issue 162 - August 1986
A no-go area
Pacific stands up to US
WHILE recent world attention was focussed on the fabricated Philippine election and the subsequent fleeing of Ferdinand Marcos, just 500 miles to the east the United States was Continuing to put pressure on the small Pacific island country of Belau in order to secure military bases there. The US views Belau as part of a fall-back 'defensive' arc should Clark Air Base and Subic Bay in the Philippines be forced to close in the future.
The small country of Belau has a population of approximately 15,000 living on a land area of only 494 square kilo-metres. Belau, which is also known as Palau, is unique as the world's first country to have a nuclear-free constitution. This constitution requires that no nuclear, chemical, gas or biological weapons intended for use in warfare, nuclear power plants or their wastes be used in the territory of Belau without express approval of 75 per cent of the voters.
But, for the economically dependent Belau to continue to receive economic assistance, the US insists that it must agree that the nuclear-free provisions of its constitution are overturned. A complex agreement called the 'Compact of Free Association' sets out what would be involved.
While the people of Belau have voted in favour of the overall Compact in two previous plebiscites, they have refused to grant the required 75 per cent in order to overturn the nuclear-free provision of their constitution. But this year's vote showed an increasing number in favour of abandoning the antinuclear position, reflecting the extent to which the process of continual votes and pressures are wearing down the resolve of the opponents of the US military plans in Belau.
Indians displaced by gold rush.
THE discovery of gold in the Rio Negro region of Brazil's Amazon basin has sparked off a war between private panners and big multinationals: a war in which the main sufferers are the 18,000 indigenous Indian tribes who live in the area. It is a familiar story in Latin America: small and isolated communities, relatively untainted by outside influences for centuries, face extinction in just a few years, because of the power of twentieth century economic forces.
This particular saga reads like a spaghetti Western, until one realizes how tragic and irredeemable the consequences are. The problems started with the discovery of alluvial gold in the early 1980s. Since 1982, the region has been overrun by private gold-panners, out to seek their fortune; but the result has been the shattering of the entire way of life for the forest-dwelling Maku and Tukunoan Indians.
Mounting evidence points to local government complicity in the displacement of Indians. For example, Sacopa. the multinationals' private army, is given free rein by the Amazonian Military Command and 90 per cent of its employees are former army personnel. Military police have aided ranchers evicting Pataxo Indians from peacefully occupying land from which they were removed in 1936.
Local church bodies have protested, and repeated appeals have been made to FUNAI to at least demarcate the Indians' land, but to no avail. It seems that financial windfalls outweigh any obligations to guarantee the rights of endangered people and the environment.
Further information about the Indians' fight to reclaim their land can be obtained from Survival International, 29 Craven Street London WC2, UK
Crippled by foreign wars
WHEN I enter the Palace of Independence in Lisbon, where the Society of War Victims has its office, I am surrounded by black African cripples. One of them, Dembo Cande, was 16 when he was forced into the colonial war in Guinea. The same year he was struck by a grenade and lost his sight and two hands.
Dembo Cande hardly knew where Portugal was on the map at the time when he was sent to the 'motherland' where he had no relatives. There was no warm welcome for him in Lisbon, no room of his own. For years he has slept in hospitals and military camps. The authorities simply did not want to take any responsibility for war victims like Dembo Cande.
Mentioning the colonial wars - or their victims' fates - is taboo in Portugal, even 12 years after decolonization. Portugal never cared to make statistics available about the number of soldiers who were killed during the colonial wars. But the Society of War Victims calculate the loss on the colonial power's side to be about 10,000 soldiers. They have no idea about the loss on the African side.
Dembo Cande knows about 200 ex-soldiers from his country who have come to Portugal to claim a pension. But for many of them it takes years to get it. First they have to apply for Portuguese citizenship. Lately that has become more and more difficult even though these soldiers were classed as Portuguese when they fought in the wars.
I talk with some of them. They only want equal rights with the Portuguese ex-soldiers. Dembo Cande smiles bravely as he manages to lift a cup with the stumps of his arms. He dreams of going to university to study literature. But, first of all, he and the other war victims wait for the Portuguese authorities to respond to their sufferings.
