Global Notebook 9/98

Monsanto Plays the Hunger Card

LONDON – A new war is breaking out in Europe. On one side is Monsanto – the planet’s second largest agro-chemical company – which recently launched a major media blitz to overcome opposition to genetically engineered foods. On the other is the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FOA), non-government groups like the Panos Institute, and a growing chorus of European leaders. The stakes are control of world food supply.

Austria, Luxembourg, and Italy recently have attempted bans on the planting of genetically-modified seeds. European consumers are picketing grocery stores. One major UK supermarket chain has even refused to sell genetically-modified products. Britain’s Prince Charles accuses the multinationals of "playing God."

But Monsanto has convinced prominent Africans such as former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere and Gracia Machel – who just married President Nelson Mandela – to endorse their view. Under headlines that read "Let the Harvest Begin," such leaders are signing off on ads that say slowing the acceptance of biotechnology "is a luxury our hungry world cannot afford."

Counter-attacking, African delegates to the FAO issued their own statement: "We strongly object that the image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly, nor economically beneficial to us." They fear that Monsanto is working toward control of world crop production.

Six chemical companies – Monsanto, Enimont, Du Pont, Sandoz, Zeneca, and Ciba Geigy – dominate research and development in plant genetics. Together with Shell, WR Grace, and Cargill, the world’s largest grain and oilseed trader, they control the seed market. Genetically-engineered seeds already exist for corn, soy, sugar beet, and cotton. Modifications for other crucial crops are being explored.

Monsanto is growing rapidly through mergers, extending its involvement in farming, food processing, and distribution. In March, it merged with the Delta and Pine Lands Company, which patented the "terminator technology" that robs plants of their reproductive abilities. In June, it arranged to purchase Cargill’s international seed operations in Central and Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Suing for Independence

WASHINGTON, DC – The struggle for Hawai’ian sovereignty has taken a new turn – a lawsuit against the US government. The argument: the Hawai’ian Kingdom was stolen 105 years ago by a group of US citizens with illegal support from their government. A complaint was filed with the US Supreme Court in August.

According to Francis Boyle, the international law professor advising the Kingdom’s Office of the Regent, "Thieves cannot obtain or convey valid title to anything. As this lawsuit will establish, the United States never lawfully acquired the Hawaiian Kingdom."

The plaintiffs, who argue that the US is violating three 19th-century treaties, its own 1993 "apology" legislation, and international law, want reparations on behalf of native Hawai’ians. But the real goal is independence and membership in the UN. Boyle has previously represented Bosnia and Palestine.

Support for sovereignty has been growing for decades. But Hawai’ians differ on how it should be attained. Some favor independence, while others want the same rights as American Indians. After major demonstrations in 1993, the state’s government presented a plan for "self-government" that succeeded in provoking divisions. Lately, however, the movement has regained some momentum.

Meanwhile, an exhibition of contemporary native Hawai’ian art in New York this summer asked the question: Did they rob us? Using the colorful shirts and grass skirts associated with Hawai’i as a source of satire, it issued a scathing attack on the consumer society thrust onto the "Aloha state."

The Envelope, Please É

POPOTLA – The world’s foremost "new media" technology festival, Ars Electronica, has awarded its InfoWeapon cash prize to the people of a tiny Mexican fishing village for resisting unwanted technologies by means of trash and recycled materials.

To film the movie Titanic, 20th Century Fox built a "movie maquiladora" in Popotla, surrounding it with a giant cement barrier to keep the villagers out (TF, August 1998). Humiliated and angry, the locals reacted by covering what they called the "Berlin Wall" with a mural constructed from garbage. Ars Electronica has rewarded the community for its remarkable low-tech protest against an unpleasant high-tech invasion.

On the other hand, it also gave the movie an award – its Golden Nica prize for computer animation – thus managing to play both sides in this cultural and economic dispute.

Education on Magic

DAR ES SALAAM – Fear of "black magic" is deep-rooted in rural Tanzania. If a child dies, villagers often suspect witchcraft. As a result, hundreds of old people have been killed by mobs. But Timothy Shindika, a member of parliament from an area where such murders have occurred, wants to educate youngsters about traditional beliefs. "Let us not be ashamed of our own culture," he says. "I believe education on magic could help our children to be free of mythical beliefs."

