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Indigenous Peoples



Another dam, another way of life
Namibia's Himba threatened

Namibia’s achievements in building and sustaining a multi-racial democracy out of a war-ravaged country have been remarkable, but there is evidence that the worldwide ‘dash for growth’ has at last arrived. A government-sponsored hydroelectric scheme on the Kunene River now threatens the Himba people, a tribal minority known for their egalitarian, sustainable lifestyle. Having survived the war largely unscathed, the irony is that peace now promises to tear their ancient way of life apart.

The Himba, a cattle-raising pastoralist people, live in Kaokaland on the Angolan border close to the beautiful Epupa Falls, the site of the proposed dam which would flood their land, destroying their pastures, burial sites and everything they need to survive. Whilst they are a nomadic people, they do not travel vast distances like the Bushpeople, but confine themselves to a relatively narrow, fertile area dominated by the river. When the grass grows thin, they move on, although often the old and the dying stay behind, provided with food and water by their families as they await death. Tall stone burial mounds can be seen throughout Kaokaland. When tribe members pass a mound, they pick up a stone and add it to the pile, as a mark of respect.

The proposed dam could, by submerging 464 square miles of essential dry-season grazing, displace more than 4,000 Himba in Namibia and flood their burial grounds. If a site lower down the river is chosen – as seems increasingly likely following protests by Survival International and other organizations – the impact on pasture and other land resources would be less extreme. But with an estimated 3,000 workers brought in, nearly all from outside the region, a ‘temporary town’ would arise on Himba territory with disastrous consequences for their health and social stability.

So far aid donors have had little enthusiasm for the scheme, regarding it as an unnecessary extravagance, but Namibia’s government sees it as a symbol of progress and independence. It seems likely that the government will turn to private donors. Campaigners against the dam have been alarmed by sightings of Taiwanese businessmen in Kaokaland. They believe that Taiwan’s business community wishes to compensate for its past associations with South Africa’s apartheid regime by sponsoring development projects in the region.

The Epupa Falls Project would cost $800 million. For Namibia, this will mean many years of debt, but for the Himba it may mean extinction.

Olivia Adams/Survival International

Just do it
Shame-faced Nike executives have agreed to explore the issue of independent monitoring of overseas factories. This follows extensive press coverage of a five-city tour in the US by Cicih Sukaesih who was fired from a Nike sub-contractor’s factory in Indonesia in 1993 following her part in a strike to demand a rise in the minimum wage.

In the factory where Cicih worked, employees were paid below $1.30 a day and abuse was rife. ‘There were some [managers] that liked to hit people, slap people,’ said Cicih. ‘There were some who would kick the Muslim workers when they were praying during their lunch break.’ In 1992, Nike contractors signed a code of conduct, but the minimum wage, now $2.26 a day, still leaves workers below the poverty line. Minimal breaks, forced overtime and intimidation are still commonplace; wrongfully sacked workers like Cicih have no recourse. It now remains to be seen whether the promise to look into independent monitoring will be translated into action and will end the quest for ever-cheaper labour.

Press for Change / Global Exchange

In Japan’s first-ever referendum, residents of Maki, a community of 31,000 people in northern Niigata prefecture rejected a government-backed plan to build a nuclear-energy plant in the town. Although the outcome is not legally binding, the mayor has promised to abide by the wishes of the townspeople. Citizens groups are seeing this as a victory for ‘real democracy’ in Japan; the Government is less than happy.

Time, Vol 148 No 8

Over and out
One out of five intensive-care nurses in the US has intentionally hastened the death of a terminally ill patient without the knowledge of the patient’s doctor. An overdose of painkillers was the most common method, while others were withheld treatment prescribed by the doctor. Most of the nurses, answering a questionnaire by David Asch of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, said that they made the decision because they felt the doctors were ignoring the wishes of the patients and their families.

