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Glossing good guys
I found your recent issue on Western Sahara (NI 297) a real eye-opener, given the lack of media attention to this conflict.

Magazine 297 - Western Sahara However, I was extremely disappointed to see one passing reference to a population-increase policy and lack of contraceptive availability with zero analysis. This is an issue that would have a huge impact on the lives of the Saharawis, but it is glossed over. How do the women of Western Sahara feel about the lack of contraception in the refugee camps? What are the figures for maternal mortality? Is contraception use punished? Is remaining single and/or childless stigmatized?

And why the omission? The NI is usually not slow to take up gender issues. Is it a desire to avoid looking too closely at any shortcomings of the ‘good guys’?

Merryn Smith
Ferntree, Australia

Awaiting perfection
The letter from Frédéric Gouin (‘Letters’ NI 297) concerning the Rugmark Label criticizes it for ‘creating the illusion that the problem of child labour is solved and that the carpets people are buying are free from child labour’. No organization associated with the Rugmark would assert that it gives a foolproof guarantee of no illegal child labour, but it certainly prevents consistent use of child labour in its looms and its existence has led to a general reduction in child labour in the industry. It is not generally understood that Rugmark exporters have to request labels for each export consignment and so Rugmark has close control over its licensees. This enables it to make good use of inspectors’ time.

Although Rugmark labels have been put on more than 700,000 carpets since it began in 1995, the 1.25-per-cent royalty has only been payable since 1996. Two Rugmark schools are now open, plus a rehabilitation centre in Bangladesh and three in Nepal. In the battle against abusive child labour one has to begin somewhere. If we all waited for perfection nothing would happen and bonded children would still be the mainstay of the industry.

David Ould
Anti-Slavery Society, London, England

Life science
With respect to your edition on genes (NI 293) I think the following issues related to the life-science industries are even more troubling than gene patenting. First, the issue of poor drugs for poor countries – many drugs advertised in WHO publications are substandard. Some adverts in the Indian edition of the British Medical Journal are misleading and would not be permitted in the UK edition. Second, the pressure against price controls: for example, China’s plans to restrict the profit on foreign medicines to 12 per cent will now be shelved because of the US pharmaceutical industry’s threats to block China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. Third, appropriation of traditional intellectual property – WR Grace, a US company, has patented extracts from seeds which have been used as medicines and pesticides in South Asia for millennia. Fourth, there is pressure on countries like India to recognize foreign patents on essential medicines which will mean them becoming too expensive for most Indians. And finally: abusive clinical trials. For example in 15 US studies on hiv transmission carried out in Africa and Asia, many patients were only given placebos, an action defended on the grounds that these women were too poor to afford drugs anyway.

Richard Thornhill
Tokyo, Japan

[image, unknown]
Illustration by VIV QUILLIN

Propaganda campaign
Last month a Sri Lankan newspaper published a vitrolic attack on Vanessa Baird and the NI for her interview with Father Emmanuel (NI 294).

The NI should not to be intimidated by the concerted propaganda campaign being waged by the Sri Lankan Government to discredit independent reporting of the war.

The Government continues to spend vast amounts of money pursuing a final military solution to the ‘Tamil problem’. Tamil homes are subjected to routine arbitrary searches by the security forces. Amnesty International’s most recent report concluded that the 600-odd people (mostly Tamil) who have ‘disappeared’ in the past 18 months after their arrest by security forces have nearly all died as a result of torture or been deliberately killed in detention. Meanwhile, the World Bank and donor countries continue to bail out the Government in order to eradicate ‘terrorism’ and create ‘stability’. Large numbers of Tamils have left the country after losing confidence in ever being accepted as equal citizens in their own country.

Name and address witheld

Respecting readers
I expected your issue on Landmines (NI 294) to raise a lot of interest, debate and even controversy. What took me by surprise was Ilse Debler-Grant’s letter published in the November issue (NI 296). Like her, I was shocked by the photo published on page 22 alongside the interview with war surgeon Chris Giannou, but this is rather a question of personal sensitivity.

Living in a country where wild competition among TV stations has made it more likely than not that such images be served to families with children at dinner time, I am understandably craving the opportunity to decide for myself what to watch and what to avoid. For this reason I found Dinyar Godrej’s warning in the editor’s letter appropriate and respectful of readers’ individual needs. Instead of a shocked reaction I would like to express my thanks.

