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Indigenous Peoples

new internationalist
issue 166 - December 1986



Burmese recycling
The cost of isolation

Photo: Josie Horwood BURMA is rich in natural resources yet its citizens cope with their poverty by recycling. Burma's economic poverty is the result of the 20 years of total isolation forced upon it by Ne Win, the leader who still dreams of development free of capitalist or socialist taint. His dream of self-sufficiency went wrong. People get by through using their ingenuity to cope with the shortages of a planned economy. The first overwhelming feeling I had when I arrived in Burma was how ingenious the people were in making do with the materials they had in and around their homes. That initial impression didn't wear off with time. Planned economies everywhere in the world tend not to plan for the needs of the average person. On the black market prices are high compared to average wages so most people can rarely afford to buy. Most depend on making things last, adapting and sewing together.

Once, walking down the streets of Rangoon during the monsoon, I chanced upon what I thought to be a wild hallucination. Stumbling along the cratered road was probably the most decrepit and exhausted vehicle I have ever seen. Strapped precariously onto its roof was an old bath tub catching the rainwater as it fell. A hose pipe led from the bath plug to the radiator and it soon became apparent that the latter didn't work. And since spare parts for this ancient British car were non-existent the owner had devised a way of getting water from the bath into the radiator with the help of a hand control. Whenever he wanted to refill the leaking radiator he would reach out of the glassless window to seize the hose which let gravity do its work.

What their ingenuity brings home is just how spoilt we are in the affluent West. Bottle banks and paper-recycling efforts are feeble attempts to justify our consciences. The irony is that the Burmese failed to see why I took such an avid interest in their practical skills since they wanted the Western equivalent - not what was becoming to them a shoddy copy but the bright, plastic Western goods. As their isolation continues, more and more Burmese have no personal experience of the outside world. What they see on the new highly-censored satellite news increases their sense of urgency to acquire the very things its Government does not allow and believes to be evil.

Josie Horwood


Zapping alert
Microwave fears grow

NEW evidence about the damaging effects of electronic waves upon the body has been revealed recently. Allegations that the women at Greenham Common have been attacked with invisible 'electronic weapons' from within the base (see NI 160) have been greeted with predictable denials from officialdom. These denials are beginning to look very doubtful.

A small group of American scientists have been arguing for some years that low levels of electromagnetic radiation can produce biological changes in humans and animals, but their work has been largely ignored by the wider scientific community. In some cases their government research funding has been cut off. Now, confirmation of much of their work has a paper published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a body regarded by many as the very citadel of the US's scientific orthodoxy. The tone of the paper is cautious in the extreme, but it does admit that there can now be little doubt that weak electromagnetic fields do cause biological changes in organisms.

But even as the scientific establishment belatedly acknowledges that the hazards exist, evidence is emerging that the military have known about the effects of electromagnetic waves for some time and may already have found ways of using that knowledge. A US Navy physicist, Dr. Eldon Byrd, broke ranks a year or so ago to give a public lecture about his work. He spoke of using 'fields so weak you can hardly detect them'. They cause animals to fall asleep, alter time perception in humans and animals and 'entrain (sic) human brain-waves', a matter on which he didn't elaborate. Another US scientist, Dr Robert Beck, talks of specific electromagnetic frequencies producing confusion, fear and anxiety. He recalls a pocket-sized transmitter being used by scientists to change the mood of fellow diners in a restaurant, causing them to become louder and more aggressive or quieter and more passive.

None of this proves that the women at Greenham are right when they say that electronic weapons have been used against them, but it does make it difficult to dismiss their claims as pure fantasy. Electromagnetic weaponry is a reality, a new concept which Dr Beck believes is in many ways more terrifying than the concept of nuclear weapons. And meanwhile, new reports of 'zapping' continue to come in, from Alconbury, Mildenhall and Molesworth in the UK and even from a group of teachers who took part in last October's march through London.

Ian Pitt


Chains of gold
Profiting from apartheid

Western governments continue to support companies that trade with the South African regime. The international mining and construction group Consolidated Gold Fields obtains up to three quarters of its profit from South Africa, claims Counter Information Services (CIS) in its latest Report. Consolidated Gold Fields, which is UK based, made pretax profits of £115 million ($179 million) last year. Gold Fields also trades under other names: in the UK and the US its subsidiaries are known as Amey Roadstone and ARC America. It controls both Goldsworthy Mining and Renison Goldfields in Australia

Gold Fields receives help in the form of tax concessions and contracts awarded by Western governments. Britain's special tax arrangements with South Africa mean that Gold Fields can offset the tax it pays to the apartheid regime against corporation tax the company should be paying in London. In the last four years Gold Fields has been able to offset £151 million ($224 million) in this way. Gold Fields is also highly dependent on public sector contracts in Britain, Ireland and the US. In the two years to March 1985, for example, Amey Roadstone was awarded over £60 million ($89 million) in British Government contracts, including supplying material for the Falklands/Malvinas airport runway.

