Shampoo and camels
THE world’s deserts are steadily conquering new areas of land - six million hectares are lost to desert each year and another 21 million become infertile.
But in threatened regions of Africa like the Sahel and the Sudan, which have been suffering from an almost permanent state of drought, new initiatives are bringing hope in the battle against the desert.
The herding of camels instead of cattle is one possibility. Most mammals stop producing milk when there is a prolonged or severe shortage of water. The camel, though, is able to produce milk even when it has not had water or eaten substantially for periods of up to three weeks.
The average female camel produces between five and ten times as much milk per lactation as a cow - up to 21 litres a day, enough to support several families. The total amount of protein and energy produced annually by a herd of 100 camels under traditional management is estimated to be two and-a-half times that of the same number of cattle. Camels have a much more varied diet than cattle, live longer and can travel much longer distances - thus lessening the risk of overgrazing.
The main problem is that having fewer animals would not be acceptable to many Africans, to whom livestock are symbols of social status and economic importance. So the introduction of boran cattle might be a more practical option.
Under normal conditions livestock are watered daily or allowed to drink whenever they choose. But in drought conditions it is best to make the intervals between waterings as long as possible - to widen the grazing area and reduce the pressure on wells. Normally cattle are unable to tolerate drinking either too much or too fast - 45 litres at a time can cause death. But boran bulls can drink 105 litres in six minutes and cows 90 litres in four minutes, an intake which can last them for three days.
Another desert-fighter is the jojoba plant. Native to Mexico and the desert regions of the US, jojoba needs very little water, care or fertiliser and yet has a deep and extensive root-system which stabilises the soil. The seeds produce jojoba oil, which is very similar to sperm whale oil and is increasingly being used as an alternative since the sperm whale has been recognised as an endangered species. Jojoba is now used in cosmetics, polishes, shampoos and pharmaceuticals - and its price has risen ten-fold in the last five years.
These are just a few of the weapons in the battle against desertification, which will inevitably fail unless more money and attention are devoted to the problem. The UN’s Action Fund in 1977 raised just $48.000 from big aid donors when it needed 90 billion dollars. And Third World governments have often spent development funds on showpiece projects and failed to recognise that desertification means smaller harvests, more imported food and a widening gap between rich and poor.
Standing on no feet
There are an estimated 16 million leprosy sufferers in the world. Recent reports suggest that the disease is on the increase. Although a vaccine is being developed at research centres in Bombay and Agra, India, it will be the year 2000 before it will be widely available. But leper colonies could be turned into thriving co-operatives in which all can work with dignity.
In India few doctors choose to work with the country’s 3.5 million lepers because of the stigma attached to leprosy among Hindus. But donations from the West have helped set up a leprosy centre with far-reaching objectives. The Little Flower Leprosy Welfare Association in India’s Bihar State is an independent workers’ cooperative where patients work for a living. Instead of begging on the streets of the nearby town. 300 sufferers are now employed as builders, carpenters, teachers, barbers, cobblers, cooks, ward orderlies, physiotherapists. sweepers and farm workers. Men and women earn an equal wage of about 60 cents a day, which is above average.
Of the 12-member governing body, nine are ex-patients, including the founder. There are no qualified doctors.
The aim is self-sufficiency in two years, Western donations after that time being used solely for medicines. If that is achieved, the success will be attributable to a buffalocum-cattle farm producing 80 litres of milk a day, a gobbar gas plant to provide energy, the agricultural rehabilitation programme, a fish pond and a poultry farm.
Two years ago only two children in what was then the leper colony of Sunderpore, received schooling. Now 52 from the ages of three to 14 attend the centre’s own five-class mud-hut school. Literacy has shot up from four per cent to almost 100 per cent: this against a background of a 75 per cent illiteracy rate in India as a whole.
The centre’s founder, Brother Christdas, who used to run Mother Teresa’s leprosy hospital in Calcutta, says: ‘The aim is to employ the unemployable. We want their disabilities to be healed, so that the patients can stand on their own two feet - even if they have no feet.’
A delicate flower
BOLIVIA’s decision to halt repayments on its foreign debt has caused new fears over the South American debt crisis. But it is not only bankers who have cause for concern. Political analysts are asking whether economic pressures will destroy democratically elected governments throughout the region.
If Latin American giants like Brazil. Argentina and Mexico refused to repay their huge debts, the western banking system could collapse and with it the social stability and democracy of which the West is so proud.
Talk of a debtors’ cartel led by Brazil and Argentina has become widespread over the past year. Some Third World politicians have advocated collective reneging on the combined Third World debt and the establishment of an alternative world economic order rivalling the capitalist and communist blocs.
They argue that the control of the rich nations over the world financial and economic system has led to the poor nations subsidising their economic development and high living standards.
Said one speaker at a recent conference in Bolivia: ‘It is time to call a halt. If the West won’t work out a new deal, we should renege on the debt and set up an alternative economic system. We have the resources, capability, technology and labour to make a success of it.’
All that is missing is the combined political will. A breakdown of the present world system would cause chaos for every nation, as long-established mechanisms for trade and commerce are discarded. With basic industries in many nations dependent upon imported raw materials and much employment geared to exporting, the dislocation in economic life could be disastrous. No nation has yet shown itself willing to take the risk and face the social consequences.
One that is said to be in a good position to do so is Argentina. The recently-installed government of President Raul Alfonsin has been walking a political tightrope since the return to democracy last December.
