New Internationalist 337 August 2001
‘Water is part of life. It is part of our cultural celebration. It is part of our attachment to the earth and to the moon.’ Charles Abugre, of the Ghanaian organization Isodec, explains why incipient water privatization is sparking popular resistance in the country’s capital, Accra. ‘This issue has a popular resonance. People realize there is a division between rich and poor, and this even affects whether you can access something as integral to life itself as water.’
Ghana qualifies as a Highly Indebted Poor Country (HIPC), due for partial debt relief under a World Bank initiative to ease the debt burden of the world’s poorest countries. The World Bank attaches conditions to this debt relief. In this case private-sector participation in water provision must be promoted or else the Ghanaian Government will not be allowed to access loans.
The World Bank is lending $100 million for the rehabilitation of water facilities prior to privatization. Abugre says, ‘There is a lot at stake. The Government is broke and $100 million is a lot of money. It just picked up the privatization process and decided to fast-track it even though there was no major debate about this.’
The transnational water companies bidding for the urban water service in Accra are Crédit Lyonnais, Biwater, Vivendi, Saur and Zurichs (an Enron subsidiary).
But they may not have an easy ride.
‘When the World Bank came and told us we were a Highly Indebted Poor Country, Ghanaians were offended,’ says Abugre. ‘In our culture that concept means you are unable to do anything for yourself. For the last 20 years people have been bleeding under the World Bank’s structural-adjustment programmes, but we were being told that Ghana was a structural-adjustment success story. Suddenly people are saying, “If we now need assistance as a highly indebted poor country, then why are they putting yet more conditions like privatization on to our debt relief? This is just another agenda to control our lives.”
‘This has been a very radicalizing moment in Ghanaian society. So much so that at a grassroots level people make jokes about HIPC and say “We are highly indebted poor citizens.” People are now making conscious links between our country’s debt, the World Bank, the IMF, globalization, and the privatization going on in many sectors. And resistance to the privatization of water has become a symbol of resistance against externally imposed agendas.’
A huge mobilization is building. Local radio stations buzz with daily phone-ins. Trade unions are getting involved. The Church has taken up the cause as a moral and ethical issue. A vigorous four-day debate in Accra led to the creation of the Ghana National Coalition Against the Privatization of Water. Thousands of urban poor turned up to the public meeting, which ended with singing and dancing in the streets. Abugre concludes: ‘Right now we are looking at a legal injunction against privatization. But we will also have to take this to the streets.’
Charles Abugre says the popular feeling is this: ‘The idea that a foreign company will decide whether I get water or whether I don’t get water, when they are pumping that water from my rivers and my streams and turning it into something that I don’t have access to when I can’t pay – it’s outrageous. What right does this company have to do that?
‘Privatization is going too far. When they cross that line, they incur the resistance of the people.’
Charles Abugre talked to Katharine Ainger
A project of the International Parliament of Writers, the first such shelter was established in Strasbourg, France, in 1993. The campaign to create refuge houses has been spearheaded by exiled Nigerian Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka and has provided sanctuaries for Cuban, Chinese, Iraqi, Iranian and Balkan writers.
The Mexico City House of Refuge was inaugurated in 1998 by novelist Salman Rushdie on a hush-hush trip through Mexico.
Kosovar writer Xheudat Bajraj and Serbian Vladimir Arsenijevic have been the first two exiled writers to take up residence in the big house on Citlaltapetl.
Mexico City has always been a Mecca for refugee writers, particularly Latin Americans, points out La Casa de Refugio director Philippe Olle. Gabriel Garcia Marquez has long maintained a home here as has his fellow Colombian Alvaro Mutis.
Now Olle is opening the doors of La Casa de Refugio to the world with nightly book presentations and lectures on the works of foreign writers on Mexico – late American beatniks Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, one-time denizens of this city, have been featured.
But though the scene here is bustling, literary life does not have much allure outside Mexico City’s cultural corridors. The country comes 107th out of a list of 108 book-reading countries.
John Ross, Gemini News
In a pioneering move the Sri Lankan Government has banned the import of genetically modified foods. Under the new rules importers of food are required to produce a certificate ‘from an accredited laboratory or competent government authority certifying that the food product does not contain any material or ingredient that has been subjected to genetic modification’.
Hard on the heels of the ban, which came into effect 1 May 2001, McDonalds in Sri Lanka suspended cheese imports from Aotearoa/New Zealand which were destined for its burgers.
Shashi Mohotti, general manager of McDonalds in the capital, Colombo, said they were ‘trying to comply with government regulations as a responsible company’.
The regulations were hailed by environmentalists and health activists as a positive move to safeguard the integrity of the country’s food supply and public health, but drew mixed reactions from importers who have had to comply with the new rules.
Hemantha Perera of CPC Lanka Ltd, manufacturers and distributors of a wide range of canned and bottled foods complains: ‘We import tomato paste from suppliers in China, who say it requires more time, money and documentation to produce the certificate.’
In contrast, Shantha Perera, Deputy General Manager for the state controlled Co-operative Wholesale Establishment (CWE) – the biggest single importer of food to Sri Lanka – said: ‘We had no problems. The suppliers are anxious to negotiate their Letters of Credit, so they get the required certificates from the agriculture or health departments of their countries, or labs authorized by their governments.’
