COLONEL Gustavo Alvarez of the Honduran Security Forces has definite views on the activities of civilian politicians.
‘Their problem’, he said recently, ‘is that they promise people that things will improve. That is how revolutions get started. You have to say: "You are poor, and you are going to stay poor". Otherwise people get ideas.’
For a military man this is an understandable point of view. But it is based on a couple of false assumptions The first is that people need to be told that they are poor. For most this is a reality that strikes them quite independently when they wake up in the morning. No great economic insight is required.
The second is that people believe what politicians tell them. To do so anywhere in the world requires a considerable act of faith. To do so in Honduras requires a frontal lobotomy.
Yet Hondurans flocked to the polls in November 1981 — and did so without surgery of any kind. They were taking advantage of the opportunity to vote in their first civilian government since 1963 — and to vote the military out. You have already read enough of Honduran military thinking to appreciate the sense in this.
This issue of the New Internationalist is based on the assumption that most people, rich or poor can readily understand the position in which they find themselves and know the best course of action to take.
The world’s greatest experts on the problem of campesinos in Honduras, for example, are Honduran campesinos. And that is why it is their voices that are heard in this magazine. We also have a leading authority on juvenile employment in Tanzania, a medical expert from the Democratic Yemen and distinguished spokespersons on the problems of women and family planning in Sri Lanka.
Many readers will already have met most of these people in a television documentary produced jointly by the New Internationalist and the BBC.* But we would like to give you the chance to hear a good deal more from them on the grounds that arguments about poverty come a good deal more convincingly from the poor.
That is not to deny the value of a broader academic analysis but merely to point out that many people’s problems are fairly straightforward and scarcely need pondering by the World Bank or Society for International Development.
Thick skin and raw courage are often more useful. The farmers of La Colorada in Honduras have, as you will see in the story to follow, identified their problem without any great mental activity: they do not have enough land. And the solution they opt for is direct action — a land invasion.
You would not find much in the international literature on agricultural development to support their conclusion, The United Nations conference on agrarian reform met in 1979 with all the usual pomp and circumstance. And the word ‘invasion’ never crossed the assembled lips.
This is understandable; governments in general have no great interest in internal disruption. Yet in this case it is clear that disruption is exactly what is required. True, it involves a disavowal of the Rule of Law. True, it is an act of violence against property — and sometimes against human beings. And true also there could be a degree of irresponsibility and selfishness. But in this case, at this time, it seems to be correct— according to the local experts.
Such acts of defiance tend to be viewed in a more sinister light from the outside. ‘Communist-inspired’ would be the considered judgement in Washington and London. Yet ask the campesinos of La Colorada about communism and you get a slightly puzzled reaction. And as for Cuba and President Castro, they want nothing to do with them.
But US policy in Central America, is based on the assumption that the citizens of countries like Honduras or El Salvador do— not have minds of their own — that they are blank slates waiting to be written on by a foreign intelligence.
There are no blank slates. Indeed the problem for ideologues of any persuasion is that the slates are already packed to overflowing with all sorts of messages — important or trivial, clear or contradictory. This month’s medical expert, Saleh Hamshal, from a village in ‘Democratic’ Yemen, has one indelible memory: the death of his third daughter from diarrhoea. Had she lived in Denmark or Australia she would still be alive today. For diarrhoea is a condition that is easily cured. And now the treatment is in Saleh’s own hands. He has become one of Yemen’s primary health care workers — and wants to make sure that what happened to his daughter will never happen again in his village.
Saleh has the advantage that. in theory at any rate, the government is on his side: government policies in Democratic Yemen are a world away from those in Honduras. But while Saleh’s task may be less dangerous than that of the campesinos it is unlikely to be any less of a struggle. Because the world is strewn with similar systems of health care that, at best, limp along.
Walk into an Indian village and ask for the primary health care worker and you will probably be shown an empty medicine box and hear that the referral clinic for serious cases closed down two years ago because there was no-one to work there. At present Saleh has the support of the Minister of Health and there is a landrover to take his sickest patients to hospital. But if experience is anything to go by he will have to shout long and hard to hang on to either.
Socialist governments in the Third World do not have an unblemished record in such matters — ambitious rhetoric usually runs some way ahead of the delivery system.
Another of the local experts recruited for this magazine found himself on the receiving end of this kind of non-delivery in Tanzania When we first met Tahona Silas he was in court accused of stealing. He could just as well have accused Tanzania of not offering him any other way of making a living.
Tanzania can — and regularly does —defend itself with the eloquence of President Nyerere. The country, he protests, is crippled by an international trade system that makes sure the poor stay poor. He has a strong case. The price of Tanzania’s exports are trailing far behind the prices we charge for the goods sell them. The result is a foreign exchange crisis that blocks the import of machinery and materials into the country, throws thousands of people out of work and slams shut the factory doors in Tahona’s face. Barred from formal employment in a country with no social security, he has become an expert in keeping body and soul together in any way he can.
Simple survival is a skill widely practised in the Third World. Tahona’s approach is to operate on the city streets on the edge of illegality— but there are many others. For the very poorest a traditional defence against poverty has been to have more children in the hope that they will bring the security that the state cannot provide.
As a result the population explosion has been a familiar theme over the past twenty years. Yet now it seems that things are changing. Some 83 nations held a census in the last twelve months and the results confirm some of the most cheering international news for a long time: that after hundreds of years of steady acceleration, the rate of world population growth has at last slowed down. To find out why, we turn to our experts in Sri Lanka— a country where the last fifteen years have seen the birth rate fall by over a third.
But though population growth looks like steadying. the rate of consumption of the earth’s resources shows no sign of abating. And we should know. When it comes to swallowing hamburgers, burning oil or laying waste to the countryside, the expertise lies much closer to home — though many of us would be too modest to admit It.
One person with no such reservations is Bent Gronvold from Norway. It is with her story that this global report comes home to its logical conclusion. Bent’s personal response to the gluttonous society goes way beyond guilt to a change in her own lifestyle; and from there, as you will see, to a confrontation in the snow with the armed defenders of economic growth. It is not a comfortable position to adopt. People object to objecters.
Our friend Colonel Alvarez of the Honduran Security Forces would certainly not approve. Presumably he would tell her to behave herself: ‘You are rich, and you are going to stay rich’. But it is probably too late for that Berit and indeed all the other people you will meet in this magazine have already got ‘ideas’ into their heads.
This special report appeared in the a global report in six stories - tahona silas is innocent issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.