Under Tanzania’s colonial Witchcraft Ordinance of 1928, anyone using sorcery to cause harm can be prosecuted. But when poor villagers think they’re victims, they often turn to violence instead of the law. Culprits are rarely found. Victims are often lonely widows, picked because of their red eyes. In reality, the color is the result of the excessive smoke given off by dried cow dung burned for fuel.

Due to inadequate health services, many people go to traditional healers. One former regional commissioner even admits knowing colleagues who consulted witches "in the quest to secure their positions and become rich."

Shindika’s proposal would replace superstition with the understanding that the real dangers are poor diet and lack of services, not magic. So far, the Minister of Education isn’t keen on the idea.

Corals in Crisis

KINGSTON – Warnings that up to 95 percent of Jamaica’s coral reefs are either dead or dying have prompted the government and environmental groups here to develop an action plan. According to University of the West Indies scientists, many of the island’s beautiful reefs already have been reduced to "wastelands of rubble" by man-made hazards. Rapid development has destroyed wetland areas and increased pollution.

A tenth of the world’s coral reefs have been destroyed already, claims a World Wide Fund for Nature report. Climate change is expected to speed the process. Since reefs provide about 12 percent of fishery resources, their destruction will further strain depleted fish stocks. In addition, many natural compounds with medicinal benefits could be lost.

Concerned about impacts on both the environment and the tourist trade, Jamaica has begun to control sewage outflow and limit fishing. The removal or sale of coral has been banned. The new plan calls for a chain of protected coastal areas to micro-manage marine species. Mangroves and seagrass beds, which guard coral from inland pollutants and soil erosions, will also be protected.

Thought Control

LHASA – Tibetan Buddhist monasteries have all but stopped accepting new members since "Patriotic Education Work Teams" from China ejected 3754 people in 1996-97, according to a European Union report released by Britain’s Foreign Office in June. When a delegation of British, Austrian, and Luxembourg diplomats visited the Tibetan Autonomous Region in May, they observed that authorities there "exercise extremely tight control over the principal elements of Tibetan religion and culture.” Some clerics were dismissed for "bad conduct," very possibly their continued support of the exiled Dalai Lama.

Jaguars Win Round One

BUENOS AIRES – Indigenous people of northern Argentina’s mountainous Yungas rainforest, plus a rare species of jaguar and rare flora and fauna, are being spared the intrusion of a gas pipeline – at least for now. In June, Greenpeace convinced a federal judge to issue an injunction halting construction of a 24-mile stretch of the 666-mile gas pipeline planned by NorAndino, a consortium led by Belgium’s Tractebel SA. NorAndino will appeal.

Greenpeace sued after Energas, Argentina’s gas regulatory body, approved the project without public input. Proponents argue it will run beside an existing road. Disruption of the jungle will be minimal, they claim, and it won’t interfere with the breeding of about 200 local jaguars.

But Emiliano Ezcurra of Greenpeace notes, "This project would mean jaguars in the south of the Yungas could not mate with those in the north." He says this will result in fatal inbreeding and, ultimately, their extinction. Ezcurra also worries that "there are plant species we could lose without even discovering them."

Poor Kolla settlements to the west of the Yungas support the pipeline as a potential source for cooking and heating fuel. But Kolla leader Serafina Cruz of Tinkunaku community has been leading the indigenous opposition. Her settlements fear it will encourage illegal logging and poaching.

Buying a Tractebel share, Cruz attended the May shareholders’ meeting, accompanied by members of Green- peace and the Argentinean Yaguarate (Guarani Indian for "jaguar") environmental group. Explaining that the pipeline would be built "through three cemeteries, houses, farmland, and archaeological sites over 500 years old," she requested that the disputed section be re-routed.

NorAndino has offered the Yungas Kollas $250,000 in compensation. Cruz retorts, "We don’t want money, we want the route changed. We’re not for sale."