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Cover of the NI Issue 269 I was interested to read the diverse range of possible ‘Futures’ in your issue (Back to the Future NI 269). Kirkpatrick Sale seems to have fallen into the trap of believing that ‘Gaia’ is an earth mother who can be prayed to.

James Lovelock, who proposed the Gaia Hypothesis, does not imply this at all. He uses the idea of Gaia to describe the Earth as a complicated organism with its own biochemistry and circulatory system. This does not mean that we can pray to Gaia any more than our livers can pray to us to stop drinking, or our lungs can pray that we stop smoking.

Janet Moxley
West Calder, Scotland

Bruce Harris
Readers of the Interview (NI 269) on Bruce Harris should know that for reasons of security, any correspondence should go to Covenant House Latin America, SJO 1039, PO Box 025216, Miami, Florida 33102-5216, US.

Could you also point out that there is an English Support group for Bruce Harris at Caza Alianza (Covenant House), The Coach House, Grafton Underwood, Kettering, Northants NN14 3AA.

John Bowles
Sandbach, England

Still rife
We were delighted to hear about the progress on female genital mutilation (Heart and Soul, NI 268) especially your profile of Coca Maloni, a woman of power and some influence, with the capacity to change and to give up old injurious customs.

Unfortunately Burkina Faso is just one small African country and though we applaud its success, we would like to see similar good work across Africa, Indonesia and elsewhere where the practice is still rife. Forward (Foundation for Women’s Health, Research and Development) aims to help and support women like Coca, and to find ways for those who have not yet changed to make a livelihood by alternative means. We are also working in Western countries to train health practitioners and social workers in the necessary skills to eliminate the practice and assist survivors.

Fiona Adamson
Forward, London, England

Western-style industrial agriculture is subsidized not only directly by governments but indirectly through cheap oil. It will collapse as soon as the world’s petroleum runs out. Then more sustainable forms of farming – small-scale, labour-intensive, locally-focused – will become viable again. Cars will disappear at the same time, so it’s definitely a day to look forward to.

In the meantime, the most effective way for most of us to resist the domination of the transnational food-trading corporations is to produce our own by growing vegetables and keeping livestock. Even in an urban setting much can be done with balconies, bins and boxes, and while it may not always be feasible to keep a steer, sheep or pig, a few rabbits and chickens will provide meat for the table and manure for the garden. If you are unfortunate enough to live in Toronto, where the keeping of livestock is prohibited by law, you might try pigeons instead of chickens: be prepared to explain to the inspector that they’re not poultry, but pets!

Bruce Inksetter
Rapide-Danseur, Québec, Canada

Illustration by VIV QUILLIN

Although it undeniably keeps me well-informed, reading your magazine from cover to cover invariably leaves me feeling slightly depressed and guilty. Your issue on Sabtenga village (Heart and Soul, NI 268) was a refreshing contrast. It described people I could identify and empathize with, not caricatures I might be expected to romanticize or patronize. There was the incisive political and economic analysis that we all expect from an NI article, but it was brought alive by showing the people who were affected.

Thank you for reminding us that we ordinary human beings throughout the world have the same values and priorities, and for being prepared to show progress as well as poverty, injustice and corruption. I will now be able to renew my subscription without placing a side-order for Prozac.

Jeremy Parsons
Bath, England

As it is
Like Debbie and Peter Wakeham (Letters, NI 269), I have reservations about the death penalty, particularly be-cause of the risk of an innocent person being executed. How-ever, there are some facts which should be noted: between 1980 and 1992 there were 14 executions in Georgia. During the same period the State’s murder rate fell by 36 per cent from 17.2 per 100,000 people to 11. Meanwhile the general murder rate in the US fell by only five per cent and in New York State (which does not operate the death penalty) it rose by seven per cent during the same period.

These facts and similar statistics from other states help to explain why support for the death penalty is so strong in the US. The Wakehams would do better to abandon their idea of boycotting American products, and to contact Amnesty Inter-national, who could supply them with details of possibly innocent people sitting on death row.

As progressives interested in improving the human condition, we must live in the world as it is, not the world as we would like it to be.

Birmingham, England

Eco shrimps
Your article ‘Attack of the Shrimps’ in your issue on Hunger (NI 267) is accurate and timely. There is, however, another type of shrimp farming in Bangladesh which is local, labour-intensive, eco-friendly and highly profitable. Rather than flooding large tracts of land, small canals are dug along one or more sides of a rice field, and the field banks are built up above flood levels. Each farmer owns their own shrimp unit.

Pre-monsoon, the canal is stocked with fry at Tk5 each. When the rain comes, the canal overflows across the field which has been planted with rice. The shrimp feed among the rice. Five months later the rice is ready, the waters have receded and the shrimp return to the canal, where they are fed rice husks. At six to eight months each shrimp is large enough to cover a plate and is valued at between Tk50 and Tk100. This represents a huge profit for poor Bangladeshi farmers.

