New Internationalist

Letters

Issue 292

Letters
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The other side
The cover of the NI magazine issue 290 There have always been those ready to hymn the praises of the world’s great cities. ‘Earth hath not anything to show more fair,’ declared Wordsworth as he stood on Westminster Bridge in London. Others in their time have praised the glories of Athens, Rome and Byzantium and even longer ago the wonders of the cities of the Nile, of Mesopotamia, India and China.

‘Bombay – the Gateway of India’ remarked King George V as he passed under the splendid arch erected at the harbour to commemorate his visit in 1911. But he did not see more than it was thought proper to show him. He did not see the other side of the city which Jeremy Seabrook in NI 290 portrays so vividly, nor the humanity and spirit of the people who live in such conditions in a way that makes me feel humble.

Peter Little
Henley-on-Thames, England

The rich need the poor
Professor Baumann’s (How are we to live? NI 289) argument that ‘the rich... no longer need the poor’, while having some merit in respect of the poor in the industrialized countries, misses the essential nature of wealth and poverty, namely that wealth can be created only from the exploitation of natural resources (which are increasingly limited) and from the extraction of surplus labour from workers.

Before capital and labour markets had reached the present level of internationalization, capital tended to exploit its local labour force and the relationship was therefore more visible. Now the archetypal exploited worker is most likely to be found in countries such as Indonesia and Mexico while the exploitation is directed from the other side of the world. In all cases, some combination of military, political or economic coercion sustains the relationship. So the rich still need the poor, perhaps more than ever.

Nick Weetman
Port Pirie, Australia

Colombia and BP
I would like to correct the gross inaccuracies made by Rob Harrison in his article ‘Bare-faced cheek’ (How are we to live? NI 289) when he speaks of the ‘horrific human-rights abuses of military governments in Burma, Nigeria and Colombia and the oil companies Total, Shell and BP’. I am an expat living in Colombia and working with British Petroleum (BP). I am also a dedicated NI reader.

First, Colombia has a democratically elected government, not a military one. Although its problems are immense, it remains Latin America’s oldest democracy with freely elected institutions, a vigorous press and an independent judiciary.

Clearly, it is a difficult place for a company to operate in. The Government is embroiled in a long-running struggle with a range of illegal groups (eg ELN, FARC) who sustain their activities with drug trafficking, extortion, kidnapping and murder. These illegal groups – who appear to oppose all forms of economic progress, be it road building or oil exploration – are far removed from being latter-day Robin Hoods or Che Guevaras.

The people of Colombia receive about 85 per cent of the revenues generated from the oil fields that BP is developing. There is for me a clear moral justification for my continuing to work in Colombia.

Rob Harrison’s remarks contribute to a carefully orchestrated defence of the FARC and ELN drug cartel in Colombia.

Paul Thacker
Colombia

Eating seaweed
Your article ‘Eat your seaweed’ in Endangered Species (‘Simply’ NI 288) reminds me of being brought up in South Wales during the depression. Food as well as everything else was scarce but as a big family we were lucky. We grew all our own vegetables and kept chickens. But the best of all to us children was the laverbread which we bought in Swansea Market (made of seaweed). It grew wild in the Gower bays and women would pick it and take it to market.

E Selwood
Winchester, England

by VIV QUILLIN
Illustration by VIV QUILLIN

Emotive labels
You printed a letter (‘Letters’ NI 288) about carbon monoxide which was severely misleading. To suggest ‘harmful effects are not noticed until the concentration reached 100 parts per million’ is outlandlishly wrong. The long-standing WHO guideline of 10 ppm has been increasingly criticized as too permissive. Your correspondent proceeded to assert as ‘far more serious’ the effect of carbon monoxide in reacting with hydroxyl radical, another trace gas of both natural and technological origins, which she dubbed ‘nature’s cleaner’. Typical recent scientific papers on atmospheric chemistry propose models with a dozen chemical reactions; one or more of these will normally involve the hydroxyl radical, but typically it will be stated that only about a quarter of the reactions have been usefully monitored in any real air. In such a state of scanty knowledge, emotive labels are premature for hydroxyl.

Robert Mann
Auckland, Aotearoa/New Zealand

African force
It is high time that articles like your ‘Country Profile’ (NI 288) are written about Tanzania. Its people sacrificed their own livelihoods in order to drive away Idi Amin in Uganda and contributed to Southern African liberation. Their leader Nyerere made an immense contribution to the unification of Africa, even introducing Swahili as an all-African language.

If the continent had more leaders and people like those in Tanzania what a hell of a force Africa could be.

Antoinette Moshi
Gobabis, Namibia

Not sincere
In my article on Indian land rights in Argentina (‘Update’ NI 286) I wrote that the government of Salta Province had finally agreed to grant land rights to the indigenous people. Yet the Argentine authorities have again reneged on their pledge.

Last September the Salta Government signed a declaration guaranteeing both Indians and settlers land rights within 30 days. Sadly the people are still waiting for their title deeds.