Self-sufficient in energy and food, with major industrial capacity. Argentina is better placed than most to go it alone. But the cost of such a move would require authoritarian measures, undermining the democracy Alfonsin is so keen to preserve.
So what future for democracy in South America? According to one Peruvian politician, ‘the end of the world recession will just herald the beginning of a new set of problems for most South American countries. While great wealth and poverty sit side by side and few meaningful reforms are implemented, true democracy will remain an unfulfilled ideal in South America.’
Mike Rose, Gemini
RESEARCH into contraception is producing new techniques that involve everything from vaccinations to nasal sprays.
Steroids are the basis of the conventional contraceptive pill and much current research is on alternative ways of introducing the same drugs into the woman’s reproductive system. Norplant is one approach. It involves implanting six tiny silicone-rubber tubes just beneath the skin of a woman’s underarm. The tubes contain a drug, widely used as an ingredient of the contraceptive pill, which is slowly released from the tubes over a period of five years.
It is understandable that much contraceptive research is focussed on the womb. The brain, however, seems a strange place to be concerned with when trying to prevent conception. But it is the brain that controls a woman’s ovulation by sending signals to the reproductive system via the pituitary gland. And now it is possible to synthesise chemicals which, when given in the form of a nasal spray, will inhibit ovulation by mimicking the brain’s signals to the pituitary gland.
It may even be possible to develop drugs which act directly on parts of the brain itself - a prospect we should be aware of, whether we would approve of it or not. There has been such an explosion of knowledge of the neural transmission systems that this may not be so far-fetched as it sounds.
Research in China tends to concentrate more on naturally occurring substances - like a new form of female sterilization which involves not anaesthetics or surgery but a substance called ‘mucilage’ - one of the ingredients of birds-nest soup. If mucilage is passed through the cervix into the fallopian tubes it causes them to block up and so prevents the passage of the ovum.
There is a Western ‘high-tech’ alternative to this, called methylcyanoacrylate - you might be more familiar with it as superglue’ or ‘crazy glue’. Used carelessly it can stick your fingers together, but this tendency to join human tissues can be more productively used to block up the fallopian fubes.
The Chinese are also looking at another natural substance as the basis of the possible ‘male pill’. This is gossypol which occurs in cotton seed. A major reason why most research has been focussed on contraception for women is that men present problems of quite a different order of magnitude. While a woman only ovulates once every 28 days or so, male sperm are produced continuously, with 200 to 400 million of them in each ejaculation. But drugs based on gossypol, which seems to have the effect of reducing the sperm count, may be the answer.
Under the auspices of the World Health Organization, research on gossypol and other plants with contraceptive potential is now going on all over the world. Some 350 have been put under the microscope so far and about 30 look worth pursuing.
FOR one billion rural people throughout Third World, the energy crisis means not the price of oil but the daily scramble to find the wood they need to cook a meal. Wood remains the main fuel even in areas where forests are rapidly disappearing, but it grows more and more scarce.
The impacts of this crisis are far-reaching, especially for the poorest. In many towns where wood or charcoal is sold, prices have tripled over the last decade. Poor families in Ouagadougou (Upper Volta), Niamey (Niger) and some Guatemalan towns spend 20-30% of their budget on fuelwood. In rural areas women and children spend an ever-increasing part of their day gathering wood, as they have to walk further for it. Fuelwood scarcity can even threaten health. Burning wood to keep warm may be too expensive in cold areas, and boiling drinking water is often out of the question.
Over the last 10 years, national governments and aid agencies have helped people grow more trees through ‘community forestry’ (or ‘social forestry’) programmes, but many experts now question whether these actually help the poor.
In the drought-stricken Sahel where the fuelwood crisis bites particularly hard, efforts to produce fuelwood have been very disappointing. In India and Korea, however, some programmes have been more successful. In the Indian state of West Bengal effective land reforms have allowed poor and formerly landless people to plant trees on their new lands.
But thousands of better off Indian farmers are now planting trees as cash crops for industry on farmland formerly used to grow food. Some critics charge that such schemes are ‘anti-social forestry’ as they may even reduce the amount of wood available to the poor or drive its price out of their reach.
One of the lessons learned through community forestry efforts is that the fuelwood crisis is part of a wider problem of rural development. To grow and use trees people also need land, education and the money to buy fertilisers and basic tools. Both aid giving and aid receiving nations are beginning to realise that tackling the poverty trap may be the only way out of the fuelwood crisis.
VENERAL DISEASE (VD) is a problem usually associated with the rich world but it is now giving rise to increasing concern in developing countries. Gonorrhea is causing sterility in Africa and South-East Asia, while five per cent of Malaysian women of child-bearing age have syphilis.
In Thailand the tourism which earned enough last year to pay all the interest on the country’s foreign debt is largely based on prostitution. In Bangkok alone 40 per cent of women earn their living as prostitutes. So it is no surprise that an estimated three million people in Thailand suffer from some form of VD.
The secondary infections of VD can lead to sterility and the already high infertility rate is rising in Bangkok - though this could also be because some 13-and 14-year-old girls are taking the Pill continuously so as not to menstruate.
A new World Health Organization report speculates that the low fertility in parts of Africa may be due to the spread of VD. Men have turned to prostitutes the more as polygamy has declined and as urbanisation and population mobility have increased. Prostitution may also have been encouraged by the common tribal practice whereby women abstain from sexual activity for up to three years after childbirth.