The efforts of non-governmental organisations in assisting many marginal and even landless farmers in this kind of shrimp-farming are worth backing and may yield better results than challenging big businessmen and politicians.

Rob Bellingham and Bartha Hill
World Vision, Auckland,
Aotearoa/New Zealand

Human folly
Your issue on Hunger (NI 267) ignored some important causes of famine. Environmental causes: global warming, for example, which is largely due to pollution, may well cause already-dry areas of the world like Ethiopia to become even drier. This results in famine due to lack of water or, in some low-lying countries like Pakistan, more flooding.

Political causes: in the Ukraine Stalin caused an artificial famine that killed seven million people. Saddam Hussein’s oil slick in the Gulf damaged Saudi Arabian desalination plants and much fish and wildlife were destroyed, with its consequent impact on human life. In a more direct and horrible way, thousands have starved to death in Bosnia, and in concentration camps in China, North Korea and Iraq. War has also caused hunger in Biafra, Bangladesh, Rwanda, Somalia, Liberia and Mozambique.

Hunger in this sense is down to sheer human folly.

Jim McBurnie
Bradford, Yorkshire, England

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

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L E T T E R   F R O M   I N G U S H E T I A

Big brother is watching you
There is no KGB in the new Russia. But Olivia Ward is nervous
as she examines the shady world that lies beyond paranoia.

It was the third night in a row he had phoned. His scratchy voice hardly rose above a whisper. Through the static his words were blurred into a dull hum.

‘I’m sorry to call you again so late. But I must see you very soon. I have to be careful because they are watching me.’

My midnight caller was not, as I first suspected, a heavy breather, or a lunatic lucky enough to have a flat with a phone. He named a mutual acquaintance, a Russian journalist with a notably level head. The problem, he hinted, was something ‘they would prefer me not to divulge’.

We arranged a daylight meeting in my office. But he failed to appear. And the next night, at the same relaxed hour, my phone rang again.

‘Pavel,’ I said in exasperation. ‘You must get a grip. How can we talk about this thing if you never show up?’

He apologized. The security guards in my building compound had questioned him at the gate. They asked for identification and papers. Who knows who they would be calling?

‘That’s all I can say for now. I’m sorry to be so inconvenient. I’ll call again.’

Perhaps because I was tired, or because of the lateness of the hour and the sudden shock of the telephone, my mind went into overdrive.

What if ‘They’ were watching now? They must know whom he was calling. If he is under surveillance they know everything. Why did he choose me? Was I being set up because of things I’d written in the past?

These were Russian thoughts, and I laughed out loud at the reaction of my Western friends if they could hear them. At last, they’d say, she’s retreated into Le Carré land. Been over there too long.

But few in this country would ever dismiss the vaguest inklings as mere paranoia. In Russia, history attests, paranoids do have real enemies. Many people are prepared to take essential facts and spin them into elaborate plots, involving moles, mafia and every conceivable evil-doer.

But this foreboding, the feeling of being shadowed, watched, reported on, lies on top of one’s life like a dead hand.

On a snowy night last winter my hands gripped the steering wheel as I watched a car with no lights trailing behind me along the deserted streets. ‘They’ were certainly there. But the reflection in the mirror, looking like bad cablevision, kept all its secrets.

Illustration by MIRIAM McCURDY

The next day, having lost my pursuers of the previous night by shooting through a red light, my trusty spy expert Andrei shrugged: ‘It doesn’t matter specifically who they were. They don’t like what you’re doing, and they want to let you know they’re paying attention.’

Not a comforting thought. Nor was I reassured by a phonecall from another friend who had just broken a toe lunging for his pistol when he woke up to hear someone quietly picking the lock of his flat.

This, after all, is an inherited police state that has blended into a landscape of organized crime and corruption. One feeds on the
other. Both feed off the body politic, weakening it as authoritarianism has done for decades.

‘Things happen,’ used to be a chilling phrase for KGB action. Now it can mean almost anything. After the war in Chechnya thousands of paratroopers, riot police, soldiers and ordinary troops thronged the streets of Moscow. Less visible is the army of secret service and ‘special service’ troops reporting to rival authorities in the Government and Kremlin.

When last year the head office of Russia’s biggest bank was raided by a masked paramilitary unit that refused to identify itself, few people were surprised. It was all, they knew, part of some vast and obscure power-game being played out around them.

In big or small ways, this message gets through to the person on the street, leaving a trail of anxious, powerless people, burrowing away in their own flats behind triple locks with the very few in the world they can trust.

For the growth of democracy, this is thorny ground. Not because there is any official barrier for those who want to stand up and protest. But because the feeling of hopelessness holds back those who would join in the most basic grassroots political activity. Whoever ‘They’ are, they have won.

It’s late now, and I haven’t heard from Pavel in a week. But any minute now the phone may ring. Or is it already too late?

Olivia Ward is the Moscow bureau chief of the Toronto Star.

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