MARCH was a good month for democracy in Latin America. On the first day of the month civilian Julio Sanguinetti took over as President of Uruguay, where the soldiers had been ruling for the past 12 months. The country once earned the title ‘the torture chamber of Latin America’ because of its large number of political prisoners and the way they were treated.
In Brazil - the world’s fifth largest country in size and tenth in terms of population - the first civilian President for 21 years. 74-year-old Tancredo Neves, took over from the military on March 15. Later in the year elections will be held in two countries in the Andes. Bolivia and Peru, where civilian presidents who took over from soldiers are standing down. Of South America’s 12 republics, only three now remain under the rule of the military or of a dictator - Paraguay, Chile and Suriname.
There are other clouds on the generally brighter South American horizon. Two of the first countries to elect civilian presidents, Peru and Bolivia, have tremendous economic and consequently political difficulties. The military regimes of both spent wildly during their decade or so in power without visibly increasing the country’s output.
With any luck things should not get that bad in the continent’s two largest economies, Brazil and Argentina. Their resources are so enormous that despite difficulties and the pressures from bankers to pay them back as soon as possible, democracy should persist. If it does fail, one of the chief culprits will be the developed countries which encouraged their bankers to lend money without being sure it would be paid back. They are now watching, with two minds, the emergence of new, dynamic countries, which might come to compete with them - Brazil in particular.
The new democracies cannot automatically count on sympathy from their creditors, despite all the surface satisfaction that the soldiers are back in the barracks. The West would find a new Japan, or several of them, very uncomfortable.
Patrick Knight, Gemini
Arms and the land
AN important cause of violent human conflict is the decline of the environment, according to a new report by the International Institute for Environment and Development (Earthscan). As natural resources diminish - through soil erosion and deforestation for instance - there is inevitably more of a battle to control them.
Usually soil erosion is linked to inequitable ownership of land. In countries like El Salvador. where in 1981 two per cent of the population owned 60 per cent of the land, small farmers have been forced to over-use their limited plots or to eke out a living from already marginal soil.
This is also one long-term cause of the famine in Ethiopia where, before the 1974 coup, the average landholding was just one hectare while thousands of square kilometres of arable land lay uncultivated by the big landlords. Peasants were forced to deforest and plant the hillsides, increasing erosion to the point where the highlands now lose one billion tonnes of topsoil each year.
The degradation of land has in effect created a whole new category of refugees - those people who are forced to move not by the kind of drought or warfare that catches international attention, but by their simple inability to live off their depleted soil. They may go across national borders, thus causing resentment in a host country that cannot even cater for its own people, or they may join the trek to the cities, where the shanty towns are for many just an informal refugee camp.
Another environmental cause of conflict is the increasing shortage of fresh water. Deforestation causes rivers to flood after the rains and to run dry before them as vegetation which previously soaked up rain and released it gradually is removed. In many cases one country is doing this damage to another - it is deforestation in India and Nepal, for instance, which brings about flooding in Bangladesh.
There is, unfortunately, plenty of scope for conflict over shared water resources: the Niger, Nile. Danube and Congo rivers all flow through nine or more countries: and 214 of the world’s river basins are shared by two or more nations.
Starving the mind
OVER half the world’s pre-school population is malnourished and this figure rises to an alarming 75 per cent in developing countries where protein-calorie consumption often falls far short of the recommended daily intake. This nutritional deprivation, coinciding as it does with the rapid organisation of the brain, has far-reaching consequences for a child’s future development.
The most crucial period of human brain development starts in the three months before birth and ends when myelination (the insulation of nerve fibres) is complete around the age of 2½ years. During this time the nerve fibres are branching and forming vital interneuronal connections which ensure the efficient functioning of the brain, good body co-ordination and integration of the senses.
Protein is being used at an alarming rate during this growth spurt (1-2mg per minute) and if sufficient protein is not available, the brain will have an organic deficit: by the age of 2½ years the brain has reached 75% of its adult weight and consequently any deficit cannot be corrected. Such organic underdevelopment was found in Chilean infants who had been malnourished in the womb and subsequently in their first year of life: they were found to have a 60 per cent reduction in their number of brain cells
The brain and neuronal pathways only have this one chance, in early infancy, to develop properly and recent research shows that malnutrition and mental abilities can be directly linked. Children in a protein supplement village in Guatemala made considerable improvements in IQ tests compared to the children in a neighbouring village who only received a control supplement. But no matter what improvements malnourished children make when their diets are supplemented, they have little hope of recovering the deficit in mental capacities.
Malnourished children are apathetic and lethargic - without the curiosity so necessary for early learning they will not explore their environment and thereby stimulate the circuitry of the brain to acquire vital motor and cognitive skills. A study in rural Mexico observed that children given diet supplements were more communicative, less anxious in new situations, less dependent upon their mothers and had far higher intelligence test scores.
