issue 223 - September 1991
The worst job in the world
Forcing its way through the Amazonian forest, the Madeira river follows the frontier between Brazil and Bolivia. It is turbulent and dirty, but Juscelino Amaral is not afraid of it. The river bed conceals one of the biggest gold reserves in the world and Juscelino is a garimpeiro or gold digger. He is one of over 30,000 working along a 400-kilometre stretch of the river, in what may well be one of the most difficult jobs in the world – underwater gold extraction. In the past two years over 2,000 garimpeiros have lost their lives. For weeks or months they navigate in precarious raft-like boats until they reach a place where they hope to find gold. To wrest a few grams of gold from the river, a diver plunges to a depth of between five and 33 metres, according to the time of year. With no visibility whatsoever, exposed to the dangers of underwater currents and attack by piranhas, depending on a fragile tube linking him to the boat, he remains in the dark silence for up to eight hours. He works with a suction pipe that draws up the mud – and, if he is lucky, some gold as well – from the riverbed and deposits it in the boat. Patches on his diving suit cover the points where piranha have bitten through it. Most garimpeiros are ignorant of proper diving techniques. They suffer from disorders ranging from decompression sickness, burst eardrums and sinus problems to ruptured lungs.
‘My life now belongs to the Madeira,’ says Juscelino Amaral with stoic equanimity.
Source: International Labour Office
Few doubted that General Pinochet’s 17-year rule in Chile was ruthless. However the civilian government that succeeded him has just published a shocking report on just how murderous was Pinochet’s regime. More than 2,000 political opponents were killed, the result of a ‘systematic policy of extermination’ including torture by electric shock, burning, asphyxiation and rape.
Whether anyone will be brought to justice is unclear. While still in power, the military decreed an amnesty to shield its people from prosecution for political crimes committed between 1973 and 1978. Pinochet, who remains head of the army, has warned against putting any of his men on trial. However there is a proposal to give financial compensation to the families of victims, including a state pension.
SOURCE: Time magazine, Vol. 137, No. 11, 1991.
Dumping trash on the poor
Western wealth leads to garbage. Where to dump it is the problem. A recent Green-peace report describes the schemes of companies and nations in shipping their waste overseas. Corporations are offering what seem like substantial sums of money to convince Third World governments, desperate for hard currency to pay their overseas debts, to accept hazardous imports.
Paraguay has been offered $15 million by the Scoot Corporation of New York City, to accept between 100,000 and 200,000 tons of municipal waste from Manhattan each month for ten years. The report claims ‘Scoot has assured Paraguayan officials that US garbage is harmless, but typically a ton of US household garbage includes about 20 pounds of hazardous wastes.’ When Paraguayan residents of the region where the reprocessing plant was to be located protested, the project was put on hold. Whether it will be given the green light, is another matter.
SOURCE: Greenpeace report: ‘The International Trade in Wastes: A Greenpeace Inventory’, reported in Multinational Monitor, Vol 12, No 5 1991.
MARION KAPLAN /
Seaweed, once despised as sea rubbish, is proving a valuable new cash crop for village women on Zanzibar’s east coast. Cropping was introduced to the Tanzanian island two years ago and some 10,000 people, mostly women, make a living from it.Rope, sticks and seedlings are the only outlays needed to start farming.
According to Juma Shamuhuna, principal secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources, some women are making up to $100 a month. ‘That’s twice the salary of a newly-employed graduate in the civil service. I believe that in a few years Zanzibar seaweed farmers will be the wealthiest women in the whole African coastal belt,’ says Shamuhuna.
About 500 tons of dried seaweed have been produced in the past year, worth $150,000 to the growers. Industrialized countries use seaweed in pharmaceuticals, textiles, rubber, adhesives and various foods. Shamuhuna hopes that seaweed will become an alternative foreign exchange earner to cloves, which accounts for 90 per cent of Zanzibar’s export earnings.
Says 21-year-old Mwatum Ali of Kiwengwa village, who previously owned nothing but cooking utensils: ‘Since I began seaweed farming six months ago I have managed to purchase a radio, seven pairs of shoes and 15 dresses.’
Source: Lucas Lukumbo/Panos
Morals in the market place
Earlier this year saw the publication of the most comprehensive research report to date on the extent of ethical consumerism in the UK. A sample of 1,336 people were asked about any moral issue that would affect their purchasing decision. The table illustrated, shows their responses. The results indicate that increasingly people are realizing that their purchasing decisions can change the shape of the marketplace.
Interesting highlights of the report included the huge majority (80 per cent) who claim to ‘always or nearly always’ choose environmentally friendly products or services. There was also significant support on issues like avoiding products which have been tested on animals (50 per cent) and irresponsible marketing (42 per cent) – defining ‘irresponsible’ as pharmaceutical and babyfood companies who sold inappropriate products to the Third World.
Source: The Green Consumer 1991, Mintel Special Report.
What would make people
stop buying certain goods
An unpublicized epidemic is sweeping the US. Each year according to the Industrial Department, about 10,000 workers are killed in industrial accidents and 70,000 suffer permanent injuries. The National Safe Workplace Institute estimates 50-70,000 more employees die from workplace-induced disease.
Most of this carnage is avoidable. But corporate indifference (some say ‘white collar crime’) together with weak government enforcement of workplace safety laws allows thousands to die each year.
Even this weakened agency has found the ten largest US corporations guilty of 3,800 violations of workplace safety regulations since 1982. Yet they have been only fined for around a third of these violations – the average fine: $437 per violation.
SOURCE: Multinational Monitor, Vol. 12, No. 4 1991
Gulf war fallout in Pakistan
A huge explosion at an arms dump in the northern Pakistan town of Nowshera on 31 May that killed at least eight people and wounded more than 50, was caused by mishandling of phosphorous shells captured from Iraq and given by the US to Afghan mujahideen guerillas. The US has also resumed financial aid to the mujahideen recently, giving some $125 million after trying to make sure it will not all go to fundamentalist Islamic groups.
