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Zoo creatures
Alternative to illicit trade in Colombia

Zoo creatures Around 1500 BC, Queen Hatsheput of Egypt sent an expedition to the land of Punt charged with collecting monkeys, leopards and exotic birds. Thus she established the world’s earliest-known private zoo. She also set a dangerous precedent. Three millennia later, like-minded collectors are responsible for an illegal trade in animals worth an estimated $10 billion worldwide.

Trade between the US and Colombia alone is put at $50 million a year, with the majority of exports credited to one-off opportunists. However, in a country where coca-lords operate a highly efficient, organized-crime network, the more sophisticated smuggler can take advantage of safe routes to run animal shipments in tandem with narcotics.

Methods used to meet the seemingly insatiable demand in the US and Europe are often crude and callous. Animals have been confiscated frozen stiff, with lesions and fractures, doped, and with their teeth extracted. They have been found stuffed into PVC tubes, spare tyres, engine parts and hold luggage. In a particularly gruesome seizure at Miami International Airport in 1993, customs officials discovered a shipment of hundreds of boa constrictors. Many were dead, with 36 kilos of cocaine forced up their rectums in plastic sacks.

Faced with a sharp decline in the country’s wildlife, Colombia’s Environment Ministry has introduced a radical conservation scheme. In the province of Cundinamarca, amidst lush tropical vegetation and oppressive heat, hundreds of iguanas, caiman and snakes languish in the sun. No longer threatened by poachers, they are protected by an unlikely partnership of commercial interest and environmental policy.

The animals are residents in a zoocriadero or commercial nursery – one of 150 such centres set up over the past three years. Under this scheme, the operator is authorized to ‘borrow’ stock from the wild with which to begin breeding. After a first generation has been successfully reared, commercial exploitation of the stock can begin, with ten per cent returned to the wild.

Zoocriaderos were introduced for two reasons,’ explains José Rodriguez, former vice-president at the ministry. ‘On the one hand, to relieve pressure on decimated wild populations. On the other – accepting that demand will not cease – to use the jungle fauna as a raw material for sustainable development. We hope to bolster native populations, and by providing legal, more economic products to the consumer, to reduce activity on the black market.’

The project can claim some initial success. During 1995, 100,000 specimens from 20 species were returned to the wild. With half the 150 nurseries still in the set-up stage, this figure should rise substantially in the next 18 months.

Critics argue that, in practical terms, the scheme is flawed. Previous experience shows that captive-bred animals have a low survival rate in the wild. They also doubt the black market will feel the impact of legal competition.

‘I accept that we do not have the ideal solution, but we do not live in an ideal world,’ counters Rodriguez. ‘This is a complex international issue which we are doing our best to address. At present we stand alone in trying to do so.’

Jeremy Lennard

Not-so-friendly environment: forced labour in Burma.

Burmese reserve
More than 2,000 people have been massacred by the army in Burma since February to clear land for a nature reserve. Over 30,000 people are being forced to work – unpaid and unfed – on the project, or have fled across the border to Thailand. Isolated because of its abysmal human-rights record, Burma’s military junta is keen to reinvent itself as a friend of the environment. The proposed nature reserve is backed by the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC, the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the World Wide Fund for Nature. Josh Ginsberg, Science Director of WCS in New York said: ‘We do not sanction forced relocation, torture or killings. But we have no control over the Government. We are in Burma because it is one of the highest biodiversity countries in Asia. We could walk away from it, but that wouldn’t do any good for anybody.’

Source: Down to Earth, Vol. 5, No 24 and Burma News, Spring 1997

Cellular calls

Cellular calls
The Grameen Bank, a lending institution devoted to improving the lot of the poor, is behind a cellular-telephone network in Bangladeshi villages. According to Hamish McDonald, in the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Grameen will finance thousands of village “telephone ladies” who will take the handsets house-to-house on demand. The cost will still be cheaper than taking a bus into town and making a call from a fixed-line public booth.’ McDonald adds: ‘Women will be using cellular phones for routine calls. A few years from now, many of them will end up as shareholders in the network itself.’