‘Their word was not sincere,’ write the leaders of Lhaka Honhat – the indigenous community association in the area. ‘Through their actions they demonstrate what we have always suspected. They have no idea how to treat us with respect; in fact they just make fun of us.’ Yet the community has not given up the fight. They have taken up the matter with national government.

It is time the international community put serious pressure on the government of Argentina to grant the indigenous people of that country their long-awaited rights to land on which they have lived for centuries – for the good of the people and the environment.

Ingrid Hanson
Tear Fund, Teddington, England

Women’s stories
I am working on a project to gather on tape the stories of women who were Conscien-tious Objectors during the Second World War. I would be very interested to hear from anyone who has a story to tell, or who could put me in touch with someone else who might have.

Rena Feld
29a Inwood Crescent
Brighton BNI 5AP
England

Desperately Seeking Susanna
The NI is anxious to get in touch with Susanna Rance, who wrote our ‘Letter from’ column from Bolivia in 1989/90. Please contact Nikki van der Gaag at NI Oxford.

 

The views expressed in these letters are not necessarily those of the New Internationalist

[image, unknown]
L E T T E R [image, unknown] F R O M [image, unknown] R U S S I A

Tommorrow's Cossacks
Olivia Ward meets the troops - and finds them
altogether different from what she expected...

The boys are looking guilty, twisting on their bench, their glances escaping to the green field behind them where the horses are heading for their morning gallop.

If they hadn’t been caught smoking by their senior officer, they would also be out in the field, basking in the mellow and fragrant air.

Young Cossacks, they have shed their navy and red dress uniforms for fatigues. And as they smile shyly at me only their bright blue eyes identify them as a group.

I smile back in surprise. When I was invited to meet the first cadets of the newly reopened Emperor Alexander III Cadet Corps my mind rummaged among the images of Leo Tolstoy and Mikhail Sholokov, two Russian writers who immortalized these strange and fiercely independent border warriors.

Illustration by SARAH JOHN

Tolstoy’s version, penned in the 1850s, is of a noble and eccentric tribe, xenophobic, sometimes violent, but justifiably proud of their heritage. Half a century later Sholokov drew a darker portrait of drunkenness, senseless cruelty and systematic brutality beneath a banner of military valor.

But the smooth-faced youngsters staring curiously at me didn’t fit either mold, nor that of the racist ultra-nationalists I had met in Moscow, swaggering through the parliament in their dusty braided uniforms, trailing ratty whips.

‘What do I like best?’ enthused Alexander, a well-scrubbed 14-year-old. ‘Computer class. And foreign languages are great too.’

These, principal Vladimir Mironov told me proudly, were the new Cossacks. Tomorrow’s Cossacks. Ones who would at last be adapted to their time and place, as their ancestors never managed to be.

The heart of the Cossack identity is independence from oppression. Back in the fifteenth century it was freedom from the conquering Asiatic tribes, some of whom became the ancestors of the present-day Cossacks. Later it was freedom from the terror imposed by Ivan IV.

What the czars couldn’t tame they bargained with. And while Russian peasants were subjugated as serfs, the Don Cossacks won their right to their own territory as caretakers of the borders of the Russian empire. It was a hard bargain, with the Cossacks bumping up against Caucasian tribespeople as tough as themselves.

In the process they developed the siege mentality of people living on the edge, hatred and suspicion of anyone outside their own tribe. Their worst characteristics were turned to advantage by the czars, who used them as catspaws during vicious pogroms against the Jews.

Now ironically the Cossack cadet school was creating what could be a role model for reforming the brutal and corrupt Russian army, an army with which they have had a long and uneasy relationship.

‘Years ago an officer was part of a respected and educated class,’ says Mironov. ‘Now there’s no respect, no education and no moral fibre.’

Today’s half-starved young officers who are supervising even hungrier Russian army recruits have little interest in controlling the sadistic terrorizing that kills and psychologically maims the young servicemen. And some even add to their misery.

Many fall victim to a pattern of corruption that sees senior officers robbing junior ones of decent housing and food. Soldiers, from the highest to the lowest rank grab what they can to get rich or merely stay alive.

But the bright and comfortable dormitory where the Cossack cadets live is light years away from the miserable huts and freezing tents where I have talked with regular army men.

‘Our school’s strict, but it’s fair,’ says Vladimir, a red-headed 17-year-old. ‘We feel good about being here.’

Self-respect, the first principle of the Cossack military school, is notoriously lacking in the Russian army at almost any level. It is a message that badly needs passing on.

That wouldn’t happen, I knew, as long as hundreds of thousands of recruits were forced into a virtual prison camp of military servitude. And as long as the politicians massaged their own interests by refusing to end the draft and professionalize the army.

In the meadow the sun was rising in the sky and the cadets were thinking about lunch. I waved them off to their canteen, watching them file away with politely disguised impatience, a new generation confident in their goals.

In front of them the future was opening. For a moment, dazzled by the sunshine, I glimpsed it opening wide enough for anyone who wanted to follow.

Olivia Ward is bureau chief for the Toronto Star in Moscow.

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