High Tech Toys Fuel Africa’s World War
BRAZZAVILLE — Tantalum – the refined extract of Columbite-tantalite, also known as coltan — is a hot property these days. It’s used in everything from Nokia and Ericsson mobile phones to Intel computer chips. But securing a supply for high-tech toys also fuels war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
According to a recent investigation in the Industry Standard, the Congo supplies seven percent of the world’s tantalum, most from rebel-controlled mines where the local population is under brutal control. The rebels have earned millions from western technology companies, who’ve done little to avoid purchasing "conflict" tantalum. A recent UN report called the companies trading minerals in the Congo "the engines of conflict in the DRC."
This isn’t just another African skirmish; some are calling it Africa’s World War. Since 1999, up to three million people have died in it. The conflict has destabilized the entire region, engaging troops from Congo, Rwanda, Angola, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Namibia. Tantalum mining has also destroyed vast tracks of rainforest and endangered wildlife, including already threatened gorillas.
The situation echoes the West’s desire for diamonds, which has fueled wars in Sierra Leone, Angola, and Liberia. Both resources have little value for Africans, but their extraction and sale have caused chaos, corruption, and death.
The roots of the crisis go back 40 years, to the Congo’s independence. After liberation leader Patrice Lumumba was executed and Mobutu Sese Seko took power — with the help of the CIA — he handed out vast mineral rights to foreign companies.
Today, with Mobutu and his successor Laurent Kabila gone, the Congo is again at war. Meanwhile, foreign companies, like Belgian colonialists before them, rush in to extract the country’s resources with little regard for the toll it takes on people and the environment.
For more, check out Project Underground (www.moles.org), a non-profit assisting environmental, human rights, and indigenous rights movements to combat abuses connected with resource extraction.
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War Crimes Court Hangs on Funding
NEW YORK — A joint UN-Sierra Leone war crimes tribunal to prosecute those responsible for atrocities during the West African nation’s civil war has received the go-ahead from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. All he needs now is $15 million.
In a letter to the UN Security Council, Annan asks that the funds promised for the court’s first year be deposited in a trust fund by August. If that’s done, he will put UN legal advisors to work with the Sierra Leone government on creating a Special Court.
A year ago, the Security Council asked Annan to negotiate an agreement for a joint war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown. One of the first to face it will likely be Foday Sankoh, imprisoned leader of the Revolutionary United Front, charged with crimes dating to 1996. Sankoh’s movement kidnapped children, some as young as six, and forced them to kill on command.
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Tanzania’s Vanishing Coastline
DAR ES SALAAM — In 1991, when a tiny island off the Tanzanian coast slipped into the ocean, Issa Sheha dismissed it as a miracle. But after Sheha, a coconut grower on the northern shore of Zanzibar, lost more than 70 coconut palms in three years due to the advancing ocean, he became considerably more interested in the effects of rising seas.
Like many others on this Tanzanian island, Sheha sells coconuts to survive. But as rising seas wash away coastal land, already poor residents are feeling helpless and look to the government for aid.
"An increase in sea level is one of the direct consequences of increase in global temperatures," says Magnus Ngoile, Director of Tanzania’s National Environmental Council. Sea levels rose between four and ten inches in the last century, and could rise another 20 by 2100. If that happens, a Tanzanian study indicates that 1200 square miles of coastline will be lost.
The coast brings in big money through tourism and small-scale manufacturing located there. Hotels, business, and upscale oceanfront homes will be destroyed if the predictions come true. One hotel has already been ruined and abandoned due to rising waters.
Although it signed the Kyoto Protocol, the government has been slow to react. Until recently, global warming was considered an "alien phenomenon." But now the public is realizing that local activities, especially methane and nitrous oxide build up from farming, and deforestation, also influence climate change. In Tanzania, this raises a new and worrisome question: What will be faster — the rising sea or humanity’s response?
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US Prison Labor Draws Friendly Fire
WASHINGTON — Sale of prison-made goods from China is frequently condemned in the West. Yet, US prisoners produce a wide range of goods and services. Most States operate their own prison industries, but one of the biggest users of inmate labor is Federal Prison Industries (FPI), which operates under the trade name Unicor.
Last year, Unicor employed more than 20,000 inmates, posting sales of $546 million and a $34 million profit. Calling it vocational training for inmates, Unicor manufactures products ranging from T-shirts to furniture. The prisoners get between 35 cents and $1.23 per hour.
Some lawmakers and business leaders are starting to question the arrangement, however. Specifically, they want to alter or end the government’s preference for prison-made goods. The main target is "mandatory sourcing" rules, which require government agencies to buy prison-made items if they’re available. Critics call it an unfair monopoly.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican, is pushing to eliminate the requirement and allow the private sector to compete for contracts. An aide to Hoekstra calls the current situation "a license to steal" from other federal agencies, notably the military.
