issue 259 - September 1994
Dutch exports raise alarm in Gujarat
PHOTO BY NIKKI VAN DER GAAG
An unsavoury controversy is rapidly building up over the proposed import to India of around seven million tons of cowdung from Holland. Environmental activists in India have called this move one of the most stupid and dangerous results of the new liberalization regime dictated by the World Bank and IMF.
Most Western countries feed their livestock on chemical nutrients including growth enzymes. The continuous and reckless use of chemicals to feed livestock has resulted in many of the micro-organisms present in the dung becoming resistant. It is feared that if the strains of such mutants get into India the consequences will be dangerous.
Consumerist Western society wants to turn its livestock into bulky beef-machines with little concern for the environment. In contrast cattle-rearing in India is based on vegetarian fodder and closely linked to the country’s social and agricultural setting.
Adequate sanitary inspection and certification of such enormous quantities of dung may be next to impossible. Large concentrations of dung can contaminate groundwater aquifers and produce global-warming gases like methane.
There is no denying that India has a shortage of manure. According to a recent estimate some 70 to 80 million tonnes of dung are burnt each year as fuel in rural areas, depriving the fields and farms of organically-rich manure. Stocks of Dutch dung would be brought by containers from Rotterdam to Kandla harbour in Gujarat state on the western coast of India. Once unloaded it would be sent to different parts of the country to be dried and sold to farmers as manure. Recent press reports say a Madras-based company is planning a dung and fertilizer deal with the Dutch company Seaswan BV.
According to Mr Kisan Mehta, President of the Save Bombay Committee, the Dutch are selling off the dung at less than the cost of transport not out of any sense of altruism but to preserve their own environment. ‘This is a clever case of developed countries using normal trade channels to dump dangerous wastes in developing countries on the strength of their money power,’ says Mehta. ‘The port where this stinking dung containing dangerous chemicals and drugs will be unloaded will become the target of pests. It will become impossible to control malaria and prevent other epidemics breaking out there.’
The Basel Convention on the transport of hazardous wastes forbids dumping. Greenpeace maintains that rich countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) account for 96 per cent of toxic waste and are raking in large profits from sending it to Asia. A recent international conference in New Delhi on environmental and human health called for a total ban on the trade in toxic and hazardous materials – including dung of this kind.
War nostalgia is being exploited in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, where bars with names like Apocalypse Now and Good Morning Vietnam are flourishing. Trang Cong Cuong is head of the Da Nang Tourism company. In 1965 he fought against the Americans. Now he is welcoming former American servicemen returning to the town. His company plans to organize trips to old battlefields for American veterans.
The Economist, Vol 331, No 7867
The latest in a series of bitter disputes over tourist developments in Indonesia is the proposed building of a 120-hectare golfing and hotel resort on Bali which will engulf several Hindu holy sites. Resistance is coming from farmers, students and religious groups. Farmers in the area claim that government officials have forced them to hand over land for the development by shutting off irrigation to their fields. In future, the water will be diverted to keep the golf course green. The scheme, costing $186 million, is reported in Indonesia as a joint project between Time Switch Investment, a company registered in the Isle of Man, and the chairperson of Indonesia’s chamber of commerce, Aburizal Bakrie.
Golf courses frequently form the centrepiece of large developments as Indonesia pushes to turn tourism into its largest source of foreign revenue. There are 93 golf courses in the country with dozens more planned. According to one local group, many are owned by President Suharto’s family.
New Scientist, Vol 142, No 1928
Music of the molecules
Joâl Sternheimer, a French physicist and musician, has applied for an international patent covering his melodies – which he claims help plants grow. Sternheimer says that in experiments, tomatoes exposed to his tunes grew two-and-a-half times as big as control specimens, some being sweeter as well. He also claims to have stopped a mosaic virus infection of the tomatoes by playing tunes that inhibited enzymes vital to the virus. The tunes are very short and need only be played once a day. ‘On average, you get four amino acids played per second,’ he says.
New Scientist, Vol 142, No 1927
Stolen posts fetch high prices
PHOTO BY SUSAN BECKERLEG
By the side of the road were five wooden posts arranged in a neat row. They were two- to three-feet high, a couple had faces painted on them and some were decorated with pieces of string – makoma which the Giriama people of the Kenyan coastal hinterland use to commemorate their ancestors.
Our chance discovery of them in the midst of the forest meant that we must be near a kaya, an area of ritual importance to the Giriama. We piled out of the car and photographed the pieces of wood, but refrained from touching them.
Later that day we travelled to some Giriama settlements and asked to see their graveposts. A young Giriama man took us to a remote homestead where we were in for a shock. Under cover of darkness somebody had removed all the posts.
This bad news fitted only too well into our knowledge of the ‘tribal’ art trade. There is an international market for the ornately-carved graveposts called vigango, which commemorate people of rank and power. They are sold in Nairobi City Market and exported to Europe and America. In fact one of our party, Jane, had bought vigango in Nairobi and carried them to London where she had sold them. Now she was mortified.
