D=clarac_page&clarac%5Bsearch%5D%5BPS_WebseiteID%5D=3125)
Egyptian ploughing: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/91/Maler_der_Grabkammer_des_Sennudem_001.jpg/1280px-Maler_der_Grabkammer_des_Sennudem_001.jpg (in https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Maler_der_Grabkammer_des_Sennudem_001.jpg)
Hand ploughing: http://image.shutterstock.com/display_pic_with_logo/300715/300715,1243435606,4/stock-photo-farmer-and-horse-drawn-plough-30987703.jpg (in http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-30987703/stock-photo-farmer-and-horse-drawn-plough.html)
Hand plough: http://img.index.hu/imgfrm/4/5/6/4/BIG_0007494564.jpg (in http://forum.index.hu/Article/showArticle?go=99788228&t=9201739)
Tractor logo: Hand ploughing: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/ed/04/8b/ed048bb8cfea5f269418c1476160f152.jpg (in http://janesbrickroad.blogspot.com/2010/07/jacobs-creek.html)
Planting: http://thumb9.shutterstock.com/display_pic_with_logo/2857603/257887916/stock-vector-hand-holding-a-leafy-plant-symbol-for-download-vector-icons-for-video-mobile-apps-web-sites-and-257887916.jpg (in http://www.shutterstock.com/s/planting+seeds/search.html)