issue 156 | February 1986
Of J R and condoms
THE war against unwanted population growth in developing countries has taken a new turn with the unveiling of the latest weapon, the soap opera. No, the Americans have not embargoed Dallas and Dynasty until birth rates decline. Rather, the Washington-based Population Institute is encouraging developing nations to produce their own soap operas featuring such themes as family planning, continuing education, the emancipation of women and the like.
'Soap opera technology transfer has been a fantastic success in both Mexico and India,' says Population Institute president Werner Fornos. 'We've come to the point where we feel delaying the transfer of technology will be a disservice to the people of the world.'
Before the Mexican soap opera Acompañame began filming, the Mexican Technological Centre was established and research began. 'Broad attitudinal surveys were carried out to find out what the conceptions, misconceptions and aspirations of the people were,' says Fornos. 'That allowed us to give the people what they wanted.' The help of the writers of the American TV hit The Waltons was enlisted and a pilot was shot featuring continuing education as a theme. The first show broadcast had very high ratings and the soap opera about the Ramirez and their 16 children went into full-time production.
'The overwhelming rush to family planning clinics in Mexico was directly attributable to soap opera technology.' says Fornos. 'A contraceptive prevalency survey found that 62 per cent of respondents learned of contraception via the programme.' The Mexican government and the scientific community judged the experiment a success.
India followed the lead of Mexico and the resulting soap opera Humalog, broadcast in Hindi, has been equally successful.
To further the dissemination of soap opera technology Fornos founded the Centre for Population Communications International (CPCI) 'to appeal to the public and governments for funds.' The board of directors, led by Alva Clarke of the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association, is composed of Third World communications leaders.
The goal of CPCI is a rather lofty one - 'to bring people-oriented television and radio to 12 of the most populous countries in the world within the next six years. The countries targeted are Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Brazil, Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt, Zaire and Turkey, as well as Mexico and India.'
Fornos stresses that the CPCI is merely a facilitator. 'The beauty of this is that it's an individual effort of countries for themselves. The creative genius is native genius.'
Fornos believes socially relevant soap operas will be a success around the world because 'people are incurable romantics. Television is a reflection of people's fantasies, and we want them to see that the key to the better life is a better education, a lower birth rate and the equality of women.
Clutching at straws
FOR millions of people in the Third World the fuelwood crisis is already over - firewood has run out. And, once the trees are gone, the only possible substitutes are dung and crop residues such as straw, burned now by an estimated 800 million people around the world. Both farmers and scientists disagree about whether or not this is likely to wreck the soil and undermine the whole farming system, according to a new report by Earthscan.
Dung burning is not a recent phenomenon. In 17th-century England the rural poor burned cow dung following widespread deforestation, while in the densely populated river valleys of the world - the Nile, Ganges, Brahmaputra and Yangtse - dung and straw burning has been going on for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
India burns a quarter of all the dung its cows produce, providing fuel for 330 million people. And 45 per cent of China's total energy needs in rural areas are supplied by straw and crop stalks. This makes it the biggest single fuel, providing double the energy of fuelwood or coal.
Some soil specialists argue that burning dung and crop residues is robbing the soil of badly needed nutrients that would otherwise be recycled. Organic matter plays a vital role in soil fertility: it binds the soil together, makes it easier to till, prevents erosion and improves water retention. Farmers who can afford it find it cheaper to burn dung and buy chemical fertiliser than to recycle the dung and pay for an alternative fuel. But farmers who are too poor to afford chemical fertiliser often find that recycling manure is the only way to maintain crop yields, even if it means their wives must trek for hours to fetch firewood.
The smoke from burning dung may also be dangerous. This may be the reason for the high levels of lung-related heart disease among women in Northern and Central India, which account for as much as 30 per cent of hospital admissions.
As fuelwood becomes scarcer, some families may be able to rely on dung and crop residues as an energy safety net. But for others this safety net may not work so well. In areas where farming systems are already under stress from deforestation and soil erosion it may represent the last straw.
THE chances of ordinary people curbing the abuses of huge multinational corporations often seem decidedly slim. So it is doubly heartening when this kind of popular action succeeds.
People in the North Malaysian town of Bukit Merah have obtained a court order forcing the Asian Rare Earth Company to stop operations until it takes adequate safety measures to prevent radioactive rays escaping from its factory.
Claiming that radiation from the carelessly stored waste in the factory compound was hazardous to their health, eight townspeople filed a suit against the factory, which is partly owned by the Japanese giant, Mitsubishi Chemical Industries.
'We don't want a Bhopal-type accident here,' their lawyer told the court. The company must comply with the same safety standards here as it does in developed countries.'
The judge agreed, ordering the factory to take immediate steps to dispose properly of all its radioactive waste. Stressing that the issue was not 'dollars and cents but people's lives', he said although the effects of radiation were not yet apparent, the danger was already present. He noted that one of the eight plaintiffs had recently died of cancer.
