issue 172 - June 1987
Tigrayans' return to homelands
Hope was rekindled for 160,000 Tigrayan refugees at the beginning of the year when they began returning to their homes and land: it was two years after the devastating 1984-85 drought. This new phase of a controversial returnee programme was begun by the Relief Society of Tigray (REST). It was one of the most ambitious repatriation programmes ever initiated in Africa. The support of Sudan's refugee agencies was enlisted by REST to move huge numbers of people, mostly women and children, to the Tigray border from settlements up to 250 kilometers inside Sudan. From the border town of Wad Kowli they were given food rations for the long trek home, a walk of up to 30 days across harsh, dry grassland. At each stage of the journey REST personnel were at hand to administer medical and supplementary food supplies. In an attempt to avoid air bombardments from an unsympathetic Ethiopian Government all those wishing to return were registered in small groups with no more than 1,500 a day crossing into Tigray.
Digging for victory
The Nicaraguans are linking environmental concerns with development: their name for what they are doing is eco-development. They have published a series of local handbooks for communities on eco-development, which are simply produced comic-style booklets with titles like 'How can we protect, conserve and produce?'
Eco-development is part of a major reorientation of the economy. Nicaraguans are concentrating on the types of development that are least affected by the military aggression of the Contras and economic aggression by the US Government. This turning of adversity to advantage has had remarkable results.
Obtaining the foreign exchange to import medicines is a problem. Instead of buying foreign drugs the University of Leon has set up a project to produce medicines from local plants. A team will survey the existing herbal medicine remedies used by healers throughout the country. The University will obtain samples of the herbs they are confident in prescribing and co-ordinate a project for their growth and harvesting. They are working with nature to help the sick instead of relying on pharmaceutical factories.
Food production is a crucial area in the new Nicaraguan economy. The Ministry of Agricultare has developed a 'Popular Mobilization Programme for Self-Sufficiency in Food'. Its intention is to encourage people to channel their eating habits away from foods such as meat that are an extravagant use of Nicaragua's limited environmental resources. Grazing cattle require more land to produce a kilogram of protein than, say, corn. The land used for cattle grazing could be more productively used to grow vegetable crops. More productive use of land allows, in environmental terms, a good fit between the earth's finite resources and human needs.
Nicaraguans are also being encouraged to grow their own food - so increasing national levels of production - cultivating by labour-intensive methods, without the use of environmentally damaging chemical pesticides. The Nicaraguan Government encourages people to set up gardens in their homes, schools and workplaces and to concentrate on 'fruits, roots and tubers'. Over 20,000 gardens have already been established.
Rather than seeing the problems they face in terms of production versus conservation the Sandinista Government see the two as complementary. In the words of the National Parks Director Lorenzo Cardenal: 'In Nicaragua we consider that environmental responsibility, far from being in contradiction with development, plays a key role within it'
Mexico's only nuclear reactor - due to start operating shortly - is causing growing disquiet not only among ecologists and scientists but also among many of the local inhabitants. Not only is it badly built, they argue, but it is located between two fault lines in a country where earthquakes are common.
Doubts were voiced by the US Atomic Energy Commission over the design safety of the Emergency Core Cooling System commonly used in this reactor, based at Laguna Verde. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently reported frequent valve failures affecting the cooling systems on similar boiling water reactors. They could result in major releases of radiation.
There appear to be no plans for the disposal of nuclear waste beyond on- site storage during the first decade of operations. Nor have safety procedures been announced for the inhabitants of the surrounding area. Chernobyl showed that in the event of a major disaster the immediate evacuation zone should be a minimum of 20 miles with an additional 30 mile area in which food and water is dangerously contaminated.
The economic benefits appear to be negligible. Costs of maintenance, construction and repair are high for a plant with only a 20-year life span - especially for Mexico, which is reeling under the effects of repaying overseas debts yet having to pay for US expertise in dollars. The plant, which cost an estimated $3,500 million, will only provide three per cent of Mexico's electricity needs when working at full capacity.
This June is cited as the date of the official opening of the plant. Meanwhile unofficial sources assert that Laguna Verde will not be ready for testing until mid-1988 when President de la Madrid will be making way for his successor. Thus the final decision concerning the plant's future belongs to the next President. For a growing number of Mexicans trying to ensure the plant never opens is a 'battle for life'.
Race discrimination kills
Infant mortality in the US, after dropping for a number of years, is on the way back up. And the increase is coming from one group alone: black children. A black infant born within a mile of Washington's White House has less chance of surviving to its first birthday than does a child born in Cuba, Costa Rica, Panama or a dozen other Third World nations. The irony of black babies' death-rates is not confined to the US capital. In the state of Massachusetts, for example, the infant death rate among blacks rose 46 per cent, while the rate among whites fell four per cent.
