issue 169 - March 1987
The destruction of tropical rainforests, which many scientists say is the world's worst ecological disaster, has its roots in the consumerist life style of the rich countries. Each time someone in the US chomps through her favourite hamburger or an English person buys a mahogany toilet seat to enhance their bathroom, more trees are logged in the world's vanishing rainforests.
Industrial nations have their own timber industries which produce 80 per cent od the world's industrial wood. But they do not meet consumer demand so Western countries import much of the Third World's timber harvest as well. This spells death for the 150 million-year-old rainforests. Since 1945 nearly half of all rainforests have been wiped out, and estimates of current destruction range from 14 to 50 million acres a year.
Many forests are used in extremely wasteful ways. In Central America, forests are cleared at an annual rate of 4,000 square kilometers - for hamburgers. The cleared land is converted to pasture for cattle which are mainly exported as beef, almost all of it to the US. The cattle are bought by fast-food chains which process them to meet the enormous US appetite for hamburgers. Among the fast-food companies acknowledging their use of some imported meat in their hamburgers are Burger King. Jack-in-the-Box, Roy Rogers, Bob's Big Boy and Hot Shoppes Restaurants, says Randy Hayes, Director of the US Rainforest Action Network.
Since 1960, more than a quarter of all Central American forests have been destroyed for conversion to pasture land, according to a testimony before a US Congressional Subcommittee in 1980. At current trends, the remaining forests will be gone by 1990.
Friends of the Earth (UK) has called on the public not to buy products made from tropical hardwood which does not come from sustainable forest sources. Charles Secrett, the group's campaign director, says 'Western consumers buying furniture or pleasure-craft and other tropical hardwood products are an important part in the chain of destruction linking an item bought on the High Street with rainforest clearance thousands of miles away'.
K K Peng / Third World Network
El Salvador's homeless
CIVIL wars, like El Salvador's, have created thousands of refugees who will resort to desperate measures to retrieve their homes. The conflict between the US-backed Salvadorean Government and left-wing guerillas has become, in the words of the Archbishop of San Salvador 'apocalyptic and interminable'. Since 1979, over 55,000 civilians have been killed and nearly a fifth of the population rendered homeless.
Calle Real, a bleak barracks, has been constructed to house hundreds of refugees who have fled the war. Most have been forced to abandon their homes because of the military s vicious bombing campaigns in the Salvadorean countryside. Now officially 'displaced', they are also considered to be 'subversives' because they come from areas in which the rebels are said to operate. 'They call even young children guerillas' an old man said bitterly. He recounted the story of a ten-year-old boy who was shot at by soldiers because he refused to come out of hiding when the army descended on his village. There have been many attempts by displaced people to get back to their homes, but the Government has been clamping down on their efforts. Recently, 23 foreign Church delegates were expelled from San Salvador because they had accompanied 600 refugees back to their village. Despite the deportation, this repatriation project was allowed to proceed because of pressure from the Church in El Salvador and abroad. But since then it has been announced that all future resettlements will take place under strict army surveillance. The poor will once again be pawns in the Government's war with the rebels.
New trade agreements
Fair trade agreements for commodities such as sugar, cotton and tin could be making a come-back. They might prevent the drastic fluctuations in commodity prices continuing.
The seesaw in prices hits developing countries hard: most are heavily dependent on selling commodities abroad. Third World countries as a whole (leaving oil aside) still depend on commodities, even at today's rock bottom prices, for a third of their export earnings. Coffee, cocoa, sugar, groundnuts and other commodities bring as much as 60 per cent of African countries' earnings of dollars, marks and yen. The least developed countries depend on commodities for three quarters of their exports.
Trade agreements provide a welcome assurance that prices will remain stable. In January the fourth Cocoa Agreement came into effect.
'The idea is to even out the price swings. But trade agreements cannot rewrite the market' said a spokesperson for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Secretariat in Geneva. Nobody pretends that cocoa-style agreements will restore price levels. Instead they support price - stabilizing deals which alter with market trends.
The old UNCTAD idea of boosting commodity prices artificially to aid Third World exporters is out. A Common Fund, which was to have provided the capital for buffer stocks, has not been able to start work. The US and the USSR have refused to ratify its treaty, so preventing the Fund achieving the 52 per cent of its capital necessary to begin work.
There is a new realism in the commodity world. Low prices are forcing even more militant producers such as the Ivory Coast to the negotiating table. But at the same time the US knows that indebted developing countries cannot pay US banks if the commodity price collapse continues.
Providing credit for the poor
A new form of banking is challenging the root cause of underdevelopment: poverty. The Grameen Bank in Bangladesh lends only to the very poor, demands no collateral but achieves an astonishing 98 per cent repayment rate. This is one of the few rural credit schemes anywhere which have neither been hijacked by the richer farmers nor shipwrecked on the problem of repayment.
The bank requires that its employees live in the villages in which they make loans. This is one of the reasons for its success. Grameen officials dispense loans and collect payments in the mud huts of their clients. Take the bank to the borrowers, not the borrowers to the bank' is the cardinal rule.
The constant presence of the officers of the bank in the village means that regular repayment is not left to chance. Every borrower is tightly supervised. In one village, for example, 25 women borrowers are organized into groups and meet once a week in a community centre. At the meetings the group leader hands the weekly repayments of her members to the bank worker.
To join Grameen would-be borrowers have to form a group of five, learn to sign their names, and take a test on the bank's rules. Two members can then get loans immediately, but none of the others will get any money unless those with loans are repaying regularly. Loans are small initially (around $16-$33) and are repaid in weekly instalments over a year. Group pressure, small regular payments and the lure of more loans are enough to ensure repayment.
Borrowing money in this way gives the villagers confidence, and allows them to plan collective projects. Those who earlier would have run into their houses at the sight of a stranger, now look visitors in the eye and salute. Children are members of schools built by the villagers with money borrowed from the bank.
H Todd / Third World Network
Costa Rican workers sue
Pesticides manufacturers are being made to face up to responsibility for selling a dangerous product. Court action is being brought by men claiming that they are sterile because of Dow Chemical's and Shell's pesticides. More than 500 men working on banana plantations on Costa Rica's Atlantic coast have already been identified as sterile as a result of exposure to the pesticide dibromochloropropane (DBCP) during the mid 1970s.
This chemical - classified by the World Health Organization as extremely hazardous' - is a soil fumigant used to control nematode worms in a wide variety of crops, including pineapples and bananas. The two most widely used products in Costa Rica which contain this product were Dow's Fumazone and Shell's Nemagon.
Unreleased studies performed by Shell and Dow Chemical in the 1950s indicated that DBCP had a toxic effect on the testicles, claims the Pesticide Action Network. By 1977, the chemical was directly linked to sterility in male workers in Dow's production plants in the US. Dow, Occidental and Shell stopped producing the chemical in 1977.
But a relatively small pesticide company, Amvac, then took over production under a patent agreement Dow Chemical received three cents on every gallon of DBCP sold by Amvac. Some production was also shifted to two Mexican plants until late 1978 when sterility amongst Mexican workers led to the plant's closure.
It is likely that DBCP has also caused male sterility elsewhere. There is clear evidence that this chemical has been widely used in Ecuador, Honduras and the Philippines. It is also probable that it was used in Colombia and Panama. Experts now feel certain that similar cases of permanent sterility will be found amongst banana workers in these countries.
A picture that tells of the horrors of war better than words:
a 13-year-old Nicaraguan girl has lost her leg in the explosion
of a land mine laid by the Contras. Six died and 43 were injured.