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Weird science
Researchers downplay Chernobyl's radiation risk

Scientists from Belarus, the country worst affected by the 1986 Chernobyl accident, report the effects of the disaster are far worse than the international community has been led to believe. At a conference in Minsk they said a wide range of diseases and deformities in children have increased drastically: ‘The existence of a serious radiation risk should be admitted.’

A deadly coverup - people face the escalating cost of radiation risks in Belarus

Dr Goncharova reports that since 1987 birth defects rose by 24 per cent in the so-called ‘clean’ regions, by 30 per cent in the ‘mildly’ radiocontaminated areas and by 83 per cent in the ‘heavily’ contaminated areas. The frequency of malformations among infants increased from 12.5 per 1,000 births in 1985 to 17.7 in 1994. This figure does not include abortions linked to genetic abnormalities which doubled between 1990 and 1994.

‘It is common practice to send young girls who have just qualified as teachers to the most contaminated areas to gain experience. This of course jeopardizes their future prospects to have healthy children,’ claims a local environmental activist. Local scientists report that there has been a particular increase in morbidity among women and children living in the most contaminated areas.

But Western experts dispute the scale of the disaster. The 1996 International Conference One Decade After Chernobyl in Vienna did not specifically examine data on birth defects, but concluded that there was no consistent, attributable increase in any incidence of disease other than thyroid cancer. The conference was sponsored by the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), the EU and the World Health Organization and was attended by 800 scientists from around the world.

The IAEA has come under fire from environmentalists for representing the interests of the nuclear lobby. ‘The IAEA was founded 40 years ago when nuclear power was believed to be the solution to global energy needs. It was promoted as a safe, secure and cheap form of energy production. However, during the past four decades the opposite has proven to be true,’ says Greenpeace.

The costs associated with the impact of the Chernobyl accident are immense – in 1994 they exceeded 20 per cent of the Belarusan state budget and are believed to remain at the same level. However, the denial by the Vienna conference of any serious health risk caused by the Chernobyl explosion – with the exception of thyroid cancer – means that Belarus has missed out on vital international aid.

Both local and international scientists agree that there has been immense increase in thyroid cancer – in Belarus more than 900 people have been affected since 1990. The incidence of thyroid cancer and leukaemia is highest among the nearly 500,000 Soviet soldiers and civilians who worked to limit the impact of the nuclear accident. Local scientists say that the number of leukaemia cases across the country has surged in the last few years.

But this is questioned by Western researchers. ‘I have not seen evidence of a rise in leukaemia, nor have I seen proof of any rise in hereditary diseases or birth defects,’ says Professor D Marples from the University of Alberta, who has examined the effects of the nuclear accident on Belarus.

President of Belarus, Alexander Luka-shenko, has banned all political opposition and exerts strict control over the media. His government plans to build a nuclear power station in one of the more contaminated regions in an attempt to reduce the country’s dependency on Russian fuel, although construction may be delayed by the latest economic crisis.

Chris Groner

Hired guns
A British thinktank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, has defended the activities of mercenary outfits in a pamphlet by former aid worker David Shearer. In Private Armies and Military Intervention Shearer argues that ‘states and international organizations need to rethink current perceptions of the private military sector as an unpleasant aberration’. Since rich countries are unwilling to engage in direct military intervention in the Third World, argues Shearer, mercenary outfits can be called in to do the job for them: ‘The time has come to begin a policy of constructive engagement with military companies.’

Red Pepper No 49 1998

Calling the shots

Shielded - Japan gets around the landmine ban.

Japan is planning to spend $2.5 million developing a new generation of landmines that can be detonated by remote control. These will replace the mines that will soon be outlawed by the Ottawa Convention which requires signatories to destroy all antipersonnel landmines within ten years.

Japanese officials say devices that soldiers can detonate by remote control fall outside the scope of the agreement. These mines’ destructive power would be similar to that of conventional mines which scatter 1,200 projectiles over an area of 100 metres in diameter. But Tatsuhiko Fukui of Japan’s defence agency says: ‘This is not a landmine. We are not even calling it a landmine.’

New Scientist Vol 159 No 2149





Stormy seas
Fishing boats stuck in the middle of international conflict

Tug of war - Indian fishers become victims of violence.

