New Internationalist

Update

Issue 187

new internationalist
issue 187 - September 1988

Update

DRUGS

Qat quandary
Yemen's dilemma

The bulging cheek is a common sight on a North Yemeni afternoon. Some 80 to 85 per cent of men and 50 to 60 per cent of women pack their mouth with bitter-tasting qat leaves at least once a week - and chew. For some partaking of the mild stimulant is a daily ritual and users often spend as much as a third of their income on the leaf. But government authorities have a hard time deciding what action - if any - they should take on the cultivation and use of such indigenous drugs.

Qat is not just a national addiction. It is a way of life. Under its influence friendships are maintained, politics and poetry are discussed and business is performed. The drug induces, in its first phase, a mild euphoria, mental alertness and desire for conversation. Then chewers settle into a quiet reflective mood which is followed by sleeplessness, loss of appetite and mild depression.

Compared with alcohol or marijuana its effects are mild. But in general health terms it cannot be commended as it is believed to cause gastro-intestinal, dental and liver problems. In a country that does not have a good health profile to start with, the money would undoubtedly be better spent on food. And there is the added problem of agricultural land being given over to qat growing rather than food production.

Although a traditional habit, the use of qat has been profoundly influenced by national economic developments in recent years. Consumption rose dramatically in helping to ensure North Yemen's the 1970s - funded by large numbers of Yemenis working in Saudi Arabia.

Most of these workers had originated from the countryside and this had led to a shortage of agricultural labour. Farmers were only too happy to meet the increased demand for qat by concentrating on growing the hardy drought-resistant plants that needed little attention and yielded quick returns.

Today the Government is faced with having to decide whether or not to continue its benevolent policy towards a crop that has helped hold back development and diversification of agriculture in North Yemen. With less personal wealth being generated abroad due to the recession which hit Saudi Arabia and other oil producers in the mid-1980s it seems likely that the demand for qat will drop. If' this happens loans offered to farmers by the government for crop substitution will seem more attractive.

Some people argue that without qat many of the mountain terraces upon which North Yemen's agriculture depends would have been abandoned during the period of labour emigration. If this is so - and people can be persuaded to return to the land - then qat will have performed a vital service in helping to ensure North Yemen's future agricultural viability.

Paul Adams

MULTINATIONALS

Undiplomatic mangos
Genetic looting

On the face of it there was nothing very sinister about a foreign embassy asking the Indian Agricultural Research Institute for a mango tree to plant in its New Delhi grounds. So why did the Institute examine the request in detail - and then refuse?

First, the tree requested was not just any mango but one of a rare and precious variety. And second, all such requests must be seen in the light of the current systematic looting of Third World genetic resources by the countries of the West. Already this has led to a small country like Holland having four times as many plant strains as India - and India being left with less than one-fifth of its 10,000 varieties of' wheat and just half of its 60,000 varieties of rice.

According to the National Bureau of Plant and Genetic Resources, officials of many foreign embassies in India are especially active in collecting India's precious plant resources. This would not be so bad if it worked both ways, but while plant material from and other developing countries is freely available as the common heritage of humanity, the elite cultures developed from this material by Western seed companies are accorded the status of private property.

For Western commercial seed companies the ultimate aim is to monopolize the global seed business. The political and economic power this affords is immeasurable. All the seed companies have to do is get hold of successful strains native to the Third World, develop them to make them 'high-yielding' and then sell them back to Third World farmers at a huge profit.

This commercialization leads to a depletion of the genetic pool available to the process of natural selection and puts the world's seed resources in the hands of fewer and fewer people. As it is, 90 per cent of the global genetic resources are held by a handful of Western countries. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization just one company - United Brands - maintains almost two-thirds of the world potential breeding stock of bananas.

Moreover, intense farming techniques involving Western-produced herbicides, chemical fertilizers and high-yielding seed varieties are leaving behind a wasteland of genetic erosion. Hundreds of wild strains which had stood the test of natural selection for the past 10,000 years are fast becoming extinct. Even more pernicious is the way multi-national corporations are marketing varieties of seed which produce crops only capable of repelling insects and disease when sprayed with certain chemicals - produced by the same seed company of course.

Trying to keep one step ahead of seed giants like Cargill, Union Carbide, Upjohn and Sandoz is not an easy task. But some countries, including Nicaragua, Ethiopia and Egypt, are trying to keep a grip on their rapidly depleting genetic resources by banning exports of certain types of plant.

Radhakrishna Rao

MEDIA

Paper chains
Mexican censorship

[image, unknown]

The Mexican constitution is quite clear about it: 'the freedom to write and publish on any matter cannot be violated. No law or authority can establish prior censorship. nor can it violate the freedom of' printing.'

The catch is in finding material to print on - and this is where the country's shortage of newsprint provides the authorities with a most sneaky and effective censorship tool.

Newsprint in Mexico is controlled by the state through the company Productura e Importadora de Papel SA (better known as PIPSA). Through PIPSA the State is not only able to pressurize a newspaper into changing its editorial policy, but also to provoke its disappearance by either not supplying it with paper or by not supplying it on time. Similarly, the growth of the newspaper can be controlled by reducing the amount of paper supplied. In these circumstances, many newspapers - big and small - faced with the prospect of closing down due to lack of paper prefer to 'correct' their ways.

