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Currents

Issue 378

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EAST AFRICA

The son of the snow is angry
Loss of glaciers threatens indigenous culture

BaKonzo men amid their alpine climate – and the diminishing glacier high up in the Rwenzori Mountains. Photo: Richard Taylor
BaKonzo men amid their alpine climate - and the diminishing glacier high up in the Rwenzori Mountains. Photo: Richard Taylor

AFRICA, according to current predictions, will be the continent most affected by climate change - a sad irony considering its nominal contribution to global greenhousegas emissions. For the BaKonzo - a people living within the Rwenzori Mountains that straddle the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo - climate change has profound cultural as well as practical consequences.

The Rwenzori Mountains rise four kilometres above the surrounding East African plain. Through a combination of cold air and abundant precipitation, they have historically been home to extensive snowfields whose meltwaters supply a network of alpine rivers, lakes and wetlands that are a source of the River Nile.

For centuries glaciers on the Rwenzori's summits protected the BaKonzo from being enslaved by neighbouring tribes and from tropical diseases like malaria. This unique cold and wet environment on the equator - a World Heritage Site - features spectacular flora such as giant heather and is a rich source of traditional medicines. Alpine riverflows sustain both agricultural production downstream and the generation of hydroelectric power.

But over the last century the area covered by glaciers has reduced by 84 per cent. If current trends persist, the glaciers will disappear within the next two decades.

The diminishing glacier high up in the Rwenzori Mountains. Photo: Richard Taylor
The diminishing glacier high up in the Rwenzori Mountains. Photo: Richard Taylor

The BaKonzo also report declining crop yields and episodic famine as a result of reductions in rainfall, which include previously unknown periods of drought. Malaria has migrated into the highlands, suggesting a rise in air temperature that has enabled colonization by mosquitoes transmitting the disease.

In part, an abrupt reduction in East African precipitation during the late 19th century is responsible for observed deglaciation. However, lowland meteorological observations reveal a warming trend over the last half of the 20th century. In other words, the environmental problems facing the BaKonzo are the result of a changing climate.

Just how the material loss will affect BaKonzo culture and identity is uncertain. BaKonzo cosmology begins with the creator, Nyamuhanga, who made the snow, Nzururu. According to oral legend, Nzururu is the father of the spirits, Kitasamba and Nyabibuya, who are responsible for human life, its continuity and its welfare. Kitasamba, who lives in the glaciated mountain peaks, is a giant force who controls the natural environment and the lives of all BaKonzo. Locally, the BaKonzo attribute the loss of snow to a turning away from their traditional customs that has angered Kitasamba. They believe that deforestation driven by rapid population growth is also to blame.

Presently, there is a strong desire to halt deforestation and to reinstate the BaKonzo monarch, Omusinga, in order to revitalize traditional customs and please Kitasamba. Whether realization of these local ambitions - together with global efforts under the ratified Kyoto Protocol - will halt deglaciation and bring back the snow seems unlikely.

Richard Taylor, University College London

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Population engineering in China
An estimated 200 to 300 million births in China have been avoided by its one-child policy, promulgated in 1979. As the country grapples with a looming labour shortage resulting from the policy, other repercussions are emerging. Last year, China's State Population and Family Planning Commission formally announced that, by the 2000 census, China's sex ratio at birth had reached 117 boys to 100 girls, up dramatically from the 1982 census ratio of 108.5 boys to 100 girls. The Chinese press has widely reported that, if current trends persist, there will be 30 to 40 million males who won't be able to marry. Commentators are suggesting that this gender imbalance will prompt local governments to adopt measures to help males find marriage partners and perhaps even prompt society to show more tolerance for homosexuality and prostitution.

Dali L Yang/Far Eastern Economic Review

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West Bengal bans strikes in call centres
Although he calls himself a communist, the chief minister of West Bengal, Shri Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, has banned strikes in information technology outsource centres, declaring that they are 'essential services' like the military and utility providers. The strong pro-business stance he has adopted is designed to attract industry and investment to his state. The centres - known as business process outsourcing, or BPO, in India - provide services like call centres and back-office keyboard processing for companies primarily in the US and Europe.

