Personal disarmament at work
In the early hours of Monday, 29 January 1996, three women snipped their way through the fence of the British Aerospace factory and test site in Warton, Lancashire. Soon after, they magically found themselves inside the south hangar, right in front of a Hawk jet destined for Indonesia, where it was to be used against the people of East Timor, who have suffered the loss of more than a third of their population since 1975. The women took out household hammers and blow by blow disabled all those components and devices that were connected to weaponry – like the nose cone, the radar, the bomb attachment under the wings and the control devices in the cockpit.
Lotta Kronlid, Andrea Needham and Joanna Wilson then hung up banners, poured seeds and ashes over the wings, put up photographs of children along with a video and a report from their group Seeds of Hope – East Timor Ploughshares. Over two hours later, after much singing, dancing in front of the security cameras and waving to a patrol that went past they finally phoned the British Press Association from within the hangar asking them to phone security at British Aerospace. Twenty minutes later they were arrested. Some days later Angie Zelter, the fourth Ploughshare, was arrested after publicly stating her intention to disarm a Hawk. All four women are currently on remand at Risley Prison charged with criminal damage and conspiracy to commit such damage to the tune of £2.4 million ($3.8 million). Their sentences could be anywhere between one and fifteen years.
Since their action other Ploughshares women have carried out support and campaigning work. The Ploughshares philosophy, which is not based on any particular religious doctrine, is about breaking through fears for personal safety and taking responsibility for actions. All actions are non-violent and ‘challenge the sheep-like habit of doing as others do, of not stepping out of line, otherwise known as obedience’. The Seeds of Hope group has worked consciously to counter projections of heroism and martyrdom. These projections can at first give inspiration but are ultimately disempowering because they encourage belief that someone else – who has more courage, commitment, spiritual strength, and so on, ad nauseam, than ourselves – can act on our behalf. This is why the women who have carried out the post-action support work are considered to be an equal and essential part of the group, even though less publicly prominent.
At present the group is women only, though support from men is welcome, and future plans may include men more actively.
From information supplied by Rowan Tilly. Contact Seeds of Hope – East Timor Ploughshares at Box S, 55 Queen Margaret’s Grove, London N1 4PZ, England. Tel/Fax: +44 (0)171 923 9511.
When The Gambia’s National Intelligence Agency, acting on a tip-off, swooped on the head post office in the capital, Banjul, it was not for mail tampering, suspected sabotage or interference with government documents. No, the NIA was there to pick up three young women for skin bleaching. One has been fined nearly $500 with the alternative of a year’s imprisonment with hard labour.
In December of last year, Captain Yahya Jammeh, chairman of the military junta, signed the Skin Bleaching (prohibition) Decree 1995, one of more than 70 decrees introduced since it took control in July 1994 and suspended the old constitution.
Skin-bleaching creams which can permanently damage skin are a problem in other African nations too. But the logic of putting women in prison for their use seems a mite too single-minded. Women bleach mainly because of social perceptions that lighter skins are more attractive. The fine for selling or importing the creams is up to $2,000.
Equatorial Guinea will become the ‘Kuwait of Africa’, the country’s government has promised, as Mobil Oil prepares to pump oil out of the local seabed. Far from filling the tiny country’s coffers, critics argue, the wealth will probably accumulate around President Teodoro Obiang and his ruling clique. According to Victorino Bolekia Bonay, mayor of the capital, Malabo: ‘They’ll keep arresting and torturing people and seeing coup plots because all that money will make them even more paranoid.’
World Press Review, Vol 43 No 5
On the up
Virtual-reality methods are being used for psychiatric therapies dealing with problems as varied as sex offences, fear of heights and fear of flying. Pioneered by Professor Hans Sieburg of the University of California at San Diego, the greatest success of the virtual-reality treatments is with acrophobics (fear of heights). For them a virtual environment has been constructed which includes a virtual hotel with open elevators which takes the patients up 49 storeys with series of ever scarier balconies. After weeks of the treatment, most reported a dramatic drop in anxiety concerning height.
