Ganges unbound
Campaigners make headway in Bihar

The people of Kagzi Tola, a settlement exclusively of fisherfolk in Bhagalpur district, Bihar, India, have just concluded their yearly utsav. The festival celebrates the beginning of the Ganga Mukti Andolan (GMA – ‘Free Ganga Campaign’), a movement which sprang up on these banks 14 years ago. There were boat races, exhibitions, street plays and deep daan – the floating of lights down the Ganges.

Freeing a river from bondage might seem preposterous, but this is exactly what the Andolan set out to do in 1982, mobilizing fisherfolk, peasants and boatpeople against the panidari system, which gave landlords exclusive rights to fish and run boats over an 80-kilometre stretch of the Ganges, from Sultanganj to Pirpainti. Soon their slogan Jaal baans auzar humara, ganga par adhikar humara (‘Nets and bamboo are our tools, we have a right over Ganga’) became the rallying cry all over Bihar.

During its long years of struggle the campaign organized marches, dharnas (vigils) and meetings and attained a major victory in 1991, when the Bihar Government was forced to abolish the deeply entrenched panidari system.

Since that turning point the movement has faced up to other complexities, fighting against the growing ecological degradation of the river and its banks. Says Anil Prakash, an important figure in the movement: ‘We dream of a free Ganga – free in every sense, from all abuse and exploitation.’

A major problem is the sharp decline in fish stocks, with some locals estimating numbers to be down by as much as 75 per cent. This decline is a direct result of silt-ation and the destruction of the river’s micro-ecosystem. Parvati Devi, a GMA activist, states: ‘Our bellies are still empty. We have to fight against the pollution of Ganga. Otherwise our victory will remain hollow and Kagzi Tola will disappear from the pages of history.’ Now the campaign is trying to get the message across through songs, street plays, large demonstrations and exhibitions.

Assessing the campaign, Professor Bilgrami, head of Bhagalpur University’s botany department, who has done pioneering work on the Ganges says: ‘GMA is no less significant than Chipko [the indigenous tree-conservation movement]. The honesty of its workers and its rapport with fisherfolk is excellent. It has no big leader or spokesperson. Ordinary, common people lead it. However, it has to learn to behave less like trade unionists and more like ecologists.’

This year’s festival caught the people of GMA in a reflective mood. As a fisherwoman eloquently said: ‘A decade ago, the Ganga used to make a lot of noise. Now it has become absolutely quiet. We have to make it noisy again if we want to survive.’

Charu Gupta

Wide open spaces closed down in Mongolia.

Fenced in
Customary land-use by animal herders in Mongolia could change with a new Land Law which grants access to pasture only through formal land leases. The legislation will affect many of the 600,000 nomadic pastoralists on the grasslands which account for 79 per cent of Mongolia’s vast land area, and resistance is certain. The Government argues that livestock numbers have increased in past years, as have the number of people on the pastures. The harsh climate makes it difficult to restore land damaged by overgrazing. But the herders have other fears – being locked into leases will limit their movement and oblige them to use land they might not otherwise have chosen.

Ann C Hudock, Gemini News Service

Comeback for the killer: lack of international action blamed.

TB spreads
Tuberculosis is killing more people than at any time in history, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The position has deteriorated over the past three years, despite the WHO declaring TB a global emergency in 1993 – the first time it has ever singled out a disease in this way. A third of the world’s population is now infected, with on average a new infection every second. Governmental complacency in many countries, and lack of international action, mean that TB could kill over a 100 million people during the next 50 years.

WHO Press Release

Putting his foot in it...
...was Belorussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko when he declared: ‘Not everything in Germany connected to Adolf Hitler was bad. ...German order... reached its highest point under Hitler.’ Not the most sensitive thing to say in a country where every fourth inhabitant died during Nazi occupation in World War Two.

World Press Review, Vol 43 No 2

On votre bike, mate
Finally the 140,000 Parisian bicycle owners who say they never dare to cycle on the streets may be persuaded to join the 100,000 who do. The new mayor of Paris, Jean Tiberi, has decided to open 56 kilometres of cycle tracks in the city. About $6 million will be spent and a thousand car-parking spaces will have to go.

The Guardian, 23 March 1996

Double dealing
Russian and US environmentalists are protest-ing at plans to fell trees in Siberia, which contains a fifth of the world’s forests, to procure lumber to run idle sawmills in Oregon and Washington. On the one hand, the US Forest Service wants to protect the habitat of the Siberian tiger; on the other the US Department of Commerce is paying subsidies to the domestic wood industry to fell trees in the Siberian Khabarovsk region.

Down to Earth, Vol 4 No 20

Patently good
In the first deal of its kind, the Kani people of southern Kerala in India will get rights over an anti-stress drug developed by a local research institute. The Kani helped locate the plant from which the drug is developed – they traditionally eat its leaves for their health-giving properties. Under the rights agreement, fifty per cent of the licence fee and two per cent of royalties will go to the Kani. Agreement has also been reached with the Coimbatore pharmacy, which will manufacture the drug, to purchase the plants from the Kani, who are now growing it commercially.

Down to Earth, Vol 4 No 20

Structural adjustment in Bosnia.

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are leading Bosnia into a structural-adjustment programme that will restrict public services urgently needed to restore peace to the country. The Bank agrees that a ‘safety net’ is necessary for people who will lose out from its free-market policies, but adds that ‘inappropriate targeting and excessive amounts of social assistance would discourage work and enterprise’. The ‘reconstruction package’ is centred on rapid privatization and reforms designed to attract foreign investment.

Bankcheck Quarterly, No 13


The rape of gold
Mining devastation in Peruvian Amazon
A huge, muddy scar grows in the rainforest as monster machines move in.

Sheets of gold covered the walls of the Inca Sun Temple, Koricancha, 10,000 feet up in the Peruvian Andes at the navel of the world. This sacred metal came to the Incas from Madre de Dios, a remote, mostly uninhabited, unique cloud-forest region on the western rim of the Amazon basin.

Today a constant stream of trucks ploughs through the Madre de Dios, following the mud track kept open by bulldozers through the rains and the landslides to the small boom town of Huaypetue. The passengers are young men bound for a few months’ work in the open gold mines around Huaypetue. Up to three years ago the mining involved large numbers of child slaves, but now child labour has been replaced by monster-sized earth-moving machinery which is turning one of the Amazon’s most biodiverse regions into a huge, muddy scar.

The area around Huaypetue is now a desert. Scattered here and there are small miners’ camps constructed from vivid, blue-plastic sheeting, sometimes with a satellite dish sticking out. Around the camps are generators, pumps, earth movers and continual gold-washing activity. All plant and animal life has been chewed up and spat out as gravel, all for a few ounces of gold a day. The giant trees are gone and the earth scooped up to a depth of 30 metres. All this earth is moved to a washing rack where high-powered hoses separate the silt and gold from the mud and gravel.

The mines are totally unregulated, with only 13 police officers for around 15,000 miners in the region. The indigenous inhabitants, mainly Amarakeire Indians, are in fear of losing control of their lands to an ever-increasing stream of miners and settlers coming down from the high Andes. And their rivers are dying because of pollution from the mines up-stream. The forest is disappearing under a 24-hour attack by huge front-loading machines whose owners usually have only 18 months to pay back the $180,000 they borrowed to pay for them.

Now the miners are moving down the Pukiri river and towards the Tambopata protected area. At the Amarakeire village of Barranco Chico, on the banks of the Pukiri, one can see how much the Indians have to lose. They have been panning the river for gold for the past 20 years, but there is no sign of environmental damage. Now the mud soup is coming downstream from Huaypetue, killing all fish. Along the Colorado river members of the native community at San José report beatings and death threats from the miners and police. One man said: ‘We hope it will come to world attention that we natives are being threatened with death by the invaders... We’ll kill them if they kill us, but that is the situation... It is that bad!’

