Global Notebook 2/99

Moving Beyond Borders

PRETORIA – When southern Africa was wracked by civil wars in the 1980s, an electric fence was strung across the no-man’s-land separating South Africa from Mozambique. But it’s about to be replaced by a huge, trans-boundary "peace park" linking Kruger National Park in South Africa with two others across the border. Together with a reserve in Zimbabwe, the plan represents a new trend in nature conservation and regional cooperation.

More parks are in the works. For example, one would link the Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda, protecting the habitat of endangered mountain gorillas. In addition to providing "environmental security," the parks also may provide economic benefits. By the millennium, tourism – much of it nature-related – will account for almost a million jobs in South Africa alone.

According to John Hanks, director of the Peace Parks Foundation, no communities will be forcibly removed to make room for the parks. Thinking big, however, he calls these protected areas "the most ambitious wildlife conservation initiative of this century."

A related, equally ambitious plan – known as "the African Dream" – would link such areas from the equator to South Africa, and east to west across the continent.

"Conservation in Africa is no longer just about saving wildlife, but creating development opportunities" says Noel de Villiers, the idea’s architect. "Peace parks could be a major step in this direction."

Apartheid by Other Means

SYDNEY – Australia could be heading "back to apartheid," a leading aboriginal spokeswoman charges. At issue is conservative Prime Minister John Howard’s attempt to push through controversial land rights legislation. "Australia faces the choice of going to an apartheid regime or continuing to work toward a multicultural society," argues Marcia Langton.

Howard has threatened to call an early election if the Senate refuses to back his plan to scrap rights given to aborigine people by the country’s High Court. Farmers, who seek exclusive possession, are waging a "scare campaign" aimed at urban Australians. "Howard wants a race-based election," argues Langton, chair of aboriginal studies at Darwin’s Northern Territory University.

In December 1996, a Court ruling allowed the country’s 300,000 aborigines to claim rights over land under pastoral or mining leases. Subsequently, Howard pushed legislation through the lower house that reversed the decision, but the Senate rejected it.

Langton says aboriginal people don’t want to take over the land. They simply want the right to claim sacred sites, or visiting rights to safeguard their culture. They also demand better social and economic benefits for clans living on such land.

The land rights struggle escalated after indigenous groups claimed vast tracts of sea, including rich fishing grounds and the Barrier Reef. Over a hundred claims have been lodged in the past three years.

Howard’s plan would violate both Australia’s constitution and international agreements against racial discrimination, Langton charges. Officials of the indigenous Australian people may take their case to the European Union, Asia, and the UN. They’re also discussing actions before or during the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

The Healing Power of Toys

KIGALI – For a traumatized Rwandan child, toys might not seem a priority. But North-South Act (ANS), a French aid group specializing in conflict-zone psychological support, uses "recycled" games and toys to heal emotional wounds. During the May 1997 repatriation of Rwandan refugees from Congo, ANS created five playgrounds as psychological support for the 100 children who arrived alone each week. Each playground became a refuge, filled with laughter, music, and activity, in contrast to the solemn mood of the rest of the camp. A related project, Toys from Trash, turns cardboard boxes, old tires, empty cans, and other rubbish into everything from model plans to musical instruments.

At Runda camp, three-year-old Pascal is typical – silent at first, taking no notice of the playground fun. Bewildered, he can’t say where he lives, or if his parents are alive. It may take months to find the answers. But slowly he wanders to the play area, where at least some of his wounds can start to heal.

"It’s vital for emotionally distressed children to have something creative to do," says Stephanie Mukankusi, who coordinates the Kigali program. Games help them feel less alone, and playing music together can calm their young souls.

When the State Fails

ALGIERS – In Algeria, violence has reached unprecedented levels. But the official story, attributing sole responsibility for civilian slaughter to "terrorist groups," is a bit too simple. To begin with, most of the recent massacres have occurred in highly militarized regions – often close to army barracks and security forces posts. In addition, the attacks are most intense where a large percentage of people voted for the banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) before the state of emergency imposed in 1992.

