new internationalist
issue 315 - August 1999

The New Internationalist welcomes your letters. But please keep them short.
They may be edited for purposes of space or clarity.
Include a home telephone number if possible and send your letters
to the nearest editorial office or e-mail to : [email protected]

Vegetarian bias
There appears to be a bias in favour of vegetarianism in your magazine, especially in Green Cities (NI 313) where it seems that not eating meat will help to make cities greener.

[image, unknown] I agree that the wasteful consumption of meat should not be encouraged, but the issue is not clear-cut. In the UK mixed farming provides habitats for wildlife in the form of grassland and hedgerows which are not needed for arable farming. Also some land is not suitable for growing crops but is suitable for grazing.

Worldwide many communities keep livestock to suit their nomadic lifestyle, where attempts by governments to constrain the movement of such groups have led to environmental degradation (for example in the Masai Mara areas in Kenya).

In the ‘Green Odyssey’ article the authors promote vegetarianism without acknowledging the role that animals (for example water buffalo) have in some of the countries visited. These animals provide high-quality protein, transport, fertilizer, material for footwear or clothing and can be used as draught animals – surely a more environmental alternative than tractors. Animal products such as leather are more biodegradable than their plastic counterparts.

I am not a farmer, I do not eat McDonald’s hamburgers for breakfast but I have thought beyond the emotional debate about eating animals and am proud to eat a sausage or two (free range from the local butchers). After all, food shortages in certain areas are not caused by lack of food worldwide but by inequalities in distribution. It is these issues I believe the NI should be addressing, rather than acting as a mouthpiece for the vegetarian lobby.

Anna Perceval
Norwich, England

Sudanese slaves
Anti-Slavery is concerned that your Update ‘Scandalous trade’ (NI 312) overestimates the number of slaves held in Sudan. The total may be several thousands but there is no evidence that it is as high as 20,000 people.

Recent publicity has focused on claims that more than 2,700 slaves have been released since January 1999 in return for payments totalling over $100,000 and on accusations by US-based groups that UN agencies are not doing enough to free slaves. Anti-Slavery does not support the practice of paying for the release of slaves. This is no more acceptable than paying bribes to secure the release of prisoners. However, the international community has been remarkably unsuccessful in persuading the Government of Sudan to take action to end slavery. The result is that the Government continues to deny that slavery even exists. The UN Commission on Human Rights has condemned what it calls ‘forced labour’ in Sudan. It makes no difference what it is called – the fact is that people are being abducted by government-backed militias and are being exploited as slaves in the households of militiamen and others, and it is the Government of Sudan which is best placed to take actions to trace and free all those who have been abducted.

Mike Dottridge
Anti-Slavery, London, England

Japanese debt
After reading your issue on debt, (NI 312) I wanted to write to you about the issue of debt in Japan.

Japan is the G7’s biggest creditor. It has $9 billion in outstanding loans which comprises around 40 per cent of all G7 credits. The Japanese Government is trying to provide indebted countries with ‘debt-relief-grant-aid’. This is not unconditional cancellation but means that the Government gives the countries the same amount as their repayment. This grant aid is a commodity grant in which recipient countries receive Japanese commodities. This is actually relief for Japanese companies.

About half the yen loan money is borrowed from Trust Fund Bureau Funds and Postal Life Insurance Fund. If all debt were to be cancelled Japanese people would not receive the money they have saved for their old age – at the highest cost in the world. The Government has been lending our precious saved money without our consent and is charging people in Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPCs) without their consent. This is a real moral hazard.

I have enough to live on. I am ready to pay for unconditional cancellation to cut the chain.

Mariko Inoue
Kyoto, Japan

Human dignity
Chris Holt illustrates in a small way the blinkered vision which bedevils Western attempts to solve Third World problems when he says about a Zambian electrician (NI 312) ‘It’s nearly two years since Lefkata lost his job – and with it his human dignity.’

No. It is only in the West that human dignity is measured by salary. In Africa, men and women who have never earned a penny may be known to possess immense human dignity. It’s their most valuable possession.

Mtumiki Njira
Limbe, Malawi

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Illustration by VIV QUILLIN

Alternative dove
I can forgive your ‘Superdove’ spread (NI 311) only if you assure me that it was an April Fool’s joke designed to get intelligent readers off their bikes. Far from being creative and courageous, it was repetitive and simple-minded. May I suggest a few alternatives?

* Do everything well. Be honest and reliable and earn the respect of your employer.
* Simplify your life. Don’t incur debts for things you don’t need.
* Walk or ride a bike even if all your friends are petrol-heads – explain to them that Western over-consumption is a factor creating world tensions. Use and promote public transport.
* Exercise good stewardship over your own health in what you take in.
* Be intelligently informed. Avoid clichés and catch-phrases because they are often substitutes for thinking.
* Do some formal training in something useful (renewables, permaculture, conflict resolution, microeconomics etc). When you are intelligently informed or qualified go somewhere dangerous or difficult where your skills are desperately needed – and give them away for free. Go where the poor and disadvantaged people are and stand with them.

