New Internationalist


Issue 274



Broken Hill and damaged river
Australian multinational creates mining havoc in Papua New Guinea

Gold in them thar hills and floods and muck for the people who live downstream. That’s the story that’s causing widespread tension in Papua New Guinea and pricking the conscience of ordinary Australians.

The mine is the Ok Tedi copper and gold mine run by Australia’s biggest enterprise, the aptly named Broken Hill Proprietary Company Limited (BHP), on the slopes of Mt Fubilan in the Star Mountains of PNG’s Western Province. At stake are big bucks and a (rapidly changing) way of life.

Last year BHP made a record profit of US$1.21 billion with Ok Tedi contributing $282 million. For people downstream of Mt Fubilan along the Fly river, the mine’s outflow of 80,000 tonnes a day of waste is destroying their traditional lifestyle. The 30,000 people who live along the banks of the Fly could drink, wash and fish from the river before the mining began in 1984. The excessive siltation is leading to increased flooding. They want a tailings dam to be built at the mine and compensation.

The mine is in a precarious location in a region of very high rainfall (7,900 mm or 312 inches a year). In 1984 a landslip destroyed the initial stages of a tailings dam. This was an investment worth $79.7 million and BHP has since persuaded the PNG Government to allow it to go ahead with the mine without a dam. BHP has also earned condemnation by the International Commission of Jurists for trying to influence PNG legislation which would have criminalized compensation claims by landowners against the Ok Tedi partners.

People living in the mine lease area get continuing compensation, royalties and access to education and healthcare. Those living downstream have suffered a violent change in lifestyle without such benefits.

Now legal challenges against BHP are being mounted in Australian courts. There is also the threat of violence in the region if the situation does not improve. Australians fear another Bougainville (see NI 262). The mining industry there, which was also run by an Australian company, became a spur to a violent revolution, and there are still sporadic outbursts of violence in the war between the people and the soldiers of PNG. Ironically the closure of that mine has made PNG very dependent economically on the Ok Tedi operation.

Urvi Patel

Readers wanting to support the challenges against BHP can contact: Dr Helen Rosenbaum at the Australian Conservation Foundation.
Tel: 61 03 9416 1166 or Jeff Atkinson at Community Aid Abroad. Tel: 61 03 9289 9444.

Lobby against arms to Indonesia
Among unsavoury governments currently the customers of British military hardware, General (now President) Suharto’s Indonesia is one of the most consistently appalling abusers of human rights. From West Papua have come reports of indiscriminate killings, torture and disappearances in order to protect the Freeport/RTZ copper and gold mine which has dispossessed tribal people of their land (see NI 268).

Then there is the perennial issue of Indonesia’s illegal occupation of East Timor. Since 1975 over 200,000 people have been killed by the Indonesian military. In response to recent events in East Timor (such as September’s riots), the European parliament passed a resolution calling on the international community to halt arms sales to Indonesia, echoing the NI East Timor issue ( NI 253). So far the British Government has ignored this call. On 7 December the ‘Stop the Hawks – No Arms to Indonesia’ coalition of activist groups will be taking the case of an arms embargo to the British parliament, in a lobby organized by Campaign Against the Arms Trade. December 7 will be 20 years to the day since Indonesia invaded East Timor – CAAT and TAPOL (Indonesia Human Rights Campaign).

The details of the Parliamentary lobby from:
Campaign Against Arms Trade on + 44 (0)171 281 0297.

Marriage by the book
Dr Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, an academic at Cairo University, is challenging a court order that says his writings are against Islam and forces him to separate from his wife. Abu Zeid advocates an interpretation of the Qur’an which takes into account changes in society. His ideas are considered blasphemous by more orthodox Muslims who advocate a literal reading. The judge ordered Abu Zeid to separate from Ebithal Younes, his wife, on the grounds that a heretic or non-Muslim is not allowed to marry a Muslim woman. Separation in Islam has more drastic consequences than divorce; it means that the couple can never marry again. But the two insist they are Muslims and have vowed to stay together and fight the verdict. Abu Zeid’s opponents say they do not want to separate the couple but will use the decision as the first step towards preventing the professor from teaching.