Moreover toeing the line can bring some 'privileges'. PIPSA can supply newsprint on credit or at lower than average prices; if unable to pay, a 'well-behaved' newspaper's debts may be forgotten as long as it does not become known as an organ for social criticism.

There are however moves afoot to change the law and allow the free importation of newsprint into Mexico before the end of the year. This would give newspapers a choice of suppliers and thus presumably greater freedom to criticize the State.

Information from Article 19, Information Freedom and Censorship, World Report 1988 published by Longman, UK.

TRANSPORT

Tainted love
Motor mania

[image, unknown] It's a costly love. And while the Western world is grappling - albeit somewhat feebly - with car addiction the Third World is increasingly falling under its spell. Thanks largely to private cars, São Paulo, Mexico City, Cairo and New Delhi have some of the worse air pollution problems in the world. In Calcutta 60 per cent of residents are believed to suffer from respiratory diseases related to air pollution.

Cities in rich countries do not do much better. Athens smog claims six lives a day. In the US the motor industry provides more than the great North American symbol of freedom and affluence. It also ensures that 75 million people live in areas that have sub-standard air. This is not surprising considering there is one car for every two people.

Chinese cities, by comparison, have one motor vehicle for every 2,000 people - and this is the example other developing countries should follow, says the Washington-based World Watch Institute in a recent study.

Quite apart from the effects on the environment - depleted oil reserves, air pollution, acid rain - car accidents claim more than 200,000 lives worldwide each year, with a sharp increase in developing countries. Safety standards are often inadequate. The report shows that in several Third World countries fatalities per mile can be 20 times higher than in industrialized countries and traffic accidents are now a leading cause of death.

The disproportionate amount of money and resources devoted to buying cars is also cause for concern. Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, spends one third of its import budget on fuel, cars and car parts. Yet only one out of 200 people owns a car. Nigeria subsidizes fuel costs - despite its huge debt and the almost permanent traffic jam in the capital, Lagos. The resources of the poor and wealthy are drained, though only a few enjoy the benefits.

Rather than keep on importing cars Third World countries would do better to make use of their own rail systems, bicycles, rickshaws, pedicabs (motorcycle-drive rickshaws) pushcarts and tongas (animal-driven carts).

The chief lesson to be learned from the industrialized world's automobile addiction is an ironic one: by promoting the growth of sprawling cities with extensive suburbs the automobile has created more distance than it has overcome. To avoid falling into the same trap developing countries need to think more in terms of compact cities, with effective mass transit systems and affordable housing closer to where people work.

Elaine Shein / Gemini

FRONTLINE

Backing the bandits
US right-wing muscle

MOZAMBIQUE is sometimes described as South Africa's Nicaragua. Together with Angola it poses the threat of a good example, the possibility of black majority rule for Southern Africa.

But there are signs that it could become America's Nicaragua - if right-wing organizations within the United States get their way. Fresh evidence has come to light that the so-called American Freedom Foundation and the Heritage Foundation are backing Renamo (MNR) bandits in Mozambique and waging a propaganda campaign against that country's government and its leaders.

Moreover, Tom Schaaf, director of the Washington Office for Renamo, is trying to get the US administration to provide funds for the Mozambican bandits as an anti-communist front in the same way as Reagan has supported the Nicaraguan Contras.

The Renamo bandits were created by Rhodesian intelligence to counter the Zimbabwean liberation movement during the civil war. Today they are trained and equipped by the South African Defence force, which also provides strategic support. But there is also plenty of moral support coming from the US. When Renamo leader Alfonso Dhalakama visited the US in 1987 he was given, to the chagrin of the Organization of African Unity, red carpet treatment.

This is against the backcloth of a war that is claiming 45 per cent of deaths of children under five, has created half a million refugees and is making one-third of the population face starvation. South African destabilization is already estimated to have cost the Frontline states $30 billion.

Dingaan Mpondah / Third World Network

THAILAND

Goliath slain
Dam busting

David did slay Goliath. And ordinary people in developing countries can block multi-million dollar World-Bank-backed dam schemes.

What better proof than the recent shelving of Thailand's controversial Nam Choan dam project? The protest was characterized by an extraordinarily broad base of public support. Hill-tribe peoples whose Kanchanaburi homelands were threatened joined with middle-class Bangkok students and academics, scientists, journalists and environmentalists the world over in a united and highly organized opposition.

Indeed, anti-dam fervour reached such a pitch earlier this year that former Prime Minister Kukrit warned it could cause the downfall of the eight-year-old government of General Prem Tinsulanond. There were rallies, marches, concerts, radio messages and even a mass bicycle protest through the streets of Bangkok. Celebrities ranging from pop stars to abbots joined the movement. The political parties, when they eventually got around to opposing the dam, were widely regarded as the least important element.

The obvious aim of the dam project - a product of national development policies dating back to the late 1950s - was to provide Bangkok industries with a steady electrical current. The less obvious aim was to benefit the country's ministers and technocratic elite. The military also had an interest in the development of the 5,000 square kilometre wilderness above the dam site as a means of 'securing' what was 10 years ago a stronghold of the Communist Party of Thailand.

Students and local non-governmental organizations saw the scheme differently. They argued that it represented an undemocratic use of resources that would benefit a small elite in the short term but ruin the chances of long-term sustained development.

An important result of the anti-dam victory is that it has shown it is possible for local people engaged in environmental struggles at a grassroots level to link up with academics and activists all over the world and successfully oppose their own governments, elites and even the World Bank.

Mike Kelly

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