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Issue 102

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[image, unknown] KAMPUCHEA[image, unknown]

Between hope and resignation

The tiger will eat you anyway, so don't bother even to go into the forest.
Kampuchean proverb

Resignation is spreading in Kampuchea today. Struggling to contain growing harrassment by Khmer Rouge guerrillas and resigned to a massive, indefinite Vietnamese presence, the Kampuchean government feels trapped by forces beyond its control.

And yet, barely two years after Kampuchea's plight hit the world's newspaper headlines, the country has notched up some impressive gains. The capital Pnom Penh, virtually a ghost city a couple of years ago, now bustles with the activity of 500,000 people. Motorbikes and motorised carriages roar through the once deserted streets, shops and markets do brisk business. An estimated 310,000 are still living as refugees in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, but some 320,000 Kampucheans who fled to neighbouring countries have returned home.

Last winter's rice harvest was good, reaching 700,000 tons.This year, though imports of about 100,000 tons of food grains - from UN agencies and the USSR - will still be needed, the crop area is expanding and production should be even higher.

About 1.3 million children (75 per cent of the school age total) are back at school, and an adult literacy campaign is getting under way.

Paradoxically for a socialist state, the free market has been revived and there is a flourishing trade in consumer goods (in exchange for gold) with Thailand. Trains pulling into Pnom Penh disgorge loads of transistor radios, refrigerators, sarongs and cigarettes from across the Thai border. 'Our fast priority is to raise living standards. Today, the free market is doing us a service' say the authorities.

But the picture also has a dark side. Manufacturing industry remains enfeebled. Only about a dozen industrial installations in Pnom Penh are actually running, thanks largely to raw materials supplied by Western volunteer agencies and a Russian-repaired power supply. Government services are beset by acute shortages of trained manpower and a crippled infrastructure. In health, for example, a mere 50 doctors must somehow cope with the needs of a population of 5.7 million.

Meanwhile the military situation remains precarious. With the Khmer Rouge making a resurgence in the countryside, prospects for the withdrawal of Vietnam's 200,000 troops are very dim. And on the diplomatic scene, the Pnom Penh government is still ostracised by most countries outside the Soviet bloc.

The planned withdrawal at the end of the year of UN aid agencies and the International Committee for the Red Cross will increase the country's dependence on the Soviets. And although it is rumoured that UNICEF and other UN agencies are keen to support development programmes in Kampuchea when the present emergency programme is finished, political pressure - especially from the US, ASEAN countries and China - restricts the UN to emergency relief work only. Western governments also refuse, on political grounds, to extend bilateral aid to Kampuchea, thus reinforcing the country's reliance on Soviet aid.

The Pnom Penh authorities are well aware of the dangers of over-dependence on the Soviets. In a recent speech Foreign Minister Hun Sen stressed that 'we also wish the capitalist countries to contribute to the reconstruction of the country'. But by the end of 1981 the only tangible evidence of the West's alleged concern about Kampuchea's acute development problems may be the handful of voluntary agencies such as Oxfam and World Vision, who plan to keep working in the country.

The international aid effort - estimated by the Far Eastern Economic Review at $1 billion over the past two years - has pulled Kampuchea back from the precipice. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of lives have been saved. But it is one thing to save people from death, and quite another to bring a country back to life. Even more than massive development aid, Kampuchea needs a political and military settlement guaranteeing the country's independence.

But as long as this small, strife-torn country remains a battlefield in a global power struggle, a lasting settlement seems out of the question. Resignation seems likely to spread and may lead to despair. The Kampuchean people deserve something better.

Glen Williarns

*ASEAN Association of South East Asian Nations. Member states are Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.

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[image, unknown] THE DISABLING WORLD[image, unknown]

Some victims don't sue

Further evidence of the gross disabling effects of some anti-diarrheaol drugs has come from recent court cases. In January this year, the New Internationalist reported how clioquinol, marketed under the brand names of Entero-Vioform and Mexaform,has caused more than 10,000 cases of SMON (similar to multiple sclerosis) in Japan. Ciba-Geigy, one of the companies responsible for the marketing of the drug in Japan, and still selling it in approximately 100 Third World countries, blamed the epidemic on 'peculiarities' in the Japanese physical constitution combined with a health system prone to over-prescribing.

