5 May 2002
© Copyright 2002 New Internationalist
Publications Ltd. All rights reserved.
In response to the Zimbabwean elections in March, the international community peeled off along largely colonial lines – in either their condemnation of, or support for, the ruling ZANU-PF party fixing of the result. All African observers but the Southern African Development Community Parliamentary Forum found the election ‘free and fair’. And it might have been easy to make the mistake. Voting was relatively orderly on the days of polling except for in the urban areas where people queued for 36 hours to vote, and the police weighed in to frustrated queues of opposition voters to ‘maintain order’.
The choice facing the Zimbabwean people was barely a choice at all. ZANU-PF, Robert Mugabe’s party, has held power since liberation in 1980. Taking advantage of a peasant uprising in 1998, they have used the real and urgent issue of land reform to extend control over rural areas. On the other hand, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is a candidly neoliberal party, one that has promised to privatize services within a year of gaining power.
Arguably, the MDC is the lesser of two evils. Although they have used their own militia against ideological dissenters within their ranks, there would be a little more space for opposition under an MDC than a ZANU-PF regime.
President Mugabe has instituted two acts to foreclose public debate about alternatives. The Public Order and Security Act (POSA) of January 2002 targets anyone engaging in ‘terrorist’ activities among the public. In reality, this is being used to intimidate opposition members who have been prevented from giving public rallies and imprisoned.
After the election, Mugabe ushered in by executive decree the Freedom of Information and Right to Privacy Media Bill. It demands that all journalists be registered with the state, re-accredited on a yearly basis. Foreign journalists are being accredited on a discretionary basis.
Although some journalists remain defiant in the face of this onslaught, they are outnumbered and outresourced by the state-owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation. It is unlikely that dissenting opinions will reach the public – at a time when dissent could not be more urgent.
It was into this climate that, a week before the elections, the Zimbabwe Indymedia Centre (IMC) came online. It was set up by a small group of activists keen to create a space for voices not heard in the polarized debates between Mugabe’s old-style national socialism and the MDC’s neoliberalism.
Although organized underground, written under pseudonyms, and with the server based outside Zimbabwe for security reasons, the IMC has a very public goal. That is to neuter the Freedom of Information bill by turning everyone into a journalist, by insisting, in other words, on the right of the Zimbabwean public to produce the news they consume. Of course, internet access is difficult – not least due to low levels of literacy – and the state is trying to clamp down on the IMC. But it remains a hopeful outpost for unheard Zimbabwean voices, carving out a position between the MDC and ZANU-PF at a time when both parties are trying to silence them.
US cyber-waste dumped in Asia
In Guiyu, China, around 100,000 villagers are paid $1.50 per day to break apart computers and monitors to salvage valuable materials, using only hammers, chisels and other crude tools with no protective clothing. They crack, smash and burn components, unaware of the potentially hazardous chemicals they are releasing. ‘We found a cyber-age nightmare,’ said Jim Puckett from the environmental group Basel Action Network. ‘They call this “recycling”, but it is dumping by any other name.’ Puckett’s group has produced a report showing that e-waste is the fastest growing waste-stream in the industrialized world. In America, up to 80 per cent of what the country terms ‘recyclable’ electronics waste is sent to Asia.
New Scientist No 2334
On 27 February this year in Ecuador – a day of national celebration – children in schools around the country were swearing to defend their country and kiss their national flag. But in Proyecto Educativo Raíces – a school in the capital, Quito – the students pledged allegiance to defend their environment, not their country. Twenty-two then acted on their pledge by travelling two-and-a-half hours northwest of Quito to join the tree-sitters of Mindo.
From 2 January this year, the tree-sitters lived on 10 platforms: wooden planks hammered together and roped to the branches in the tree canopy of the Mindo-Nambillo Reserve, nestled within a cloud forest in the Andes. Protesters from Europe, the US and nearby Colombia have been sitting with members of the local community of Mindo in an attempt to block a 500-kilometre oil pipeline from cutting through the Reserve and damaging its fragile environment. With human bodies perched high in their branches, the trees were protected from being cut down to clear the space that the pipeline needed if it were to proceed.
The children from Proyecto Educativo Raíces, aged from 9 to 11 years, spent just one night on the tree platforms. As Patricia Granda, an environmental defender with Acción Ecologica, led them away from the protest site the next day, the children talked exuberantly about the rich biodiversity they had seen – home to over 450 bird species, 10 per cent of them endangered. The eldest girl questioned why the military were there. When Patricia told her that they were guarding the area for a private project, the girl said: ‘They cannot call this private… this is for everyone.’
