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new internationalist
issue 161 - July 1986



Gobbling gamma-rays
Preservation by radiation

THE NI generally encourages free radicals. But we don't like to see them zooming around in your corn flakes. In the chemical sense free radicals are highly energized molecules. They are one of the by-products when food is irradiated and if they are still active when it is eaten they can cause cancer.

Why would anyone want to irradiate food? Well it's a form of preservation, which for certain foods may be cheaper and neater than conventional methods. Irradiation destroys many of the microorganisms that rot food and it can also be used to inhibit the sprouting and ripening of plants. Whether this really represents progress is open to question. Certainly it's a step forward for the nuclear industry which gets a market for spent cobalt or caesium fuel rods. And the food industry is salivating at the prospect of reducing its spoilage losses and extending shelf-life.

But the natural question from the consumer is: 'Is the food then radioactive?' Yes it is, a little, but all food is radioactive to some extent anyway. So the experts (and naturally we trust the experts) say that the levels are insignificant. And free radicals (which generally do not survive for long) will, say the same experts, have long since disappeared from the unfortunate chicken by the time you stick your fork in it.

But consumers would do well to beware. One of the advantages of rotting food is that we get knocked over by the smell before the microbes can get at us. Irradiation may suppress the microbes that cause the smell, but not those that lie in wait for our stomachs.

And the food may be less attractive in other ways. The gamma-ray bombardment also wipes out many innocent bystanders like vitamins, leaving the food sadly depleted in nourishment.

Current regulations on food irradiation differ from country to country. In the US and Canada, for example, it is used to inhibit sprouting in wheat, onions and potatoes. In France it is permitted for onions and garlic.

In the UK irradiation of food for public consumption is banned. It is generally permitted in Holland, however, and there has recently been an outcry in Britain over a shipment of contaminated prawns which was sent to Holland to be zapped and then re-imported for sale in the UK.

Pressure from the food industry is building up all over the world for a liberalizing of irradiation regulations.


Refugees go home
Tigray reinhabited

MANY of the emaciated refugees from the Ethiopian famine of last year are going home. In the first half of 1986 more than 50,000 men, women and children, now fit and well, made the three-week trek from Sudan back to their lands in the highlands of Tigray in northern Ethiopia. But for many of them the threat of famine is being exchanged for the threat of war.

Tigrayans have been fighting for autonomy for their province since 1975 against the military Dergue government in Addis Ababa. The Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) claims to control 85 per cent of the countryside in Tigray while the Dergue control the towns.

Long lines of tired and dusty refugees, supporting huge bundles on their backs are returning to Tigray. They walk all night, when it is coolest and there is least danger of attack from Ethiopian MIG jets.

At a typical transit camp, in a wadi, well sheltered with trees, there is a medical centre and plenty of food and water. The people will rest in the transit camp for a day or two before starting out late in the afternoon on the next stage of their long march. Everyone, it seems, is delighted to be going home.

'The people who have stayed behind in the refugee camps in Sudan are mostly old and have no family,' said Andrias, one of the returnees staying in a transit camp. 'I don't know what the conditions will be like in my village but I am happy to be going back.'

The Relief Society of Tigray (REST), an arm of the TPLF, has set up a string of transit camps across Tigray. A fleet of up to 200 trucks ferry food, medicines and seeds from Sudan, bumping along some of the roughest tracks in Africa under cover of darkness.

Most of the finance for this epic return of the Tigrayans has come from Western aid agencies such as Oxfam in Britain and Australia's Community Aid Abroad. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees, while not officially supporting this 'illegal' return, is pleased to see refugees who have not become dependent.

Whether Tigrayan enthusiasm can overcome lack of rain, civil war and poverty remains to be seen. But at least some of last year's refugees from famine are back home and working their land again.

John Tanner


Reluctant resettlers
Indochinese refugees want to go home

SINCE 1975, one and a half million people have fled the countries of Indochina - Vietnam, Kampuchea and Laos. Laos alone has lost over 10 per cent of its population. But, boat people apart, the lack of international interest has been overwhelming.

