New Internationalist 362 November 2003
For a daily-wage worker like Devappa Naik, the helicopter flying above his head used to be an object of wonder.
Today Naik sits in his hut and mutters that he should smash the chopper into scrap. He sits there until his hatred subsides and tears roll down his face. Like Naik, the other villagers of Padre – in the Kasargode region of Kerala, south India – believe that the endosulfan pesticide sprayed down on the cashew trees from the chopper has turned hundreds of villagers into waste.
One of them is Naik’s 22-year-old son, Narayan. Narayan is just a metre tall. His skin crumbles like that of a 90-year-old. Narayan can stand, walk, eat, urinate and defecate only if someone hears his cry. Doctors have not been able to name the disease, but assert that toxic substances have devastated his system.
Independent field studies have shown that to date at least 60 people have died in the Kasargode district due to conditions thought by doctors and activists working in the region to have been caused by the endosulfan pesticide. Hundreds of cases of cancer, congenital anomalies, mental retardation, anaemia, gynaecological complaints and manic depression have been reported from six of the worst affected villages in Kasargode: all of which have cashew estates managed by a state-run agency where aerial spraying of endosulfan was introduced to counter the tea mosquito, a major pest that affects the yields.
The US Environmental Protection Agency classifies endosulfan as Category 1b – highly hazardous. It has been completely banned in ricefields in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Korea and Thailand. Canada, Finland, Britain, Kuwait, the Philippines, Russia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Madagascar have severely restricted its use.
A half-hearted ban on the pesticide by the state government has not deterred the manufacturers from selling endosulfan in the Indian markets. India is the largest producer of endosulfan in the world, and its industry leaders are working overtime to remove any potential harm to their business. An industry sponsored report was commissioned that absolved endosulfan. Activists opposing endosulfan were threatened with legal action. Now the industry has requested the national government to refrain from ratifying the Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) treaty. The treaty – under the aegis of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) – seeks to reduce the health and environmental risks posed by specified POPs, and endosulfan is 14th on the list.
No victim has so far been paid compensation. Nor have governing administrations taken any action against the propagators of aerial spraying. ‘There’s a clear case of apathy on part of both Keralan and Indian governments,’ declares C Jayakumar of Thanal, a Kerala-based environmental society. ‘They have never showed any interest in exposing the truth. Two and a half years after the surfacing of this ecological disaster, nothing is being done to save the victims.’
Forests down the mine shaft
After intense lobbying from the mining industry, environmental groups and its own Cabinet, the Indonesian House of Representatives has duck-shoved decisions by setting up a scientific committee to consider 158 individual proposals to mine in protected areas. The committee will assess on technical grounds whether projects should proceed and then report back to the Indonesian Parliament.
Twenty-two of these projects – proposed by transnationals – are being fast-tracked through the committee following British and Australian Embassy lobbying to overturn environment protection laws. Now in the fast lane is BHP Billiton’s plan to mine the protected forest of Gag Island and dump the waste into a proposed World Heritage marine site.
Well-organized resistance is springing up from indigenous communities from Borneo to Sulawesi. In North Maluku, 38 village heads and indigenous leaders of the Kao and Malifut peoples are speaking out against Australian Newcrest Mining’s push to mine their Toguraci protected forest.
Burma’s military is killing people by forcing them to walk across minefields to reveal where explosives are buried, reports Richard S Ehrlich. The September article that Richard submitted to the NI documents disturbing allegations made by a researcher from an international organization campaigning to ban landmines. ‘More and more people are being taken for forced de-mining who are prisoners. In a suspected mine area, they [the regime] will take these people and they will march them ahead of military units to detonate any mines that may be there,’ says Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan, a researcher with Landmine Monitor on Burma.
‘Up to 70 per cent of these people die. They can die being caught in the crossfire, they can die due to malnutrition and malaria, but they are also being killed by landmines, simply by being casualties in a war zone but also as human mine sweepers,’ he said.
London-based Amnesty International, Washington-based Human Rights Watch and other groups have documented ‘human mine sweepers’ dating back to 1985, Moser-Puangsuwan says.
Such atrocious human-rights abuses have made the Burmese regime an international pariah – one that merits the outspoken condemnation of the US Government, which imposed sanctions following the latest arrest of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the murder of an estimated 70 of her supporters. When President Bush signed a law imposing economic sanctions on Burma in late July, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan declared that the continued oppression of the Burmese people could not be allowed to stand. ‘The US is fully supportive of the people of Burma in their struggle for freedom and democracy.’
But – as an article submitted to the NI by Matthew Dimmock explains – the US is not so supportive if the human rights abuser is one of its own corporations.
Back in 1996 human-rights defenders at EarthRights International teamed up with lawyers to sue US oil giant Unocal on behalf of a group of Burmese villagers. They alleged that Unocal had been complicit in gross human-rights violations (including forced labour, murder and rape) committed by the Burmese military along its Yadana gas pipeline project. The case was made through the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA): a two-centuries-old law that allows citizens of other countries to sue in US courts for human-rights violations that take place overseas.