Fishers on either side of the Palk strait that separates Sri Lanka and India are counting the cost of continuing their way of life. They have become caught in the battle between security forces and guerrillas, frequently getting shot at, beaten, arrested and having their boats seized or sunk. The area has been fraught with tension as security forces from India and Sri Lanka battle the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels who have been fighting for independence. Both Indian and Sri Lankan fishers say they are harassed. One fishers’ representative from Rameswaram says rebels have snatched at least 40 Indian fishing boats in recent years. Seventy-four Indian fishers have been shot dead by security officers in the last 15 years and another 251 Indians have been injured in scuffles between security forces and LTTE.

One man tells of an encounter when fishing with three others: ‘It was a very stormy night and our boat crossed to the Sri Lankan side. When we realized this, we started back. But suddenly we were confronted by a Sri Lankan naval boat. We put on the light, raised our hands and begged for mercy. But they were firing and shouting at us. They captured us, took off our shirts, tied them around our eyes and started beating us. We were taken to Sri Lanka and kept in Mannar jail.’ They spent 100 days in detention and after their release they found their boat was damaged and the engine had been stolen.

Sahay Raj was also captured by the Sri Lankan navy who took much of his equipment and beat him: ‘Our very lives and livelihoods are in danger and no government does anything.’ Bilateral border agreements, signed in 1974 and 1976, bar fishers from crossing the maritime boundary. The accords have been a source of tension as the two countries have interpreted them differently. Fisher M Sahayam says: ‘What can you do when you can’t see the border?’ Locals say agreements should be updated to take fishers’ interests into account.

Sahayam says the locals want peace: ‘Although we have been traditional fishers for generations, we are being thought of as LTTE or their sympathizers. When LTTE activities or the authorities’ actions against them increase, the shootings and killings of us also increase.’

Mukul Sharma/Gemini News Service

Pet project bites

Heavy burden - dam threatens West Papuans.

A massive industrial project affecting an area half the size of Java is set to cause environmental havoc in the Mamberamo region of West Papua (Irian Jaya). The plan involves damming the Mamberamo river to provide for heavy industry and agricultural projects. The area is virgin rainforest, with one of the highest biodiversity rates in the world. Flooding by the dam, land clearance and pollution from industry will have a catastrophic impact on the environment.

The local people will also suffer – 6,000 people from seven different tribes live in the area, most of whom are illiterate and have no experience of industrialization. Official statements say only that the tribes will be ‘relocated’ – uprooted from land they have owned for generations and forced to resettle elsewhere. The dam project is currently on hold due to the economic crisis in Indonesia, but President Habibie’s personal involvement and the high priority the project is given suggest the future may be bleak for the peoples of Mamberamo.

Rebecca Spencer

Oxford Papuan Rights Campaign,
3 Woodbine Place, Oxford OX1 1JS, Britain.
e-mail: [email protected]
website: oprc.base.org

Australian West Papua Association,
PO Box 65, Millers Point, NSW 2000 Australia.
Tel: +61 2 9552 6022
Fax: +61 2 9960 1698.

Sentenced to exclusion
Committing a crime in the US often means lifelong deprivation of the right to vote. The US is the only Western state that still refuses to allow people to vote after their prison sentences – 14 American states impose permanent disenfranchisement on their felons. In total 3.9 million adults, two per cent of the population, are disenfranchised. But among African American men the national figure is 1.3 million – 13 per cent – while in the states of Alabama and Florida, a third of all black men have lost the right to vote. If present trends continue, Human Rights Watch predict that 30-40 per cent of the next generation of African American men will be permanently disenfranchised.

The Economist Vol 349 No 8091


Disturbing revelations
Native Canadian nightmares see the light of day

United Church minister Kevin Annett was puzzled to find no native members of St Andrew’s Church when he arrived in Port Alberni, British Columbia, in 1992. Annett started asking local Native people why they had not attended church. Their answer – shocking stories of abuse and murder at the local church-run residential school.

As part of a government program of forced assimilation, Canadian Native children were taken from their homes and placed in residential schools which were operated by most of the major religions. It is estimated that up to 125,000 Native children passed through the system before it was closed down in the 1980s.