To be fair, the US and France have accepted much responsibility for the refugees. In recognition of the support they received from certain groups in combating communism, the US has taken over half a million and France over 50,000. Despite this exodus, there have never been less than 100,000 people in refugee camps in neighbouring Thailand - first port of call to the vast majority of Indochinese refugees.

The majority of people - an estimated 70 per cent - still remaining in Thai camps are Laotians chased out of Laos by the communists for having collaborated with US troops. But almost all of those remaining cannot - or will not - go to the US to be resettled.

The US cut back funds for refugee assistance by 10 per cent last July. Meanwhile refugees leaving for resettlement have slowed to a trickle from 27,000 in 1980 to only 4,000 in1981. The allure of the West seems to have lost its power. Many Lao people are receiving letters from relatives in the US which give a very negative image of life there. They live often in poverty, in inner-city ghettoes, experiencing racist violence for the very first time.

Yet returning home is still a difficult proposition as long as the communists hold power in Laos. Though it is what everyone would prefer, many simply dare not go back, having fought against the communists themselves.


In the bio region
Challenging avaricious economies

[image, unknown] "THE newest movement afoot in North America is 'bioregionalism' - aimed at replacing rampant industrialism with a human-scale culture.

The bioregional language is peppered with unfamiliar phrases: reinhabiting place, watershed democracy, ecological communities and biological integrity. The principles are, however, pretty straightforward - respect for ecology, grassroots democracy and cultural diversity in the face of a global monoculture.

We are, it is said, wasting away our resources to sustain a spiritually impoverishing 'Big Mac', 'Holiday Inn', lifestyle - instead of doing things for ourselves in communities where we can feel comfortable and have a meaningful say. Bioregional theorist Kirkpatrick Sale claims in his new book Dwellers in the Land that 'Rootedness is perhaps the most important and least recognized need for the human soul.'

In the sprawling world of shopping malls and suburbs it is no easy task to recover our lost sense of place. To do this, many people are digging deep into local lore in search of indigenous traditions, native recipes, folk remedies, ecological wisdom and spiritual roots.

The movement has grown rapidly over the last couple of years. There are now over 60 affiliated groups, a dozen regional congresses, a nascent continental organization and some 14 regular publications. One of the most successful groups is in Missouri where the Ozark Area Community Congress has its own OAKS currency which they hope to use to help free the fragile local economy from dependence on the US dollar. They also publish a detailed 'Green Pages' directory of community-oriented local businesses.

Further information from: Planet Drum Foundation, Box 31251, San Francisco, CA 94131, USA.


Oily threat
Aid-financed destruction in Ecuador

BRITAIN'S Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC) is helping to destroy the ecology of the Amazon basin - and with it the livelihoods of the Indians who live there.

The offending programme involves palm-oil production. An Ecuadorian company, Palmaoriente, is planning to expand its operations there even though existing plantations are seriously damaging the ecology. The company gets 40 per cent of its finance from Europe, including 15 per cent from the CDC.

Rivers which were previously crystal-clear are now a deep coffee colour and constantly covered with an oily skin. And in the regions of the Amazon basin inhabited by the Siona and Secoya Indians the pollution is reported to have killed most of the fish and scared away the wildlife, thus destroying the Indian economy.

The Amazon basin in Ecuador is home to around 65,000 indigenous people, divided into two large and well-organized groups in the south and five smaller groups in the north. It is in the north that the Indian lands are under the most pressure from transnational companies involved in petroleum extraction, lumbering - and now palm-oil production.

Ecuador's right-wing government of Leon Febres Cordero is determined to open up the Amazon for colonists and foreign companies. The government land title office declared 13.8 million hectares of the area 'empty' even though previous studies had shown the land to be occupied by Indians. And these communities are now suffering direct invasions of their land often resulting in violence.

The Corporation's part in all this is disturbingly similar to its role in Agusan del Sur in the Philippines where it put around $10 million into palm-oil plantations which were strongly criticized by development groups.

Steve Lewis

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New Internationalist issue 161 magazine cover This article is from the July 1986 issue of New Internationalist.
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