The rate in US cities is much worse than the national average. In Indianapolis 24 infants per thousand die. Washington follows with 24 deaths per thousand, Chicago 22, Los Angeles 19, Dallas 15 and New York 15. In Boston's black ghetto, Roxbury, the rate is 23. By comparison, the rate for Cuba is 16 deaths per thousand, for Costa Rica 18 and Panama 20.
One of the main medical reasons for the high infant mortality rate is the large number of babies born underweight at birth - babies under five and a half pounds are 20 times more likely to die in the first year than normal weight babies. In 1984, 12.4 percent of black babies were born underweight. Only 5.6 per cent of white babies were so born.
Other statistics tell why black children have it rough. 'The problem is a lot more than just medical' says Boston City Hospital's Chief of Obstretrics and Gynecology, Dr Kenneth H Edelin: 'We have a lot of women who just don't have a place to live.' Food is another problem: 'I can tell you story after story of women who aren't gaining enough weight during pregnancy because they don't have enough food to eat. Many people end up getting free food from our pantry, food that has been donated by the charity US for Africa,' he says.
'The real problem is the gulf between poor and non-poor women and between black and white,' comments Dr Michael Weitzman of Boston's Department of Health. 'Blacks are no worse as mothers, but a greater percentage of blacks are poorer than anybody else'.
Michael Field / Gemini
High cost motors
Traditional fishermen in Kerala used to row their boats; lately, however, they have been encouraged to buy outboard motors - and they are suffering because of the monopoly on Yahama spare parts.
The local fishermen are having to compete with newly arrived trawlers. Over the last two decades there has been a considerable increase in a new, mechanized fleet of fishing boats in Kerala, the south-west coast of India, threatening the subsistence life-style of the traditional fishermen. Fish catches have declined rapidly, mainly because of over-fishing by the larger vessels.
The traditional fishermen are fighting back by buying outboard motors. The motors enable them to take their boats further out to sea to fish. The engines also enable them to follow the shoals to different places to increase their catch. At first they were a great success.
But with the first breakdown, the vulnerability of the fishermen comes to light. In India most types of engines are repaired by local mechanics in small workshops or at the side of the road - spares are fairly easy to obtain. However, Yamaha outboard motors are imported into India by their sole agents George Maijo, who insist that all Yamaha engines must be repaired by them. They will not sell spare parts, preventing local mechanics from repairing Yamaha engines.
Service centres are set up in areas where there is a sufficiently high number of engines to make them profitable. A fisherman whose boat breaks down in a fishing village will usually lose one day's work transporting the engine to the service centre, even for the simplest of repairs or replacements. He could lose up to a week's work if the job is more complex and he has to leave the engine at the centre.
Each trip could cost a fisherman 100 rupees ($13) in bus or train fares - even before he starts paying for the repair or the parts. Engines invariably break down at the busiest season - when they are being most used. Four fishermen in a boat, for example, could lose catches worth between 200 and 1,000 rupees ($16 to $80) a day.
Yamaha's monopoly is fertile ground for abuse. Who knows whether the service centres are replacing parts that don't need replacing? Who knows whether the mechanic really has replaced the parts he charges for or whether he has sold them off on the black market? Who knows whether the 'foreign' parts are imported or whether they are substituted with cheaper locally made replacements? The system may not be Yamaha's policy; but if not, why allow their sole agents to have a such a damaging stranglehold on the life-line of these poor fishermen?
Yamaha's use of a sole agent seems to be a clear case of unfair trading. The South Indian Federation of Fishermen Societies is trying to campaign about this on the fishermen's behalf, and have asked for protest letters to be sent
Write to: The Managing Director, Yamaha Motor Co. Ltd., 2500 Shingai Iwata-shi Shizuolka-ken, Japan.
Selling women's crafts
A project called Womenwealth has recently started in the UK to promote women's crafts in order to provide income for their Third World producers. 'Invisible', 'victimized', 'exploited', 'marginalized', 'underpaid' - these are some of the adjectives used to describe those who produce the handcrafts that eventually find their way into Western markets at prices often more than twenty times the sum the producer was paid for them. Recent studies highlight the ruthless exploitation of women workers by middlemen or women; their lack of legal protection; their increasing poverty and the often wretched piece-rates they earn, far below minimum wage regulations.
Improving the low status of village producers calls for direct access to markets. Womenwealth, a charity, was founded with the aim of reducing poverty by improving the earning capacity of rural women handcraft producers. It aims to provide them with appropriate, realistic, and commercially sound marketing information.
Because charities cannot trade, Womenwealth has a trading company, with parallel objectives, called Ambika. Ambika provides direct access to markets in the West; it only deals with the producer groups themselves, never with entrepreneurs. Profits will be put back to Womenwealth, which can then use them to fund development projects.
Further details and offers of help: Womenwealth, 39 Fairfax Road, London W4, UK.