Waiting for justice to be done - Native Canadians on the streets of Vancouver. [image, unknown] Waiting for justice to be done - Native Canadians on the streets of Vancouver.
photos by KEVIN ANNETT

Now a tribunal has been established in British Columbia to investigate human-rights violations in the province’s residential schools for Native children. So far over 30 people have given their eyewitness accounts.

The list of alleged offences is shocking. Eyewitness testimony and other evidence presented to the tribunal recount instances of murder by beating, poisoning, hanging, starvation, strangulation, being thrown from windows and medical experimentation. Other crimes include rape, sexual molestation and administering of electric shocks to children as young as five. Witnesses say that torture was used as punishment for speaking Aboriginal languages and Native men and women were involuntarily sterilized. They also allege church, police, business and government officials were involved in maintaining a paedophile ring using children from native reserves and residential schools.

Witnesses are regularly threatened and intimidated and Annett himself has received death threats. Annett was also fired from his job at the church. A recent suicide of abuse victim Darryl Watts, who had been badgered by Church lawyers, and the revelation that his parents never signed a release form to send him to the school led the United Church to issue ‘apologies’ to the survivors. At least 1,400 people are suing the Church and Government.

The tribunal eventually plans to publish its findings and present them to United Nations Human Rights Commissioner, Mary Robinson. Whatever happens at the UN, for the victims of these unimaginable horrors life can never be the same again.

Harriet Nahanee, 60, was the first witness to support the allegations about abuse and killings at the Alberni United Church school. She says she still has nightmares about the time she witnessed the death of a young girl who came from Nitinat Lake. ‘I heard her crying. She was looking for her mother. I heard the school administrator yelling at the supervisor for letting the child run around on the stairwell. I heard him kick her and she fell down the stairs. I went to look – her eyes were open, she wasn’t moving. I never saw her again.’

Alan Hughes

Kevin Annett,
c/o 208-5775, Toronto Road, Vancouver, B.C., Canada V6T 1X4.
Tel: +1 604-734-4478
email: [email protected]

AIDS risk
Condoms are no longer illegal in Vietnam which has the fastest growing rate of HIV and AIDS in Asia – the number of HIV infected people is expected to grow from the current 75,000 to over 300,000 by the year 2000. The government has allowed needle-exchanges for drug users, condom-distribution centres for prostitutes and trendy cafes in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh where coffees are served with a condom and safe sex booklet. But despite the increased access to condoms, Vietnam’s patriarchal society remains a barrier to safer sex – a recent survey of rural women found that 100 percent said their husbands made all decisions on when to have sex and what protection, if any, to use.

Andrew Perrin/Gemini News Service

Moody buttons
Employees at the Icolub lubricants factory, a subsidiary of Shell in Brazil, have adopted an innovative way to tell their colleagues how they are feeling. Every morning they put a button on their uniform. A green button says everything is fine. A yellow button means that something is not going well, and a red button is a cry for help from someone with a ‘serious problem’. ‘If a guy is wearing a red, you’d better not even joke with him!’ says the plant’s co-ordinator. A red-button worker may be taken off the production line, assigned an easier job and offered the opportunity to telephone a psychologist, social worker, lawyer or financial-planning expert.

World Press Review Vol 45 No 2

Animal rivalry

[image, unknown] Colonizers of Brazil - exotic breeds rule over domestic animals.

One in three of the world’s domestic animal breeds is at risk of extinction, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). In India 50 per cent of indigenous goats face extinction while an estimated 80 per cent of all poultry comes from exotic breeds. In Brazil the Caracu cattle were deemed unprofitable compared to an Indian breed which pushed the South American beast to near extinction. And in the Russian Federation there are only 900 of the the Yakut cattle left, animals which can tolerate temperatures of down to -60 degrees centigrade and is considered resistant to several diseases. ‘You can’t just bring genetics in from elsewhere and think they will be better,’ laments Keith Hammond from the FAO, who describes the global fad to favour exotic breeds as ‘a step backwards’.

Alan Martin/Gemini News Service


"A fur hat is no good on an empty stomach."

Vladimir Ivanov, owner of a Moscow hat stall.

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New Internationalist issue 309 magazine cover This article is from the January-February 1999 issue of New Internationalist.
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