Recent victims include FIS supporters, those who assist "Islamist" groups, and many who refuse to join state militias, according to Amnesty International. In some cases, the killers acted with the consent of army and security units. This suggests that the government may be trying to "eradicate" the Islamists it vowed to destroy politically.

Massacres have clustered around the Mitidja plateau, Algeria’s most fertile region. After independence, the land was nationalized; later, farmers acquired the right to its permanent use. But recent efforts to privatize have sparked intense debate, and much of the land may wind up in the hands of powerful interests.

The state claims it can’t protect its citizens. Yet, adequate security was provided during elections in 1997. Security is also tight in lucrative "exclusion zones" dotted with oil and gas wells, refineries, and pipelines. Foreign companies are well-protected by security forces, and the IMF and World Bank are pleased with the country’s economic "liberalization" policies. Officials claim that the government is defending "democracy" from violent "terrorist groups" seeking an Islamic regime. But the evidence suggests that, although Islamic extremists are often responsible, terror and murder are also the tools of those claiming to respect the rule of law.

Rainforests Take Another Hit

SAO PAOLO – The Amazon – an essential part of the Earth’s maintenance system – is being lost at a rate of at least 20,000 square miles a year, says a report by a Brazilian congressional committee investigating foreign logging. That’s three times the previous estimate. Twelve percent of this global eco-treasure is already gone, mainly due to logging and wildfires. And the threats are growing – from El Nino-induced burning to an influx of industrial loggers who want an even bigger harvest.

In what amounts to a cover-up, the government’s own figures on deforestation have been withheld. But satellite data indicates that it’s occurring over a larger area than ever. If current trends continue, the Amazon will be lost within 50 years, says the report’s author, Rep. Gilney Vianna of the Worker’s Party in Mato Grosso.

The government promised to release its figures in December, but Eduardo Martins, president of Brazil’s Environmental Protection Agency, withheld them. Vianna and others charge that he was avoiding embarrassment at the conference on greenhouse gases in Kyoto, Japan. Martins denies that, but admits that Amazon destruction is on the rise.

Photos from a NASA satellite indicate that, in the last four years, destruction has expanded by 122,544 square miles – roughly the size of Italy. The congressional estimate, which includes lots smaller than those measurable by satellite pictures, is even higher.

Vianna wants a 10-year moratorium on cutting and burning, "because the government has no coherent policy. Seventy percent of the burnings are authorized, and so is the vast majority of the deforestation."

Breathing Life into Old Words

JOHANNESBURG – "Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind." So agreed 48 states that signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights almost 50 years ago. But they looked forward to "a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want." In 1998, nevertheless, half the world’s countries still imprison people for their beliefs, and a third use torture. Censorship, detention, execution, and denial of basic freedom are widespread.

"The public will not stand by for another 50 years of broken promises," announced Amnesty International’s secretary-general Pierre SanĀŽ in December, launching AI’s "Get Up, Sign Up" pledge campaign in Johannesburg. South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and Burma’s opposition leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, were among the first to sign, vowing active support for the Declaration. Amnesty wants to present millions of signatures to the UN on Dec. 10, its 50th anniversary.

Not everyone is enthusiastic, however. Malaysia’s Prime Minister says that freedom of expression and association may be inapplicable to "the Asian context." And Beijing’s representative on the UN’s Human Rights Commission argues, "The Western countries act like schoolteachers, handing out marks to their pupils. Is that fair?"

On the other hand, pressure also is growing to include economic factors like food and shelter. Unfortunately, the treaty-monitoring machinery established to implement the Declaration is rusty, and the 1993 creation of a High Commissioner for Human Rights hasn’t yet changed much.

The "quiet diplomacy" of the first Commissioner, Ecuador’s Jose Ayala Lasso, irritated activists. His speeches seemed to praise government efforts while downplaying their violations.

His successor, former Irish President Mary Robinson, pledges to bring "moral authority" to the post. But turning those words – like the Declaration itself – into reality will be difficult.

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