Not according to oil-trade rules. The pipeline, known as the OCP (Oleoducto de Crudo Presado), is controlled by an international consortium that includes Occidental Petroleum, a company with a poor (some say heinous) environmental and human-rights track-record in Colombia. The Ecuador Government’s own experience with pipelines inspires no confidence either. In the past four years, a total of 145,000 barrels of oil have been spilled from a state-owned pipeline causing significant groundwater and soil contamination. As the OCP will pass through a landslide- and earthquake-prone area, accidents are feared to be inevitable. Nevertheless, following pressure from the International Monetary Fund, Ecuador’s President Noboa approved the project despite international and local opposition.
This opposition has continued. In February this year, protesters in two regions of the country occupied 60 oil wells and 5 refineries, halting all construction on the pipeline. Soldiers were deployed to stop these protesters – shooting into crowds, wounding many, and spraying teargas from helicopters, asphyxiating at least one child.
There have been no deaths yet in the Mindo Cloud Forest. There the tree-sitters protested peacefully in the canopy for up to 10 days a shift – 5 to 10 people at a time. They were armed with nothing more than the tents, candles, food and clothes they had walked in with. They descended from the trees when necessary to keep watch, cook or undertake the 40-minute walk for water. That is, until the Special Forces forcibly evicted them on 25 March.
At the time of writing 17 of these protestors were still in detention.
Prommin Lertsuriyadej, the Prime Minister’s secretary-general, said several taxi drivers had informed him about the smear campaign and that, ‘the Government will take legal action against anyone caught spreading rumours’. Critics say that Thaksin is being paranoid.
In May – after more than a decade of continuous warfare – the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sinhalese-dominated government of Sri Lanka will attempt to work out a peace settlement.
Sri Lanka is an island with a population of 19 million in an area the size of Tasmania, Australia. Though sharing cultural affinities with the Sinhalese majority (74 per cent of the population), the Sri Lankan Tamils (12 per cent) have a different language and script. They allege systematic discrimination over the last 50 years.
Since 1976 their leaders have sought to establish a separate state – called Eelam – in the northern and eastern provinces of the country. Since the early 1970s, when some Tamil youths formed underground revolutionary organizations geared for armed struggle, extremists from both sides have fed off each other. Sinhalese pogroms directed against Tamils in southern areas in 1977 and 1983 – both obscene episodes – helped swell support for Eelam among Tamils both inside and outside the country.
In the mid-1980s several Tamil organizations competed to lead the struggle for Eelam. LTTE members set themselves apart: they carried cyanide capsules displaying their readiness to die rather than be captured, a commitment that drew admiration in Tamil circles. Since then the LTTE has ruthlessly eliminated leaders of rival Tamil groups and assigned squads, including suicide-bombers, to kill Sinhalese leaders or set off massive vehicle bombs.
By the 1990s they were the most powerful voice for Tamil ‘liberation’ and ran a de facto state in parts of the north and east that some observers have characterized as ‘fascist’. Velupillai Prabhakaran is the authoritarian head of this military regime and has cult status embodied in the title thalaivar (leader). He commands an efficient army and a navy with speedboats that can outrun government warships. Critically, the LTTE has also become a transnational corporation with many tentacles, including a shipping company, devoted to moneymaking, propaganda and logistics.
What then is likely to happen in the peace talks? The LTTE could use the talks, as it did in 1990 and 1995, as breathing space for rearmament directed towards a new military thrust and escalated warfare.
Alternatively, it could temper its demands and settle for regional autonomy that would leave it as a one-party dictatorship in the Tamil domain. But if talks collapsed under the weight of the intractable issues attached to such a settlement, this too would generate war at a worse level. Given that more than 63,000 lives have been lost so far over 25 years in this particular conflict, this is a desperate prospect.
Politics kidnapped in Colombia
FARC is pitted in civil war against the outlawed right-wing military group, AUC, and the US-backed Colombian army (allegedly linked to the AUC). Three-year-long peace negotiations broke down irretrievably only days before Betancourt’s kidnapping: the Government withdrew when another senator was kidnapped on 20 February. Colombian President Andrés Pastrana then ordered his forces to start retaking the 42,000-square-kilometre area he had handed over to FARC. Over 200 bombing raids have been carried out since then. FARC’s position is now precarious. Activities like kidnapping have weakened its popular support while the Government is now stronger: in four years, its military has swelled from 79,000 to 140,000, with more US help on the way.
Like a growing number of South American leaders Senator Betancourt vociferously rejects the current model of globalization. At a Global Greens Conference recently she supported a new economic model based on fair – rather than ‘free’ – trade and on wealth generation through real productivity, not speculation. ‘If it is true that faith moves mountains and that David conquered Goliath, then our fight should be victorious’, she said. She needs this faith now. FARC says it will hold her (and five others) until the Government releases 200 imprisoned guerrillas.
© Copyright 2002 New Internationalist
Publications Ltd. All rights reserved.