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Dioxin damage
Scientists urge study of the effects of Agent Orange

Doctors in Hanoi believe these Vietnamese babies are victims of Agent Orange.

During the war in Vietnam more than 18 million gallons of dioxin-laden Agent Orange and other herbicides were sprayed over ten per cent of South Vietnam between 1961 and 1971, poisoning and defoliating millions of hectares of forest and croplands. In neighbouring Laos about half-a-million gallons of herbicide were sprayed over 80,000 hectares.

Professors Pfeiffer and Westing were the first two scientists to study the effects of Agent Orange spraying in Vietnam. Along with other scientists they contributed to the public pressure which put an end to the spraying in 1970. They are now informing the US public of the unwillingness of the US to join with its allies in funding crucial dioxin research in Vietnam.

The indifference of the US is hardly surprising. As early as 1961 the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US Air Force warned that: ‘Care must be taken to assure that the US does not become the target for charges of employing chemical or biological warfare. International repercussions could be serious.’

According to Pfeiffer the sprayings of Agent Orange and crop-destruction programmes were aimed at depriving the peasants of their food supply and forcing them to move to areas dominated by the South Vietnamese. By sustaining this policy of ‘generating refugees’ the Pentagon hoped to deny the national-liberation forces the peasants’ support, leaving them without a rural society in which to live.

In Hanoi the chief surgeon and director of the Viet Duc Hospital, Dr Ton That Tung, raised the alarm that contamination by the dioxin in Agent Orange was causing birth defects, liver cancer, chloracne and other health problems in southern Vietnam. He visited the US to gather support for a large-scale study of the population because: ‘My country does not have the resources to do it alone.’ He testified before a Congressional committee, but it made little difference. However, scientists worldwide in co-operation with their Vietnamese colleagues have been gathering evidence that gives the lie to the Agent Orange cover-up. At Tu Du Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, doctors see a child born with a congenital defect about every day-and-a-half, down from one a day in the 1980s but still too high. A report in the American Journal of Public Health stated that dioxin levels in breastmilk in southern Vietnam were 50 times greater than in the unsprayed North.

Calls for research into the effects of dioxin contamination in Vietnam are backed by the knowledge that it will help to deal with the threat posed by widespread prevalence of dioxins in the environment in the US and elsewhere. Dioxins are the most potent carcinogen ever tested and are produced as a by-product of heating or burning chlorine-based chemicals. The primary sources today are the pulp and paper industry, municipal and hospital wastes, incinerators, herbicide and pesticide producers and agricultural users.

At present the US Government continues to shy away from funding research in Vietnam because it will mean admitting to chemical warfare.

From a longer report by Beatrice Eisman and Vivian Raineri published by the US/Vietnam Friendship Association, PO Box 460073, San Francisco, CA 94146-0073.

Decisions, decisions
Washington has been considering tougher sanctions against General Sani Abacha’s repressive regime in Nigeria, such as freezing Nigerian military officers’ and Government officials’ assets in the US, banning the use of US technology in Nigeria’s oil and gas sector, and a cultural boycott, including an Olympic ban. With the US dominant in gas-processing, a technology ban would scupper the Liquefied Natural Gas Project of Shell and Nigeria’s state oil company. Meanwhile the larger question of oil sanctions would require multilateral effort through the United Nations and agreement there is unlikely.

Africa Confidential, Vol 37 No 4

Dirt fields
In land-starved Hong Kong, the authorities are eager to redevelop 4 of its 13 old rubbish landfills, at a cost of $219.8 million, into golf courses, a sports complex and a theatre. While the restoration of potential environmental hazards is to be lauded, one wonders why golf, a sport that is hugely wasteful of natural resources, has been chosen. The transformation will begin by capping the landfills and sealing the garbage, thus making it decay faster. But there are fears that the methane gas thus produced could slowly choke grass and trees.

Down to Earth, Vol 4 No 16

Spoiling the view: tons of garbage on Mount Everest could be cleared up in three years.


Clean sweep
The Russian Mountaineering Federation and the Mountaineering Association of Nepal have signed a memorandum to jointly clean up the garbage that has been piling up on and around Mount Everest. Oleg Fedorov, a Russian ecologist, believes that it is possible to return the mountain to its pristine glory with three years of dedicated effort. Presently 2.5 million rupees ($72,000) have been earmarked by the Nepalese Government for the clearing of the tons of garbage from the region.

