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Indigenous Peoples

new internationalist
issue 314 - July 1999



Water fight
Aboriginal law and agricultural development plans clash

The future of the Kimberley? Cotton vs indigenous culture.

In the Kimberley region of Western Australia, the Karajarri people's culture and country are being balanced against the desires of a Government-backed industry proposal for irrigated and genetically modified cotton.

Karajarri are the Aboriginal owners of country stretching across the Great Sandy Desert and along the Indian Ocean coastline for more than 200 kilometres. They are also custodians of the western part of the Canning Basin, the largest undeveloped sedimentary groundwater basin in Western Australia. To Karajarri, water is living water, kurnangkul. Living water is said to be inhabited by various 'snakes' who are powerful beings that need to be respected. 'Water is the life for us all,' says spokesperson John Dudu, born in 1910. 'It's the main part. If we are gonna lose that I don't know where we gonna stand. If that water go away, everything will die. That's the power of water.'

As traditional owners, Karajarri people inherit and bequeath customary responsibilities for 'bottom water', 'on-top water' and various dependent ecosystems. Under their law, Karajarri are responsible for looking after these water places, ensuring that people follow the correct protocols when visiting and maintaining knowledge through stories and song.

To geological surveyors, those kurnangkul are simply 'surface expressions of the water table in unconfined sandstone and limestone aquifers'. Western Agricultural Industries propose to pump living water to grow genetically engineered cotton, on pastoral leases over Karajarri country. They will need broad-scale clearing and monoculturing. Chemicals are likely to pollute aquifers. Huge amounts of water will be drawn, dropping regional aquifers rapidly by around 70 metres. Waterholes and wetlands may dry up or become salty.

Karajarri people feel that plans to develop cotton farms on their country, irrigated by groundwater, amount to a direct threat to their cultural traditions and to their capacity to practise their law. In particular, people fear drawdown of the water table and chemical pollution of the groundwater.

John Dudu believes this is an issue that strikes at the integrity of not only Karajarri culture and country, but of all Kimberley peoples: 'We feel that a big wind is gonna come, soon as the underneath go wrong. This is the place here that belongs to Aboriginal people. We are not only talking about Karajarri country, but this is one law, from the Pukarrikarra that goes right through. One law for Aboriginal people in the Kimberley.'

Peter Yu, Executive Director of the Kimberley Land Council.
To offer scientific or financial assistance to the Karajarri contact: [email protected]

Finland hands out aid but not action on landmines.

Finnish landmines in Europe
Finland is now the only country in the European Union that has not signed the international landmine ban. The Government argues that it requires the capacity to use landmines along its long border with Russia, if an attack occurs from that direction. But the Finnish refusal to support the landmine ban sits uneasily with its status as a large aid donor, donor of mine action resources and its role in international peacekeeping. In addition, Finland is about to take over the presidency of the European Union whose members are all landmine ban supporters. Write, urging Finland to adopt the Ottowa Convention, to: Ms Tarja Halonen, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ulkoministerio, PL 176, FIN 00161 Helsinki, FINLAND.

Eels on estrogen

Eels on estrogen
In Shanghai, China, Professor Wu from the Aquatic Products University reports that eel farmers have been using human birth-control drugs to increase the size of their eels. Eels have nearly doubled in size over the past year, reaching more than half a metre in length. But this rapid development scares local scientists who suspect the use of sex hormones could create a health threat like Britain's Mad Cow disease.

Amida Vol 5 No 1


Don't be so fussy
Bolivia tells European nut-eaters to calm down

The gathering of wild Brazil nuts in pristine Amazon rainforest provides a livelihood for thousands of families in the poorest hinterland regions of Bolivia, Peru and Brazil. Now health concerns over the consumption of a range of food products has lead to tough new EU limits that jeopardize many families' survival.

Regulations for lower permissible levels of aflatoxin fungus contamination came into effect on 1 January this year, seriously impeding nut exports to European markets. The new limits could sound the death knell for communities that depend on the income from the nut harvest, and may lead to less eco-friendly exploitation of the forest, such as hunting and the logging of hardwood trees.

'The ecological importance of eating Brazil nuts has not been sufficiently emphasized,' says John Nittler, adviser to Bolfor which is a Bolivian sustainable forest development agency. The economic benefits available from collecting the nuts has helped to preserve some of South America's last virgin forests. The Brazil nut tree cannot be cultivated, as it depends on associated forest species for pollination and the seeding of its fruit. The tree grows to 50 metres in height and takes some 45 years to produce a first crop. In areas where forest conditions are altered, nut production quickly falls.

The nutcrackers - Brazil nuts sweeten life in Bolivia.

Reasons for the EU's action stems from evidence that aflatoxin contamination produces carcinogenic toxins, once a major problem for the commercial peanut industry. US regulations stipulate a maximum level of twenty parts per billion (ppb) for aflatoxin and there are no plans to lower this. However, the EU's more stringent level of just four ppb cannot be justified, opponents claim. In the case of the Brazil nut, the low level of its consumption in the average European diet makes any risk negligible, critics argue.

