issue 316 - September 1999
Debt ruled as unjust
An unprecedented ‘court’ held session in Brazil to pass sentence on the country’s external debt. The jury ruled that the debt had already been repaid and that requiring continued payment is illegal, as is postponing development ‘in order to honor those commitments’.
The External Debt Tribunal drew 1,200 participants including Brazilian judges and lawyers, unemployed city dwellers and Pataxó indigenous people from the Amazon.
With a debt of $235 billion, Brazil is Latin America’s most indebted country. ‘Between 1989 and 1997, Brazil paid $216 billion in interest, and today we still owe $212 billion,’ a document released at the tribunal stated.
Tribunal participants called the debt situation in Latin America ‘unsustainable’. Together, Latin America and Caribbean nations must pay an estimated $123 billion per annum in debt service and interest alone, without reducing the principal. ‘Not even in colonial times was there such a flow of capital out of Latin America, a region that now looks like the scene of a world war because of the number of people dying of hunger and preventable diseases,’ Brazilian lawyer Arístides Junqueira says. Brazil has sent more money out of the country in debt payments than it has received in foreign investment.
The tribunal condemned Latin American governments for indebting their countries and committing themselves to repaying loans with money that should have been dedicated to social programs, as well as for making decisions affecting the entire population without consultation. ‘We must link the external debt to the social debt, because debt payment diverts significant national resources that should go to education, health and housing. The debt is related to poverty, and our ethical proposal is that the economy must be placed at the service of the people,’ tribunal member Bishop Valentini explains.
‘God wants us all to have life with dignity and life in abundance,’ he says, adding that the tribunal and the International Jubilee 2000 Coalition, which is campaigning for debt forgiveness, ‘are signs that we are turning globalization into a form of solidarity.’
Pastor Jeter Ramalho said in the closing session of the tribunal that the debt ‘is not simply a matter of numbers. We are facing the globalization of injustice. The debt is not only external, it is eternal.’
‘It is not just a matter of forgiving the debt and forgetting about it, because countries would go into debt again,’ he insists. ‘We need to change the financial hegemony that rules the world.’
Andrés Cañizález / Latin America Press Vol 31 No 21
STEPHEN DUPONT / PANOS PICTURES
Game of chance
Aboriginal Australians who play Australian Rules football are more likely to die of a heart attack than people playing any other aerobic sport. One in 5,000 of these players will die each year of heart problems on the field or shortly after a game – ten times higher than the incidence of heart attacks in sport. The popular game can transfer the ball more than 160 metres from one end of the pitch to the other in a matter of seconds; the ball is caught, tossed and kicked often around 50 metres up into the air. ‘It’s both aerobic, requiring a high oxygen intake, and requires a physical toughness you don’t get with soccer,’ says Mark Young of the Australian Institute of Sport. The rate of sudden cardiac death among Aboriginal players in the tropical Northern Territory is 40 times greater than for the mostly white players of Victoria. The difference is partly attributed to the fact that Aboriginal Australians are 5.5 times more likely to die of heart attacks than white Australians. But extreme conditions of heat and alcohol consumption the night before a match increase the risk for Aboriginal players, according to Young who advocates players be screened for cardiovascular problems and educated about the risk of smoking, excessive drinking and undertaking sport in hot weather.
New Scientist Vol 162 No 2189
According to recent US State Department statistics, more civilians were killed by police last year in Jamaica than in any other Caribbean or Latin American country. During 1998, 145 civilians were killed by police, continuing the Jamaica Constabulary Force’s average of more than 100 civilian killings in each of the last five years. In comparison, 75 people were killed by police last year in the Dominican Republic, 31 in Haiti and 21 in Colombia.
Latin America Press Vol 31 No 21
Rio ratings revealed
The General Assembly of the United Nations, meeting more than five years after the Rio Earth Summit, has found that the performance rating of governmental action for the environment is next to zero. The Framework Convention on Climate Change – opened for signatures in Rio to deal with the problem of global warming – has seen little action to set binding targets on controlling greenhouse-gas emissions by the developed North. The Biodiversity Convention – established to safeguard the world’s threatened bio-diversity – has not yet been signed by the US, the world’s largest user of biodiversity resources and knowledge. Also the global action plan for environment, Agenda 21, is largely under-funded. The total global funding for the environment has actually declined after Rio.
Satyabrata Rai Chowdhuri / Third World Network Features
Patents with a sting
AstraZeneca, a British agrochemical company, has come under scrutiny due to a number of patent applications which could have disastrous consequences for farmers in the Majority World. An ActionAid report points out that the company’s patent applications cover more than 90 countries including 30 developing countries and many staple foods such as rice, wheat and maize. Patent applications include: genetically modified systems which ‘switch on’ plant growth when chemicals are applied so that farmers must buy the ‘chemical switch’ along with plant seeds; insecticide-producing plants using toxins from the deadly Australian funnelweb spider, the fat-tailed scorpion, wasps and cone snails; and plants made resistant to multiple herbicides. These new techno-crops may not just be a feature of the North – some observers estimate that by 2002 the majority of genetically modified crops will be in the South.
