This month's books include two investigations into the pesticide trade; and we look at the fictional approach to understanding development.
Editor: Anuradha Vittachi
Poisoning the hungry
Poisoning the Hungry
A Growing Problem: Pesticides and the Third World poor
by David Bull
UK: Oxfam (pbk) £4.95
Pills, Pesticides & Profits:
the international trade in toxic substances
edited by Ruth Norris
US: North River Press (pbk) $10.95
Are chemical pesticides dangerous for Third World peasant farmers? According to one Thai scientist:
`When mixing the formulation for spraying. the farmer may dip his finger into the mix and taste it by dabbing his finger to his tongue. If it gets numb it indicates the right concentration.’
Reports as chilling as this if not quite so bizarre have become commonplace from all over the Third World, as the use of pesticides has escalated to one pound weight for every man, woman and child on earth.
This is yet another business where the care in the use of the product lags way behind the energy that goes into manufacture and marketing. Companies that are so anxious to seize the most powerful positions in the market-place have done relatively little to exercise the matching responsibility.
When challenged, they usually retreat or promise to mend their ways. So an advertisement used by the British multinational in Malaysia, which showed a happy sprayman perilously exposed in bare feet. shorts and sleeveless shirt, was withdrawn after representations from OXFAM. But why should a huge corporation need chasing up by a relatively tiny voluntary organisation?
It is some comfort that the chasing-up process now seems to be carried out with increasing thoroughness and vigour if OXFAM’s new book on the subject, A Growing Problem Pesticides and the Third World poor, is anything to go by. David Bull has produced a marvelously clear and detailed explanation of the impact of the pesticide industry, and one that should be in the hands of anyone interested either in Third World agriculture or. more generally, in the ways in which scientific and corporate momentum can push the poor aside.
Pesticides do bring benefits. US crop losses to pests, it is estimated, would rise from 33 per cent to 44 per cent without them. But in the Third World it is the rich farmers who are the major users and their poor labourers who arc exposed to the danger. Unless changes arc made, says Bull, you could argue that pesticides will be poisoning the hungry to feed the well-fed’.
Ironically, pesticides are no longer so successful in poisoning pests. Single-minded chemical control has been shown to interfere with ecological balances that the scientists are a long way from understanding. Use of a pesticide. For example, may also kill off the natural enemy of an insect: if this enemy also preyed on other species. these can now grow in number to become new pests.
Central American cotton production is a notorious example. Content in pre-war days to pick off the bugs by hand, the farmers were seduced by’ chemical pesticides which promised faster yields. Now there are eight important new pest species that they have to cope with and pesticide usage has escalated to4O sprays a season in a desperate effort to keep them down.
The OXFAM argument is not for the abandonment of pesticides. however, but For what is called Integrated Pest Management. This involves combining traditional defence mechanisms like crop-rotation with promoting some of the natural enemies alongside highly controlled chemical intervention.
This is a system that is gaining favour in the West. But it requires much more careful management and that is difficult for less-educated farmers in the Third World~ since it also implies selling fewer sacks of poison. the chemical companies (who are a major source of agricultural information in developing countries) are not too keen to enlighten them.
Other examples of this lack of concern are quoted in Pills, Pesticides and Profits, edited by Ruth Norris, a well-produced review which also takes in other abuses such as the export of dangerous drugs and of babyfoods. Some 14 per cent of the meat eaten in the US is believed to be contaminated with illegal residues of pesticides. In what they call a 'boomerang effect' the authors point out that many of these chemicals were irresponsibly exported to the Third World only to come straight back as a constituent of imported meat.
Pesticides and Pills: For Export Only
A documentary film in two parts that goes with Ruth Norris' book. Each 57-min film available for purchase or rental on 16mm film or 3/4 inch video cassette from Robert Richter Productions, 330 West 42nd St, New York, NY 10036, USA.
The Fight for Life
by Dan Fulani
UK: Hodder & Stoughton(pbk) £1.50
The Struggle of the Naga Tribe
by Rendra (translated by Max Lane)
Aus: University of Queensland (pbk) $5.95
How do you make important and complex development ideas accessible to a wide market? One way is to take them out of the realms of abstract argument and put them into stories action-packed novels or plays, peopled with characters whose lives are more interesting than one’s own.
In nineteenth century Britain, Victorian novelists did a marvelous job of awakening their public to the poverty that trailed in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.
Two modem writers who have tried to bring development issues alive through popular fiction are Nigeria’s Dan Fulani and Indonesia’s Rendra. Fulani’s latest thriller, The Fight for Life, tells the story of a baby food company setting up shop in Nigeria Its heroine is a bright village girl inveigled into being a milk ‘nurse’.
The book brings out dramatically enough some of the basic issues involved in the unethical promotion of artificial baby milk. But it’s so superficially written, with such horribly stereotyped characters, that its impact is equally superficial. Villains puff cigar smoke into foolish faces dumb blonde heroines, once they’ve seen the light, suddenly speak with astonishing fluency...
There’s a hazy line that divides the merely crude from the sublimely simple. Fulani, sadly, doesn’t make it over the line. For the sake of the countless thousands of malnourished babies who’ve been removed unnecessarily from their mothers’ breast. I hope someone somewhere picks up Fulani's idea and, with due gratitude to the originator, makes a better book of it.
In contrast, The Struggle of the Naga Tribe steps beyond crudeness to a felicitous simplicity. The play is set in a symbolic village in Indonesia a village which epitomises the virtues of a rural community in tune with itself and with its environment Integrity, not only in the sense of honesty but also of wholeness, is the theme of the play. When Western mineral speculators move in, backed by greedy’ politicians, their fragmenting materialism is contrasted with the villagers’ wholesome human values, the city slickers forked tongues with rural plain speaking all the polarities that writers universally bear witness to when societies change from agricultural to industrial communities are once more brought into the open.
But Rendra necessarily takes the argument further: its not just urban ways, it’s Western urban ways that are invading Indonesia like so many bacteria, destroying its health: a culture of lipstick and lace’, of glittering cleverness’ replacing ‘a soft plain spirit’. The global underdevelopment of the poor world by the rich, culturally as well as economically, is demonstrated in microcosm.
With due consistency therefore, the play is cast in a traditional mould; a new entrant to the folk theatre, not a sophisticated five-acter for the Westernised intelligentsia Anyone who has seen an Indonesian wayang (shadow puppet) play will recognise the energetic mixture of farce and sagacity, caricature and poetry, which Rendra has managed to recapture. Despite the seriousness of its theme. its wonderfully funny. How’s this for a one-liner on tourism? ‘Praying while being stared at.’