New Internationalist

Update

Issue 180

new internationalist
issue 180 - February 1988

Update

ARMS

Deadly friends
China's about-face

Not so long ago, under Chairman Mao, the only arms China ever exported took the form of the occasional 'gift' to political allies. Indeed, China rightly criticized Western powers for their military profiteering.

Today China is selling as many arms as it can to whoever it can - including to some of the most repressive right-wing regimes in the world. Anyone tuning into reports of the Iran-Iraq conflict cannot fail to hear mention of Silkworm anti-ship missiles and other Chinese-made pieces of weaponry. And this is just the tip of a fast-growing iceberg which has made China the world's fifth largest arms trader with sales of over two billion dollars in 1986.

It still tries to be secretive about its activities, however. Beijing denied reports of arms sales to Iran with comments such as 'we tried to sell them bicycles but they couldn't pay' while actually supplying F-6 fighter jets, tanks, artillery and missiles, including the Silkworm now deployed in the Straits of Hormuz. It was also simultaneously supplying the other side, Iraq, with Silkworm, Badger bombers, tanks and a large number of F-7 fighter jets.

Other controversial recipients of Chinese arms are thought to be the Nicaraguan Contras, whose leaders are reported to have solicited support from China earlier this year. The repressive regime of President Zia in Pakistan, currently engaged in an escalating arms race with India, is also a major customer.

Although Chinese arms technologies lag two decades behind that of the West and the Soviet Union, the Chinese have won a reputation for being able to provide cheap, simple and tough equipment to Third World countries where shortages of foreign exchange and local expertise have ruled out the possibility of acquiring more sophisticated equipment. This is why some 40 Third World countries buy weapons from China

This is all part of China's famous 'open door' policy - a door which, incidentally, has also opened to let in Western military technology so that China can start to modernize its own armed forces. Consequently it has been making friends in strange places. The United States recently relaxed its stringent laws against 'leakage' of military technology so as to expand its Sino-US military links and thereby pressurize the USSR.

This new policy has already resulted in a $550 million avionics deal and a commitment from the US to help with the design of a $100 million ammunition factory. It is hardly surprising, then, that British firms, including Vickers and GEC, were involved in military deals with China amounting to $80 million in 1985 alone.

The motto of the Chinese government arms company, Norinco, is 'to strengthen the friendship and co-operation between the Chinese people and the people of the world'. Such diplomatic language may have wooed conservative Western governments, but it cannot cover up the human misery in which Chinese arms traders are deeply implicated.

Helen Collinson / Campaign Against the Arms Trade, London, UK.

ENVIRONMENT

Money trees
Debt for forests swap

The growing recognition that the Third World debt cannot be paid is at last prompting some imaginative thinking about possible alternative solutions.

Swapping Third World debt for tree conservation is one such idea. And this is no Green flight of fantasy. It is actually happening in Bolivia and Costa Rica, where debts have been cancelled in return for government investment in the conservation of tropical forests.

Moreover, 30 members of the US Congress are now calling for a change in the World Bank's rules to allow borrowers to offset the cost of protecting tropical forests and wetlands against a portion of their outstanding loans to the Bank.

The scheme is the brainchild of US conservation groups aware that the need for foreign currency to pay interest on debts is causing Third World countries to give low priority to protecting the environment. Instead they engage in cash crop monoculture and cut down their valuable forests and wetlands for timber or cattle ranching to supply the demands of richer countries.

Since natural resources are vital to all economic development, the current vicious circle of resource degradation and deepening debt is of increasing concern to the world. And if biological diversity is so important for the future of the globe, why should the South be expected to shoulder all the burden and expense of conserving tropical forests?

Swapping debts for conservation is not quite as improbable as it may sound. But it does require an established relationship between government officials in the debtor nation and members of local or foreign conservation groups.

Conservation International, an offshoot of the US-based Nature Conservancy International Program, had good relationships with key people in Bolivia, which is one reason it decided to start there. Another reason was that on the international secondary market' (where debts unlikely ever to be paid back in full are bought and sold off by the banks at a percentage of their face value) Bolivia's debt was going cheap - at just 10 per cent of its face value.

So Conservation International bought $650,000 worth of Bolivia's debt from a Swiss Bank and began negotiating with the Bolivian authorities. Five months later an agreement was announced which involved setting aside nearly four million hectares of habitat for 13 of Bolivia's 18 listed endangered species. Laws were passed to protect the land and plans made to carry out research on how local inhabitants could use the area without damaging it. In addition $250,000 worth of local currency was put into an endowment fund for management of the new conservation area.