Giorgio Berardi
Forli, Italy

After reading the eulogistic review of Songs at the River’s Edge: Stories from a Bangladeshi Village (NI 293) I rushed to get a copy, only to be disappointed. The book was more about the author than anything else. Let me give an example. The author makes the mistake – quite common in the West – of assuming that people in traditional and poor societies have more children because they need their income and for security in old age. This is only partially true. In these societies, having children is a social/cultural act endowed with spiritual feeling. Women especially receive reward and acceptance for having children. Even in well-off urban families (who don’t need extra working hands) young married couples are always urged to have children soon, and when they do a great deal of love and spiritual rituals are bestowed on the children as well as honour to the couple. For a Westerner on a self-gratification trip such subtleties are hard to perceive.

I would recommend instead A Quiet Violence: View from a Bangladeshi Village by Betsy Hartmann and James Boyce (Zed Press 1993). It also uses anecdotal style but quite effectively portrays rural life and the inequitable social structures that prevent the rural poor from changing their lives.

Iftekhar Ahmed
Oxford, England

The views expressed in these letters are not necessarily those of the New Internationalist

Awards for NI
The Utne Reader (a US alternative magazine) has awarded the NI its Ninth Alternative Press Award for International Coverage. We have also been shortlisted for the Business and Consumer Coverage section for the British Environmental and Media Awards.

Illustration by SARAH JOHN

Letter from Colombia

Natural causes
Ricardo seemed an unlikely environmentalist. Jenny James tells of his life – and death.

There are no two ways about it: Ricardo was crazy. He was our nearest neighbour and one of our best friends. He was also one of the most successful men around: his tree-felling, opium-poppy-growing lifestyle had enabled him to set up a discotheque in Rovira, the nearest hamlet, where he sold drink and junk foods.

But he was not happy: his even-grumpier wife was leaving him. He started spending a lot of time on our farm. He would weed carrots in silence beside me, or play for hours with our pet monkey or simply sit in our kitchen while food was being prepared.

Once he arrived during birthday celebrations: we were putting on quite an elaborate theatre show for our own entertainment. He watched reverently, though it was in English, and later returned with a message from the local Community Action Group, of which he was a prominent member: please would we perform for the people of Rovira on Mother’s Day? I was horrified. We did not consider ourselves professionals and had never done such a thing before. I argued and wriggled. He held his ground. And won.

We put on our three-hour theatre in Rovira on Mothers’ Day.

Ricardo was a good community leader. He was neither swayed unduly by the guerrillas, nor by empty Government promises. He grew closer to us, not out of any heartfelt environmental concern, but because he was bored and saw us as a possible source of fresh influence (and maybe affluence). Just before he died, aged 34, he became the lover of Anne, a community member.

For a long time, Ricardo had been moaning at us to buy his farm, which included a huge area of virgin forest. We simply had no money, our environmental campaign had scarcely begun and large sums of money (like $5,000) were not our forte.

But Ricardo knew how strongly we felt about trees and made a clever move. One day, when I was resting with the children on our ‘afternoon log’, we were jolted out of our reverie by the hideous sound of chain-saw teeth snarling and gnawing nearby. Then the inevitable sickening thud. Then another. And another.

Ricardo was felling the forest that stood between his farm and ours. The children and I held on to one another in tears. Louise, 15 at the time, quietly and savagely muttered: ‘I hope a tree falls on him.’

Ricardo’s smart move did wonders for our Green Campaign: in pain at the tree felling, I wrote an impassioned plea for help to the green movements of Europe. The miracle happened: an English couple I will probably never meet sent the money and we saved the rest of Ricardo’s forest, leaving him the already opened land.

Surprisingly, our friendship with him deepened, though it never cured his grumpiness. He brought me flowering shrubs and tree cuttings to plant. He asked to come along and support us when we had a big meeting with the southern-region guerrilla commander to get permission for some young Irishmen to make a video of the area. And, most amazingly, he showed interest in giving up his disco and turning it into an environmental centre.

I started giving him beautiful maps and posters of Amazonia, which he stuck up on his walls next to pictures of naked women on motorbikes, photos of Rambo and paintings of a self-pitying blonde, blue-eyed Jesus.

One day I left for a rare trip to Bogotá. Soon after, Anne phoned me. She was choked with tears.

‘Ricardo is dead,’ she sobbed.

Natural causes In Colombia, it is so unusual for a man to die young from anything other than violence that they specify ‘Murió de muerte natural’ – he died from natural causes.

Ricardo had been fainting a lot. Anne insisted he see a doctor, who found nothing wrong. A few days later, Ricardo dropped dead from a massive brain haemorrhage whilst digging out a huge pit to make a fish-farm next door to us.

Some months later, I was discussing the dangers of tree-felling with a neighbour after one of our lads had an accident.

‘Yes,’ said the neighbour, ‘that’s what happened to Ricardo – his fainting fits began after a branch fell on him when he was cutting the forest next to you.’

Jenny James has lived and worked in the Colombian rainforest since 1987.

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New Internationalist issue 299 magazine cover This article is from the March 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
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