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Currents

Issue 326

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Environment
Big melt
As the planet's icebox defrosts,
the US goes emissions trading

Word corner

Tobacco
Tobacco is thought to be a Carib (the indigenous people of the Caribbean) word for the tube or pipe through which tobacco was smoked. Jean Nicot was a French amabassador in Lisbon who introduced tobacco to France in 1560 (hence 'nicotine'). The nargileh, the oriental tobacco pipe, was originally made from a coconut (nargil in Persian). A cigar looks like a cicada, the insect after which the cigar is named. The alternative theory is that cigars get their name from sikar, a Mayan word meaning 'to smoke'. Cigarette simply means 'little cigar'. Susan Watkin

As spring began in the North, the Worldwatch Institute sent out an urgent message that the earth's ice cover was melting at a faster rate than previously predicted (see NI 319 on Weather).

The signs are most visible at the poles. Forty per cent of the ice sheet that covers the Arctic Ocean has been lost over the last thirty years. It could be only decades until it melts completely. Each year since 1993 more than a metre has been shaved off the Arctic's Greenland ice sheet. In Antarctica, three great ice sheets have gone completely, but whether land ice is melting as rapidly is a matter of dispute. If the West Antarctic ice sheet were to collapse, the seas would surge by a catastrophic six metres.

The world's glaciers are in retreat because the summer melt is more than can be replenished in winter. Himalayan glaciers are 'receding faster than in any part of the world', according to a study commissioned by the UN's International Commission on Snow and Ice. If the Worldwatch Institute's prediction of shrinkage by a fifth in this region in the next 35 years appears alarmist to some, the UN study is even starker, threatening the complete disappearance of these glaciers in the same time-frame.

For the 6,000 people whose lives are at risk from the brimming Tsho Rolpa glacial lake in Nepal the situation has a greater urgency. Dozens of lakes have formed high in the Himalayas, threatening to burst and send a wall of water rushing down the valleys. For large parts of northern India, which depend upon water from the glaciers, the melt is causing spring floods followed by summer scarcity.

Just weeks after the Worldwatch Institute's warning rang out, President Clinton - leader of the nation that emits a quarter of the world's greenhouse gases - visited India. Top of his environmental agenda was a plan to provide finance for energy-inefficient industries to upgrade Indian technology and reduce emissions. The expected payoff for this was back home - where US industries could buy emissions credits from India and continue to pollute. Unfortunately for him, the Indian Government did not endorse the plan.

Dinyar Godrej

Battle of the bees
In South Africa, killer bees have been mysteriously disappearing. According to Madeleine Beekman of Sheffield University, Cape honey bees brought north by beekeepers are invading the killers' hives. This is the first time worker bees have been caught taking over the hives of other bees. 'They invade the killer bees' nests and start laying eggs,' says Beekman. 'The killer bees get confused and think there are multiple queens, so they attack and kill their own queen and the colony usually dies.'

New Scientist Vol 166 No 2234

Losers in the lucky country
Australia, which sees itself as a refuge for equality, has left many individuals and families poor, according to social-science researcher Hugh Mackay. Around 800,000 Australian children are raised in households where neither parent has an income. These households contain some of the 32 per cent of adults who are primarily dependent on welfare payments for their income. And while the top 20 per cent of households have an average annual income of $86,828, the bottom 20 per cent of households have only $7,720.

Hugh Mackay, Turning Point

Pesticides
Hopeful harvest

Fighting dramatic income drops due to falling sales, Peruvian coffee farmers are turning to a new source of earnings - organic crops. As reported in Coffee - Spilling the Beans (NI 271), ever since the price-control clause of the International Coffee Agreement was suspended in 1989, the international coffee market has been notoriously volatile.

One response to this was the growth of the fair-trade movement, now a decade old. CECOVASA, the Central Office of Agrarian Coffee-producing Co-operatives of the Valleys of Sandia, in the lower eastern slopes of the Peruvian Andes, became a fair-trade supplier. 'In 1995 our fair-trade sales as a proportion of total sales were only 4 per cent,' says Teodoro Paco, the current General Director. 'Last year they were 12 per cent, and we are optimistic that the figure will continue to rise.'

In the meantime, CECOVASA's members are interested in organic coffee which is environmentally more sustainable and of higher quality. But for the farmers the most attractive benefit lies in the price organic coffee fetches on the international market: $15 more per quintal than ordinary coffee (one quintal = 46 kilos).