Africa’s Pygeum tree is threatened with extinction due to demand by pharmaceutical companies to manufacture a drug used in treating prostate problems among elderly men. ‘Prunus Africana was once well distributed throughout Africa, from Ethiopia to South Africa and from the west coast to the island of Madagascar,’ says Tony Simmons, a researcher at the Nairobi-based International Centre For Research in Agroforestry. But now nearly 60 per cent of men over 50 years old in Europe and America suffer from prostate-related diseases, putting a demand on the production of drugs only obtained from the dark trunk of the tree. All that is left is a limited number of trees mainly in Kenya, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Kate Schreckenberg, a senior fellow at the British Overseas Development Institute says: ‘We are asking ourselves what kind of money farmers can earn from growing the tree and whether there are markets out there to sustain them.’ Currently, the whole bark of a 40-metre-tall tree can earn as much as $500, a sum which Schreckenberg says is too little considering the tree takes up to 20 years to start producing decent bark and up to five years for the bark to heal after removal. ‘Benefits from the tree must be shared equitably, trickling down to the farmers,’ she says.
Judith Achieng / IPS / Third World Network Features
US hauled into court
Several Cuban social organizations have sued the United States for nearly 40 years of ‘hostile acts’. The claimants, who filed the $181.1 billion lawsuit in a Havana court, are demanding that Washington pay damages for the deaths of 3,478 Cuban citizens and the disabilities of 2,099 others, whom they call ‘victims of the aggressive US policy’ toward Cuba. The list includes people killed in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, organized by the United States and Cubans opposed to President Fidel Castro, and deaths caused by dengue fever which Cuba alleges was introduced to the country by the United States. The claimants include Cuba’s central trade union, the National Association of Small Farmers, the Federation of Cuban Women and the Federation of University Students.
Latin America Press Vol 31 No 22
Activists deliver a clear message against nuclear industry’s scheme
Prime Minister Jean Chrétien wants to turn our country into a nuclear dump, so we thought we’d start with his constituency’s office,’ declares a man carting a symbolic barrel of plutonium. Wearing white suits and gas masks, a troupe of Greenpeace activists follow the barrel down the streets of Shawinigan, a few hours north of Montreal, for one of the highlights of their Canadian ‘plutonium tour’.
The activists oppose a plan from Atomic Energy Canada Limited (AECL) and the Department of Foreign Affairs, who hope to import 100 tons of plutonium extracted from old US and Russian warheads. A mix of plutonium and uranium (called MOX fuel) would be burned in Ontario’s nuclear plants over the next 25 years. Foreign Affairs, which says that ‘eliminating plutonium is our effort at disarmament’ is planning an imminent test.
But the plan has many worried, including Johanne Fillion, director of Greenpeace-Québec. ‘Weapons-grade plutonium being shipped around would be a prime target for terrorists,’ she comments. ‘The plan reinforces the wrong idea that plutonium is a valuable commodity. However the more of it that travels around the world, the greater the risk of proliferation.’
Today, MOX-processing installations already function in France, UK, Belgium, India, Japan and Russia. Fillion adds that: ‘The sole beneficiaries of plutonium imports will be Canada’s nuclear mafia, who are determined to revive a dying industry.’ Two years ago, the Canadian nuclear industry suffered a major blow as seven reactors were shut down because of serious safety problems.
Critics remark that the scheme could boost sales of Canadian CANDU reactors, which are heavily promoted abroad. Indeed, a MOX-burning capacity could be a strong asset on the international market. Countries using this technology, such as Argentina, South Korea, and probably soon Turkey, could also see the new capacity as a golden opportunity to get their hands on plutonium, the core component of nuclear weapons. In proceeding with the plan, the Canadian Government ignores a growing opposition, including the all-party parliamentary committee who rejected the plan. The International Great Lakes/St Lawrence Mayors’ Conference, concerned about the extreme toxicity of the substance, also voted unanimously against the scheme. The Mayor of Sarnia, one of the likely entry points, said he would engage in civil disobedience if the shipment went ahead.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is formulating a global convention against smoking, which kills 3.5 million people annually. WHO Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland says the treaty may call on governments to impose taxes on tobacco, provide guidelines against tobacco advertising and lay down ground rules against cigarette smuggling. WHO argues that transnational corporations are shifting their focus to marketing in the Third World, which accounts for 70 per cent of all tobacco deaths worldwide. In China tobacco is already blamed for 75,000 deaths annually and this is expected to rise to three million by the time today’s young smokers reach middle age. Derek Yach, head of WHO’s Tobacco-Free Initiative told a delegation of the International Growers Association that WHO is not against tobacco farming but tobacco could kill ten million annually by the 2020s. Scientific adviser to WHO, Richard Peto adds: ‘WHO cannot simply stand by and count the dead.’
Thalif Deen / Third World Network Features
The Dodo revisited
Eleven per cent of all known bird species are threatened with extinction, according to the World Resources Institute. Most of this decline is due to fragmentation or loss of habitat. New Zealand, South Korea, the Philippines and Madagascar all have over 10 per cent of bird populations threatened with extinction.
Down to Earth Vol 8 No 2
‘Mr Clinton does not have the strength of character to be a war criminal.’