Book Reviews

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This month's books include two investigations into the pesticide trade; and we look at the fictional approach to understanding development.

Editor: Anuradha Vittachi

Poisoning the hungry

Poisoning the Hungry
A Growing Problem: Pesticides and the Third World poor
by David Bull
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UK: Oxfam (pbk) £4.95
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Pills, Pesticides & Profits:
the international trade in toxic substances
edited by Ruth Norris
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US: North River Press (pbk) $10.95
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Are chemical pesticides dangerous for Third World peasant farmers? According to one Thai scientist:

`When mixing the formulation for spraying. the farmer may dip his finger into the mix and taste it by dabbing his finger to his tongue. If it gets numb it indicates the right concentration.’

[image, unknown] Reports as chilling as this if not quite so bizarre have become commonplace from all over the Third World, as the use of pesticides has escalated to one pound weight for every man, woman and child on earth.

This is yet another business where the care in the use of the product lags way behind the energy that goes into manufacture and marketing. Companies that are so anxious to seize the most powerful positions in the market-place have done relatively little to exercise the matching responsibility.

When challenged, they usually retreat or promise to mend their ways. So an advertisement used by the British multinational in Malaysia, which showed a happy sprayman perilously exposed in bare feet. shorts and sleeveless shirt, was withdrawn after representations from OXFAM. But why should a huge corporation need chasing up by a relatively tiny voluntary organisation?

It is some comfort that the chasing-up process now seems to be carried out with increasing thoroughness and vigour if OXFAM’s new book on the subject, A Growing Problem Pesticides and the Third World poor, is anything to go by. David Bull has produced a marvelously clear and detailed explanation of the impact of the pesticide industry, and one that should be in the hands of anyone interested either in Third World agriculture or. more generally, in the ways in which scientific and corporate momentum can push the poor aside.

Pesticides do bring benefits. US crop losses to pests, it is estimated, would rise from 33 per cent to 44 per cent without them. But in the Third World it is the rich farmers who are the major users and their poor labourers who arc exposed to the danger. Unless changes arc made, says Bull, you could argue that pesticides will be poisoning the hungry to feed the well-fed’.

Ironically, pesticides are no longer so successful in poisoning pests. Single-minded chemical control has been shown to interfere with ecological balances that the scientists are a long way from understanding. Use of a pesticide. For example, may also kill off the natural enemy of an insect: if this enemy also preyed on other species. these can now grow in number to become new pests.

Central American cotton production is a notorious example. Content in pre-war days to pick off the bugs by hand, the farmers were seduced by’ chemical pesticides which promised faster yields. Now there are eight important new pest species that they have to cope with and pesticide usage has escalated to4O sprays a season in a desperate effort to keep them down.

The OXFAM argument is not for the abandonment of pesticides. however, but For what is called Integrated Pest Management. This involves combining traditional defence mechanisms like crop-rotation with promoting some of the natural enemies alongside highly controlled chemical intervention.

This is a system that is gaining favour in the West. But it requires much more careful management and that is difficult for less-educated farmers in the Third World~ since it also implies selling fewer sacks of poison. the chemical companies (who are a major source of agricultural information in developing countries) are not too keen to enlighten them.

Other examples of this lack of concern are quoted in Pills, Pesticides and Profits, edited by Ruth Norris, a well-produced review which also takes in other abuses such as the export of dangerous drugs and of babyfoods. Some 14 per cent of the meat eaten in the US is believed to be contaminated with illegal residues of pesticides. In what they call a 'boomerang effect' the authors point out that many of these chemicals were irresponsibly exported to the Third World only to come straight back as a constituent of imported meat.

Peter Stalker

Pesticides and Pills: For Export Only
A documentary film in two parts that goes with Ruth Norris' book. Each 57-min film available for purchase or rental on 16mm film or 3/4 inch video cassette from Robert Richter Productions, 330 West 42nd St, New York, NY 10036, USA.

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Story time

The Fight for Life
by Dan Fulani
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UK: Hodder & Stoughton(pbk) £1.50
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The Struggle of the Naga Tribe
by Rendra (translated by Max Lane)
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Aus: University of Queensland (pbk) $5.95
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How do you make important and complex development ideas accessible to a wide market? One way is to take them out of the realms of abstract argument and put them into stories action-packed novels or plays, peopled with characters whose lives are more interesting than one’s own.

In nineteenth century Britain, Victorian novelists did a marvelous job of awakening their public to the poverty that trailed in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.

Two modem writers who have tried to bring development issues alive through popular fiction are Nigeria’s Dan Fulani and Indonesia’s Rendra. Fulani’s latest thriller, The Fight for Life, tells the story of a baby food company setting up shop in Nigeria Its heroine is a bright village girl inveigled into being a milk ‘nurse’.

The book brings out dramatically enough some of the basic issues involved in the unethical promotion of artificial baby milk. But it’s so superficially written, with such horribly stereotyped characters, that its impact is equally superficial. Villains puff cigar smoke into foolish faces dumb blonde heroines, once they’ve seen the light, suddenly speak with astonishing fluency...

There’s a hazy line that divides the merely crude from the sublimely simple. Fulani, sadly, doesn’t make it over the line. For the sake of the countless thousands of malnourished babies who’ve been removed unnecessarily from their mothers’ breast. I hope someone somewhere picks up Fulani's idea and, with due gratitude to the originator, makes a better book of it.