Escorts save lives
Photo: Peter Stalker
VOLUNTARY work should involve responding to local people's wishes: following a request, Western volunteers have gone to Guatemala to keep an eye on local community activists, to prevent them from being snatched by death-squads. Chris Corry has worked as such an escort, for members of the Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo (GAM). This is a mainly female group pledged to mutual support and the return of disappeared family members. These are some excerpts from letters she wrote during her stay.
'Yesterday a couple visited us, talking about the persecution they have suffered and attempts to flee the country on account of the death threats they've been receiving. His crime is being in a union. Her crime is being married to him. The crime of their children (because, ultimately, the children always suffer) is being born to the wrong people.
Except that they're not the wrong people: one only had to talk ten minutes with them to sense their strength and - despite the dangers, and poverty, and everything that would seem to work against it - dignity. "We are poor," the man explained, "but we are strong as a family."
One of the real old timers of the Peace Brigades International in Guatemala is here for a few days and we've been pumping him for information. He says the success of the escort experiment is based on two simple facts.
One: the life of a white male American is worth the lives of 1,500 Latin Americans. (My life as a female is worth 1,000). Two: the testimony of a white American (of an abduction, for example), is acceptable in a court of law, and the testimony of a Guatemalan is worth nothing.
One of the strengths of GAM is its being made up mostly of women, as I see it. Their actions and demands tend to be very concrete, practical and to the point: which is not to say that some of them don't have a very sharp political analysis of the situation - because they have - but there's a realization that simplicity is powerful and more accessible to the many people from the country. The action last week was a good example of this, They held a rummage sale of clothes and toys collected door to door which were sold very cheaply - basically a social service for the poor GAM members, as well as being a lot of fun. Since it was held in a park in the center of the city, it was good publicity too. And a picnic gives a good chance to get to know each other. One GAM Mom came up and told me, "Words cannot express our gratitude for what you're doing. Without you our work couldn't go on." Which is a really funny thing to say to a US citizen since if it weren't for US policy in Central America, GAM's work probably wouldn't be necessary, either.'
More details about Chris Corry's work can be obtained from: International Fellowship of Reconciliation, Hof van Sonoy, 1811 LD Alkmaar, The Netherlands.
Cheap and cheerless
Free trade zones in Sri Lanka
ON arriving in Sri Lanka the visitor is not immediately aware that the country's rapid industrialization has left many people, often women, living in dire poverty. Colombo's opulent hotels and high-rise blocks are products of the building construction and tourism boom which began in 1977 with President Jayawardene's introduction of an 'open economy. But productive sectors - other than rice - have not kept booming. The Free Trade Zone, launched with expectations of providing 50,000 to 100,000 jobs, has not prevented unemployment from rising.
Many Sri Lankan girls, eager to earn quick money to send back to their families, come to the Free Trade Zone for employment. Women in Asia have always done the monotonous, low-paid work in factories like those moving into the Zone. They are ideal workers for the big multinational textile, garment and electronics firms, and they are cheap, docile and efficient (and are so advertised by their Governments).
In Sri Lanka companies in the Free Trade Zone enjoy a tax-free five years after which they can leave or set up again under a different name. There is no job security and health and safety standards are often lax, resulting in accidents, permanent damage or prolonged side-effects. One 1981 study of an electronics firm in Asia employing 85 per cent women showed that after one year of work 80 per cent of women suffered from chronic conjunctivitis, 44 per cent became near-sighted and 19 per cent suffered astigmatism. Forty-two per cent of the women using microscopes suffered from constant headaches. In many factories there were insufficient toilets so workers were discouraged from upsetting the assembly line with the result that they developed kidney ailments.
In Sri Lanka women are exploited outside the Free Trade Zone as well as within. Private homes in the neighbourhood have cashed in on the high demand for boarding places and it is quite common to find a hostel with 50-60 boarders sharing one or two toilets. There may be six to eight girls in a room each with different shift hours, each may be earning around 675 rupees a month, (a little over $20), and spending 400 rupees on board and lodging, leaving very little for themselves and their families. But in spite of these and other injustices there will always be women wanting such work; married women even lie about their civil status so as to have the chance to earn money in the Free Trade Zone.