Asian Labour Update/Newsweek International

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HUMAN RIGHTS

Tortured justice
Hopes that Syria's much criticized
judicial system may be reformed

This February, in the Military Court in Damascus, 18 Kurds stood trial for 'activity against the authority of the state' for their alleged role in a riot in the northern Syrian city of Qamishli in March 2004. All 18 told the judge they had been tortured with electricity while in prison. One man said he had been sodomized with a piece of wood and said he had the medical report to prove it.

Such assaults on criminal justice seem to have little impact on the outcome of trials. Also in February, six men on trial for similar charges brought eyewitnesses who said the accused could not have been in the city at the time of the riot. All six were sent to prison. 'The court makes a decision before the trial begins,' explains Anwar Bunni, a leading Syrian human rights lawyer.

The language of oil...

Congo n. party dance where a line is formed, and you shoot the person in front of you. Whoever is left is made president (invariably the person at the back).

WarRing n. ring studded with conflict diamonds

landmine interj. colonial greeting

AfrAid adj. in the exposed state of aid organizations in wartorn Africa

alarm v. to sell weapons to an unstable regime

oxymoron n. the African Union

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These cases highlight some of the critical issues at the heart of human rights in Syria. The country has had emergency laws in place since the ruling Ba'ath Party's rise to power 42 years ago. Under the laws, the security services can charge people for 'opposing the party's revolutionary goals' or 'harming the state's reputation'. 'If you make a joke against the President you go to jail for six months,' says Bunni, whose three brothers and a sister served a total of 60 years between them in Syrian prisons for expounding communist ideas during the late 1970s.

Human rights lawyers estimate Syria holds around 2,000 political prisoners, including 200 Kurds, more than 50 of whom began a hunger strike on 8 February 2005 to protest against the torture they say they have suffered in jail. An Amnesty International report in September 2004 said '38 types of torture and ill-treatment' had been documented as being used in Syria.

'Exception courts' such as the Military Court (to which journalists, the public and lawyers are allowed access) or the Supreme State Security Court (to which they are not) are widely used. According to the UN Human Rights Committee they are 'incompatible with the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Syria is a state party'.

However, into such darkness some faint rays of light have recently shone. In December 112 political prisoners, mostly members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, were released - the largest single amnesty in three years. The following day Syrian police dispersed more than 100 activists who blocked traffic in central Damascus. It was the first time SANA, the official state-run news agency, had ever reported such a civic demonstration. Two months later a further 55 political prisoners, who had spent up to 20 years in prison, were released.

'In 1992 we spoke but nobody listened. We were lonely in front of this regime. But things are changing,' says Bunni, ' particularly because of the intense pressure Syria is coming under from outside. 2005 will be a very important year for human rights in this region. But any change must come from a change in the laws. Until now, this is not happening.'

Hugh Macleod

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Canada sows sterile seeds
'The Canadian Government has acted shamefully. It is supporting a dangerous, anti-farmer technology that aims to eliminate the rights of farmers to save and reuse harvested seed.' The words are those of Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser, speaking at a UN meeting in Bangkok on biodiversity in February. The 74-year-old Schmeiser became a public figure in the fight for biodiversity when he was sued by the agribusiness giant Monsanto for patent infringement. 'Instead of representing the good will of the Canadian people or attending to the best interests of the Biodiversity Treaty,' he has said, ' the Canadian Government is fronting for the multinational gene giants who stand to win enormous profits from the release of terminator seeds around the world.' Supported by the New Zealand and Australian governments, with a bunch of agribusiness lobbyists (including Monsanto, Delta & Pine Land and Crop Life International) cheering from the sidelines, the Canadian Government attempted an all-out push for field-testing and commercialization of sterile seed technologies, effectively undoing the precautionary de facto moratorium on terminator seeds adopted by governments in 1998. Fortunately a coalition of Scandinavian and Majority World countries were able to block the Canadian offensive and sustain the moratorium on anti-farmer terminator seeds. Campaigners fear that Canada and its agribusiness allies will try again at the G8 meeting in Scotland this July.

The Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (formerly RAFI).

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"I am an uncompromising pacifist... I have no sense of nationalism, only a cosmic consciousness of belonging to the human family.”

Rosika Schwimer (1877-1948),
Hungarian writer, editor, pacifist, suffragist.

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Seriously... True tales of the absurd

Leader of the Pack
Wildlife experts are over the moon about the latest discovery of a new member of a rare breed of wolf thought to be nearing extinction. The species, known as canis lupus presidentus worldbankum, was believed to be on its last legs, until news that a lone wolf has emerged as the new leader of the bank, er, pack.