Within two weeks a similar arrangement was announced in Costa Rica, with the World Wildlife Fund buying debts tochannel donations into the Costa Rica National Park system.

Whether other donors, creditor banks and debtor countries will be willing to undertake similar agreements remains to be seen. Debt-for-nature swaps, or any other kind of conservation credits, cannot be viewed as a single solution to the debt crisis: the amount of money owed - nearly US$1,000 billion - is too enormous. But the several billion dollars that could efficiently be absorbed in valuable conservation projects will be debt money well spent.

Barbara J Bramble / Panos

DRUGS

Dopey silence
Drugs for guns

[image, unknown] Why has the Reagan administration been so unusually quiet about drug trafficking from Latin America in recent months? Is it because Nancy has been hospitalized or are smack and crack no longer regarded as social evils numbers one and two?

Not likely. The official coyness has other causes. There is substantial evidence that the Contras have helped finance their war by large-scale drug-trafficking to the US, although the Iran-Contra hearings conspicuously avoided any public probing into this can of worms. Nor did the hearings committees publicly call on key witnesses who could provide first hand information on Contra drug-running and the CIA's co-operation.

It is not as if Congress members knew nothing of this. A CBS television program has revealed the link as early as April 1987. Most interesting was an interview with Mark Tolliver, a freelance pilot and convicted drug smuggler. He described how he had been contracted by the CIA to fly to Agucate, a Contra base in Honduras, with 28,000 pounds of military equipment.

After depositing its cargo of arms the plane was loaded up with 25,000 pounds of marijuana and flown to the US Air Force base at Homestead, South Florida. Moreover, the plane Tolliver identified as flying has been confirmed as the same plane hired by Reagan Administration to fly 'humanitarian' supplies to the Contras. The dates match too.

George Morales, another convicted cocaine smuggler, states that the CIA had exploited his indictment as a drug lord to extort from him planes, pilots and a $3 million cash donation to the Contras. There is other substantial documentation, both from the CIA and the US Drug Enforcement Agency. It shows how the Contras, aided by US Government agents, financed their war against Nicaragua not only with official financial help from Capitol Hill but by trafficking narcotics through the US as well. It is likely that all of this is common knowledge to US congress members - a secondary twist to an increasingly complex and sordid tale.

Information from Sierra Madre, Group 18 Newsletter

SCIENCE

Churning out freaks
Mini cows

[image, unknown] 'What is two feet tall, gives a gallon of milk a day and moos?' The answer the Mexican mini-cow, heralded by some as a pioneer 'in a potential agricultural revolution'.

The tiny animal is the result of more than five generations of selective breeding - which began with the six-foot tall, 2,000 pound Indo-Brazilian zebu. The mini cow produces three to four litres of milk a day - compared with six litres produced by a full-sized zebu - and survives on a tenth the grassland. Some agricultural experts view the cattle primarily as a protein source for rural families who have little grazing land and cannot afford bought milk and meat.

But others are more sceptical. They question just how long a freak cow, which so disproportionably produces huge quantities of milk, can be expected to live and information how sickly it will be. The quality of the milk is also questionable.

How much more sensible to redistribute the land more fairly so that poor families can keep normal, healthy-sized cows. But that, it appears, would be a far more monstrous solution than anything that can be dreamed up in a laboratory.

Information from World Development Forum

DUMPING

Toxic Trade
Poison soap

Poisoning Africans is all right, appears to be the message from the Irish Government. It has given the go-ahead - and a $3 million grant - to a British company which plans to manufacture soap containing mercury iodide for export to Africa, where it is used to lighten skin colour.

The soap can cause foetal damage, anaemia and kidney failure if too much is absorbed through the skin. The EEC has banned the marketing of cosmetic products containing mercury in its own member states. But production of such cosmetics for export remains perfectly legal. And attempts by several African countries, including Zimbabwe, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa to ban sales of these soaps do not seem to have done much to lessen their widespread use.

Meanwhile, Irish politicians and development bodies such as Trocaire have attacked the Irish Government for it's 'morally reprehensible' decision to grant aid to the W & E Products factory in Arklow, County Wicklow. The company moved there from its Manchester, UK base after allegations that it damaged the workers' health by exposing them to mercury were made on a BBC Newsnight programme two years ago.

But in spite of overwhelming evidence of the dangers the soaps pose, the Irish Industrial Development Authority is sticking to its guns. It argues that the company will bring jobs to an area blighted by unemployment. A Government official added: 'We are not in the business of taking moral decisions for other countries.' Ireland has always prided itself on its concern for developing countries. Dublin's support for such a poisonous export shows that this concern is not even skin deep.

T. Jones

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