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new internationalist
issue 311 - April 1999



Chopstick controversy
China eats its forest away

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 Each day in Chengdu, China – capital of the world-renowned Sichuan cuisine – hundreds of thousands of people crowd into the city’s 60,000 restaurants to eat barrowloads of meat, rice, eggs, vegetables and chillies. To do this they use disposable chopsticks which require 4,000 cubic metres of timber. ‘For that amount you need to fell 100 trees with an average height of ten metres,’ said Cai Shiyan, a deputy of the National People’s Congress.

Throwaway chopsticks are now used in all but the poorest and the most expensive restaurants throughout China. The poor ones reuse bamboo chopsticks after cursory washing. The expensive ones prefer sanitized, lacquered-wood chopsticks. All the rest use disposable wooden chopsticks.

China is the biggest consumer, producer and exporter of chopsticks. It fells 25 million trees a year to make 45 billion pairs. Two-thirds are used in China and few are recycled.

But concern is growing over the environmental consequences. The Government is convinced that the devastating floods last summer, which killed more than 3,000 people, were caused by soil erosion due to excessive logging in river basins. Within weeks, the State Council banned logging and lumberjacks became planters in Sichuan Province.

Cai, who is campaigning for a ban on disposable chopsticks, says: ‘It takes 30 to 40 years for a birch tree to mature, yet thousands are eaten away in the time it takes to finish a meal.’

China is severely short of trees – only 13.9 per cent of its 9.6 million square kilometres is covered by forest. Its amount of forest land per capita is ranked 121st in the world. Now 12 of the 40 state-owned logging companies have nothing left to fell. ‘The remaining 80 million hectares of natural forests will disappear in a decade if this felling continues,’ says Professor Shen Guofang, of Beijing Forestry University.

Cai suggests Chinese restaurants should go back to the old days and reuse chopsticks – but always sterilize them. ‘Individuals could solve the problem themselves by carrying their chopsticks in their pockets,’ said Cai.

At Beijing Forestry University, disposable chopsticks have been banned. Workers at the National Environmental Protection Agency now use their own and six well-known restaurants in Chengdu have stopped using the disposable kind. ‘We need rigorous control over the felling of trees for disposable chopsticks,’ insists Liu Yun, director of the China Chopsticks Museum. ‘Export should be reduced, and production restricted.’

Yang Zheng/Gemini News Service

Language lessons
In the US, Irma Rivera, who was fired because she spoke Spanish to a co-worker on the job in violation of a jewelry store policy, was awarded $500,000 by a jury in the first case to challenge an employer’s English-only policy. The number of complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from people claiming such policies are discriminatory has doubled in the past two years. And a number of other court actions are under way – including the case of truck driver Rogelio Campos. He was given a ticket under a section of federal transportation law that prohibits drivers from operating commercial vehicles if they do not have an adequate command of English. ‘The funny thing here is that he was able to take a test for his commercial license in Spanish, but he is required to speak English,’ says Fernando Mateo, a Dominican immigrant who employs Campos. He has prompted Campos to take English classes, telling him people should speak the language of the land where they live. ‘You are a nobody in this country if you can’t speak English,’ Mateo says, ‘but I don’t feel that, constitutionally, anyone should be given a ticket because they can’t speak the language.’


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Oysters help clean ocean
Oyster shells are to clean up waste water in Oshima, Japan. ‘Oyster shells harbour large numbers of anaerobic and aerobic microbes on their surfaces. Dirty water is food for these microbes,’ explains Toyokuni Asahina, one of the designers of the wastewater plant. Around 250 tonnes of shells will be used annually to form layers in filtration tanks where the oyster-shell microbes can feast on kitchen, bath and laundry water from 265 households.

New Scientist Vol 161 No 2169

Curiosity kills
Fifty journalists were killed worldwide in 1998, nearly twice the number the year before. Latin America is the most dangerous part of the world – 22 journalists were killed there last year according to the International Federation of Journalists. The worst countries were Colombia, where ten were killed, and Mexico, where six journalists were murdered. In Peru, the National Association of Journalists registered 121 attacks on journalists or media outlets.