All natural - Juan Carcasi teaches organic farming.
Photo: ALISON WARE

To assist its members in making the three-year transition to organic coffee, CECOVASA approached a US-based organization, Conservation International (CI), for support. CI sent advisors to teach the farmers organic techniques, which they have since been putting into practice. San Ignacio Co-operative, for example, now boasts a communally managed nursery which is home to neat rows of raised wooden seed boxes and nursery beds, where seeds germinate and grow. 'When the seedlings are ready the farmers can take them back to their own farms,' explains Juan Carcasi, a member of San Ignacio Co-operative for 25 years. 'This way we hope to encourage the farmers to learn a better way of raising their stock. Healthier plants will produce better-quality coffee.' Nicolas Sucaticona, one of 30 farmers in San Ignacio Co-operative who have been awarded organic certification, began harvesting organic coffee last year for the first time. He is hopeful: 'Eventually I want my whole harvest to be organic.'

Alison Ware

Condoms to keep the peace
The UN is distributing condoms to peacekeepers because of US complaints that the forces are spreading hiv. Two peacekeeping operations authorized since the US concerns were raised - in Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo - both contain budget provisions for 'one condom per man per day' to the UN troops. Surplus are to be distributed to locals. One UN official commented: 'You have to accept reality. Where you have a man away from home in a poor environment, this is going to happen. Therefore, you have to provide condoms. In my philosophy, condoms have the same value as flak jackets.'

The Australian online: www.news.com.au

Fair Trade
Poisoned youth
Children's brains are damaged by chemical farming

Stark contrast - Foothills children grew up without pesticides; Valley children were exposed to pesticides. In Mexico, more evidence has been found that the heavy use of agricultural pesticides has dramatically impaired development of pre-school children (see NI 323 on Pesticides). Elizabeth Guillette, a University of Arizona medical anthropologist, studied 50 children and their families living in the Yaqui Valley lowlands and highlands of Sonora, Mexico. In the intensely farmed lowlands, farmers apply pesticides 45 times per crop cycle and they grow one or two crops per year. Pesticides using compounds such as lindane and endrin, which are banned in the US, are frequently used. Researchers from the Technological Institute of Sonora found that lowland children were born with detectable concentrations of many pesticides in their blood and were further exposed through drinking breast milk.

The highland families live more traditional lives, rejecting the use of pesticides and modern agricultural practices. Their only major exposure to pesticides comes from government spraying of DDT to control malaria.

By studying the lowland and highland groups of children who share the same gene pool, Guillette was able to assess the developmental differences between groups. Fifty children from both regions were given straightforward motor and cognitive tests to perform. Guillette had anticipated the differences between the two groups would be subtle but instead she was shocked. The valley children demonstrated less stamina, hand-eye co-ordination and short-term memory. The most striking difference was in the figures the children drew (see picture above). Most of the pictures the highland children drew looked like recognizable people but the drawings by the lowlanders were merely scribbles.

Guillette says her findings give credence to reports that children growing up in areas with high levels of pesticide use have impaired learning and physical skills. The adverse effect of pesticides on human development is widespread, she says: 'I don't think the kids' exposures are either more or less than might occur in other agricultural areas - even in developed countries.'

Barbara Salgado

Corporations beat countries
The list of the world's largest economic entities based on market value (rather than revenue) reveals that companies are overtaking countries. Last year only three companies had broached the $200-billion threshold, compared with 17 stockmarkets. In this year's list, 11 companies are worth $200 billion while the number of stock markets in the list increased by only one. Still, the top nine largest economic entities measured by market value are all countries. In rank order these are: the US, Japan, Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Switzerland, Holland and Italy. Microsoft is the next largest at number ten, followed by Hong Kong, General Electric, Australia, Spain and Cisco Systems.

World Press Review Vol 47 No 4

Rusting radar
Abandoned radar sites are polluting the Canadian Arctic. Constructed by Canada and the US in the 1950s to spot Soviet bombers, the Distant Early Warning Line (DEW line) has been abandoned since 1963. But the 42 sites are contaminating the sensitive Arctic environment - large tanks that contained heating oil and gasoline have been leaking; toxic chemicals, such as PCB transformers, have been left behind; paint, garbage, sewage, airplanes and trucks remain onsite. Due to the cost and small population of the Arctic very little political pressure has been brought to bear regarding pollution. The US claims that 21 abandoned stations are not their responsibility any longer. The Canadian Government wants to contain the material in the Arctic due to the great expense of transporting it south but has promised that toxic material left on 15 sites in the new territory of Nunavut will be cleaned up.

Jim Trautman

[image, unknown]

Big Bad World by Polyp
Big Bad World cartoon.

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