Source: World Press Review, June 1997, Vol. 44, No 6



Victims no more
Singer promotes fresh start for gypsies in Hungary

Positive feelings for gypsy identity: negative attitudes don't help.

Gusztav varga is listening to a gypsy musician sing in one of Budapest’s sunlit squares. ‘Oh, my mother, my mother, give me a piece of bread, my mother, my mother, what should I do...’

Forty-year-old Gusztav knows the song well. He often sings it in the world’s biggest music halls – from Paris’s La Villette to the Seoul Opera. Gusztav’s international acclaim has helped Central European gypsy culture gain the recognition it deserves as a precious part of Hungary’s cultural heritage. Now Gusztav is running a school for young gypsies.

‘Being involved for more than 20 years now in the gypsy human-rights movement, I have learned that the biggest mistake of our magnificent and complex people is that we think of ourselves as victims,’ says Gusztav. ‘If a gypsy is attacked by skinheads he doesn’t sue them, believing that people wouldn’t do anything. And if we don’t find a job we say it is because of the colour of our skin. There is some truth in it, but this attitude doesn’t help much.’

Using his fame and considerable fortune, Gusztav has established a vocational secondary school for young gypsies in Budapest. The school teaches computer and marketing skills, English and French, and gypsy history – beginning with the gypsy exodus from India, through the officially understated gypsy Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis, to more recent changes in Hungarian society.

The vast majority of Hungary’s gypsies are desperately poor and out of work and, in common with the rest of the country’s jobless population (11 per cent in total), their plight is worsening. As manual workers in low-grade jobs, gypsies were the first to be thrown out of work when communism collapsed in 1989. Unemployment among gypsies is now reckoned to be somewhere between 60 and 80 per cent, and in some areas stands at 100 per cent, according to a recent Helsinki Watch report.

This growing poverty threatens to strangle whatever chances gypsies have of helping themselves. The need for Hungary’s gypsies to give themselves an effective political voice has never been greater. But attempts by Romany leaders to organize themselves have failed. The lack of unity is blamed on political differences, but it is difficult to escape the conclusion that family and clan loyalties are at the root of the problem.

The Hungarian Government is also to blame. Although outwardly supportive of gypsy self-expression and culture, the Government has fostered disunity among Romanies by encouraging registered gypsy groups to compete for state funds. And these state funds are small. As one gypsy MP said: ‘The amount dished out in total annual funding wouldn’t be enough to hold a garden party for a mainstream political organization in Budapest.’

Gusztav Varga, his colleagues and pupils try to keep out of politics as much as possible. Kalyi Jag Gypsy School wants to remain independent and be an encouraging example.

Zsuzsanna Roka

Birth-control backfire
Contraceptive implants in elephants in South Africa’s Kruger National Park (Updates, NI 290) have caused an oestrogen overload, making the cows appear permanently on heat and encouraging the constant unwanted attention of bulls. ‘They were in a state of constant oestrus, and the bulls would not leave them alone,’ says Ian Whyte, the park’s elephant specialist. ‘When we tracked them from the air, we would find a cow on her own surrounded by up to eight bulls. That sort of thing, we feel, is not the way we want to treat elephants.’

Source: New Scientist, No 2084

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Unwelcome guests
Israel moves against imported workers

Closed borders: gaps left by Palestinians now being filled from further afield.

In a dilapidated building off Tel Aviv’s Allenby Street, 12 Turkish workers crowd into the Workers’ Hotline office, anxious for help.

‘I’ve been here a year,’ says Nezate, a thin man wearing a striped T-shirt and faded cotton trousers. ‘I come from a village near Ankara, where I left my wife and two children. I was promised $3 an hour to work as a builder, plus food and a room. Now I am owed $3,000 and the boss won’t give me back my passport. I have no money, no passport, no way to leave.’

Another man, Jihan, chimes in: ‘We built luxury villas in Netanya, north of Tel Aviv. The contractor took our passports, didn’t pay us and shoved us into an apartment five to a room. Now he’s threatening to have us expelled because our work permits have run out. We just want our money and to go home.’