Down To Earth, Vol 4 No 23
No place like home
About 5,800 Japanese who had leprosy are still warehoused in leper colonies, even though most have been cured since the 1950s. Now they are gaining their freedom, but most will have no homes to go to as they will be shunned by their families. The head of Japan’s patients’ council summed up social attitudes thus: ‘Having a leper in the family, even a cured leper, causes all kinds of problems – you don’t get a promotion you were expecting, or a marriage engagement is broken off unexpectedly.’
World Press Review, Vol 43 No 5
Painful at the top
A unique study by US researchers has tested stress levels across several species of wild animals – mongooses, wild dogs and baboons among them – to come up with the surprising finding that dominant animals are the most stressed and suffer problems like miscarriages and shortened life-spans. The study is the first of its kind to test animals in the wild. Previous studies with captive animals had led to the theory that subordinate animals had higher chronic stress levels. But now it seems being top dog is not the healthiest of options.
Down To Earth, Vol 4 No 22
The UN Human Rights Commission admits to being ‘stupefied’ at the extent of CIA activity aimed at discrediting Haitian President Aristide.
It has demanded 150,000 pages of documents seized by the US Army, but the US won’t return them without blacking out the names of all US citizens. Furthermore, it wants the Haitian Government to sign an eight-point memorandum promising that information from the documents won’t be made public or released in a manner which would cause repercussions. It also specifies restrictions on access and that ‘records will be maintained of the individuals who have access’. The Haitian Government is resisting such arm-twisting by refusing to sign.
Red Pepper, No 24
Zimbabwe's President acts unnaturally
When Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe was returned to office for another six years in March, the country’s few remaining dissidents heaved a collective groan of despair. His party was the only one in the election and only 30 per cent of voters bothered to turn up to vote for it.
Mugabe has become more autocratic and paranoid with age. He has accused opposition leaders of plotting to assassinate him and foreign governments of plotting to dethrone him. But his most publicized attack yet has been directed at gays.
It all began at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair last July, when the Gay and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) attempted to hold a gay-rights exhibit. Calling homosexuals ‘sodomists’ [sic] and ‘sexual perverts’, Mugabe banned the exhibit. The book fair theme was human rights.
Despite drawing criticism from many participants at the fair, including Wole Soyinka and Nadine Gordimer, Mugabe continued his vituperation. At a Heroes Day Rally in Harare a few days later, he said: ‘If dogs and pigs don’t do it, why must human beings? Can human beings be human beings if they do worse than pigs?’
Over the next few months Mugabe was the target of much derision on his visits abroad. He received a letter of protest from 70 members of the US Congress accusing him of bigotry. In London, South Africa and the Netherlands he was greeted by placard-wielding gay and human-rights activists. ‘They can demonstrate, but if they come here [to Zimbabwe] we will throw them in jail,’ was his reaction.
During a parliamentary debate designed to show support for Mugabe’s attacks, one MP, Aeneas Chigwedere, suggested that gays and lesbians be quarantined so they could not ‘infect’ the rest of the nation.
GALZ is a tiny organization and far from militant. After Mugabe’s attack, many left its ranks out of fear. Its records have been moved to a secret location, and little remains of the organization other than a post box number. But others have stuck with it and become more vocal, notably a number of black members. Most refuse to speak to the media for fear of persecution.
Prior to the July attack, gay Zimbabweans led relatively undisturbed lives. There were a couple of gay clubs in Harare and, though ‘unnatural sex acts’ are illegal, gays were not unduly harassed. Today, most gays are keeping a low profile.
Mugabe was widely criticized for his homophobic stance, but mostly by foreigners. A lot of Zimbabweans feel that he took a popular stance which he knew would win him domestic support – like most Africans, they see marriage and procreation as central to life. Failure to fulfil these requirements often leads to stigmatization. Mugabe is also aware that homosexuality is seen as a ‘Western disease’.
Protest against genetic patents
Scientists have been collecting blood, tissue and hair samples from indigenous peoples around the world as part of the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP). The Project is a US-funded effort to catalogue and store the DNA of ‘disappearing’ indigenous populations for future study and to reconstruct the history of the world’s populations.
