Protector of Pandas, Friend to Farmers

Our food arrives, and I quite enjoy it. For the price, about $15 per person, I think it’s savory and interesting. The curried tofu is a bit overpowering with noodles, but eaten with the cabbage salad, it’s perfect: wild, yellow, coriander, sesame-studded tofu, Chinese basil, and sweet, shredded carrot. The chicken dish suffers due to the meat itself — which has the stale flavor of a mid- to low grade — but the mild jasmine sauce is creamy and pleasant.

Harkness disagrees. He doesn’t care for the way the tofu is prepared and calls the curry one-dimensional. The rice under the chicken is too mushy, he says, but he concedes that the sauce is nice.

We talk a bit about Linden Hills, which he likes, though he wishes it were more diverse and says it could use a decent bookstore [for adults — Wild Rumpus, down the street, is an excellent children’s bookshop], as well. In fact, he’s back because after living in Washington, D.C., and then overseas for many years, he’s learned to appreciate Minnesota.

Harkness switched from birds to bears when he was offered a job by the National Zoo’s Giant Panda Plan. It was a time of panda-mania. The American public had fallen in love with the endangered Chinese animals, and there were companies “renting” pandas out to various venues: auto shows, petting zoos, Hollywood parties. The role of the Giant Panda Plan was to educate and save pandas.

“I didn’t really enjoy this job,” Harkness admits. “I learned a tremendous amount and met a lot of interesting people, but ultimately, I didn’t have a lot of faith in the plan. Instead of being in China doing something about the problem, I was in an office in Bethesda, answering questions from schoolchildren.”

But the job was a springboard. In 1993, he was hired by the Ford Foundation to run their office in Beijing.

“Now this was an excellent thing to do for a living,” Harkness says. “Basically, I was being paid to give away money to incredibly smart, innovative Chinese people who were fighting the good fight.”

He worked for the Ford Foundation for five years, then signed on as director of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in China for the next six.

“The WWF is a huge, international conservation organization, and they were concerned about environmental issues in China,” he says. “And pandas, of course. Which is why I got the job. That work with the Panda Plan finally paid off.”

But after more than ten years in China
, working in the nonprofit sector, Harkness had simply had enough. He quit the WWF in 2004 and decided to take some time off. He had enough money saved; he had no responsibilities other than to take care of himself. For more than a year, he slept, he read, he visited friends.

One of the only professional appearances he made was at a meeting in the United States about Wal-Mart moving into China. After he spoke — saying the Chinese government might be the only entity in the world capable of taming Wal-Mart’s unfair labor practices — someone told him there was a job open with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) in Minneapolis and suggested he apply.

Pages: 1 2 3