A translator says Nezate and Jihan want to go to the police. But Hanna Zohar, an Israeli woman who runs the Workers’ Hotline, tells them they would get no help there. ‘There’s not much I can do for these people,’ says Zohar privately. ‘I can call the contractor and tell him I’ll publicize his name in the papers and make life unpleasant for him.’ But resorting to legal action would not help the workers now, because their case would not reach court for a year.

Zohar founded the charity hotline six years ago to help Palestinian workers. Palestinians have been working as low-paid labourers, cooks and cleaners in Israel since 1967, when the West Bank and Gaza Strip were occupied. Until recently 120,000 Palestinians commuted to Israel every day, while an estimated 40,000 more came unofficially. Many of these workers were denied national-insurance payments, health insurance, sick pay and compensation for injuries. During this period, Zohar’s hotline helped thousands of Palestinians, usually by taking legal action.

In recent years terrorist attacks have led to the frequent closure of borders between Israel and the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Few Palestinians could get to work, buildings were left half-finished and restaurants had no cooks. The Government decided to fill the gap with foreign ‘guest workers’. ‘It seemed like the perfect solution,’ says Zohar. ‘But they forgot they were bringing in human beings, not importing tools.’

There are now officially 103,000 foreign workers in the country. As many as 200,000 others may be working illegally. On Sundays Allenby Street is packed with Filipino maids on their day off. Poor neighbourhoods in Tel Aviv are almost entirely populated by Ghanaians, Nigerians, Romanians, Poles, Turks, Filipinos, Colombians and Indians.

The numbers seeking advice from the hotline are growing. Abuses of their rights include illegal confiscation of passports, demands for money for the return of passports, unpaid wages, illegal deportations and even physical attacks.

The current right-wing Likud Government believes such large numbers could cause problems in housing and healthcare and lead to increased crime. A government committee has now recommended a reduction in the number of work permits to 83,000 and the deportation of all those working illegally.

‘We will quickly remove 100,000 foreign workers from the country,’ says Labour Minister Eli Yishai, who is from the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party. To fill the labour vacuum the Government is now considering letting in more Palestinians.

Dina Shiloh / Gemini News

Gruesome trade: human bones collected in Kabul.

Remains unearthed
Adults and children in Kabul have found a new way to spend their free time and make ends meet – they scavenge for human bones in gutters, fields and graveyards. They then sell the remains at the town market, where a skeleton can bring up to $1.50. The bones are then shipped to Pakistan, where they are used to make soap, cooking oil and chicken feed. This gruesome trade began last year after the Taliban took control of Kabul and inflation soared due to the regime’s new trade restrictions and labour laws. ‘I used to dig for scrap iron,’ says Faizdeen, a bone gatherer in a graveyard west of the city. ‘So now I dig for bones.’

Source: World Press Review, Vol. 44, No 5

New leaf
A large number of tea gardens in Darjeeling, India, have switched over to organic tea. No inorganic fertilizers, pesticides or weedicides are used. The planters only use bio-compost, and biomass-based mulching is being used as fertilizer. Similarly, only neem-based pesticides and weedicides like Neemgold and Neemazol are used. Organic tea is meant only for export.

Source: Down to Earth, Vol. 5, No 24

Crime wave
Racially motivated violence and harassment in Britain is a serious problem, according to a report published by Human Rights Watch/Helsinki. With 12,199 racist incidents reported in fiscal year 1995/96, Britain had one of the highest levels in Western Europe. In fact, racially motivated crime is even higher than these numbers indicate. The British Crime Survey of 1991 indicated that approximately 32,500 violent assaults and an additional 26,000 acts of vandalism were racially motivated. This suggests an ongoing crime-wave perpetrated by some British whites against ethnic-minority groups.

To order the report, write to Human Rights Watch, 485 Fifth Ave, NYC, NY 10017-6104, USA.



‘Thou shalt not kill, except if thou art the United States Congress.’

Jamin B Raskin, in The Nation, commenting on the death penalty,
after the House of Representatives voted in March 1997 to endorse the Ten Commandments.

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New Internationalist issue 293 magazine cover This article is from the August 1997 issue of New Internationalist.
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