However it appears that the Swedish constitution is also susceptible to clioquinol-induced SMON. Britain's leading medical journal, The Lancet, reported in February this year that Ciba-Geigy and another pharmaceutical company that had distributed oxyquinolenes had reached an out-of-court settlement with 41 Swedish victims. All were suffering from neurological injuries they claimed were caused by those drugs.

Although the damages paid were kept confidential, presumably to save the companies embarrassing publicity and reduce the chances of setting a precedent for cases in other countries, the original claims had been for damages in excess of two million dollars. This compares with the $400 million so far paid to 4367 Japanese victims by Ciba-Geigy of Japan and two local companies.

Neither are the Americans immune to the severe side effects of these drugs. In a London court case this spring, Sandra Lawley from South Carolina sued the pharmaceutical company E.R Squibb and Sons for loss of eyesight after taking their anti-diarrheaol compound, Quixalin (similar to the clioquinol-based drugs).

The drug had been on sale for 13 years in the UK, and for many years in Latin America and the Far East: all despite the dangerous consequences when the drug was taken by animals. These included dogs suffering from impaired sight, smell and hearing and paralysis of the hind legs, as well as calves becoming blind or even dying. Squibb pleaded in court that they knew of no case of adverse effects of the drug on humans. But before Sandra Lawleys' representatives could call their main witness - Newcastle doctor who had warned the company in 1975 of a case where Quixalin had been the suspected cause of another case of blindness - Squibb decided to settle out of court.

Yet sales of such drugs to Latin America, Africa and Asia continues. Perhaps company lawyers sleep more soundly there, soothed by the knowledge that Third World victims will not sue.

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[image, unknown] AGRICULTURE[image, unknown]

The root of the problem

One of the few UK government overseas aid services which is literally going straight to the root of the problem is now under threat of the axe.

The UK Overseas Development Administration's (ODA) unique Tropical Nematology unit at Rothamsted, England, has had its life cut to less than two years as part of a series of 'economies' which will reduce ODA expenditure by 36 per cent.

Nematodes are microscopic worms which attack most crop plants. In the UK the major pest of the class is the potato cyst eel-worm, against which an arsenal of sophisticated chemicals is deployed. In the USA's semi-temperate areas, despite millions of dollars' worth of advanced control measures, losses due to nematodes have been estimated at between six and 12 per cent.

But in tropical countries, where warmth accelerates the pests' life-cycle, they can cause complete crop failure. The significance for countries whose entire export trade may be in one crop and for small farmers to whom a crop failure may mean either starvation or losing their land to money-lenders can hardly be exaggerated. Stories of suicide after a disastrous harvest are not uncommon.

'I can go to any country in the developing world and find at least three serious nematode problems which are holding back crop production' says Sam Page, one of the workers at Rothamsted.

'An example was a storage problem with yams - one of the food staples in West Africa - where Dr Bridges, another member of the Nematode team, found that decay during storage was caused by the worms burrowing through the skin and allowing rot-producing organisms to get in. He devised a simple system for pasteurisation by immersion in hot water which solved the problem.'

In Bangladesh, Ms Page was called in to advise farmers being taught to grow vegetables to improve the nutritional quality of their rice and chilli diet. But the plants they were trying to grow were hardly producing anything at all.

Ms Page found that everything - aubergine, tomato, carrots, lettuce and cauliflower - was riddled with root-gall nematodes. She suggested that if farmers were persuaded to plant the vegetables on the flood-ground after the rice had been harvested, instead of on patches near their huts, excellent yields would be obtained. This is because the rice nematodes found on the rice plains left the vegetables alone.

It is simple expedients like this - the burning of dung, paper and twigs with a little kerosene and simple rotations to prevent the build-up of overwhelming populations of the pest - which can make the difference between survival and disaster. Expensive and dangerous chemicals, requiring sophisticated equipment, the ability to read instructions in English, and special protective clothing are often worse than useless.