Down to Earth, Vol 5 No 5

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Name dropping
In the late 1980s Aotearoa / New Zealand producers dubbed the Chinese gooseberry the kiwifruit and created a taste sensation using this cuddly name. It succeeded, but perhaps a little too well. Other countries got in on the act, merrily using the name and the Aotearoa / New Zealand output shrunk to a quarter of the world market. Now the New Zealand Kiwifruit Marketing Board has decided what worked for them once could do it for them a second time. So they got hold of a British consultancy, Interbrand, to come up with a new name for the kiwifruit which they can register as a trademark. A survey showed Interbrand that people associated Aotearoa / New Zealand with cleanliness, greenness and sunshine and it was felt that a fresh, zesty, spirited name was needed. And they came up with one – Zespri.

The Economist Vol 340. No 7978


Another gravy train
The money behind de-mining

In May delegates to the United Nations conference in Geneva examining the Inhumane Weapons Convention failed to agree a ban on landmines. In the end there was little to show for three years of preparations beyond the British Government having further advanced their own agenda for the use of more ‘smart’ (self-neutralizing) mines.

A UN publication stated in July that ‘What was agreed in Geneva is a watered-down compromise with limited new restrictions on the use of landmines but no prohibition on any of these weapons in the short or intermediate term ...’ However, the conference did seem to be agreed on the need to prioritize the clearance of the 110 million mines strewn across the world that cause some 70 casualties each day.

Since the conference commercial companies have been keen to provide the mechanized answer to mine clearance. The resulting number of meetings on the subject have seen a number of past mine-makers and -layers suddenly reappearing as de-miners. In some cases the companies concerned are still involved with landmine technology and so are able to cross-fertilize one operation with information gained from another.

At a recent UN-hosted conference in Copenhagen on ‘mine clearance’ a number of dubious experts presented papers. A veteran of the UN operation in Cambodia, Canadian Georges Focsaneanu presented a paper on ‘mechanical mine clearance’. Mr Focsaneanu is now in the employ of Schiebel, Austria, one of the world’s largest distributors of mine-detecting technology.

The star turn was undoubtedly the South African Doctor Vernon Joynt who presented a paper on the detection of ‘hard-to-find mines’. Joynt is a veteran of the South African arms company Mechem and took a leading role in designing South African mines in the 1960s, working with the South African – and later the Rhodesian – armed forces, UNITA in Angola and Renamo in Mozambique.

Another ‘expert’ was Harry Hambric who has a 22-year military career in the US army and was able to claim three patents on equipment for mine detection and clearance.

The intention behind the Copenhagen conference and future UN events appears to be to cultivate a group of friendly ‘de-mining experts’ who can promote their own technology for mine clearance. Then, under the auspices of the UN, the experts and equipment will be standardized for worldwide use. In this way the UN can effectively patent the market in mine clearance and the funding for that work.

Why, one may wonder, should they want a ban on landmines when the clearance business is beginning to look so lucrative for those who can get their noses in the trough early enough?

Paul Donovan

Out of the blue
The newest idea to boost reforestation is to drop saplings, packed into dart-shaped containers, from aeroplanes. When the trees hit the ground, according to the theory, they will impale themselves in the soil and take root. The idea is the brainchild of Moshe Alamaro and Nicholas Patrick, a pair of aeronautical engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Their design for the plant container is such that it should reach a velocity of 300 kilo-metres per hour when dropped from a sufficient height, which is fast enough for it to plant itself deeply in the ground without scattering the soil around. They recognize the need to clear the ground in advance.

The Economist, Vol 340 No 7976

A handful of dust
The cash-strapped museum of Worcester, England, is attempting to make money by selling dust gathered from its exhibits – which include the teeth of King John – for £1 a bag.

The Economist, Vol 3440 No 7976

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Iron Ladies
Transvestite team wraps up Thai volleyball

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photo by

The Iron Ladies are going through their usual ritual to prepare for their next volleyball game. Team members slip fuchsia shorts and shirts over their slim hips and flat chests, touch up their mascara and lipstick and tie back flowing black hair.

One player places a manicured hand on hip and jokes: ‘We accept anyone on the team as long as they are pretty. We like to distract the referees.’

