new internationalist
issue 199 - September 1989


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Cover of the NI Issue 198 Facing facts
While it was interesting to read your issue on cancer I am beginning to tire of NI's attitude to science and medicine. While there have undoubtedly been abuses, without science and technology we would all be dying in our early twenties after very difficult lives. I would lay my odds for the best hope in dealing with cancer coming from this society. So grow up NI and face facts: making difficult trade-offs is the stuff of adult life.

D Gross
Seattle, Washington

Peru retreat
Thanks for your excellent issue on Peru (NI 197). My Peruvian wife and I plan to move there permanently. I can better cope with the threat of Sendero Luminoso than the potential horror implicit in the US air-force base near my home and the nest of nuclear reactors growing at Sizewell.

Tony Edwards
Suffolk, UK

Righting wrongs
It is just as well that the article The rise and rise of religion (NI 196) is anonymous; no serious writer could wish to be linked with it since the inaccuracies do no credit to the author. This is certainly true of the section on Islam.

Islam actually limited polygamy and granted women far more rights than they have now - or had then, when they were treated as mere chattels belonging to their husbands or fathers. This is just one error in a whole series which make me think that the article was only a half-serious attempt to enlighten your readers.

Ibrahim Hewitt
Islamic Organization for Media Monitoring
London, UK

Editor: The History of the World was written by Chris Brazier as stated in the editorial.

Flintstone feminist
Your History of the World (NI 196) is a brave and interesting attempt, but your invention of the species femina erecta as a mate for homo erectus does nothing to advance women's rights. It is based more on a misreading of Latin grammar than on an analysis of patriarchy. And it indicates a rather bourgeois attachment to the heterosexual nuclear family - exemplified by your tongue-in-cheek admiration of The Flintstones as accurately depicting Stone Age society.

Robert Crick
('Homo historicus')
Herts, UK

Odd opinions
When I reach the half per cent I know something about in your history issue (History of the World NI 196), I find Chris Brazier presenting odd and obscure opinions as 'generally accepted' - providing they grind his particular axe. So I wonder about the other ninety-nine-and-a-half per cent? A lot that's very interesting in this magazine, but definitely to be read with a salt cellar nearby.

M Fermer
Sheffield, UK

Christ query
I enjoyed reading your History of the World (NI 196), but I would like to take issue with your picture of Christ at the Last Supper, where Christ is depicted as a white man of European appearance. If Christ existed - and Marvin Harris provides good evidence that he didn't in his book Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches I am sure his skin would have been brown and his clothing and appearance would have been more akin to present-day Arabs than Renaissance Europeans. I would have expected an acknowledgement of the partiality of such images in what was otherwise a good myth-destroying account of human history.

Paul Rosen
London, UK

Cartoon by VIV QUILLIN

Slippery slope
I admire your attempt at painting a world history in just a few brushstrokes (History of the World NI 196) although your approach is very one-sided. Even in your first chapter on 'Evolution', you stay with the outmoded popular thinking which you criticize in the self-same breath. Evolution seen from below - ascent from slime via ape to man - is scientifically untenable. Life on earth in all its manifestations becomes infinitely more transparent, logical and meaningful when human history is seen as a descent from spiritual worlds as an incarnating process into the physical. Rudolf Steiner's World History makes an excellent starting point for studies along this line.

Gerhard Meyer
Heanor, UK

Eating words
Does M Wooland (Letters NI 196) think that the Bible is the only source of spiritual food for people in every culture? It is just possible that different people might have their own sources of nourishment.

Jane Smith
London, UK

Conditional critics
When China supported the murderous Khmer Rouge in Kampuchea, we heard nothing from the media. And when the Chinese sold weapons to Mujahideen fanatics, we supported them because it was in the interests of democracy - or so we were told. Only now when the morally bankrupt regime in China turns weapons on its own people, do we find this Government's behaviour unacceptable.

Maybe our own perception of morality is a little too dependent on whether we see a vast exploitable market being unsettled? Or did we just assume the good Christian precept of being slow to anger?

Neil Aberle
Ontario, Canada

Poisonous privilege
The disastrous impact of the car (Car chaos NI 195) should be a warning to people in Third World countries. With so many millions crowding into the cities, the craving for this mechanical novelty leads inevitably to addiction, stagnation, congestion and frustration. Blame lies not with the inventors of the internal combustion engine but with the international motor industry which ruthlessly exploits the demand for personal transport.

City-dwellers increasingly depend on the car, undermining public transport systems which would serve the elderly, children, disabled and the poor. True progress for a nation can never be synonymous with privilege.

Cyril Myerscough,
(The Pedestrians Association)
London, UK

Shooting babies
Your April issue (How to help children NI 194) is too conservative in saying that bottle-feeding doubles the risk of death for babies. Cesar Victoria and colleagues studied two urban Brazilian populations and found that, compared to breast-fed babies, babies fed on formula were almost four times as likely to die from acute respiratory infections and 16 times as likely to die from diarrhoea. UNICEF says that artificially fed babies have 25 times the risk of dying from diarrhoea as babies exclusively breast-fed in the first six months.

Feeding bottles have been compared to guns. But sudden death from a gunshot-wound would be more merciful than the slow agony of recurrent illness, malnutrition and death due to breast-milk deprivation.