Down to Earth, Vol 4 No 16


Barbie business: it would take 18 years of production to string a line of them to the moon.

‘Multicultural’ Barbie
25,000 Barbie dolls are sold every business hour. After fuelling race controversies in the past the Barbie doll of the Nineties is paying (plastic) lip service to multiculturalism. Mattel, the toys’ makers, are pitching Japanese, Mexican and Indian-style Barbies at ‘the older girl learning more about history and different cultures at school’. Should these girls really be given a role-model who, apart from being slightly darker than Euro Barbie, is so thin she should, in reality, be dead?

Everywoman, No 123

Problems for Pemex
The Mexican Government of President Zedillo plans to sell off large parts of Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), the state-owned oil monopoly, which was nationalized in 1938. Last year Finance Minister Ortiz told the US Treasury and IMF that proceeds from the Pemex sales, and sales of state-owned railroads, airports and deep-sea ports would be used to balance the Mexican budget and reduce debt. Now President Zedillo says that a substantial amount of this money will be used instead to fortify Pemex. Oil workers’ unions, and opposition-party politicians and supporters do not think that any part of Pemex should be sold. In protest they have blockaded and shut down dozens of Pemex wells in Tabasco state, which has cost Pemex millions of dollars in revenue.

International Herald Tribune, Feb 14, 1996

NI wins award
New Internationalist has won the New Media section of the One World International Media Awards for its World Wide Web site. The NI’s homepage carries a sample of each month’s magazine. The judges commented that the site ‘has good, accessible layout and good content. It has great pictures and crisp images and the material downloads quickly. Although it is a translation of existing magazine content, it has been thoughtfully designed and is independent and committed.’ Chris Brazier, who edits the site for the NI, comments: ‘This is a medium which is in its infancy, and we are still exploring how to deal with it. So we’re delighted that our first year’s efforts have been so acclaimed.’ Find it at: http://www.newint.org/

In addition, Vanessa Baird, Chris Brazier and David Ransom, NI co-editors, were among six journalists nominated for the 1995 Orwell Prize for political writing, which was won by Melanie Phillips of the London Observer.

The NI Web site has now been handed over to the Australian office where Brian Loffler, Simon Loffler and Vicki Kalgovas now look after the on-line service. The site is currently under-construction to allow internet subscriptions to be available with search tools and a complete database of all NI issues.



Weighty dilemma
Elephants vs people in Cameroon

Farmer Orock Tabi was crushed by charging elephants while trying to save his cassava crop. He died in a desperate attempt to prevent marauding elephants from destroying his family’s livelihood.

‘You need to spend time here to share the plight of these farmers,’ says Benjamin Ngo, wildlife protection officer at the local Akwaya post near Mamfe, south-west Cameroon. ‘It’s pathetic to see them weep after elephants have raided their crops.’

Ngo’s records show that during the most recent farming season in Akwaya, about 200 elephants destroyed 300 hectares of crops on which 5,000 people were dependent. ‘Farmers have invaded this office, threatening to kill us, saying we prefer animals to them,’ says Ngo.

Competition for food and water, which is becoming more intense as human pressures on natural resources increase, is a principal cause of the conflict. A fully grown savannah elephant can consume about 140 kilograms of vegetation and 100 litres of water a day. There are currently 610,000 elephants in Africa, down from 1.5 million in 1979.

In Cameroon a national elephant management plan is being drawn up with the assistance of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to ease the conflict between the human and elephant populations. The plan proposes to create a network of parks and areas that will be protected from encroachment by farmers. Elephants will be provided with watering holes and prevented from wandering onto farmlands, thus separating the antagonists. Community participation in park management will be encouraged. Many of the benefits will go to local people in the form of employment, tourism, petty trade and bushmeat.

Cameroon’s estimated 20,000-strong elephant population is protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which bans all commercial trade in elephant products. However, in a controversial move, both CITES and WWF endorse limited elephant hunting (80 per year in Cameroon) to control herd growth, provide meat for local people and revenue for the Government. Sports hunters must currently pay more than $2,000 for a licence to kill one elephant.