In contrast, The Struggle of the Naga Tribe steps beyond crudeness to a felicitous simplicity. The play is set in a symbolic village in Indonesia a village which epitomises the virtues of a rural community in tune with itself and with its environment Integrity, not only in the sense of honesty but also of wholeness, is the theme of the play. When Western mineral speculators move in, backed by greedy’ politicians, their fragmenting materialism is contrasted with the villagers’ wholesome human values, the city slickers forked tongues with rural plain speaking all the polarities that writers universally bear witness to when societies change from agricultural to industrial communities are once more brought into the open.

But Rendra necessarily takes the argument further: its not just urban ways, it’s Western urban ways that are invading Indonesia like so many bacteria, destroying its health: a culture of lipstick and lace’, of glittering cleverness’ replacing ‘a soft plain spirit’. The global underdevelopment of the poor world by the rich, culturally as well as economically, is demonstrated in microcosm.

With due consistency therefore, the play is cast in a traditional mould; a new entrant to the folk theatre, not a sophisticated five-acter for the Westernised intelligentsia Anyone who has seen an Indonesian wayang (shadow puppet) play will recognise the energetic mixture of farce and sagacity, caricature and poetry, which Rendra has managed to recapture. Despite the seriousness of its theme. its wonderfully funny. How’s this for a one-liner on tourism? ‘Praying while being stared at.’

Anna Clark


Rules for Radicals

ALINSKY has been a pain in the establishment’s neck for a long time. In the 1930s, he organised the poor in Chicago to stand up for their rights as citizens. By 1971, when Rules for Radicals was published, Alinsky was an expert at .playing David to the establishment’s Goliath. His book is a brisk summary of his best advice, activate others.

Like: don’t walk into a Jewish community eating a ham sandwich. That’s not such a silly piece of advice: its very tempting for an idealist bursting with righteousness to imagine that being sensitive is the same as compromising one’s principles and that, of course, is a fate worse than death to a purist.

Alinsky. on the other hand, is willing to compromise, lie, muck-rake, organise a communal fart anything, if it’s necessary. to achieve the greater good. He’s not saying that the end always justifies any means. He’s far too subtle for that. He is saying that the whole means and ends argument is a bit of a red herring, because it leaves out the key element: the context. In context, some ends justify some means.

Pick the best option available, says Alinsky. Too bad if ifs not nice. If the only way to stop Hitler is to join the Resistance. and that means killing people, then killing people has to be your option. He quotes Winston Churchill on this dilemma (strange bedfellows. Alinsky and Churchill!): I have only one purpose, the destruction of Hitler. and my life is much simplified thereby. If Hitler invaded Hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.’

People more concerned with moral navel-gazing than action give Alinsky the pip. Hamlet is a perfect example of someone who wants to challenge the establishment but can’t get going. He can’t ex’en decide whether to be or not to be. The social group that has produced most of the revolutionaries in history the Have-a-Little Want-Mores also have the greatest concentration of Hamlets.

Their minds are full of’buts’ that negate all the force that went before long tangles of moral subtleties (subtleties?) that creep down and tie their ankles deep together. Don't wait to find the high road to morality, urges Alinsky. Take the low road. ‘There is no other.’

The first part of the book is devoted to debunking reasons excuses? for inaction. The second part tells the committed how to act more effectively.

For example, Alinsky analyses a boycott that flopped. Civil rights leaders in Chicago declared a Christmas boycott on all the downtown department stores. Understandably, the public’s commitment to buying Christmas presents for their families was far greater than their commitment to a cause they weren’t identified with. The boycotters should have followed Alinsky’s thirteenth rule: Pick a target, freeze it, personalise it, and polarise it.

If they had chosen just one store and picketed that, the public might hax’e cooperated. Going across the street to buy their presents wouldn’t be too great an inconvenience. And how much more galling to the management to see their profits fall as their rival’s rose.

Alinsky’s way, the boycotters would have turned the public's acquisitiveness and the stores’ competitiveness into strengths in their favour, instead of pitting their small resources against entrenched forces. It’s the jujitsu technique. If your opponent is bigger than you. don’t shove trip him up.

The curious thing about the book. though, is there seems to be two Alinsky's writing it. One is a professional gremlin, full of arrogant energy. playing tricks on big companies to get them to change their behaviour only their behaviour, not their feelings by appealing to their greed. (There’s no appeal to their better nature the implication is that they don’t have one.)

But then there is also Alinsky the patient philosopher, who makes room for the miracle, the change that drops from the blue: whose ‘open political purpose’ is not to yell for instant revolution but to cooperate with the great law of change’ a long process of social awakening: who recognises that ‘all revolutionary movements arc primarily generated from spiritual values and considerations of justice. equality, peace and brotherhood’.

Where in all this brotherly’ Jove and unity’ is there room for the enemy? In order for the world to be one big happy family. all the people Alinsky thinks of as incorrigible would have to be shipped off to Mars. In the end, the Alinsky Philosophy leaves me galvanised but confused. He seems to define the central problem in society as materialistic decadence’ which leaves a shortfall of meaning and purpose in our live at a deep, even transcendental level. But his own solutions begin on the material level of changing superficial behaviours. rather than on the levels of altering world-views or spiritual qualities. And they end there.

Anuradha Vinachi

Rules for Radicals
by Saul D. Alinsky (1971)
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US: Random House
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