Without information and advice, small farmers are frequently lost. The extent of the need is shown by the story of one unqualified worker on the Indonesian island of Bangka, studying a photocopied chapter from a nematode textbook, and struggling to save the black pepper crop on which its entire economy depends.

Lacking even that minimal information, many farmers are so used to seeing rootgalls on their crops that they think them normal, attribute them to the fact that 'there was an old termite hill there' or try to remedy them by using extra fertiliser or irrigation - which can aggravate the problem.

Other countries, like the US and Germany, have scientific units working on nematode pests but these are more concerned with identifying new species of worms than with getting to grips with their consequences in the lives of ordinary inhabitants of the Third World. And it is this latter approach that has been the special contribution of Dr Bridges and his team at Rothamsted - now threatened by the Thatcher government's swingeing, swinging, axe.

Tony Crofts

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[image, unknown] NUCLEAR ENERGY[image, unknown]

The monster from the green lagoon

The monster from the green lagoon is haunting Latin America's most ambitious nuclear energy programme in Mexico. The country aims to complete some 20 nuclear plants in the next 20 years, but according to a recent Latin America Weekly Report (WR-81-18) the first installation at Laguna Verde - the green lagoon - in Veracruz state has proved something of a horror story.

Due to be operational by 1975, the Laguna Verde project has suffered so many delays that officials have now abandoned all attempts to set deadlines for completion. But more serious than delays are the serious deficiencies in the fabric of the plant reported by former construction co-ordinator, Becerril Salmas. Large cavities have been left in the reactor's concrete casing making the nuclear powered generator vulnerable from inside and out - from internal steam explosions or terrorist attack. A similar concrete casing prevented the release of a buildup of radioactive gas at Three Mile Island - the lethal bubble was eventually dissolved, saving the surrounding countryside from widespread radiation pollution, but what if the casing had been flawed as it is in Laguna Verde?

Favourite amongst the nations offering their nuclear technology for the Mexican plants is Canada with its CANDU reactor technology. Unlike other reactor designs this uses natural uranium and can take advantage of Mexico's substantial uranium reserves.

But it seems strange that the region's leading oil producer should be so committed to nuclear energy. With the recent oil strike in the Sea of Cortes off the Pacific coast, Mexico's total discovered reserves now stand at 67 billion barrels - a cache of black gold second only to Saudi Arabia's. And geologists claim that even more is waiting to be found.

So why the 20 new nuclear power stations? If the country is so concerned about its oil running out that atomic energy must be ready for that rainy day, why have a petrol pricing system that encourages consumption? The cost of petroleum at the Mexican pumps is ten US cents a litre, a drop in real value over recent years.

One explanation for the apparent contradiction of massive oil wealth alongside ambitious nuclear power development projects could be: with a government that relies on support from the rich urban classes, modernisation is the name and aping America is the game. Modernisation means big, fast, gas-guzzling cars, technological advance, rapid capital- intensive industrialisation - and nuclear power.

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[image, unknown] NATIVE PEOPLES [image, unknown]

Blind Panic

Aborigines across Australia watched with glee as Joh Bjelke-Petersen, premier of the deep northern province of Queensland, and Sir Charles Court, premier of deep western Australia, were thrown into a panic by the World Council of Churches (WCC). Invited by WCC affiliate, the Australian Council of Churches (ACC), to investigate the plight of Aborigines, a six person WCC team had just arrived in Australia.

The team arrived on the crest of a fortuitous run of publicity for the country's underprivileged black minority. John Pilger's film 'Island of Dreams', depicting racist abuse of Aborigines, had just been acclaimed in Sydney and another Aboriginal eyesight scandal had just hit the national headlines.

But both state premiers refused to meet the WCC representatives. Like Australia's other conservative leaders, they have been caught up in Ronald Reagan's communist paranoia: they fear a potential revolution lies behind every humanitarian gesture. So while the WCC team were touring the outback Bjelke-Petersen sat down to peruse 'literature on the WCC' sent to him by a number of 'reverend men' throughout the country.