At the moment importers can thank the World Trade Organization (WTO) for a brief respite. According to WTO rules the Sri Lankan administration is required to give 60 days’ notice of the ban, which has now been temporarily lifted. But S Nagiah, Sri Lanka’s Chief Inspector of Food and Drugs, says there will be no change in overall policy. ‘A lot of people are complying and there is a good voluntary response,’ he reports. The tentative date for re-imposition of the ban is 1 September 2001.
Some ask why Sri Lanka has made such a bold move in banning GM food. Consumers in Western countries have not managed to persuade their governments of the wisdom of labeling, let alone banning the controversial produce.
World trade rules are part of the explanation for this failure. The US has warned that European attempts to label GM foods discriminate unfairly against its agricultural sector, as the world’s leading producer of GM crops. This has the potential to become a major, protracted and damaging trade dispute on both sides.
The US is not just sending warning signals to the EU. The agricultural counsellor to the US embassy in New Delhi, Weyland Beeghly, heavily criticized Sri Lanka’s move on a recent visit to Colombo. He told reporters that GM foods posed no serious health hazard and called for scientific evidence to prove it was harmful.
Meanwhile Hemantha Vithanage, Sri Lankan environmental scientist and Executive Director of the Environmental Foundation, says that labeling is not an acceptable alternative to an outright ban in the country. Many argue that as these foods have not yet been adequately tested, the so-called precautionary principle should be used. ‘As a poor country we have to safeguard our people. If the US says it is not harmful, it is up to them to show it,’ says Vithanage.
Batty in Bati
Suth Sen, a rural smallholder from the Bati District who supports his eight family members by farming his one hectare of rice, a pond, six chickens and two pigs, learned this farming technique from a neighbour. He was soon collecting between five and ten kilos of fresh bat droppings (guano) from under one of his trees. Up to 50, 000 bats nest in any one tree at a time. When the nesting area becomes dirty Sen creates new nesting sites in new trees, luring the bats to them with bananas, and cleans the old nests out.
The guano is very pungent but provides five times more nutrients than the phosphate fertilizer he could buy in the market. Sen spreads half over his rice field, 30 per cent on his wife’s vegetable plot, and uses the rest to promote phytoplankton in his pond for his fish to eat.
Now his rice fields are flourishing with five-per-cent more yield.
Sen's ingenious system is environmentally friendly and economically sound, and showed visiting agricultural experts how much they could learn from traditional farmers’ knowledge.
Ten years on from the 1991 ceasefire in the war between Morocco and the Western Saharan liberation movement, Polisario, the UN has delivered a body blow to Saharawis’ right to self-determination. Former US Secretary of State James Baker, now the UN Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy to Western Sahara, proposed to the UN Security Council on 26 June that the planned referendum should be abandoned and replaced by an offer of ‘autonomy’ within Morocco.
It was an extraordinary volte-face on the part not only of Baker but also of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Western Sahara is the last colony in Africa and its people’s right to self-determination has been consistently supported by the UN General Assembly since 1975, when Morocco invaded the former Spanish colony, condemning more than half the Saharawi population to a miserable existence in a refugee settlement in the bleakest part of the Algerian desert.
Few impartial observers doubt that in any free and fair vote the vast majority of Saharawis would opt for independence rather than being part of Morocco. As a result Morocco spent the 1990s putting every possible obstacle in the way of the referendum, including settling Moroccans in the occupied territories and trying to get them included on the voting roll.
When James Baker first became involved in 1997 he made progress: Morocco signed up to the Houston Agreement in which the outstanding issues on voter registration and the repatriation of refugees were apparently resolved. The Houston Agreement and Settlement Plan ran to hundreds of meticulously negotiated pages; Baker’s new ‘plan’ amounts to less than two pages.
Under pressure from sceptical UN Security Council members, Baker conceded that the autonomy plan was conceived in Morocco, though he claimed to have ‘polished’ it. He was given a rough ride by the representatives from Russia, Ireland, Singapore, Jamaica, Mauritius, Mali and Bangladesh, all of whom insisted that any talks Baker is now to conduct must include the original referendum plan and not just the new autonomy idea. The scepticism of these countries hardened when they received a letter from Algeria, Polisario’s main backer, which accused Kofi Annan of ‘shamelessly taking sides’.
Nevertheless the Security Council approved the autonomy talks. The new development is a shock for Saharawi refugees, who have come to feel in the last two years that they will have no alternative but to return to arms. They are vastly outnumbered and outgunned, and face a fortified, landmined Moroccan wall across the entire length of the country. If war resumes they will also face new British armaments: having previously refused arms-export licences to Morocco, the British Government in 1999 approved the refurbishment of 30 105-mm Light Guns, a fact which has only recently emerged to embarrass the New Labour administration. No-one doubts, however, Polisario’s willingness and ability to fight an effective guerrilla war.
Why has the UN position suddenly shifted so drastically? Observers speculate that it has much to do with the US desire to bolster King Mohammed VI – Morocco is the one reliable Arab ally of the US and there is hope (largely unrealized so far) that the young king might lighten the ferocious repression associated with his father, King Hassan.
But the sudden lurch of the UN into Morocco’s arms remains a betrayal not only of the Saharawi people but also of its own most fundamental principles. The Western Sahara issue is as clear cut as that of East Timor, which was also a former colony invaded by its neighbour in 1975. As the UN prepares its welcome for the newly independent East Timor, it must not be allowed to sacrifice Western Sahara on the altar of political expediency.
For the full background on Western Sahara see NI 297 via our website www.newint.org For current news visit www.arso.org To offer support contact the Western Sahara Campaign at [email protected]
This article is from
the August 2001 issue
of New Internationalist.
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