SOURCE: Far Eastern Economic Review, Vol 152 No 25, 1991
Lovelorn turn to TV
In a country where the search for a spouse is usually the task of official matchmakers or relatives, appearing on television to solicit a partner is nothing less than revolutionary. But ever since it opened in September, Beijing Television’s (BTV) dating game programme, ‘Let’s Meet Tonight’, has been a runaway hit with the capital’s 10 million viewers.
The station is swamped with applications, despite the stiff 60 yuan ($12) entry fee. Each programme features a selection of five subjects shown working, playing, reading or cooking in two-minute video-taped sequences. They describe their characteristics, hobbies, family and marital history to prospective partners in the vast televiewing audience. The programme has featured executives, retired officials, journalists, factory workers, teachers and even a graduate student studying in the US.
‘Our programme differs from TV dating games in Japan and the US which are mainly meant to entertain. When the Chinese appear on television looking for a spouse, they are serious,’ said anchorwoman Yang Guang. Chief editor Yu Zhifang emphasised that the programme aims to ‘establish among our audience healthy thinking about marriage’.
One episode presented a 65-year-old widower looking for a wife, to encourage the idea that older people also have the right to love and be loved – a notion rejected by most Chinese. In another programme which featured a retired worker with a 12-room house, Yang reminded the audience not to put material things above all other qualities. And she admonished a young woman who said she wanted to appear on TV to find a foreigner so she could live a wealthy life and emigrate abroad.
Source: Zhao Hong/Inter Press Service
Brazil of the North
Massive plans for deforestation in Canada
Canada may be gaining a new reputation – as ‘The Brazil of the North’. In a headlong rush for new energy sources, provincial energy authorities have been willing to overlook the environmental damage and stress on indigenous people that megaprojects invariably bring.
Canadians use more energy per capita than any other industrialized nation. One of the upcoming phases of the James Bay project in Quebec is expected to produce 3,000 megawatts of electricity – yet studies indicate that 6,000 megawatts could be saved by putting basic conservation measures into effect in Montreal. Hydro Quebec has encouraged new aluminium smelters to open by offering discounts so large that the utility may actually lose money.
Ten years of diminished rain and snowfall have reduced expected generating capacity at existing projects. Many experts believe that this is no mere drought, but a permanent climatic change. If this is true then new hydro-electric mega-projects will not be profitable, even in the short term.
Quebec’s James Bay development plans represent one of the largest engineering projects ever undertaken. The four major phases of the project will result in hundreds of dams, dikes and generating stations, reshaping an area the size of France. The financial cost is estimated to be in excess of $50 billion.
The ecological cost cannot be fully known. But some of the effects are clear. As a result of flooding, mercury will be released from the bedrock, poisoning fish and birds and indigenous people who eat fish. The world’s largest beluga whale habitat and birthing ground will be threatened by mercury poisoning, changes in water temperature and loss of food. The world’s largest caribou herd and most southerly polar bear population would also be threatened. Widespread clear cutting and flooding of forests would destroy millions of trees.
The autocracy of politicians, industrialists and ‘developers’ plan to change radically an entire bioregion without a full environmental assessment. They can only be stopped if an informed and empowered electorate is willing to act. In the words of Margaret Mead: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’
Source: Jim Hollingworth
Cardin and Chernobyl
French fashion designer Pierre Cardin was named among a number of honorary ambassadors to UNESCO’s Chernobyl Program. The program was created by UNESCO in the aftermath of the April 26 1986 nuclear explosion to deal with the environmental problems linked to the radiation, and to provide public information internationally about what was happening.
Recalling that the nuclear accident affected four million people and involved 600,000 rescue workers, many of whom were exposed to nuclear radiation too, UNESCO’s Director General – Federico Mayor appealed for international support.
A series of medallions, jewellry, clips and badges will be designed by Pierre Cardin, under the title ‘Never Again’. We can but hope.
SOURCE: UNESCO press release, 1991.
A tip for a long life
Food manufacturers should cut down the amount of salt in their products, or clearly mark the salt content, giving people a chance to avoid it. This recommendation comes from researchers who have shown that in Western countries a 3-gram reduction in salt intake could reduce the incidence of strokes by 22 per cent and of heart disease by 16 per cent.
To reduce salt intake, consumers should avoid salty food or not add salt at the table. If salt was left out of processed food then deaths from strokes could be reduced by some 39 per cent and from heart attacks by 30 per cent. This would prevent 65,000 deaths in the UK alone.
SOURCE: British Medical Journal, Vol. 302, p 811 1991.
“Only by understanding sociologically the Salvadorean people can we arrive at a better understanding of our underlying philosophy. We begin our analysis from the premise that El Salvador is divided into three classes or groups:
a) A superior class, composed of creative, large capitalists and large land-holders.
b) A small middle class, amorphous, that has little ambition, that tries to imitate the superior class and co-operates with it.
c) A large, disorganised and destructive class that is comprised mainly of workers, and of intellectuals who are dangerous and who contaminate the above mentioned classes …
But we will have to exterminate the intellectuals and the inferior masses so as to regain absolute power. The advantage: although the lower classes have many more people they are very disorganized. Remember that in the last 11 years we have eliminated some 60,000 inferior subjects.
Our adversaries, the subversives and the masses, must be exterminated; at a minimum, their leaders and outstanding members. We must persecute these people. We must destroy their desire to fight back, so that those who survive submit themselves to our will.”
Excerpts from a document delivered to an El Salvadorean radio station for broadcasting,
by the General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez Death Squad, December 1990.