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Arid Aral
Shrinking sea spreads poison

High and dry: ships left stranded as the Aral retreats to half its size of 30 years ago.

In the lobby of the maternity hospital a faded Soviet wall-painting shows a radiant young mother cradling her new-born child before the bountiful Aral Sea. In a bare ward upstairs, a mother bulging with her second child struggles to lift herself from the bed. She is suffering from acute anaemia, a pandemic which has hit Karakalpakstan – a semi-autonomous state of Uzbekistan bordering the now-dead Aral Sea.

‘If you take into account the fact that 97 per cent of the women have anaemia, we are witnessing the degeneration of our people,’ says Dr Ataniyazova, a gynaecologist and a director of the state’s Centre for Human Reproduction and Family Planning.

Children too are born with anaemia, which lowers their immunity. Infant mortality in Karakalpakstan exceeds 80 per thousand live births, 50 per cent above the average for Uzbekistan.

Nor is this the only debilitating condition. Kidney and thyroid diseases, stomach and liver cancers, viral hepatitis and respiratory disorders are all on the increase. One in five young men is found unfit for military service.

Local doctors blame environmental factors. The Aral Sea, once the fourth-largest lake in the world, has shrunk to half its size in the last 30 years due to the diversion of water for thirsty cotton upstream. Local people are forced to drink polluted drainage water laden with salts and agricultural chemicals. And in the winter fierce winds whip up toxic particles from the former seabed, depositing them far and wide.

‘We have pollution all over our territory,’ says Dr Ataniyazova. ‘It’s in the air, the water and the food.’ A slow poisoning may be entering the food chain through vegetables, fruit and the few fish that are still caught in local reservoirs.

Since 1993 the five Central Asian Republics have been working with the World Bank and other donors to rehabilitate the Aral. This pledge was recently renewed and some progress is being made. Drainage efficiency is being increased and clean drinking water supplies are being laid. But this cannot come soon enough for the one million people of Karakalpakstan who have the misfortune to live at the wrong end of the Aral Sea basin.

Steve Percy/Panos

Ozone split
The ozone layer is thinning twice as fast as predicted and could be vulnerable to further damage over the next decade. It is ten years since 49 countries signed the global treaty to protect the ozone layer, although most developing countries did not join the treaty until 1990, when industrial countries agreed to help them foot the bill for giving up ozone-destroying chemicals. They now receive $150 million a year, and have promised to ban CFCs, halons, methyl chloroform and carbon tetrachloride by 2010, ten years later than the Montreal deadline for rich countries.

But scientists are now saying that the ozone layer would recover faster if all countries also phased out HCFCs – a replacement for CFCs – and the pesticide methyl bromide. Industrial nations have already agreed to ban these. But developing countries refuse to agree to any more phase-outs without more aid, while wealthy countries refuse to consider more aid without more phase-outs.

New Scientist, No 2007

Oil prospect: the Tambopata Valley under threat.

Tambopata tests
Mobil Oil has concluded seismic tests for oil and gas in the Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon. The region includes the Upper Tambopata, the coffee-growing area around the valley of the Tambopata River on the Andean escarpment, where there are already serious environmental concerns (see NI 271). Environmental management and work plans have been presented to the Peruvian Government’s Institute for the Management of Natural Resources (INRENA) and are expected to be approved. The Plans raise a number of questions, including the lack of any independent monitoring of Mobil’s field activities. Mobil have been joined by Occidental, Exxon and Elf in a Madre de Dios development consortium, and by Shell for exploration on the river Urubamba downstream from Machu Picchu.

TreeS News, No 31

Write to John G Winston, Environmental Manager, Mobil Exploration and Development Latin America Inc, PO Box 650232, Dallas, Texas 75265-0232, USA, fax: 214 905 7283.