Latin America Press Vol 31 No 2

Empty houses, full shelters
More Spaniards have a second home than any other country in Western Europe; 15 per cent of housing in Spain is empty – but there are 273,000 homeless people on the streets. While rich districts and tourist resorts continue to be developed, the Government has cut council housing by eight per cent in the past decade. Eight out of ten homeless people are men, with unemployment being the main reason they hit the streets.

Share International Vol 17 No 9

Creative moneymaking
Juarez Mello, mayor of the small town of Braga in Brazil, has found a novel approach to the country’s economic troubles – inventing money. Mello says he created his new currency, the Bonus, to help reactivate the economy in his town of 4,500 people. He dismisses complaints from the Finance Ministry, saying he is merely following President Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s suggestion that ‘only those who are creative will survive’. Brazil is facing one of its most difficult economic crises in years. In the first few weeks of 1999, the country’s currency, the real, lost more than ten per cent of its value against the US dollar.

Latin America Press Vol 31 No 2

Stressed spouses
Millions of women are worried about what they see as a threat to Japanese family life – having their husbands at home more often. Experts even have an official term for tensions caused by spouses seeing more of each other – Otto zaitaku shokugun – as the number of working hours drop due to the recession. In 1985 people were at work 175 hours per month whereas in 1998 working hours were only 158 per month in Japan. And this figure has fallen another half-an-hour per day as companies cut overtime. This, plus rising joblessness and less money available for men to go out on the town, means that they are home for much longer than ever before. But, despite the stress caused by these changes, Masahiro Yamada from Tokyo Gakugei University says this may be a positive social shift: ‘People will realize that to seek only economic influence is not necessarily good.’

World Press Review Vol 46 No 2

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Hazy standards
The tobacco industry has been accused of using covert methods to maintain addictiveness to cigarettes – such as the use of high-nicotine tobacco, additives like ammonia to increase the ‘hit’ and flavours such as cocoa to make cigarettes easier to inhale and increase its appeal amongst children. The British and American Medical Associations have urged their governments to act immediately to make cigarettes less addictive. They say that ‘millions of lives could be saved’ if tobacco makers were forced to reduce nicotine to zero or negligible levels within the next five to ten years.

The Independent No 3744


Miserly move
European Commission gives less to the poor

Shifting the balance - Europe slashes aid.

The European Commission (EC) spent three-quarters of its development aid on low-income countries during the 1980s. Now those same countries receive barely half. The shift has come despite a European Union (EU) commitment to bring half of the world’s poor out of extreme poverty by 2015.

It is a shift that must be reversed, according to a growing number of voices. Amongst them is the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Its Development Assistance Committee calls into question ‘how far the EC policy on poverty is reflected in the allocation of aid resources’. The report says: ‘The EC allocates a lower proportion of its resources to lower-income countries than most other donors and there has been a trend for this share to fall over recent years.’

Europe’s international development spending matters because of its size. The EC is the world’s fifth-largest development assistance donor, with a current annual budget of $5.3 billion.

Back in 1995, the European Union chose to allocate a great deal of aid to the southern Mediterranean and North Africa – known as the Meda countries in EU jargon. The decision was based on geopolitics, not the principle of greatest need. As a result, current EC aid spending shows such vast discrepancies as Morocco receiving eight times the per-capita aid of Bangladesh and Ethiopia.

‘The implications of those decisions weren’t really thought through then, but now that it’s obvious, I hope people will try to readjust the balance,’ says Helen O’Connell of One World Action. Her organization is among those joining the clamour against the EC’s spending priorities. It was part of a delegation representing some of the biggest UK-based aid agencies – including Oxfam, Save the Children Fund, Christian Aid and the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development – that submitted a report blaming the EC for ‘ill-judged decisions’ when it set its financial guidelines for 1993-99.

They call for the EC to fix its minimum spending on poor countries at 62 per cent of its development budget, the average among EU member states. ‘There’s a really strong group of like-minded states that are supporting more spending on the poor,’ says O’Connell. ‘I think something will happen because most people can recognize that it’s inequitable at the moment. The real challenge is the southern European countries, which are concerned about the Meda countries, and Germany and Austria, who are concerned about their near neighbours in the east.’