But to critics like Debra Harry this neutral-sounding science is a thin smokescreen for ‘bio-piracy’. A member of the Northern Paiute nation in Nevada, Harry is part of a global coalition outraged by the Project’s potential for manipulating and commercializing life-forms. Once blood samples are immortalized in gene banks, unlimited amounts of DNA (the chemical compound which carries the genetic imprint of each human) can be generated and made available for almost any research. Harry asserts this is colonialism at the molecular level: ‘They’ve taken our land and water. Now they want to mine our genetic resources.’
Already three patents from the cell lines of indigenous peoples have been filed. One from the cell line of a 26-year-old Guayami woman from Panama was withdrawn in 1993 after a wave of international protest. However, the US Government refused to return the genetic samples to the Solomon Islands, arguing that the source of samples is irrelevant under current patent law.
In March last year the US Department of Health patented the DNA of a man from the Hagahai nation in Papua New Guinea. Washington now claims exclusive property rights over ‘inventions’ derived from Hagahai cell lines over the next 20 years.
Debra Harry fears that native groups will be easily coerced into exchanging their blood for one-off medical services or cash. She is also concerned that the project’s ‘open access’ research policy will allow giant pharmaceutical companies to make a fortune by developing new drugs from such genetic material. Activists argue that the full implications of genetically altered life forms released into the environment cannot possibly be known.
Contact Debra Harry at
PO Box 72, Nixon, Nevada 89424 USA.
Tel +1 (702) 574 0248. Fax +1 (702) 574 0259.
Reassuring news for parents and carers who wonder how much talking to their babies affects them. US psychologists Marie Balaban and Sandra Waxman believe that infants use words to help them make sense of the world well before they can speak. They gave 44 babies a series of animal toys to play with. While one group were given five cat toys which were identified as such verbally by the researchers, another group received the toys without being told they were cats. The next step of the experiment involved giving the babies two new toys: a cat and a bear. The first group that had been told they were playing with cats spent significantly less time on the cat and focused on the bear, while the second group spent equal time with both new toys. The researchers think the babies who did not hear the cats being identified by a word had not noticed that the toys had things in common, whereas babies who heard the labels picked out similarities.
New Scientist, Vol 150, No 2027
Six former Robben Island political prisoners are breaking chunks of rock brought from the quarry on the island in an effort to raise money for others like them in South Africa who face hardships due to unemployment. Whereas some former political prisoners have found government jobs and now lead comfortable lives, others have not been so lucky. The rocks are being broken down to the size of tennis balls and neatly packaged in a box bearing a colour picture of President Mandela (the most famous of those incarcerated on Robben Island) and a certificate of authenticity. They are selling like hot cakes in tourist shops and the aim is to raise over half-a-million dollars.
According to Ahmed Kathrada, a stalwart of the African National Congress: ‘The rock was chosen because the work at the quarry was the method the authorities used in pursuit of their efforts to crush our spirits – they said so in as many words. The quarry was the only place we could communicate. There we conducted our political and academic classes and had our leadership meetings. It became a very important place in our lives at Robben Island.’
Neither fish nor foul
Dumping at sea has always been controversial, but if we dump the right kinds of things, then sea life can actually be advanced. In the US, cleaned-up rigs and tanks have helped transform a barren seabed of sand and mud into a thriving habitat. For like sunken ships – the world’s first large artificial reefs – the metal provides a smooth hard surface for coral larvae to settle on and offers shelter from predators and breeding sites for fish and invertebrates. In Japan, some five to ten per cent of its coastal seabed is enhanced by carefully designed and expensive concrete, steel and other structures, heavily subsidized by the Government.
The Geographical Magazine, Vol LXVIII No 5
‘Those who live in a palace do not think about the same things,
nor in the same way, as those who live in a hut.’
Thomas Sankara, murdered former president of Burkina Faso,
quoting Karl Marx in justification of his decision to live in a modest house.
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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996
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