COPEX International Ltd is suing Mirror Group Newspapers, Peace News, Green Line and 76-year-old Alan Staley – a Quaker who wrote to the manager of the Sandown Exhibition Centre – after the Covert and Operational Procurement Exhibition (COPEX) staged at Sandown Park, England, in November 1994. COPEX has run 24 exhibitions of equipment and services for ‘internal security, counter insurgency and special operations’ around the world since 1982. The 1994 exhibition attracted representatives from Algeria, China, Colombia, Iran, Israel, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and Turkey. The COPEX writs relate to critical leaflets and articles published at the time of the conference. Small publications face crippling defence costs and are asking for financial support.

Green Line, Catalyst Collective Ltd, PO Box 5, Lostwithiel, Cornwall PL22 0YT, England.

Safe conduct
Campaigns in Europe and the US are gathering pace to introduce enforceable Codes of Conduct on the arms trade. In Europe, vague criteria allow Britain, for example, to export arms to Indonesia while Portugal, Italy and Sweden impose a ban because of Indonesia’s poor human-rights record. The aim is to get a Code incorporated into the Maastricht Treaty. Drawn up by Saferworld, BASIC and the World Development Movement, it has already gained the support of the European Parliament, over 600 non-governmental organizations and many eminent figures, including the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. In the US a similar Code is before Congress. Regional Codes are the building blocks of an initiative pioneered by the Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr Oscar Arias Sanchez, the former president of Costa Rica, who is gathering the backing of other Nobel laureates for an international Code which will be put before the UN.


Contact Saferworld, Third Floor, 34 Alfred Place, London WC1E 7DP, tel: 44 171 580 8886, fax: 44 171 631 1444


Rape case shocks women in India

Bhanwari Devi from the village of Bhateri in Rajasthan has begun what she calls a ‘lifetime of stigma’. For her the facts are clear – three years after she filed a rape complaint with the police against five wealthy villagers, the court has dismissed her case and acquitted all the accused. But for others, the case has brought caste and gender strife to the fore and been invested with symbolic importance.

Bhanwari Devi was a so-called backward-caste sathin (voluntary worker) in Rajasthan state’s much-touted Women’s Development Project (WDP) aimed at making rural women participants in development. Her job was to prevent child marriages and it brought her into the line of fire. Among the men she charges with rape is Ram Karan Gujjar. Shortly before the incident she had prevented him from marrying off his one-year-old daughter. She alleges that on the evening of 22 September 1992 he attacked her and her husband in a field. Gujjar was accompanied by his two brothers, his uncle and another man. Bhanwari Devi was raped by two of the men.

The case has highlighted the threats facing other sathins. Citing Bhanwari’s case, five women’s groups have filed a petition with the Supreme Court asking for the protection of women government employees. Women’s groups have brought pressure to have the case shifted from the hands of the local police to the Central Bureau of Investigations. It has also thrust Bhanwari into the spotlight – her presence at the Beijing Women’s Conference confirmed that she had become something of a model for activist groups.

With the acquittal comes the battle to carry the case further, as there is little doubt for the groups that have supported her that Bhanwari is telling the truth. The judgement itself has been branded as ‘the epitome of gender bias in the judiciary’ and is riddled with assumptions that would shame most amateur sociologists. Within the 26-page-long verdict delivered by Judge Jagpal Singh are astounding statements such as: ‘It isn’t possible in Indian culture that a man who has taken a vow to protect his wife, in front of the holy fire, just stands and watches his wife being raped, when only two men almost twice his age are holding him.’ The judgement also states that it is highly improbable that an uncle and his nephews would commit rape together. The presence of one Brahmin amongst those accused leads the judge to observe that gangs in rural areas are not usually multi-caste and so the accused could not have acted together.

The verdict also harps on the fact that Bhanwari didn’t lodge her complaint immediately and that the medical examination took place 52 hours after the incident. Explanations such as the shame and victimization of Indian women who have been raped are not mentioned at all.

The acquittal has united women activists across the country who are preparing to launch a concerted campaign against the verdict. Bhanwari will be starting her struggle for justice all over again, too. ‘Since the day I was raped, I have lost all my options. The only way ahead is to fight.’