The Iron Ladies are not in fact ladies, or even women. They are transvestites who form the best male volleyball team in Thailand. To the surprise of many and the disgust of some, they recently defeated a team of national players and won the country’s top amateur volleyball prize, causing a huge stir in sporting circles about whether it is appropriate for transvestites to represent the country.

Most team members played for amateur clubs around the country until they formed the Iron Ladies four years ago. Their first priority is the game, which in Thailand ranks second in popularity only to soccer; their second priority, they say, is to show that transvestites are people and can play as well as – if not better than – anyone else.

‘We can’t make this statement as individuals, but maybe we can as an international team,’ says 24-year-old Danupol Nuengchang, the team’s founder. Since being crowned the top team in the country, they have appeared on talk shows, been featured in newspapers, drawn more fans to their games and may have lured a top Thai pharmaceutical company as a sponsor.

A spokesperson for the Thai Olympic Committee says there is no reason why members of the Iron Ladies should be prevented from representing the country in future. ‘We have nothing against transvestites or queers [sic] or whatever,’ says Danny Kirdsiri. ‘But it’s the first time we have ever seen a team like this one. Everyone likes them because they are guys trying to look pretty and act in a feminine way.’

Transvestites, called katoeys in Thai, are largely tolerated by most citizens. It is not unusual to be served in a major department store, bank or government office by someone wearing trousers and a tie but with beautifully manicured nails and full make up. One member of the Iron Ladies is a teacher; another a civil servant. Also on the team are four non-transvestite players who have adjusted well to the team spirit.

Sue Montgomery / Gemini

False images
False images Chinese authorities have been on the warpath in the campaign to ban pictures of the Dalai Lama in Tibet which began in November 1994. Recently in Ganden monastery, 40 kilometres east of Lhasa, 86 monks were arrested following the discovery of photographs of the Dalai Lama. Meanwhile China seemed happy enough to violate its own ban by publishing this caricature of the Dalai Lama (which bears no resemblance presumably because the cartoonist didn’t have a proper photograph to go on) in the China Daily while accusing him of using human body parts as sacrificial offerings. The irony of such an allegation from a government which has executed more than 1,000 people since May of this year in an anti-crime campaign is particularly pointed.

The Chinese authorities are obviously hoping that if they throw enough mud some of it will stick. Yet daily they are being challenged over their own excesses. They have admitted for the first time to holding Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the boy recognized by the Dalai Lama as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. China’s Ambassador Wu told the UN Committee for the Rights of the Child: ‘He has been put under the protection of the government at the request of his parents. The boy was at risk of being kidnapped by Tibetan separatists and his security has been threatened.’ If this were really the case why was China so eager to foist Gyaltsen Norbu as a substitute Panchen Lama? In fact a new law has been passed in Tibet which permits the security personnel to arrest, beat and take whatever ‘appropriate measures’ against those who don’t support the Chinese Panchen Lama.

Update Free Tibet Campaign, No 1 / Tibetan Bulletin July-August / Far Eastern Economic Review Vol 159, No 33

Grim milestone
Michael Blackman, a 26-year-old native Australian, was recently found hanging from a bedsheet in a Queensland detention centre. He became the hundredth native Australian to die in custody since May 1989, when a Royal Commission into the problem completed a nine-year study. Despite years of effort and the expenditure of millions of dollars to try to improve things, the yearly death toll has been climbing steadily. Aboriginals are ten times as likely as whites to die in custody and whereas they comprise less than 2 per cent of Australia’s population, they account for 24 per cent of deaths in custody.

Jim McKenzie / Gemini

Simple solution
After a long search for a firefighting chemical that does not destroy the ozone layer, the Norwegian Fire Research Laboratory at Trondheim has come to the conclusion that fine sprays of water will do the trick nicely. Most fire extinguishers still use halons which are 100 times more destructive of the ozone layer than the chlorine from CFCs. Even though the Trondheim Laboratory’s results are impressive, chemical firms are still looking for artificial substitutes for halons, because no-one can make much money out of selling water.

New Scientist, Vol 151 No 2039


‘Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent than the one derived from fear of punishment.’


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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

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