POPs ban agreed
Migrant pollutants to be kept in check
An international agreement has been reached to ban or restrict the use of 12 toxic chemicals. Known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs), these chemicals include pesticides such as DDT and toxaphen, industrial products such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and contaminants such as dioxins and furans.
‘What these chemicals have in common,’ states the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers Union (ICEM), ‘is their high toxicity and ability to accumulate in the fatty tissue of animals and humans, concentrate in the food chain and be extremely long-lived in soil and water.’
POPs pose a long-term risk to both people and wildlife. They have been linked to birth defects, increased cancer rates and falling sperm counts in men. According to the World Health Organization, POPs are so deadly they ‘constitute a threat to the planet at large’.
POPs can also travel long distances in air or water, sometimes thousands of kilometres from the point of release. It’s this ability to migrate from one country to another that has created the pressure for international action.
The Inter-Governmental Forum on Chemical Safety (IFCS) has recommended that none of 12 POPs on which toxicological tests have been conducted should be used as agricultural pesticides. The recommendation will have little impact in the North, where few POPs are currently used and cheap alternatives are easily accessible. But in the South, where transnational corporations continue to dispose of obsolete pesticide stocks and few alternatives exist, it could be sorely felt.
Organizations such as Consumers Inter-national and Pesticide Action Network are campaigning for a legally binding convention to regulate the disposal of obsolete stocks, and to provide support for developing countries to adopt affordable alternatives.
Of the 12 POPs under consideration, DDT is the only insecticide still used for public-health purposes. The IFCS refused to ban DDT, claiming that it remains a ‘valuable tool’ for controlling malaria and yellow fever. But it did ask member states ‘to take steps to reduce reliance on insecticides for control of vector-borne diseases through the promotion of integrated pest-management... and through support for the development and adaptation of viable alternative methods of disease control’. It also called on member states to ‘ensure that the use of DDT for public-health purposes is limited to government-authorized programs’.
At the recent Fifth World Health Assembly the recommendations of the IFCS were adopted in a resolution on the promotion of chemical safety, with special attention to persistent organic pollutants. The resolution represents an important first step by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe in its program to control toxic chemicals.
The Botswana Government has agreed to review national legislation to remove built-in discrimination. ‘The law of marriage treats women like children’ complains Dr Athliah Molokomme, executive director of Emang Basadi, a women’s lobby group in Botswana. Laws covering inheritance, property ownership and child maintenance are also being targetted. The results of the official review are expected to be published before the end of the year. ‘We are striving for gender neutrality,’ says Falencia Mogege, co-ordinator of the women’s affairs division of the Ministry of Labour and Home Affairs.
Source: Gemini News Service
Tourism in Burma is declining, thanks to new US sanctions. Northwest Airline’s controversial frequent-flyer program, which offered bonus kilometres to those staying in the Trader Hotel in Rangoon, was brought to an end by President Clinton’s recent ban on new US investment in Burma. The Trader Hotel is part-owned by Lo Hsing Han, a narco-trafficker once known as ‘King of the Golden Triangle’. According to Wichart Mektrakarn, deputy chairman of the Thai Businessmen’s Association in Burma, room occupancy has dropped to just ten per cent.
Source: New Frontiers, Vol. 3, No 5
Years after other industrial countries, Japan is finally de-manding public environmental-impact assessments before major public works projects can be started. Until now, Japan’s Cabinet Office has been responsible – often in secret – for assessing the environmental impact of a limited range of public projects. The new law passes this responsibility to the country’s Environmental Agency. It also extends the range of projects that require an impact assessment.
Source: New Scientist, No 2088
ALFRED GREGORY /
Journalists are celebrating victory in a long struggle to liberalize Nepal’s domestic broadcast media. Radio Sagarmatha recently began test transmissions after the Government agreed to issue the Himalayan kingdom’s first licence for a private FM station. It will be the first rival to state-run Radio Nepal and Nepal Television. Supporters of the fledgling service, which will be devoted to environment and development themes, hope the breakthrough will pave the way for a host of independent broadcasters.
Source: Gemini News Service
One of the world’s largest exercises in using taxes to protect the environment has dramatically reduced acid rain, switched power stations over to burning coppice wood rather than fossil fuels and cleaned up diesel emissions. Sweden began to phase in environmental taxes in 1984. Taxes on sulphur dioxide emissions resulted in a 30-per-cent reduction in acid rain between 1986 and 1995. ‘I hope our experiences will encourage the European Union to use taxes as environmental policy instruments,’ says Rolf Annerberg, the director general of Sweden’s environmental Protection Agency (SEPA).
Source: Consumer Currents, No 193
In a landmark settlement, 20 workers who said they suffered potentially lethal mercury poisoning in a factory in South Africa have won substantial damages from the plant’s British parent company. Thor Chemicals Holdings Ltd has agreed to pay $2 million in damages and costs to 16 claimants – and the families of four others who have died of mercury poisoning since 1992. Many of the surviving claimants will require life-long medical care. The workers’ solicitor, Richard Meeran, said: ‘This is the first time in this country that a parent company has been held accountable for injuries to workers at one of its subsidiaries in a developing country.’
