New Internationalist

Letters

Issue 297

Letters
The New Internationalist welcomes your letters. But please keep them short.
They may be edited for purposes of space or clarity.
Include a home telephone number if possible and send your letters
to the nearest editorial office or e-mail to : ni@newint.org

Toxic toners
Issue 295 - Trash Your issue on Trash (NI 295) was an informative and revealing look at the subject of waste. Nestling among the nappies, razors and batteries found in landfill sites you are also likely to come across plastic toner cartridges. Around four million cartridges from printers and photocopiers are thrown away every year in the UK alone.

This area of waste is often overlooked. In Europe, only 30 per cent of cartridges are recycled. On average it takes a thousand years for the plastic casing of the toner cartridge to biodegrade and the toxic toner powder can leak into rivers, contaminating the water table and harming plant and marine life.

The ACTIONAID National Recycling Unit has been set up to address this problem. Cartridges are collected from around 10,000 people in Britain. These are sold on to be remanufactured and the funds go to ACTIONAID’s project with the world’s poorest people.

If readers are interested in finding out about the scheme they can call (0)117 9298818.

Rachel Beckingham
National Recycling Unit
Bristol, England

Tiger tales
Vanessa Baird’s interview with Father Emmanuel (Interview NI 294) attempts to condone a terrorist movement which people are increasingly recognizing as the most brutal in the world.

I am not saying that the Sri Lankan Government or the armed forces are beyond blame. But Ms Baird has not made the slightest attempt to present both sides of the story.

Father Emmanuel’s quote about government legislation making it harder for Tamil students to get into higher education is misleading. Tamils don’t have to get higher marks than Sinhalese. Urban students with better educational facilities need to score higher marks than students from rural backgrounds with fewer facilities.

This has caused a lot of displeasure among students from Colombo, Kandy, Galle (predominantly Sinhala areas) and yes – Jaffna. Father Emmanuel seems to be more concerned about students from Jaffna than the thousands of Tamils from other areas who benefit from the legislation.

Finally, Father Emmanuel is much safer in Colombo than a Sinhalese would be in Jaffna... except of course if he had the misfortune to be on a train or bus in which a bomb (placed by the Tigers) goes off.

Sharni Jayawardena
Colombo, Sri Lanka

Not a monster
I was sorry to read in Sara Chamberlain’s article (‘Techno-foods’ Gene Dream NI 293) an only-too-common inaccuracy, in her case describing Frankenstein as ‘an unnatural hodgepodge of alien ingredients’.

Please note, Frankenstein was not a monster; he was the scientist who created a monster. I thought NI would have known better!

Jo Leadbetter
Stafford, England

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Illustration by VIV QUILLIN

Moralistic arguments
I was disappointed that a ‘radical’ magazine like NI should take such an unoriginal stance on landmines (NI 294). Your issue was nothing more than a pile of boring old moralistic arguments about the ‘evil’ of landmines.

It ignored the power relations that inform a ban on landmines. Who would benefit? Only those nations whose technology is advanced enough not to need such inefficient weapons. I’m sure the US army with its arsenal of cruise missiles and stealth bombers will not miss the landmine too much. In addition, NATO or the US could find a reason to break the agreement if they wanted to. If a country like Iran did the same thing it would be castigated.

All weapons are terrible. During the First World War the machine gun was seen as horrific; now it is a standard weapon. Before the Second World War bombing was taboo. Now it is routine. Certain weapons switch from being acceptable or unacceptable according to the whims of the time.

Martin Earnshaw
London, England

DNA myth
Your warnings about genetic discrimination, dangerous food, endangered agriculture and biopiracy of the South (Gene Dream NI 293) are dead on target.

It’s too bad though that you set this critique on top of a depressingly conventional account of DNA. You seem to have accepted precisely the myth that legitimates genetic engineering. In fact, while DNA does play a key role in inheritance or cellular information, it is not a ‘blueprint’ – and especially not a blueprint of complex, multicellular creatures such as elephants, whales or humans.

Mysticism? No, more science. In development, DNA interacts with other physical forces: chemical gradients, electric fields, gravity. It’s this interaction which makes each creature unique, not just a ‘gene machine’ as the DNA-priesthood (such as Richard Dawkins) claims. See Exploding the Gene Myth by Ruth Hubbard and Elijah Wald and How the Leopard Changed Its Spots by Brian Goodwin. The DNA myth works well enough to open Pandora’s Box, but it’s just because it is a half-truth that it unleashes unpredictable and dangerous consequences on nature and society.

David Keppel
Essex, US

Rugmark critique
It was a really good idea to open up your pages to the voices of concerned children (Child Labour NI 292). But I would like to share my disappointment in not finding a constructive critique of Rugmark.