Whether or not this death had any relevance to the case, the judge said that the court 'would be blind if it ignored the effects of radiation that would show themselves many years later'.
The Asian Rare Earth Factory produces yttrium - an element with several industrial uses - from a substance found in tin tailings. In the process, the radioactive thorium hydroxide is produced as a waste product. This substance can remain dangerous for 10 billion years.
Residents claimed that this waste was loosely stored in drums and plastic bags in the factory compound and on the adjoining land. The only action the factory took was to try and conceal the waste by covering the area where it was dumped with sand.
The residents also claimed that they had seen heaps of waste being dumped by the factory into a nearby pond leading to a river. They said that they noticed the grass around the pond dying and the water in the pond turning reddish brown.
The judgement is the culmination of two years of campaigning by local action groups which managed to turn the issue into a national controversy. And the judge's concluding remarks were almost as significant as his decision. 'Money lost (by the company) can be recovered,' he said, 'but not the lives of human beings. There is no cure for the effects of radiation. Money cannot buy any medicine to cure it'
Yap Bing Nyi, Third World Network
WHEN the leader of a democratic country claims the support of 'the people' it rarely means as much as half the population. And, given the continent's recent history of rule by military juntas, few would expect to find such a leader in Latin America.
Yet Peru's President Alan Garcia, who was elected only last July, recently scored a 97 per cent popularity rating. And anyone travelling through even the remotest villages in Peru will find evidence which bears out that figure - the word 'Alan' is on everyone's lips, and is inscribed on the humblest Andean walls.
This is partly because of his dynamic style - the 36-year-old Garcia has won the hearts of his people by visiting open air markets and drinking with them, by ordering all bakeries to bake cheap brown bread rolls and visiting shops early one morning to taste them, by spending two hours talking with a group of peasants, former guerillas who had just surrendered to the army.
But he has also set a hectic pace since taking office, confronting police corruption, human rights violations by the military, drug trafficking, a $13.7 billion foreign debt, and what is widely considered Peru's worst economic and social crisis this century - all problems the previous government of Fernando Belaunde Terry pretended did not exist.
Nor has Garcia's impact been confined to Peru - his high-profile campaign against the demands of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has propelled him overnight into a position of regional leadership. He has insisted that Peru will only pay 10 per cent of its export earnings to service its debt and that it will bypass the IMF and negotiate directly with creditor banks.
Even more amazing to Peruvians has been the decisiveness with which Garcia has confronted the politically powerful armed forces on alleged human rights violations in the campaign against the neo-Maoist Sendero Luminoso guerillas. Faced with eye-witness accounts of the massacre of 69 people in an isolated Andean village, he sacked the head of the armed forces joint command, forced two senior generals to resign and had the joint command publicly admit to the media that an army patrol had killed the villagers.
Observers point out that Garcia's only concrete achievement has been a cut in inflation from 250 to 170 per cent but he has nevertheless ended his honeymoon period in a position of extraordinary political strength.
Peadar Kirby. Gemini
REPUTED to be the wettest place on Earth, Cherrapunji is not the lush green spot you might expect. It is a barren 'wet desert', and one of the forerunners of environmental disaster in the Himalayan region.
Sandwiched between the Himalayas and the Burmese mountains, the area used to be forested. Today there is no vegetation to hold the soil, and no soil to support a forest.
Population in the area has soared and pressure for agricultural land is acute. Shifting cultivation, locally known as jhum, was traditionally practised, and fallow periods ranged from 20 to 30 years. Now they have fallen to under five years - insufficient for forest cover to regenerate. As a result, up to 170 tonnes of soil per hectare are being washed away by the monsoons each crop year. The soil cover in Cherrapunji is now so thin that in many places nothing can grow - bedrock lies under the few centimetres of soil. It would take decades of lying fallow for the soil to recover.
Ironically for a region with the highest rainfall in the world (1,150 cm or 450 inches is the annual average), Cherrapunji has begun to face chronic shortages of drinking water. The lack of vegetation causes rainwater to run off the surface into the plains of Bangladesh, causing rivers there to swell and flood.
Deforestation in the Himalayas thus creates deserts and flood-regions side by side, marooning villages in a landscape of despair.
Ujjayant Chakravorty, Earthscan
Battling the bottle
INTERNATIONAL codes controlling activities of multinational corporations are clearly a good thing but they are not the easiest thing in the world to read. The International Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes produced by the World Health Organisation is no exception. With this in mind the International Baby Food Action Network has published a guide to the Code aimed at health workers in developing countries. It explains the issues clearly and is attractively presented with plenty of visual breaks in the form of photographs and cartoons like the one below.
The booklet is available from: