The forgotten people
Western Saharans may have to revert to war
The UN is abandoning its mission to end the war in Western Sahara. UN civilians pulled out on 31 May, leaving a token presence of 200 military observers who may also pull out by 31 December. It is a bitter blow to the Saharawi people’s hope for a peaceful and democratic end to over 20 years of war with Morocco’s occupying army.
The UN Peace Plan, which was negotiated with Morocco’s King Hassan and Polisario, which since 1973 has led Saharawi resistance, was formally adopted by the Security Council in April 1991 and was heralded as a great success for UN diplomacy. Polisario seemed to have won its great prize of a referendum on independence or the incorporation of the territory into Morocco.
But Morocco impeded the Peace Plan from the start. In August 1991 Morocco sent armoured columns and launched air strikes against Polisario-held towns in Western Sahara and the UN has since recorded hundreds of violations of the ceasefire.
Morocco has also refortified its major asset – the 2,500-kilometre wall that encloses three-quarters of the territory which was constructed with US military advice and is equipped with sophisticated French and US surveillance technology. The wall transformed what was once a guerrilla war – which Morocco was on the point of losing – into a war of attrition. Saharawis trapped within the walled area have no possibility of protest – 500 have been ‘disappeared’ by the Moroccan state, according to Amnesty International’s records.
The referendum will not now happen – King Hassan has successfully ensnarled the UN in the technicalities of endless renegotiation of the Peace Plan, avoiding diplomatic wrangles with Western friends who have continued to aid his regime.
Meanwhile the Saharawi people are further from a settlement of their legitimate claim than they were before the Peace Plan. Polisario will inevitably again take up arms.
Men of note…
President Bakili Muluzi of Malawi has put his reputation on the line by putting his face on the currency. Muluzi condemned deposed ‘President-for-life’ Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s personality cult, which eclipsed other Malawian historical figures and encouraged people to believe that Banda was the beginning and end of the country’s history. Cabinet decided to swap portraits on the currency because they thought many of the country’s estimated 7.7 million illiterate people might think Banda was still in power. However, critics say that Muluzi has succumbed to the trappings of office and the Malawi Parliament has resolved that future currency notes will not bear the images of living leaders.
Akwete Sande, Patrick Mwanza and Angels Mtukulo / Gemini
Brazilian indigenous organizations and their supporters in Europe have launched an urgent international campaign against Decree 1775 (passed into law this January) which gives loggers, miners, cattle ranchers and settlers the right to challenge indigenous land-rights. This new decree has been described as ‘sure genocide’ by over 300 Indian leaders. They have called for suspension of credit and financial aid to Brazil. The European Parliament has issued resolutions condemning the decree.
As a direct result of the decree, territories have been invaded and mounting tension between Indians and invaders is likely to result in violence. The decree will have a devastating impact on Indian groups like the Guarani (Brazil’s second largest indigenous group) who have already been forced off much of their land onto reserves totalling less than one per cent of their historical land. A wave of suicides, even of children as young as nine or ten, is destroying the community. The Guarani are living in squalid new villages with endemic tuberculosis and malnutrition. Many have been forced to work in nearby distilleries or as prostitutes.
Hot on the heels of Mad Cow Disease come revelations from Zurich that human placentas from hospitals in Switzerland have been turned into animal feed since the 1960s. Last year in Zurich alone 820 kilos of placentas from the Red Cross Hospital and the Nursing School were mixed in with dead pets to be made into animal feed. Though placentas cannot contaminate the feed, the ethical outrage following the revelations has led to a halt in the practice. Placentas are now incinerated with other human remains.
New Scientist, Vol 150 No 2029
A recent British survey showed a staggering 49 per cent of people said they would be interested in ethical investment. This figure is up from 33 per cent last year. Even though only 21 per cent knew what the term meant when asked initially, 91 per cent felt that investment companies should do more to make people aware of ethical investment.
Dam of blood
Guatemalan massacres and World Bank funding
Between 1980 and 1982 some 376 people resisting eviction from their village of Río Negro in Guatemala were massacred so that the construction of Chixoy Reservoir and Dam could go ahead. After years of living in fear the survivors are now beginning to speak.
The campaign of terror against the indigenous Maya Achi community of Río Negro began in early 1980 after the villagers refused to move to the cramped houses and poor land at the resettlement site provided by the Guatemalan power utility INDE. Most of the killings took place in 1982, with the majority of the victims being women and children. Human-rights group Witness for Peace has recorded this testimony from a survivor: ‘They were strangling many of the women by putting ropes around their necks and twisting the ropes with sticks. The patrollers killed the children by tying ropes around their ankles and swinging them, smashing their heads and bodies into rocks and trees.’ Many villagers believe INDE encouraged the violence so that their officials could pocket compensation payments due to the villagers.
However, Chixoy was not just a human-rights disaster. Geological problems caused the total cost to soar to $1.2 billion, over six times as much as first estimated. The Dam opened in 1983, but closed for repairs after just five months. It restarted two years later but has been plagued with technical problems and a shortage of water in its reservoir. The World Bank has termed it ‘an unwise and uneconomic disaster’.
Strong words, especially as the World Bank lent $72 million for the Dam in 1978 and another $45 million in 1985. The Inter-American Develop-ment Bank lent $105 million in 1975 and a further $70 million in 1981. The banks appear to have turned a blind eye to the massacres (which were common knowledge to people in the region) and to have refused to acknowledge them, though nine World Bank missions visited the Dam in the years following the massacres.
According to Witness for Peace, ‘If the Bank knew about the massacres, then giving an additional loan to the project was at best a calculated cover-up, at worst an act of complicity in the violence. If the Bank did not know about the slaughter, then it was guilty of gross negligence. Either way, the Bank is implicated in the horrors perpetrated against the village of Río Negro in 1982.’ Witness for Peace and the US-based International Rivers Network are calling for an investigation into World Bank involvement in the project.
Compiled from information supplied by International Rivers Network
(Fax +1 510 848 1008; E-mail [email protected] ) and Witness for Peace
Though recycling placentas may be going a bit far, Switzerland claims to have the most effective waste-management systems in the Western world. Last year a record 84.9 per-cent recycling rate was achieved for glass, up by 8.6 per cent on 1994 levels.
Warmer Bulletin, No 49
Patients undergoing surgery for cancer might improve their chances of a full recovery if they remain conscious during the operation, says Walter Koltun, a surgeon from Pennsylvania in the US. Analyzing blood samples from patients who had undergone surgery either under general anaesthetic or with an epidural, he found that the former had fewer active natural killer cells than those given the epidural. Surgery to remove tumours often dislodges a few tumour cells, which are carried around the body. Normally, active killer cells would destroy roving tumour cells, but a general anaesthetic suppresses them just when the patient needs them most, says Koltun.
New Scientist, Vol 150 No 2031
Corporate empires expand - but so does resistance
A third of world trade is composed of just internal transactions within multinational corporations, according to the London-based World Development Movement, which has gathered some eye-popping facts on corporate giants and their generally harmful impact – while also highlighting successful resistance to their global sway.
There were only 7,000 multinationals 25 years ago. Today there are 40,000 and they control 70 per cent of world trade. These multinationals are often wealthier than the countries in which they operate. Shell, the world’s most profitable company, has annual sales of £63 billion ($100 billion) – three times the annual income of Nigeria’s 100 million people.
An entire industry the world over can be dominated by a handful of companies – 70 per cent of world trade in wheat is controlled by just six multinationals. Often entire countries can depend upon a single company, even though these companies siphon off profits to their home countries and don’t share their technical expertise with local companies. As for job creation – despite controlling over 33 per cent of the world’s productive assets, they account for only about 5 per cent of world employment.
Increasingly multinationals control rather than own the production chain and use sub-contractors. Their sprawling reach enables them to show profits in the country with the lowest taxes and to locate production in the country with the lowest wages – which is why transactions within the same company are so significant in terms of global trade.
Despite their increasing size and power, the mega-corporations have not been able to silence protest:
• British Gas was forced to withdraw from oil exploration in the Ecuadorian rainforests by Achuar Indians
• Citizen action persuaded the Philippine Government to ban German multinational Hoechst’s harmful pesticides
• Costa Rican banana workers sued Shell in a US court for sterility caused by a pesticide
• Indian farmers waged war against Cargill, the world’s largest grain trader, to stop it capturing their seed market
• International protest forced Scott Paper to pull out of a project in Indonesia that would have destroyed forests and displaced tribal people
• Activists around the world campaigned against the destruction of rainforests by Japanese logging giant Mitsubishi
• Nestlé is still the target of a consumer boycott because of its irresponsible marketing of breastmilk substitutes.
Contact World Development Movement at:
25 Beehive Place, London SW9 7QR, England.
Tel: 44 (0)171 737 6215. Fax: 44 (0)171 274 8232.
MARK EDWARDS /
One person’s hell is another person’s reason to fight back…
Look into any shanty settlement outside one of the developing world’s booming cities, says the UN Fund for Population Activities’ latest report, and you can think that hell has claimed a new outpost. But look closer and you can also discover a wealth of human ingenuity and the determination of a poor community to improve its own conditions. The photo shows how rich and poor housing collide in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, and the report focuses on the Women’s Community Self Help Group in the shantytown of Mathare, on the outskirts of the capital. They have taken responsibility for improving sanitation and reducing the incidence of disease by maintaining and cleaning the two broken-down toilets that service the community while a child-health monitoring project has improved infants’ chances of survival. And it has persuaded the previously indolent City Council to provide 15 new water pumps plus land for a new community pharmacy.
During the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait women formed the backbone of the resistance, risking death and torture to smuggle guns and murder Iraqi soldiers. Crown Prince Sheikh Saad al-Abdullah al-Salem al-Sabah, the country’s autocratic ruler, announced from his splendid exile at the Sheraton hotel in Taif, Saudi Arabia: ‘You will be equal with men after the war.’ But women in Kuwait haven’t even got the vote yet. After five fruitless years of talks with male political leaders, Kuwait’s suffragettes have started a campaign aimed at winning women the vote in time for elections in October. The women have won support from local newspapers that have agreed to publish petitions supporting their cause.
WIN News, Vol 22 No 2
Thanks a billion
The State Bank of Brazil has a shocking bad-loan ratio of 40 per cent. The majority of the bank’s borrowers simply never expected to repay money they borrowed from the Government. A case in point is Orlando Moscoso Baretto de Araújo, a former vice governor of Bahia province. His personal debt grew to $1.1 billion without his paying back a penny or being billed. He went to court to ask that the loans be cancelled as unpayable. The judge not only agreed but also awarded him an additional $3 billion for ‘psychological damages’.
World Press Review, Vol 43 No 6
Diagnosis from a distance
Iran’s doctors have been urged to make their diagnoses, as far as possible, without direct contact with or undressing a patient of the opposite sex. Medical staff are only permitted to have any contact with the organ they are examining and no other. Now there are moves afoot to ensure that even dentists are of the same sex as the patients they are treating.
Iran Bulletin, No 12
‘None of us have shed tears that there are no millionaires.’
President Fidel Castro, talking about Cuba
during this year’s May Day celebrations.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.