On 8 May this year the Justice Department filed a brief with the US Court of Appeals urging the court to dismiss the case against Unocal and to ‘reinterpret’ ATCA in a way that would render it useless. If accepted, the Justice Department’s argument would destroy the legal basis for the villagers’ suit outright – in addition to all victims seeking to sue through the ATCA in US courts for abuses committed overseas.
In a sweeping argument that went well beyond the Unocal case, Ashcroft’s Justice Department argued that ATCA cases interfere with US foreign policy and undermine America’s war on terrorism.
‘Without ATCA,’ says Rick Herz of EarthRights International, ‘US corporations can literally get away with murder – and forced labour, rape and torture – as long as it takes place overseas. In a world of transnational business, we need transnational accountability.’
For more information and analysis visit: www.earthrights.org
Walk gay-talk right out that door
But in 2002, with the prospect of war with Iraq looming, the situation changed. Dismissals plummeted and some gay servicepeople who did ‘come out’ to their commanding officers were told their confessions were ‘not credible’.
Except – it seems – when gay servicewomen and men were capable of communicating with people living within ‘the axis of evil’. The prospect of war was not enough to save 24 gay linguists – most trained in Arabic or Korean – from dismissal on the grounds of their sexual orientation.
Dismissed gay linguist Alastair Gamble was studying Arabic at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey. ‘I had the highest grade in the class,’ he said. ‘I was just getting to the point where I could do what they wanted me to do. I could listen to the radio and read the newspapers.’ Handy skills with which to understand one’s enemy? Not in today’s army. After all, who needs talk when the tanks are rolling?
Sources: The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) www.sldn.org ; PlanetOut, news roundroundup, 17 June 2003; USCB Centre for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military www.gaymilitary.usbc.edu
Brazil slaves freed
‘In a few intense months we have challenged and changed America’s attitudes about immigrants,’ said textile workers’ union vice-president May Chen – herself the daughter of Chinese immigrants – at a massive 4 October rally in New York City’s Flushing Meadows Park.
Ramon Ramirez, president of a farm workers’ union in Oregon, joined the Ride with his wife and three children. ‘We are struggling for a new legalization,’ he said, citing demands for citizenship opportunities, family reunification, and labour protection. ‘Our day is going to come.’
The estimated 100,000 people who gathered in New York City waved signs reading ‘We are all immigrants’ and ‘Amnistia Ahora!’(Amnesty Now!). Union banners flew alongside the colours of Mexico, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Ecuador and dozens of other countries. ‘Let me see you swing those flags,’ yelled hip-hop performer Wyclef Jean, as he rapped in three languages.
Armando Blas Garcia, who joined the Freedom Ride from Minneapolis with his 16-year-old daughter, told a reporter why Americans should take notice: ‘To people who say this has nothing to do with them, I say: “Who does your yard work? Who makes your fast food? Who cleans your hotel rooms?”’
Today’s immigrant rights activists take their inspiration from the militant Freedom Rides of 1961, with which the US Civil Rights movement challenged the apartheid of the Deep South. While the 2003 rides did not draw the same type of savage response from white racists, some activists nevertheless faced real risks. Two buses from Los Angeles were stopped by immigration authorities near El Paso, Texas.
‘“Show me proof of your citizenship,” they told us,’ recounted Maria Elena Durazo, the Freedom Ride chairperson. ‘They asked every single one of us, one by one, but none of us spoke.’
‘When they put us in a cell, people were scared and crying,’ added Diana Chavez, who had boarded one of the buses in Los Angeles. ‘We held each other and said we wouldn’t let them intimidate us. We sang the whole time.’
‘In that moment of danger,’ Durazo says, ‘we became children... of the African American fighters for Civil Rights.’
Spanish-language TV and radio stations in the Southwest treated the Ride’s stop by La Migra (the immigration authorities) as emergency breaking news. Politicians quickly responded by pressuring the Department of Homeland Security, which released the activists after four hours.
Polls show that amnesty is the top political issue for Hispanics who this year surpassed African Americans to become the largest minority group in the United States.
As a result of aggressive voter registration drives, Latinos in 2004 will constitute an estimated nine per cent of the electorate (up from seven per cent in 2000). Already it’s rare to find a national politician in the US who won’t attempt to stammer a few words of ‘Spanglish’ whenever they might court new amigos. In one gaffe, President Bush even did the same to greet French-speaking dignitaries.
The workers on the Freedom Ride are looking for more than false camaraderie and fickle promises from politicians. Diana Chavez, who took part in the Freedom Ride to show her Mexican-American father that ‘we can change this nation’, captures the mood: ‘We’re tired of racism and discrimination. Immigrants aren’t going to stay in the shadows any more.’
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