In my opinion, Mukul Sharma should have underlined the fact that the 12 inspectors can’t hope to certify that 17,859 looms don’t use any child labour. Thus the smiling face symbol can’t be interpreted as a guarantee that a particular carpet is free of child labour but should be understood as a commitment from the carpet industry that they are working to solve the problem of child labour.

Rugmark began in 1994. They labelled 601,389 carpets for which they received 1.25 per cent of their value. At this time, they are operating only one school which benefits 250 children. They are not solving the problem of child labour in the carpet industry.

We may say that they are genuinely working on it. But their label creates the illusion for the Western consumer that the problem is solved – and worse, that the carpet they are buying is free from child labour.

Frédéric Gouin
Lutry, Switzerland

Finding a cure
In the May issue (NI 290) you published a letter which criticized NI for being too left wing. The NI is right to hold a left-wing solution to the problems faced by billions of people.

The need for an alternative viewpoint to capitalism is greater than ever. The author describes capitalism as ‘mainstream’ but there’s nothing mainstream about homelessness, racism, starvation, unemployment or pollution. These are just a few of the many intolerable symptoms of capitalism.

A vaccine has already been prescribed as the cure. There is a need for a society where production is democratically planned by the people for the people in accordance with their needs and the needs of their environment. The chaos of the free market does not provide this.

John G McSweeney
Manchester, England

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

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Going home
The quiet stream near her home is quiet no longer.
Jenny James is surprised by a terrible roaring noise.

There will definitely be no buses running today. We don’t need to trek the three hours down the steep muddy mountain path to the road to find this out. All we do is listen to the rain. And view the landslide outside our shack which removed two cesspits and a lot of beautiful greenery in the night. There is a crack forming in the bank near our open-air natural shower-place. From the usually placid little waterway five minutes from our house we can hear a thundering noise.

At least there is still forest all around us: below the house, there is none, just ugly yellow fields of rough pasture and scrub. Down there, conditions will be much worse.

When you travel the unsurfaced mud roads in the valley below, you don’t have to be an engineer or a clairvoyant to see what will happen next: on one side of you a deep ravine where the river Oso runs; on the other, the next landslides waiting to happen. These are not miniature ones like those round our precariously perched home, but great mountains of sodden clay that slip by the dozen onto the road. They will take the bulldozers (if and when the council in far-away Neiva sends them) days or weeks to clear. And then they slip again as soon as the next rain comes.

Practically everyone in the area is now aware that these landfalls are caused by deforestation; you really don’t need to be a geographical genius to pass your eye along the scar of the road running through these once-forested mountains to see this. ‘Yes, but that man has lots of children and he needed to plant maize – he has no other land,’ comes the excuse.

The landscape changes continually in the rainforest. Sometimes this is due to natural causes, more often it is caused by humans.

It is not the first time our little stream has changed into a torrent. A year ago, on a sunny afternoon, my friend Anne and I were chatting in my cabin when a terrible roaring began. ‘Listen! What’s that?’ I said, running outside.

Illustration by SARAH JOHN

‘It’s the stream,’ suggested Anne.

‘No, it never sounds like that, even in the heaviest rains,’ I said, horrified at the volume of the noise. My two youngest daughters ran off to look at the stream.

I stared at the forest below us and suddenly pointed, incoherent with shock. Anne tried to see what I was seeing; white waves at tree height. Then she saw – but the waves were green now as hundreds of trees tumbled over one another, bowled along by water where no water ought to be, accompanied by the crackling of a million rifle shots.

‘My god, what is happening?’ Then I remembered the children. ‘Ned!’ I yelled to one of our men. ‘Get the kids!’

We didn’t need to; they came panting back up the path, white with shock. They had been down to our normally babbling brook, in time to see a huge wall of rocks, trees and orange water coming down towards them. They had been able to scamper back up the steep path just in time.

The roaring and cracking continued for about three-quarters of an hour. Then all was silent. Gingerly, we made our way down to our stream, the one you can jump across in one leap. In front of us was a chasm, up to six metres deep and ten metres wide, full of huge rocks that had not been there before. Thousands of trees had been ripped from the banks and the ones left standing were scarred and battered to a level high above our heads.

Later we discovered that four streams nearby had suffered the same ‘flash flood’. No-one knew either where the phenomenon began nor how far down the valley it extended.

‘Could it be deforestation higher up?’ I asked my neighbour. They nodded glumly. It wasn’t even raining.

‘What if this happened right above our house?’ asked one of my daughters.

‘We’d have to run,’ I said grimly, and we all agreed on the most practical escape route. ‘And do not stop to save the guinea-pigs,’ I warned the children.

Jenny James has lived and worked in the Colombian rainforest since 1987.

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