Ted Carr
Rosanna, Victoria, Australia

Writing off poverty
ATD Fourth World (NI 310) is currently running a postcard campaign in the UK ‘Writing off Poverty’ to call on the Prime Minister to declare 17 October 2000 as the first annual National day for the Eradication of Poverty. The introduction of such a day will not only recognize that poverty remains a reality for millions of people in the UK today, but will also encourage society to include them in its plans and progress. It will act as a rallying point for the Government’s endeavours to bring Britain together, and reinforce the fight against poverty and exclusion for the new millennium.

If you are interested in the campaign please contact us at 48 Addington Square, London SE5 7LB.

Thomas Croft
ATD Fourth World, London, England

Serbian Australians
I have been keeping in contact with Serbian Australians who have quite legitimate concerns for family and friends affected by NATO action in Serbia and are distressed at the long-term effects of the conflict on the economy of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. I have also heard their stories about discrimination directed at members of their community including children in schools.

They have expressed to me their wish that the Australian media could be more sensitive to their feelings, especially as the majority of them are Australian citizens.

Despite the differences the Australian Government has with the Government of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia there is no excuse for any form of discrimination, whether direct, indirect or subtle, to be directed at Australians of Serbian origin.

Philip Ruddock MP
Canberra, Australia

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

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Mona's mission
In the first of a new series of letters from Lebanon, Reem Haddad reports on
the fight to save Beirut’s old houses from being demolished.

Ihad just arrived home after a long working day when the phone rang. The voice was anxious and pleading. It could only be Mona Hallak.

‘Reem, you have to come now,’ she cried. ‘Another old house is about to be demolished.’

Not again, I thought. Only a few weeks ago, chauffeured by Mona, I had joined several heritage activists in pleading with authorities to save a house dating from the 1920s. This has become Mona’s mission.

Beirut was once dotted with beautiful houses, many reflecting the elegance of the Ottoman period and the later post-World War One French Mandate era. With the end of the 16-year Lebanese civil war in 1990, owners of old houses discovered that they were living on gold mines. While most of the existing buildings were worthless, the price of land had soared. One by one, proprietors began selling their properties to developers who were seeking a quick profit. The old houses were pulled down to be replaced by concrete tower blocks, combining the bland and the ostentatious.

Angry, Mona now frequently wanders the streets of Beirut tracking down those old buildings whose windows or roof tiles have been removed.

‘This is a sign that de-molition work is about to begin,’ she explains. ‘They do it quietly so as not to alert heritage activists.’

She has developed a prodigious knowledge of old buildings in Beirut and their various characteristics.

Her telephone call to me concerned the fate of a two-storey house in the Zoqaq al-Blat quarter near the city centre. The building was typically Lebanese, with graceful arched windows, high ceilings and terracotta roof tiles. It was surrounded by similar examples of early twentieth-century architecture. Although shabby after the war, the cluster of buildings was breathtaking. Mona pointed to the missing red tiles. We peeked in through a wrought iron gate to see the garden and the house’s rare marble floor slabs stacked up outside ready to be sold. The workers, however, spotted us and turned us away.

‘The owners want to build a huge high-rise complex here,’ she said. ‘This means that this whole cluster of houses will also be ruined.’

Illustration by SARAH JOHN

The struggle to preserve Beirut’s traditional architecture was launched in 1995 when heritage activists began pressuring the Government to prevent old houses from being torn down.

An activist organization, APSAD (Association Pour la Protection des Sites et Anciennes Demeures au Liban) studied many of Beirut’s old houses and suggested to the Government which should be protected. The then Minister of Culture ‘froze’ over 1,000 houses, forbidding any demolition work. But when the owners received no financial compensation from the Government, many sought to release their homes from the development ban. Almost half of them were successful. Today, only 520 homes are still ‘frozen’. One of them was supposedly the two-storey villa which Mona and I had inspected. So why was the owner in the process of pulling it down?

As soon as I called up the Minister of Culture for an interview, the mystery was solved. He said he had personally authorized its demolition, ‘and I will allow many others to be pulled down as well,’ he declared. ‘They’re old so why keep them? Why should I deny someone from making a lot of money by building a large modern complex?’

Mona’s face fell when I reported the Minister’s answer. ‘How can we fight against that?’ she said slowly. ‘It seems we’re alone.’

The next day, however, she invited me to a candlelit vigil she was holding outside the doomed house.

Completely forgetting her full-time job in an architecture firm, she spent the whole day inviting friends to join her. ‘We must save these houses,’ she stressed to people around her. ‘This is our heritage.’

That same night demolition work ceased on the house. Influential people had reportedly interfered. Since no decision has been taken about the house’s fate, Mona keeps a wary eye on it.

Meanwhile, my phone keeps ringing. ‘Hurry up and get here,’ she jabbered a few days ago. ‘Ten old houses on one street are about to be destroyed.’

And I ran.

Reem Haddad is a reporter with the Daily Star in Beirut.

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New Internationalist issue 315 magazine cover This article is from the August 1999 issue of New Internationalist.
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