Private collectors and museums pay hundreds of dollars for carved graveposts. David, a London-based dealer, recently sold a set of vigango for $900. He justifies this as an act of conservation and argues that once graveposts are on sale in Nairobi the ancestors they represent have already been removed from their descendants’ care. Maybe, he reasons, the grandchildren had converted to Christianity or Islam and no longer want to commemorate their ancestors. In any case, there is no way of knowing if the posts are stolen property. As art objects in museums or in the homes of wealthy collectors they will be well cared for.
Not everybody finds this argument convincing. Jane says she will no longer trade in graveposts. If all potential buyers and sellers adopted her attitude the demand would cease. Meanwhile the Giriama people hope that thieves will be deterred through fear of ancestral curses. During our short journey in search of graveposts a madman was pointed out to us. His hands twitched strangely. Our Giriama companion said the man was mad because he had been a gravepost-robber who had attempted to make ancestors into market commodities.
Filipino chemical engineer Margarita Centeno has invented an alternative to natural wood called Ecowood. It can be processed from waste materials such as dry leaves, rice straw, sawdust and plastic waste which are milled and powdered, then bound together into a hard, water-resistant and durable material. It is termite-proof, has a lighter density than natural wood, is longer lasting and could be made fire-proof. Its uses are obvious but whether it will bring about change in the forestry industry (which with its cycle of over-felling, soil erosion and floods is a major player in the Philippines) is open to question.
Warmer Bulletin, No 41
Toying with fire
Factory deaths highlight conditions in south-east Asia.
PHOTO BY HUGH WILLIAMSON
Hong Kong is the world’s leading toy exporter. But very few toys are actually made there. Over 90 per cent of its trade is re-exports of products originally made in south-east Asia and, increasingly, in southern China. An estimated one-third of the world’s toys are made in Guangdong, home to China’s ‘booming’ free-trade zones.
Accidents in toy factories in south-east Asia have been a regular occurrence in recent years, but two incidents in 1993 were particularly horrendous. On 10 May a fire at a soft-toy factory in a free-trade zone outside Bangkok killed 188 workers, mostly young women.
The factory, Kader Industrial Thailand, was 40-per-cent owned by a Hong Kong firm. Under intense pressure – including a visit by survivors to the Hong Kong parent company – it paid $8,000 to each of the families of those killed, but otherwise dragged its feet in police and other inquiries.
Then on 19 November fire ripped through the Zhili Toy & Crafts factory, a Hong Kong-China joint venture in Guangdong’s Shenzhen special economic zone, killing 84 workers. Compensation of only $2,600 to $6,500 has been paid to bereaved families, but unlike in Thailand, senior managers and fire officers have been arrested.
In both cases locked doors and windows meant workers were trapped inside. Staircases were blocked and little or no fire-fighting equipment was to hand. The Chinese fire was also blamed on the ‘three-in-one’ system, whereby factories, warehouses and workers’ accommodation are combined in the same building.
The combined forces of trade unions, churches, women’s and consumer groups in Hong Kong, Thailand, China and elsewhere have focused on bringing the culprits to book, in part through boycott campaigns. The Shenzhen factory made toys for Chicco, an Italian multinational, while Kader made Bart Simpson toys, among others. Both sets of products are being boycotted. Industrial safety laws have been tightened in Thailand and China since the fires, but critics still question their enforceability.
Now a general set of ‘Toy Manufacturing Safety Guidelines’ is being drawn up in Hong Kong, covering factory and job safety, a ban on three-in-one buildings and regular monitoring. ‘The guidelines should be legally enforceable and apply to a company’s foreign, as well as local operations,’ says Tian Chua of Asia Monitor Resource Center, one of the Hong Kong groups involved. ‘Guidelines covering toy safety for consumers already exist in the West,’ says Chua, ‘but products should be safe for workers too’.
Image courtesy of GEMINI
The world rhino population is down to 10,500. The African black rhino, numbering 100,000 in the 1960s, are now barely 2,200. In Zimbabwe the Government is getting to the rhino before the poachers and de-horning them. The animals are sedated, their health monitored and then the horns sawn off in a ten-minute operation.
The stumps are trimmed and painted with a disinfectant to prevent infection. The long-term effects of the operation are not known but the first de-horned rhino has given birth, indicating that sexual behaviour is unaffected.
But Steve Trent of the Environmental Investigation Agency believes that poachers who have tracked a rhino only to find it has no horn will probably kill it anyway to avoid tracking it again. ‘The only way to stop this trade is to kill the demand in consumer countries,’ says Trent.
A number of private operators are springing into the gap between crime and available police cover in China. The Government is having a tough time regulating ‘civil affairs investigations’ firms (detective agencies) whose stock-in-trade includes debt extraction, credit checks, missing-person searches and the bugging and de-bugging of offices and phones. Some investigate suspicions of marital infidelity and one was even asked to confirm the virginity of a prospective bride. (They declined.)
But most of China’s private protection industry is against theft. Beijing last year drafted a set of ‘economic police management rules’. These allow for a company to install its own police station, usually with one official cop, who then deputizes sub-contracted guards (often migrant workers and ex-convicts) paid for and equipped by the company. Enterprises that cannot get approval for their own police stations hire security guards under euphemistic titles like ‘technology development consultants’.
Far Eastern Economic Review, Vol 157, No 23
‘You’re selling more than just food. You’re selling a slice of America.’
Sandeep Kohli, managing director of Kentucky Fried Chicken in India, at its launch.
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