Source: Spur, Summer 1997
Uganda has become the first country to receive debt relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund’s recently approved debt-relief package will reduce the coun-try’s debt by $338 million in Net Present Value (NPV) terms. Of the $338 million, $160 million will be provided by the World Bank, subject to confirmation by Uganda’s other creditors that they will provide their share of the relief.
Source: Gemini News Service
The Chinese Government recently banned leaded petrol in eight districts. Unleaded alternatives have been made available, and petrol stations in the rest of China are expected to stop selling leaded fuel by 1 January 1998. Vehicle numbers in China have risen by 15 per cent a year since 1990. Severe air pollution and escalating respiratory illnesses in Beijing, caused by an estimated 1.17 million vehicles, have finally forced the Government to act.
Source: South, Summer 1997
HUGO VITAMVAS / CAMERA PRESS
The European Union (EU) has officially recognized that animals have feelings. Changes to the EU’s basic treaties include a protocol, requested by Britain, requiring EU rules on agriculture, trade, transport and scientific research to ‘pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals’ as ‘sentient beings’.
Source: New Scientist, No 2088
Sanctions busters are unrepentant
ALAN MCCULLOUGH / CAMERA PRESS
Three American aid volunteers risked huge fines and jail sentences for breaking international sanctions when they took medicines and children’s treats into Iraq this spring.
The trio, from the Chicago-based Voices in the Wilderness group, distributed approximately $60,000 worth of aid in Iraq to help relieve widespread civilian suffering.
They returned from their mercy mission to face the wrath of the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which helps enforce United Nations economic sanctions against Iraq.
OFAC has advised them that ‘Criminal penalties for violating the regulations range up to 12 years in prison and $1 million in fines. Civil penalties of up to $250,000 per violation may be imposed administratively by OFAC.’
Goods taken by Kathleen Kelly, George Capaccio and Chuck Quilty included teddy bears, balloons and sweets. They also took glove puppets which they used to give shows to entertain children – many of whom were on the verge of death.
Up to 750,000 children are estimated to have died as a result of strict sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council in 1990 after Iraq invaded Kuwait.
Kelly, a 44-year-old theology graduate, recalls crying outside a US-bombed air-raid shelter in Baghdad in which hundreds of women and children had died. ‘Then I felt a tiny arm at my waist and a child was smiling up at me. “Welcome,” she said. Two women approached and I stammered: “Ana Amrikyaah ana asifa” (I’m American and I’m sorry). They said: “No, no, no, you are not your government, you would never do this to us.” Both had lost family members in the raid.’
She is now campaigning to have the sanctions lifted. ‘When one scratches beneath the surface, Iraq is literally dying under the weight of the embargo,’ she says. ‘Malnutrition is endemic, reaching 50 to 60 per cent of the population outside Baghdad. More than half the country drinks water infected with typhoid, cholera and E-coli bacteria.’
The group toured several hospitals, visiting child patients. Capaccio, an actor, took his glove puppets and glitter-filled wands wherever he went. ‘Yet, somehow, I found myself feeling like a fool in a concentration camp,’ he said. He left one puppet with Litfie Haitham, dying of leukaemia in Baghdad; the other with 12-year-old Ward, dying in Basra.
Critics of the international sanctions point out that the recent UN agreement which allows Baghdad to sell $2 billion-worth of oil every six months to pay for emergency food and medical supplies is doing little to revive the devastatedcountry.
The Voices in the Wilderness trio are unrepentant about sanctions-busting. In response to the threat of punishment, Kelly says: ‘If we have added 12 years to the life of one of those suffering children, there’s no question – a 12-year prison sentence would be worth the price.’
India won’t reserve seats for women
Indian Prime Minister, Inder Kumar Gujral, has been prevented by ruling party members and his own deputies from passing a bill that would reserve a third of the seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, for women. The intensity of opposition to the bill was unprecedented. This is the first time in India’s parliamentary history that a prime minister has been prevented from passing legislation that calls for an amendment of the Indian constitution.
Source: South, Summer 1997
Nike keeps doing it
As punishment for failing to wear regulation shoes, 56 women who make shoes for Nike in Vietnam were forced to run around a Nike contractor’s factory premises in the hot sun. Twelve women fainted during the run and were taken to the hospital. Thuyen Nguyen, a financial analyst who visited the contractors at Nike’s invitation, found that ‘verbal abuse and sexual harassment are frequent, as is corporal punishment’. Nguyen also reports that it is common for women to faint from exhaustion, heat fumes and poor nutrition during shifts. Nike workers in Vietnam make an average of 20 cents an hour, or $1.60 per day.
Source: Multinational Monitor, Vol. 8, No 4
‘If you act like there is no possibility for change,
you guarantee that there will be no change.’
Copyright New Internationalist Magazine 1997