Queensland, and Western Australia's, aborigines are the worst off in the country. And that's exactly where Gary Foley, chairman of the Aboriginal Advisory Committee to the ACC, sent the WCC team. 'We've deliberately chosen some of the worst areas... we're not interested in the team talking to government officials and hearing the usual round of bullshit', Foley remarked tersely.

Several years ago Bjelke-Petersen suspended the Aboriginal anti-trachoma programme because, he claimed, programme members were so critical of his government. In May this year Professor Fred Hollows added to his unease. Professor Hollows (whose report on Aboriginal blindness appeared in February's New Internationalist) and his assistant, Gordon Briscoe, resigned as directors of the national trachoma programme on the grounds that they would not be party to any 'racist state systems which have proved their hostility towards the Aborigines'.

But Hollows' main assault was aimed at the national government. In 1967 a country-wide referendum gave total responsibility for Aborigines to the national government. But successive conservative administrations have refused to carry out that mandate in the face of individual state governments' intransigence, particularly from Western Australia and Queensland.

This leaves responsibility for Aboriginal health to local state administrations who are, according to Professor Hollows, 'the very people who nearly succeeded in the genocide of Aborigines throughout Australia'.

Today the following facts bear witness to the state governments' commitment to improving Aboriginal health:

  • One in 28 Aborigines in Northern Australia has leprosy
  • One in three of all Aborigines between the ages of 15 and 49 have syphilis
  • Blindness is seven times more prevalent in Aborigines than in the white population.

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[image, unknown] BABYFOODS[image, unknown]

Breast protest

Every American president knows that you can't please all of the people all of the time. But on the babyfood issue, President Reagan doesn't even seem to be trying.

At the 34th Assembly of the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva 118 delegates out of 119 voted resoundingly in favour of the Babyfoods Code. The single US 'No' stood embarassingly alone and left no one in any doubt of the Reagan administration's priorities: free trade over preservation of human life.

Since the US decision to bow to big business pressures and vote against the WHO/UNICEF code aiming to control babyfood marketing strategies in developing countries, the White House has been inundated with citizens' letters expressing anger and disgust at their government's official stance.

Feeling has been running so high that a Senate debate in June 'urged the US government and the breastmilk substitute industry to support the aim of the Code'. Senator Edward Kennedy, one of the speakers, declared 'If this issue had been decided by the American people rather than by this Administration there would have been a very clear, powerful voice that would have spoken and voted in the affirmative.'

Congress too has expressed its collective 'dismay' at the 'no' vote and its 'Black Caucus' was outspoken in its opposition: 'We are appalled that the Reagan administration places a higher priority on the preservation of profits than on the preservation of human life'. Meanwhile at the US Agency for International Development two senior officials, Dr Stephen Joseph and Eugene Babb, resigned in disgust.

Voices raised in favour of the babymilk industry fear the Code threatens their cherished principles of free trade - a short step, so they say, from restrictions on free speech, though the men behind the US 'no' vote tend to be more interested in the former than the latter. Yet the code does not even ban the sale of baby milk: it aims only to prevent its sale to mothers who do not need it, who can produce their own breastmilk and who can ill-afford to pay for expensive and harmful substitutes. Nor does the Code overrule national legislation: it is merely a 'recommendation' of minimum ethical standards.

And this is the only real criticism that should be levelled at the Code: it is an important first step, but without tough legislation to back it up it remains as the powdered milk solution in the babies' bottles. As Dr. Ushewokunze, Minister of Health for Zimbabwe said: 'We must prepare the hangman's noose in the form of a code of marketing for the killer in the bottle ... but no code will work without an effective monitoring system'.

Briefly, the Code calls for measures that will:

  • ban all advertising and promotion of infant milks to the public
  • stop the distribution of free milk samples
  • halt the use of company-paid 'mother-craft nurses'
  • restrict industry give-aways to health workers
  • require improved labelling and educational material to emphasise the hazards of artificial feeding and importance of breastfeeding.

New Internationalist is preparing a special issue of the magazine about Baby-foods for early in 1982. We would be interested to hearfrom readers who know of well-substantiated instances of violations of the WHO/UNICEF Code by babyfood manufacturers.


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