Wildlife documentary makers have been following the movements of the dire wolf, affectionately named 'James', and his pack for years, bringing his trials of life to the living rooms of millions of nature lovers and fund managers. It was during one of these documentaries when viewers saw the fierce grey alpha male, dubbed 'Paul', suddenly emerge from the Bushes to challenge James for leadership of the bank pack.

James, an aging beast with a great mane, seems to have resigned himself to his new subservient role, and it is thought that he will lead a lonely existence as a travelling university lecturer as is the custom. The Paul wolf however is set to lead the pack to greater strength as his hunting abilities seem to suggest a more aggressive leadership style than his predecessor.

Still, it remains to be seen which of the two will prove to be the most fearsome. James' unique hunting style involved befriending the abundant NGO deer, allowing him and his pack to poach them off at leisure. Paul's hunting style suggests that he might just dispense with the pleasantries and eat his prey willy-nilly.

However, both leaders must ensure that their pack's creature comforts are well looked after. For example, the species has eschewed the more traditional cave dwelling, preferring to inhabit large destructive infrastructure projects instead. They also have a predilection for drastically changing the local habitat in which they live, marking their terrain with a particularly pungent form of territorial pissings and droppings which scientists call Structural Adjustment. Nonetheless, with the arrival of the Paul wolf, it would seem that for the time being, the species has been saved from near extinction.

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WAR ON TERROR

Life lottery
US military targets poor Hispanics
for frontline service in Iraq

They have been variously described as 'working class mercenaries', 'green card troops', 'non-citizen' armies, or desperate recruits of the US Government's 'poverty draft'. They are the huge contingent of Hispanic personnel who - for personal and economic reasons - have been recruited into the ranks of the US military. According to US journalist Jim Ross, by February 2005 there were 110,000 of them. The biggest single contingent of such troops is made up of Mexicans and Mexican descendants. Many were in the marine units from Camp Pendleton in San Diego that participated in the initial stages of the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and later fought 'insurgents' in Falluja.

Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Central Americans and Ecuadorians are also well represented. Since the start of the war about a third of the US forces stationed in Iraq - between 31,000 and 37,000 troops out of a total of about 130,000 - were non-US citizens serving in the navy, Marine Corps, army and air force.

Following the widespread insurgency in early 2004 the US Government has gone on a nationwide recruitment drive that has targeted young Hispanics with promises of green cards, scholarships, post-service employment, and various medical and pension benefits. The US Government's interest in recruiting Latinos is hardly surprising since they make up about 12.5 per cent of the US population: one in seven 18-year-olds are of Hispanic origin. Invariably poor and jobless, they are prime candidates for US Military Occupational Specialists hungry for recruits.

This recruitment campaign is driven by an executive order signed in July 2002 by President Bush, which effectively allows recruits in active duty during the 'war on terror' to apply for citizenship once they join up rather than having to wait years for the granting of a green card. Since 11 September 2001, the Bush Administration has tightened immigration procedures and cut public spending in a number of areas such as housing and education. This has meant that many young Latinos feel they have little choice but to pursue the inducements offered by the US military.

These non-citizen members of the military have a limited number of Military Occupational Specialties to choose from when enlisting. As a consequence, noncitizens are over-represented in some of the most dangerous field operations. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Hispanic troops make up about 17.5 per cent of front-line forces.

Not surprisingly, such troops die or are injured in disproportionate numbers. US Department of Defense figures suggest a casualty rate for Latino military members of about 13 per cent - almost two-anda- half times the rate of other serving members and many times more than in previous conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and the first Gulf War. Significantly, of the first 1,000 US deaths in Iraq, the overwhelming majority was among the lowest-ranked, poorest-paid, and worst-trained troops. Over 120 were Latinos - about 70 of them Mexican.

With few prospects of gaining US citizenship through the usual channels, and with little hope of employment, decent housing and education, the call to arms clearly holds some attraction. Yet as the advocacy organization Latinos against the Iraq War has pointed out, the various promises made by the Government frequently fail to materialize when Latino service personnel return home. Many of these troops - especially those who are injured - find they are in worse circumstances than when they left for Iraq; themselves victims of the very 'war on terror' they were recruited to vanquish.

Richard Hill

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