With Mobil Oil having signed a contract with PetroPeru for the rights to engage in seismic exploration for oil and gas in the Madre de Dios, the world can no longer ignore the needs of the area’s indigenous people and its natural resources. Provision has to be made for the settlers and gold miners, but they need to be moved from indigenous land – and regulated.

Dilwyn Jenkins / Work Kraft

by Sacha
Chlorophyll by Sacha.


Devil's dilemma
Backdoor gambling by Muslim pilgrims

Lottery fever in the Gambia: newspaper advertisement. Keen Muslim Saffie Gaye was thrilled when she discovered she had won a dream prize – a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Mecca. Her lucky scratch-card had been drawn for a special ‘Hajj Package’ prize offered to Gambians in a wave of lottery fever sweeping this predominantly Muslim country.

But not everyone was pleased for her. Devout Muslims strongly oppose all forms of gambling, and the idea that the annual Hajj pilgrimage – one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith – to the Holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia could be linked to lottery is anathema. ‘Lottery in general is an act of the devil,’ said one ardent opponent, student Alieu Khan.

Nonetheless, despite a long-established law prohibiting gambling in the Gambia, the Kanefing and Banjul councils run the National Lottery Company as a means of raising much-needed cash for the community kitty. It offers prizes ranging from a few dalasis ($1=9.85 dalasis) to 200,000, as do two other lottery operations in the country – the privately-run Lotto Gambia and the hugely successful ‘Joni Joni’ scratch-cards.

There are Joni Joni agents all over the country, in bars and shops, where crowds of young hopefuls gather, frantically scratching at their cards. Co-director of the scratch-card company, Tuzhar Shah, counters criticism by pointing out that since its launch at the end of 1995, Joni Joni has handed out 900,000 dalasis as winnings, paid 500,000 dalasis in tax and made several charitable donations.

The controversy over whether or not the practice is healthy or acceptable reached its peak over the Hajj prize. At the end of the Muslim fast of Ramadan in February, all winners of the smaller, 100-dalasi Joni Joni prizes were automatically put forward for the draw for the ‘Hajj Package’ – a trip normally offered by travel agents at about 30,000 dalasis.

The winner, Saffie Gaye, had no troubled conscience. She had not gambled: a relative had bought the scratch-card as a surprise for her. Upon accepting the prize, she said: ‘I’m declaring Joni Joni a passion in my home.’

Although the five-dalasi ticket fee is equivalent to the amount an average family would spend on a fish dinner, the National Lottery’s banners lure punters with dreams of ‘a new home, a new car, travel abroad’, and even ‘the chance to become a millionaire overnight’ – even though the top prize is nowhere near a million dalasi. To soothe pricked consciences, government officials insist that buying lottery tickets is not gambling.

Rosemary Long / Gemini News Service

Access for disabled people depends on act being implemented.

Right direction
A new act on disabled people’s rights and anti-discrimination measures has been passed unanimously by both Houses in India. The act covers education, issues of physical access and employment quotas. The non-party-political Disabled Rights Group played a key role in introducing the Bill in Parliament. The act could be of great benefit to disabled people in India, though much will depend on effective implementation.

Disability Awareness in Action, No 36



Rising tide: residents cleaned out.

Flood money
More than 60 environmental and developmental groups from around the world have sent Prime Minister Jean Chrétien a letter protesting at Canadian Government financing for the Three Gorges Dam on China’s Yangtze River. The Export Development Corporation recently agreed to lend $12.5 million to the Chinese Government towards their purchase of a $35 million computer system from Ontario-based Moneco-AGRA. The computer system will help the Chinese authorities to relocate forcibly more than one million people. Canada is the lone supporter of the project. Dam builders worldwide have all refused to get involved. Even the World Bank has warned that the current design is not economically viable.

Probe International


‘When I’m caught in traffic I think, when I was president this never happened.’

Corazon Aquino, taking a rosy view of her days in power in the Philippines.

[image, unknown] Issue 280 Contents

[image, unknown] NI Home Page

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

New Internationalist issue 280 magazine cover This article is from the June 1996 issue of New Internationalist.
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