Gold Fields pay their black South African miners only rand 172 ($71) a month. This is only 58 per cent of the amount needed for the most basic level of survival and 'amounts to a starvation wage for one of the most hazardous jobs', adds CIS.

John Tanner

The report, Consolidated Gold Fields - Partner in Apartheid, is obtainable from Counter Information Services, 9 Poland Street, London, W1V 3DG, UK Price 95p


Unhappy anniversaries
Aborigines and the Bicentenary

AUSTRALIA's approaching bicentenary, the 200th anniversary of white colonization, has a far from happy meaning for the country's original inhabitants. The year seems certain to be used by the Aborigines to focus the world's attention on their Government's failure to recognise their most basic political needs. Life for Australian Aborigines, at present, is bleak. Aboriginal infant mortality is six times higher than that of the non-Aboriginal population; maternal mortality nine times higher. Aborigines are five times less likely to be employed, almost 16 times more likely to be imprisoned, suffer one of the highest leprosy rates in the world, will earn only half the income of the average white Australians, and can expect to die 20 years earlier.

Aboriginal spokesperson Shane Houstan recently called the Government 'plainly gutless' for abandoning national land rights about legislation. The Aborigines should have been given the power to veto mining on their land. 'If a minority of white Australians had to suffer the political, economic and cultural oppression endured by Aboriginal people,' he said, 'the country would experience its first revolution.'

Australia's white (and largely European) population seems out of touch with the needs of the Aborigines. A recent opinion poll suggested that Aboriginal land rights had strong support from only 20 per cent of Australians. An earlier survey had suggested the 50 per cent of Australians regarded Aborigines as already receiving too much Government assistance.

George Fisher


Double standards
Poor get reject drugs

[image, unknown] THE controversy over injectable contraceptives (ICs) continues to grow as it becomes clear that they are mainly used in the Third World, and are only rarely used in the developed world. Recently three women's groups and a few doctors jointly filed a petition in the Supreme Court of India demanding that drug trials being conducted with the injectable contraceptive NET-EN be stopped. NET-EN, like DMPA (brand name Depo-Provera) is made of a synthetic long-acting hormonal preparation similar to the female hormone progesterone. The drugs are usually administered at two- or three- monthly intervals. The major advantages claimed for the drugs are that they provide contraception unrelated to coitus; that the woman's partner need not know about its use and that the drug is almost 100 per cent effective.

There is a growing trend among drug companies, international family planning organizations and the World Health Organization (WHO) to promote ICs and other long acting hormonal contraceptives in developing countries. On the other hand, ICs are only recommended for use as a last-resort contraceptive in the rich world. The US Food and Drug Administration has not granted approval for the general use of DMPA in the US.

Even though WHO has declared the drug safe for mass use in family planning programmes in developing countries, there are several problems associated with the drugs. The most widely experienced problem is that of menstrual chaos - the majority of women on ICs suffer from prolonged bleeding, frequent bleeding, spotting or amenorrhoea (no bleeding at all). Not enough is known about these conditions to develop adequate treatment for them, in spite of DMPA's use for the past 15 years.

Breast-feeding women on the ICs pass on small quantities of the drug to their infants. The long-term adverse effects of this are not yet known. There are several other important aspects of the long-term effects of these drugs that are still unknown and unexplored.

Another major disadvantage of this drug is that it takes control of fertility out of a woman's hands. This method is particularly useful to those who are interested in controlling the fertility of Third World women, whether it be local governments or international organizations.

Sumati Nair


Radio active
Freeing the air-waves

COMMUNITY radio stations allow access to information that the wealthy and powerful would rather see suppressed. Transmitters can be discovered in the most unlikely places - a studio in Manila, an underground tunnel in El Salvador and the heart of Vancouver's skid row. Community radio stations aided the overthrow of Marcos, thwart the efforts of Duarte's army and inspire Canadians to work for peace and justice.

Around the globe, community (often pirate) radio stations are pumping the voice of the people into the air. In developing nations, community radio is often a direct tool for social, political, and economic reform. It is this unity of purpose that recently brought 400 people from over 30 countries to Vancouver, Canada, for the Second World Conference of Community Orientated Radio Broadcasters.

In the US, the Pacifica Foundation's network of West Coast community radio stations was so outspoken in its campaign against US Government involvement in South Africa that the US State Department barred Pacifica from future press conferences. Pacifica's South African office was ransacked. 'Our purpose as community broadcasters put us outside the commercial media,' explained Pacifica's chief executive officer, Sharon Maeda. 'We recognise the socioeconomic effects of media and act as a counterbalance to the national news, arts, and culture in the electronic communications environment'

From Arkansas to Burkina Faso, community radio brings alternative, non-commercial information and creative expression to the communities it serves. The circumstances may differ from country to country, but throughout the world it remains one of the most effective forms of alternative media.

Kim Goldberg

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New Internationalist issue 166 magazine cover This article is from the December 1986 issue of New Internationalist.
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