Ann Awori and Helen Armstrong
Africa, Kenya

Sensitive spot
My husband and I were very concerned about the negative emphasis in your article Why you should not sponsor a child (NI 194). As parents of three young children, we give $72 a quarter to sponsor a child in the Philippines. This child's photo is pinned to our noticeboard among our family photos to 'give a face to the faceless millions': we hope this will educate our children to be compassionate and imagine the sufferings of the poor, while feeling that help can be given.

Our sponsorship agency specifically instructs us to only send photos with neutral backgrounds - no material possessions visible - and to only write about family matters - not about expensive holidays etc.

If every child sponsor pulled out tomorrow, many worthwhile projects would collapse causing more suffering and disenchantment. Maybe the emphasis should shift and the money should be spent more efficiently, but this must be done gradually.

Maureen Mathews
Tasmania, Australia

Shedding tears
Your April issue (How to help children NI 194) was excellent. But please clear up a misunderstanding.

In the box which appeared in the article Letters to a god you included Tear Fund in association with Compassion as encouraging child sponsorship. Tear Fund and Compassion do work together in the UK, France and New Zealand. But in Australia and Holland, Tear Fund does not use child sponsorship. Indeed we have been public in our opposition to its use, despite the fact that it is such a great money-spinner.

Steve Bradbury (Director)
Tearfund Australia,
Melbourne, Australia

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The views expressed in these letters are not necessarily those of the New Internationalist

Letter from La Paz

Spiritual food
Coca leaves - from which cocaine is derived - have played
a central role in Andean life and ritual for over two thousand years.
Susanna Rance looks at the legends surrounding Mama Coca and
the many ways in which it is still used by ordinary Bolivians today.

An early morning phone call. It's Albertina. I'm going crazy waiting to see if I'm going to get this job or not! Do you know anyone who can read coca?' My friend is in luck. A yatiri - or soothsayer - has just come in from a rural province. Before setting off again by truck at dawn the next day, she will, for a price, read the future, offer warnings and advice.

She throws the coca leaves into the air. They float for a while before arranging themselves on the striped woven cloth. Albertina's face falls. The leaves have landed mainly dark side up, a sign of ill-fortune. And two leaves have become entwined, their stalks facing downwards, showing that there is an obstacle in Albertina's way. 'This is what the coca knows,' concludes the soothsayer. You need to have a lot of faith.'

For over two thousand years, the coca leaf has been part of the Andean life and ritual. Bolivians hold it proudly as a symbol of their cultural identity and their rich tradition of natural medicine. In recent years, Bolivia has become notorious as a supplier of the raw material for the international drugs industry. But the cocaine trade is barely two decades old - a mere upstart compared to the ancestral dignity of Mama Coca.

Visitors to La Paz are offered an infusion of coca leaves to ward off altitude sickness: mat- de coca is on restaurant menus along with camomile or aniseed tea. On the market streets indigenous women weigh out the leaves by the pound on tin scales. Their best customers are the poor, who chew the leaf which dulls hunger, cold and fatigue.

'How would you feel if you didn't have coca?' I asked Dionisio, a Quechua farmer from a valley community. 'We wouldn't feel like working', he answered, plucking a few dark-green leaves from a small woven bag. 'It gives us strength: it quenches our thirst. We don't get so hungry. No coca, no work.'

For headaches, a couple of leaves are stuck to the temples,. for the toothache to the jaw. A remedy for muscular pain? A poultice of coca leaves, well chewed to release their juices. Coca is the faithful companion of those in need, growing alongside the poor in shallow, stony soil, on impossible slopes where nothing else will flourish.

But how did coca enter Andean culture in the first place? The leg end goes like this. At the time of the Conquest when the Incas were being defeated by the Spanish invaders, a group of indigenous rebels took refuge in the house of an old and revered soothsayer, called Khana Chuyma. He was on the verge of death, but on seeing the suffering of his race personified in the unexpected guests, he asked Sun God, Inti, for a lasting gift to the people. This gift should be neither gold nor riches, so that the white man could not snatch it away.

Inti granted the wish and the soothsayer told his visitors: "My children, go up to the nearest mountain top. There you will find some small plants with oval leaves. Look after them and cultivate them with care. They will give you food and comfort.

'But,' he warned, 'if the white man wants to do the same, and dares to use these leaves like you, they will have the opposite effect on him. Their juice, which will bring you strength and life, will a repugnant, degenerating vice for your masters. Whilst for you. The Indian race, coca will be a spiritual food, to them it will bring idiocy and madness.'

When Lake Titicaca overflowed its banks two years ago, destroying crops, drowning animals and submerging whole villages, some said Pachamama, the earth mother, was angry at the abuse of the Sun God's gift. Nine tenths of Bolivia's coca production now goes to supply the international drugs trade. Banana and coffee plants are ripped from the ground to make room for the lucrative coca bush. Young landless people leave highland communities to try their luck on the tropical Chapare coca plantations and street-kids smoke and sell toxic cocaine-base cigarettes in the parks at night.

Meanwhile, back home, their parents and grandparents continue the ancient tradition of exchanging potatoes for coca - essential ingredient in life, death, ritual and necessity.

Susanna Rance is a writer and researcher who has lived in Bolivia for several years.

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