Another House bill, introduced by Virginia Republican Frank Wolf, would end the FPI monopoly, but allow federal prisoners to produce goods already being made abroad, including TVs and VCRs. But this could run afoul of World Trade Organization rules, and draw even more fire from trading partners, organized labor, and industry.
Critics claim FPI produces overpriced, poor-quality goods that government agencies must buy. The Coalition for Government Procurement, an industry-labor group, reports that FPI furniture and electrical goods are priced 15 percent above the private sector. Textile products go for 42 percent above market rates. The program "ends up costing the taxpayers a lot of money," says Joe Theissen of the Chamber of Commerce. He adds, "small companies have lost a big portion of their business" when FPI decides to manufacture an item.
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Timor Secures an Undersea Windfall
DILI — East Timorese and Australian officials have finally signed an historic treaty dividing oil and gas royalties from Timor Sea reserves. The deal, granting East Timor 90 percent of the royalties, could bring the cash-strapped fledgling state up to $5 billion over the next 20 years.
Prior to the July 5 signing, East Timor’s cabinet member for economic affairs, Mari Alkatiri, threatened to skip the ceremony to protest the presence of Denis Burke, chief minister of Australia’s Northern Territory. He accused Burke of attempting to undermine the yearlong negotiations by lobbying members of East Timor’s embryonic parliament, the National Council.
Under an earlier deal with Indonesia, which occupied East Timor until its 1999 vote for independence, Australia and Indonesia were to split the royalties. But Australia ultimately agreed to accept just ten percent, accepting an East Timor demand based on maritime law.
Oil and gas deposits beneath the sea could transform East Timor into a self-sufficient country (TF, May 2001). Estimates suggest that one of the biggest oil fields will produce $38 million a year by 2004. East Timor’s annual budget is $23 million.
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Kashmir: No Paradise for Women
SRINAGAR — Since Kashmir conflict began in 1989, Muslim militants seeking independence from India have managed to ban abortion and birth control. As a result, many Kashmiri women have unwanted babies. But others go to Jammu, where militancy is under control, or pay huge sums to buy black market contraceptives or secret abortions.
The challenge to reproductive rights is one of many threats facing women in the Himalayan province, once known as an earthly paradise for its scenic beauty. As their men are killed in fighting between Indian troops and Kashmiri separatists, women become the sole breadwinners. But strict patrolling by Indian soldiers limits their mobility, while religious extremists impose severe social restrictions. Before the fighting, many women opted for birth control. But, as one Islamic militant explains, the current ban is based both on religion and numbers: "If our women do not bear children we Muslims will be outnumbered by Hindus in Kashmir."
Glorifying women as biological regenerators of the nation, the militants show little regard for their rights or maternal emotions. Although pressured not to abort, mothers are frequently asked to sacrifice their sons in the armed struggle.
An early step in the fundamentalist campaign was the closing of liquor shops and cinemas. Next, women were ordered to wear the burqa, a head-to-toe black cloak, and banned from using make up. Then came the abortion and contraception edicts.
In the late 90s, women became more defiant, and India flushed most militants out of Srinagar, the region’s capital. But hard line Islamic ideas are filtering back in from Afghanistan, raising fears that the old diktats will be revived.
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Hollywood Histories Sell Hidden Agendas
LOS ANGELES – In Kevin Costner’s Cuban missile crisis thriller, 13 Days, the CIA’s backing of the Bay of Pigs invasion is conveniently omitted, even though that would help explain why Cuba felt compelled to accept Russian nukes. Similarly, Pearl Harbor fails to mention the US embargo on oil and raw materials that prompted Japanese militarists to conquer Southeast Asia, beginning with a knock out blow to the US Pacific fleet.
Inaccuracies and omissions in Hollywood’s historical epics are nothing new. But the plot thickens when you consider the underlying theme of both recent films: the other guy’s expansionism is to blame. In 13 Days, for instance, it’s communist bravado — not interventionist US policies. Both films also underscore current US military priorities and attitudes. Pearl Harbor’s focus on death-from-the skies, for example, suggests the need for a National Missile Defense System. It also depicts Japanese pilots as almost superhuman and eerily treacherous, playing to Anti-Asian prejudice while subtly symbolizing our current nemesis, the Chinese.
Which brings us to coming attractions. Reviving the disaster genre in a Cold War setting, it’s K-19: The Widowmaker, a Harrison Ford vehicle based on a 1961 Soviet nuclear sub disaster. Relatives of the deceased sailors are already worried that the film puts the men in a false, unflattering light.
Hmmm, now why would anyone want to suggest that the Russians can’t handle their own nukes?