Despite the creation of parks and controlled hunting, the balance between conservation attempts and human interests remains a tricky one. Djoh a Ndiag, the Environment Ministry’s Assistant Director of Wildlife, says: ‘Human pressure on elephant-protection areas can come from tourists, migrants, developers and the growing populations inside and outside the national parks, many of whom resent restrictions on their access to traditional lands or sources of income.’

Nde Patrice Ateh / Gemini



Coming home
Surprise amnesty for political prisoners

Quietly, without publicity or prior intimation, Syria began releasing large numbers of its political prisoners towards the end of last year. In November alone an estimated 2,400 were freed.

No-one knew how many people were held in Syria’s notorious prisons. And since most of those taken away were neither tried nor sentenced, no-one knew when a person might be released or if, indeed, they were alive.

Significant numbers of the freed men and women are members of Ihwan al-Muslimeen, the Muslim Brotherhood Party that was an active opposition group until crushed in massacres at Hamah and Aleppo in the early 1980s. Apart from the killings, thousands were imprisoned and around 10,000 people fled into exile, according to one of the leaders of the group.

It is expected that more prisoners are going to be released, perhaps as many as 4,000, and the spiritual leader of the Brotherhood, Sheikh Abdul Fatah Abu Huda has returned to Syria after two decades of exile in Saudi Arabia.

The surprise move may not just be a gesture to the West but might reflect President Hafez al-Assad’s desire to consolidate his position within his own country as Syria gets down to serious negotiations with Israel and the United States in the Middle East peace process.

Barbara Nimri Aziz / Gemini



Steel flowers
Protests at plans to destroy keora plantations in India

Thousands of villagers in the 27 hamlets clustered around the eastern coastal port of Gopalpur, in India’s Orissa state, have rallied behind the fragrant keora flower to oppose a factory being set up by the country’s biggest private steel manufacturer.

The keora flower yields the essence which for centuries has been used by the indigenous perfume industry, and as an aromatic spice in traditional gourmet food. The steel plant of the Tata Iron and Steel Company (TISCO) would devour nearly 3,000 hectares of the plantations, which produce 80 per cent of India’s keora essence extract.

Determined not to yield their ancestral fertile lands, the villagers have formed a gana sangram samiti (Hindi for ‘People’s War Committee’). They have refused the monetary compensation offered by the authorities. Nor are they swayed by the argument that there will be enough jobs once the plant comes, fearing these will be snapped up by skilled outsiders.

The dice seem loaded against the villagers, who have taken on one of India’s biggest private enterprises, which is being encouraged by a business-friendly Government to help make the country one of the world’s leading steel-makers.

Critics of India’s new economic policies say that one of the results is unchecked freedom for private enterprise to exploit natural resources, in a country where seven out of ten people still live in the countryside.

Mahesh Mayal

Chlorophyll by Sacha
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Rubber up
France’s Roman Catholic bishops have given approval to the condom as a means of preventing the transmission of the HIV virus, thus putting themselves at odds with the Vatican and the Pope, who remains firmly opposed to the use of condoms. Albert Rouet, Bishop of Poitiers, went on the radio saying: ‘When an adult, as mature as one can be in this domain, considers he [sic] can’t do without sexual relations, and there is a danger, it’s better that he use a condom.’ The bishops in their statement strongly defended fidelity in relationships and stressed the issue involved far more than ‘a piece of latex’. They also warned that young people needed education about their sexual identities so that they would not become ‘prisoners of their sexual drives’.

Ecumenical News International

The quality of (British) mercy
Refugee organizations in Britain are concerned that many people being refused asylum have genuine cases. Take for example this notice for refusal: ‘Soldiers from the (Zairian) Division Special Presidentielle came to your house, arrested your father and shot your brother who later died, though you managed to escape through a window. The Secretary of State noted your claim that the soldiers were firing wildly within the house, and he considered that the killing of your brother therefore was not necessarily a deliberate act. He further noted that they did not shoot your father who was the most politically active member of your family.’

Exile, newsletter of the Refugee Council No. 90.


‘It helps that the guy is dead.’

Felipe Miranda, of the Social Weather Stations survey group in Manila, on the results of a survey
suggesting Filipinos do not hate former dictator Ferdinand Marcos as much as they did ten years ago.

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New Internationalist issue 279 magazine cover This article is from the May 1996 issue of New Internationalist.
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