issue 194 - April 1989
The AIDS pandemic is having a welcome impact on the Third World's four-billion-dollar rubber trade. The AIDS scare and a boom in the world's car industry, especially in Japan, has shot natural rubber prices to record heights. Rubber tappers on South East Asian estates cannot tap fast enough to meet the expanding demand for latex. 'The latex market has exploded because of the AIDS problem,' says Dr Sekhar of the International Rubber Study Group. Liquid latex, used to manufacture condoms, is selling for twice the price of dry rubber.
Although the demand for latex accounts for only 15 per cent of the natural rubber trade, the latex shortage is having a knock-on effect on dry rubber used to manufacture tyres. The trend towards using radial tyres, which are safer but use more natural rubber, has also boosted rubber prices which shot up 20 per cent in 1988 on 1987, to around 40 cents a kilo.
The world's biggest producer of natural rubber is Malaysia. It tapped 1.58 million tonnes in 1977. Next comes Indonesia with 1.18 million tonnes and Thailand at 845,000 tonnes. Together they grow three-quarters of the world's rubber.
Last year's demand for natural rubber was around 140,000 tonnes ahead of production - a shortfall met with stockpiles held by the International Natural Rubber Agreement. Meanwhile output from the three big producers - as well as in Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Ivory Coast - is scheduled to rise. Estates that three years ago were tearing out rubber trees are now are piling on fertilizer and increasing rates of tapping. Whilst campaigns against AIDS intensify worldwide, the prospects for rubber have never looked brighter.
Photo: Julio Etchart
Times are difficult for Cuba at the moment. A fall in the world price of sugar - Cuba's main export crop - and fluctuations in the value of the US dollar have hit the economy harder than at any time since the 1959 Revolution. Cuba has responded by launching an economic 'rectification' programme drawing heavily on a voluntary effort to raise productivity. For example, volunteer micro-brigades are encouraged to build new houses and help with other social projects. But despite these problems, Cuba has actually maintained its remarkable overseas aid programme.
Cuba may not be so gung-ho these days about helping the Che Guevara-style guerrillas but militant internationalism remains enshrined in its constitution. According to Fidel Castro, 24.000 students from over 30 Third World countries are studying in Cuba on free scholarships. The great majority are at secondary schools on the Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth), formerly a political prison under the Batista regime. Some students are from Nicaragua but most are drawn from African countries such as Angola, Mozambique, Ghana, Namibia and South Morocco.
The internationalist effort extends overseas as well. Cuban-built schools, hospitals and roads can be found across the Third World but notably in countries like Tanzania, Ethiopia, Algeria and even Somalia. Thousands of volunteer Cuban teachers, doctors, nurses and construction workers operate in no less than 37 different countries - a remarkable commitment to development from a country with an increasing foreign debt and a population of only 10 million.
Nuclear waste disposal
In America a massive clean up campaign is required to sort out the mess left by 40 years of nuclear-bomb building. The Government estimates that it will take between $100 and $130 billion to repair factories and neutralize environmental damage and health risks. Many of the factories are 30 or 40 years old and many do not meet modern safety, health and environment standards.
The most serious problem is waste disposal. For more than 30 years, radioactive waste has been disposed of by bomb factories. Many did the job with insufficient care - leaving groundwater contaminated, often to thousands of levels above generally recognized safety levels. Contamination has been identified at 11 sites controlled by well-known companies such as Union Carbide, General Electric, Rockwell and the University of California.
In some cases rivers close to sites have been contaminated and the clean-up of these alone could cost anything between $35 and $65 billion. Often sites are so badly polluted that long-term care will be needed. But it will be money poorly spent unless the continuing problems of waste disposal are properly addressed. Present disposal methods simply postpone problems for the future. Waste produced from synthetic radioactive matter poses the greatest problems because of its long life. Like other hazardous waste it is simply being buried. At present a special site is being prepared for this waste underground near Carlsbad in New Mexico.
Those who fear the expense of a clean-up live with the dubious comfort that it may never happen. President Bush promised not to raise taxes during his election campaign, so new cleansing projects must compete with established programmes for funding. The phrase 'America the Radiant' could take on a whole new meaning.
J Dexter Peach
Thailand's human guinea pigs
Photo: Debbie Taylor
In Thailand human guinea pigs are being used in secret clinical trials of a potentially deadly pain-killing drug called dipyrone (also known as metamizol). One of the Thai studies has involved 60 children between four and seven years - in spite of international guidelines which state that 'children should never be the subjects of research that might equally well be carried out on adults'.
The reason given for the test was to compare the efficacy of dipyrone and paracetemol in lowering fever, despite the World Health Organisation endorsement of paracetemol as the preferred drug for management of fever in children. Many scientists are baffled by the need for the tests when paracetamol has a long record of safety.
At least two of the trials have been designed and sponsored by the West German pharmaceutical company Hoechst, the world's main dipyrone manufacturer, even though the drug is already banned or severely restricted in many countries because of its potentially fatal side-effects. The monitoring group, Drug Information for Action Centre (DIAC), fears that the trials are being used by Hoechst to generate data which can be used to promote the drug's use in Thailand, or as a tactic to delay further restrictions to the drug in that country - a stratagem that Hoechst has used successfully elsewhere.
Sources involved in one dipyrone trial have disclosed that the tests do not follow basic guidelines for scientific research and could produce seriously biased data. For example the identity of the drugs being tested is not masked from subjects and no safeguards are taken to ensure that the person assessing the effectiveness of the treatments is not the same person administering the drug. Moreover, according to the DIAC, the number of subjects under study is too small to draw any significant conclusions.
Fears that such research could be misused are compounded by secrecy surrounding the trials. This enables the company to publish only data which is favourable to its product and withhold other material.
Hoechst has good reason for wanting to preserve its Thai market. In 1987 dipyrone-based drugs accounted for up to five per cent of the company's worldwide pharmaceutical sales. More than 10 countries now ban the drug and another 10 severely restrict its use, so any country joining that list will increase pressure for the withdrawal of dipyrone worldwide.
Drug Information for Action Centre / Drug Study Group
Rich on rubbish
Tip-dwellers come tops
Cairo's tip-dwellers are transforming their lives by recycling rubbish. For decades the enterprising Zableen people have made a precarious living by collecting refuse around Egypt's sprawling capital. But now grants from the British aid agency Oxfam and the Ford Foundation are enabling the Zableen community association to set up their own recycling plant - which is generating profit that can be ploughed back into other community enterprises.
Working alongside a sympathetic Cairo group - Environment Quality International - the Zableen community association has set up credit schemes to help Zableen families replace their corrugated iron and hardboard shacks with brick buildings, and to carry out their own recycling projects.
The early loans went mostly to men. But now Zableen women are taking advantage of the credit system to establish their own small co-operatives, thereby expanding their role in the community's economy. Would-be members of the women's co-operatives are assessed on the basis of their reputation within the community; women seen as untrustworthy are denied membership.
One women's co-operative is running small food stalls. They have borrowed money to hire a van, which enables them to buy food in bulk from city wholesalers. This means they can re-sell the goods at a profit. They also have plans to build a community market.
Other women's groups have concentrated on developing part-time work which fits around child-care and refuse sorting. One such enterprise - involving the assembling of table lamps for Cairo dealers - has been so successful and popular with the women, that its market is near saturation point. Other projects range from rearing goats to putting heads on furniture tacks. These initiatives have completely transformed the women' s working lives, giving them an unimagined economic independence.
Martin Wright / Panos