Vijay Jung Thapa India Today

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Toys R Them

Asian workers on the cheap

Children’s toys are a political minefield, as many parents already know: Barbie suggests women are bimbos; toy guns reward aggressive behaviour. But there are other considerations that are equally if not more pressing: a toy bought as a child’s gift may have been made on the other side of the globe by harried, underpaid, women shift workers in unsafe surroundings.

European children receive on average $240 worth of toys each year while US kids clock up a whopping $310 worth. Though the toys are made for big-name companies such as Mattel and Hasbro, the work is sub-contracted to Asian companies which undercut others by paying lower wages. According to the Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR) over 75 per cent of toys sold in Britain are made in Asia by a workforce that is predominantly female.

Concerns were first raised after a fire in a Thai factory in May last year killed 188 workers because fire exits were locked. Since 1993 at least 250 Asian toy workers have been killed and hundreds more injured in industrial accidents.

But safety isn’t the only issue in the forefront of workers’ minds. Take Duan (not her real name) who works in a Thai factory producing Disney merchandise for Mattel. She is paid below the estimated minimum survival wage, lives in one room with her husband in a cement dormitory building next to the factory and works a 13-hour day, six days a week.

‘When there are a lot of orders, I have to sew about 50 pieces an hour,’ she says. ‘If we don’t reach this quota, we are harassed by supervisors. We suffer from back and neck aches. Hurrying to meet quotas, I have pricked my fingers with the needles.’ The company does not provide protective masks, so many workers complain of respiratory problems from inhaling dust from the toys’ stuffing. Workers are allowed to use the toilet three times a day and get one meal break.

Similar conditions prevail in garment and sportswear sweatshops that turn out gear for big-name brands. Christian Aid is campaigning for better pay and improved factory conditions in companies that sub-contract work for sports-shoe makers Reebok, Nike, Puma, Adidas and Hi-Tec. They point out that these companies pay out millions of dollars to get endorsements from big-name sports personalities like Linford Christie. The $38 million that Reebok are said to be paying Liverpool Football Club would be enough to more than double the wages of the 40,000 workers who make Reebok trainers in China and the Philippines. Christian Aid is asking its supporters to write to these five companies urging them to pay higher wages and enforce codes of practice to improve factory conditions.

The CIIR, World Development Movement and Trades Union Congress in Britain have been negotiating with toy companies in Europe over a new Safety Code for Asian workers.

Bethan Brookes and Peter Madden/Christian Aid
Sue Montgomery/Gemini
Contact Christian Aid, PO Box 100,
London SE1 7RT, England.


This ‘spiral’ is printed on postcards in Sri Lanka which are designed to be sent in large numbers to Jacques Chirac as a protest against French nuclear tests. The spiral, in Sinhalese, includes messages like: ‘Fresh bread-fruit, fish are gone – no thanks to French croissants’; ‘President Chirac basks in the glory of his triumph – bursting bombs in Polynesia’s atolls’. Stickers and greetings cards were also produced and folk songs performed in schools, prisons and at public gatherings. A demonstration was organized outside the French Embassy in Colombo by Women for Peace.

SA Jawarardene
Contact: Mangalika de Silva, Women for Peace
425/15 Thimbirigasyaya Road, Colombo 5, Sri Lanka.

Vets at Cornell University in New York are designing a personality test that predicts what kittens will be like when they grow up. The test will use 13 different measures, such as how the kitten reacts to being petted or to silhouettes of a dog and a cat while recordings of barks and miaows are played. Kittens will be divided into three types: ‘lap cats’, ‘wild cats’ or ‘fearful cats’. The test could be given to cats taken into shelters in the US – between four and six million of them every year – so that prospective owners know what’s in store for them.

New Scientist No 2011


‘My silence is very noisy. Nothing and no-one can silence my spirit.
There are no boundaries or prisons to the human spirit.
I am still alive.’

Mordechai Vanunu, the whistleblower who exposed Israel’s secret nuclear weapons programme.
Kidnapped by the Israeli secret services in Rome, he has spent eight-and-a-half years
of his 18-year prison sentence in solitary confinement.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

New Internationalist issue 277 magazine cover This article is from the March 1996 issue of New Internationalist.
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