Aflatoxin thrives in the humid tropical forest environment. Nuts can only be collected once they have fallen to the forest floor and can often lie for months before gathering, exacerbating the potential for infection. The wet rainforest makes it difficult to keep gathered nuts dry and thereby prevent the fungus from spreading.

The world's largest producer of Brazil nuts is actually Bolivia - it exported over 70 per cent of the world's total supply last year. Nut collection and processing provides over 45,000 families with their principal livelihood. The country has lodged a complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO) over the EU measures with little effect. For its part, the EU has failed to consider the impact of the new regulations on South America's poorest country, but it is also unlikely to assist while the WTO action is still pending.

Development agencies believe Bolivia must drop its legal action and formally request help from the EU. Most urgently needed is technical aid to improve nut harvesting methods and the screening of nuts for contamination prior to export. 'If a number of shipments of contaminated nuts reach European ports there is the danger of a food scare and an outright ban being imposed,' said one development aid worker.

Philip Withers Green

Big Bad World Illustration by POLYP


Money talks hot air
Climate change is being made in the USA

Global sea-level rise - thanks to $23 billion credit from the US.

The US Government's export credit agencies have financed fossil fuel projects around the world worth $23 billion between 1992 and 1996 - ignoring the fact they release the heat-trapping 'greenhouse gases' which are blamed for global warming, says a new environmental report. Business as Usual, produced by the Institute for Policy Studies and Friends of the Earth, says this funding for coal-fired power plants and oil and gas extraction projects by the US Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im) and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), contradicts stated US foreign policy objectives to reduce the reliance of developing countries on fossil fuels and to limit climate change.

During the life of these projects, some 25.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide - equivalent to total global greenhouse gas emissions for 1996 - will be released into the atmosphere. Most scientists believe that these gases (produced through burning oil, petrol, coal and other mostly carbon-based fossil fuels) have been gradually warming the earth's atmosphere and altering its climate.

The money went in the form of loans, investment guarantees and insurance designed to help US companies compete for business. The US rate of financing outpaced the World Bank, which underwrote $13.6 billion in financing for such projects between 1992 and 1998. And the US finance was much more than the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which provided $1.2 billion in loans for fossil fuel projects between 1992 and 1997.

In Indonesia, for example, the two agencies committed a combined $1.47 billion in support of the 4,920 megawatt Paiton coal-fired power complex, despite Indonesia's massive natural gas reserves, according to the report.

Ex-Im has been similarly devoted to fossil fuels in China, committing a combined $1.66 billion toward the development of seven power plants in the country over six years. Six of these were coal fired while only one was fueled by gas.

If current record-breaking warming trends continue, average global temperatures could rise between 1 and 3.5 degrees centigrade by the year 2050, according to some estimates.

Daphne Wysham, energy policy analyst with Washington-based think-tank the Institute for Policy Studies concludes: 'OPIC and Ex-Im are guaranteeing climate change for all of us.'

Drillbits and Tailings Vol 4 No 7/Inter Press Service

Divine signs
Ad-writers are being asked to play God in Dallas, US. For weeks the 'God Speaks' campaign has been creating billboard messages alongside the city's highways such as: 'Keep using my name in vain, I'll make rush hour longer - God' and 'What part of "Thou Shalt Not" did you not understand? - God'. But, according to a Gallup poll, the campaign may just be preaching to the converted: 63 per cent of Americans said they believe religion can solve the vast majority of today's financial problems, a percentage that has remained stable for 30 years. Over 70 per cent of Americans are members of a church or synagogue and 40 per cent attend regularly. So it is perhaps not surprising that the 'God Speaks' campaign is going international. Its organizers say the messages are non-denominational and should be meaningful to anyone who believes in a Supreme Being.

Economist Vol 350 No 8112

East Asia executes most
On a proportionate basis Singapore hangs more people than any other state - on average one person every nine days; 40 a year since 1994, according to Amnesty International. Singapore beat the US in 1994 in absolute numbers executed, 76 to 31, despite the fact it has only 3 million people compared to the US's 265 million. And, because many Singaporean executions are not publicized, Amnesty reckons its figures could be underestimates. Most of those executed in Singapore are not nationals but often Thais or Malaysians convicted of smuggling drugs (half a kilo of cannabis carries a mandatory death sentence).

Asia accounts for nearly 80 per cent of the world's executions. China executes 2,000 people a year and all members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) retain the death penalty.

Economist Vol 351 No 8113

Jabbed for genes
A new personal security alarm has been designed that has an auto-injecting needle to collect a DNA sample from an attacker. The American invention would only have useful samples if the assailant were one of the 141,600 violent or sex offenders catalogued in the FBI's National DNA Index System or the equivalent state databases which contain around 260,000 records. But politicians and police advocate adding DNA samples of non-violent criminals to their databases. And New York City Major Rudolph Giuliani says he wants to obtain genetic fingerprints of all the city's newborns. Meanwhile, the inventor of the new device, Bob Smith, says his product is the defense of the future: 'It could go so far it's unreal!

Mother Jones/April 1999


'I'd certainly kill him if I could.'

Former bodyguard of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

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