Mike Crawley/Gemini News Service

Big Bad World Inspirational Leader cartoon by POLYP


Invasion of the frog-snatchers
Activists are hopping mad over the development of a new drug

Wanted - Ecuador's poison-dart frogs are in demand.

In November last year Abbott Laboratories, a US-based pharmaceutical company, announced the development of a new pain-killer that may be up to 200 times as strong as morphine. It produces no side effects and could replace analgesics currently used for surgery and treatment of severe pain – giving it the top position they occupy in a prescription-drug market currently worth $40 billion annually.

But in Ecuador there was an outcry at this news, because the active ingredient of the new analgesic (known as ABT-594) is found in a poison secreted by a frog. The ‘poison-dart frog’ is found only in the foothills of the central Ecuadoran Andes and its poison is used by indigenous people for hunting.

Two Ecuadoran environmental organizations, Ecological Action and the Environmental Law Center, say that 750 poison-dart frogs were taken to the US without permission in 1976. Now the earnings projected for ABT-594 have led Ecuador to seek to benefit from Abbott’s discovery. But Ecuador has not found legal grounds for suing because the US has not ratified international conventions dealing with biological resources and does not require its companies to abide by them. Ecuador has sent an official request to Abbott that the company ‘recognize and share, in a fair and equitable manner, the benefits derived from the knowledge of indigenous communities,’ but so far it has received no reply.

Meanwhile, researchers from New York Botanical Garden took insects back to the US last year, despite an agreement with Ecuador’s National Herbarium and the Technical Unit of Plan Awa which authorized plant samples but not insects. They also took two shamans to help classify the samples, says Fernando Moreno, an anthropologist working with the World Wide Fund for Nature. ‘By taking the shamans, they left the community unprotected, because the shaman is the symbol of security in indigenous peoples’ world view,’ he says. Gina Chávez, Vice President of Ecological Action, said that while biological prospecting may benefit indigenous groups if their right to their ancestral knowledge is respected, she remains sceptical. ‘The effects will most likely be negative,’ she says, ‘because as the environment deteriorates, their survival will be threatened and they will slowly be incorporated into the mestizo (mixed-race) world.’

Luis Angel Saavedra/Latin America Press Vol 31 No 2

Police combat homophobia
The Australian city of Sydney is home to the second-largest population of homosexuals in the world, (surpassed only by San Francisco) and the renowned Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. But it is also subject to violent homophobia. Between 1990 and 1997, 33 homosexuals were murdered in what are described as ‘hate crimes’. But police are attempting to improve relations with the gay community and curb violence – in 1990 police in Sydney appointed Gay and Lesbian Liaison Officers who give lectures on homophobia in schools, provide protection for gay events and lead anti-bias sessions in police training. Assaults against homosexuals have dropped 46 per cent in the past five years and almost 70 per cent of homosexual murder cases have been solved.

World Press Review Vol 46 No 1

More depressing news
There are 330 million people around the world suffering from depression. According to Dr Christopher Murray from the World Health Organization (WHO), major depression will be the world’s second-most debilitating disease by 2020 – losing a number of years of productive life that is surpassed only by cardiovascular disease. Medical scientists estimate that rates of major depression are between four and ten per cent of the world population and lifetime prevalence of the condition – the chance of developing it at some point – runs between ten and twenty per cent. And WHO says the global total of suicides attributable to depression per year is 800,000. Cashing in on this trend are companies supplying a $7-billion worldwide market for anti-depressants – expected to expand 50 per cent over the next five years. But joining the anti-Prozac backlash are countries like Germany, where the herbal remedy St John’s Wort is seven times more popular than Prozac for treating depression. Others say poverty may have something to do with depression’s cause and cure – Russia’s rates of depression soared in recent years as the economy drooped and in the West the poor suffer disproportionately from the disease.

The Economist Vol 349 No 8099


'We will all be middle class soon.'
British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

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