Thus widespread malnutrition has a significant bearing upon the mental capacities of whole populations and until every preschool child and pregnant mother receives sufficient food, the future potential of such improverished communities is notably reduced.
David and Goliath
SEVEN months ago few people outside New Zealand had heard of David Lange. Today he is making headlines almost daily in the Western world. His press conferences are packed and radio and TV reporters are queuing to interview him. Washington makes threats under its breath and Mrs Thatcher expresses her disdain for what the Prime Minister of New Zealand is doing.
The palpitation in Washington is not because Lange’s policy poses any threat in the Pacific to the West’s strategy; it is because of the fear that others might follow New Zealand’s example. When a small, rock-solid Western country like New Zealand starts cocking a snook at the US others of similar size such as Holland. which is in a much more vital position, might also get ideas above their station.
Not only that. International revulsion against nuclear weaponry is growing and energy are becoming too active for Washington’s liking. In this climate David Lange is a symbol of small-state resistance to superpower bullying.
It is true that New Zealand is not much of a power base from which to operate, but the strength of Lange’s position in the Pacific as well as in his own country is not to be underestimated. Outside the Pacific there is little understanding of the resentment among the island peoples that their ocean is being used as a dumping ground for nuclear waste by the US and Japan and for test explosions by the French.
France’s persistent use of Muroroa atoll to explode nuclear weapons infuriates the Pacific islanders, who believe it is monstrous that a power on the other side of the globe should conduct these operations in their waters. They also dislike the idea of any form of nuclear pollution being introduced into the Pacific. The only reason there has not been a greater international outcry is because the countries concerned are tiny and scattered and have great difficulty in making their voices felt. Lange is now providing such a voice.
All the same, he will have a hard time getting his point across. All the weight of argument from Washington and Western Europe will be accusing Lange of rocking the Western boat and giving comfort to the Russians. The campaign is already well under way, with American senators quite crudely suggesting that small states like New Zealand must be forced into line.
Derek Ingram, Gemini
Reclaim the earth
THE novel and radical approach of Burkina Faso’s (formerly Upper Volta) President Thomas Sankara to the typical and crippling problems of a poor African country continues. In NI 146 we reported that he had abolished rent for a year. But he has also announced the abolition of private land ownership.
He denied ideological motivation, but said the measure was to help the country grow more food. At the same time he announced that 40 per cent of the nation’s budget would be devoted to the farming sector, as against less than two per cent previously.
Sankara has said that the state will ensure each household is given its own plot of land. To further enlist popular support in a nation where 90 per cent of the people live in the countryside. he has abolished rural taxes and has now given women the same rights of access to land as men.
Sankara also decreed that rural people must organise themselves into co-operatives of 25-30 families to do ‘modernisation’ work which is not profitable for any single family. This includes soil and water conservation, irrigation, road building and tree planting. Local savings banks will be set up to provide credit for co-operative ventures.
These reforms, however, do not mean that more resources will be channelled towards food production. Most agricultural funds in Burkina Faso go to cotton, which gets the best land as well as virtually all the fertiliser and pesticides. Cotton production increased 25-fold between 1960 and 1984, while harvests of millet and sorghum have remained the same.
With a foreign debt of $350 million Sankara may hesitate to replace cotton, which provides 41 per cent of Burkina’s exports. Thus if the state channels funds to untested co-operatives and none towards individual farmers, the reforms could speed land degradation rather than increase food production. Farmers would continue to cultivate more marginal land, have big families to provide labour and overwork fragile soil, with resulting erosion and desertification.
Nigel Twose, Earthscan
THE slaves of the twentieth century are the plantation workers. Although their chains are no longer made of iron, they are just as effective. The workers earn so little and pay so much for food that they cannot afford to move away. This is true no matter what crop they are producing, be it tea. bananas, rubber or palm oil.
Plantation workers also suffer from the chemicals they use. Malaysian rubber and palm oil workers still spray ‘Agent Orange’. the hazardous defoliant used by US troops in the Vietnam War.
As plantations provide no pensions or social security, workers must continue to survive. Escape is unthinkable. In the Philippines escape is also physically impossible, as palm oil plantations on Mindanao are patrolled by armed guards.
On all plantations. the children do adults’ work over adults’ hours but without adults’ pay. Over 10,000 children work illegally on Malaysia’s rubber plantations and in Brazil children as young as seven cut sugar cane, using an adult size machete.
All over the world, plantation workers suffer malnutrition in varying degrees. Infant mortality on Sri Lankan plantations is now 114 per thousand - compared to a national average of 39. One sugar cane-cutter in the Dominican Republic. who works a 14-hour day seven days a week admitted, ‘my children wake me each morning, crying from hunger’.
Alan Whittaker, Earthscan