Dale Gavlak, Gemini News Service

Clean ’n’ slim
In just two months of this year customs officials at Tokyo’s Narita airport seized some 10,000 bars of soap from travellers returning from Hong Kong and Beijing. This is no ordinary soap. It’s Seaweed Defat Soap and its makers claim it washes away fat. A bar costs $2 in China, but $15 in Japan. So travellers have regularly been going over the 24 bars allowed them by the Japanese customs.

In September Japan’s health ministry issued a statement questioning the soap’s efficacy. Slimming is a fad that has arrived in Japan along with high fat Western food. Women of 25 weigh less than their counterparts did 20 years ago.

The Economist, vol 336 no 7932

The Athens triangle
A cloud has been lifted over Athens since summer of this year. A triangle in central Athens has been permanently closed to cars, taxis and motorbikes in an effort to slash noise and air pollution in what until then had been the noisiest and smoggiest part of the city. For years successive Greek governments, fearful of alienating car-owning voters, had dodged the issue. It took two relatively young politicians from opposing political parties to take the unprecedented step of scrapping political differences and pooling their joint environmental resolve. The area has been transformed. Shoppers and tourists can now stroll through the narrow and colourful streets of the old commercial centre in the shadow of the Acropolis without having to jump out of motorists’ way every few seconds. Shopkeepers say they are happy to see people browsing in their windows unworried by parking problems and hence more willing to buy. Shoppers agree. Athens municipality has laid on a free minibus service for them. Cabbies, however, are incensed that any government has dared to ban them from anything. They have staged a few one-day strikes in protest.

John Carr, Gemini News Service


Eliminating poverty
A Bangladeshi bank leads the way
Cash in hand: the Grameen Bank helps these women break out of the poverty cycle.

A bank that exists to eliminate poverty is a rare beast, and one that claims to do so at little or no real cost to society is rarer still. Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank has been providing poor women with access to tiny amounts of credit enabling them to break out of the poverty cycle.

It started its life in the tiny village of Jobra by lending 50 taka ($1.50) to Sophia Khatoon who worked seven days a week making bamboo stools which she sold to the money-lender who provided credit to buy her raw materials. She paid the money-lender interest to the tune of 10 per cent a day – more than 3,000 per cent a year! With her loan from the Grameen Bank it took Sophia Khatoon only a few months to establish her own self-employment and increase her income five-fold. In this time she repaid her loan with interest at the bank rate.

Today the Grameen Bank employs 14,000 staff and works in more than 35,000 of the country’s 68,000 villages. It lends out half a billion dollars a year in nearly four million small business loans to rural clients. Its social development and education programme reaches more than 12 million people.

Its principles are inspiring. It only lends to the poorest of the poor of the rural landless without asking for security or dictating the kind of business activity the loan could be used for. Women – 94 per cent of the Bank’s clients – get priority as they are the poorest. The Bank supports the client in succeeding with their venture and takes repayments of loans at current bank rates.

It’s not surprising that it enjoys unparalleled customer loyalty. On-time loan repayments exceed 98 per cent and bad debts are less than half a per cent. The bank also encourages borrowers to save at the rate of one taka (three US cents) a week. Today these savings exceed 94 million dollars.

Not only is it a bank for the people but it is also of them, being fully owned by its borrowers who elect a board of directors from amongst themselves. It usually takes between six and ten successive one-year loans and concerted efforts by the borrower and the Bank’s development staff to take a client from destitution to secure self-employment with modest assets.

Since 1989 the Bank has been actively replicating its lending scheme all over the world and there are 168 such ‘replications’ in 44 countries. It hopes to reach out to a third of the world’s poor with credit schemes for women by the year 2005.

The Grameen Bank philosophy is one of enabling poor people to lift themselves out of poverty through their own efforts, thus creating a whole new economy which would be richer for everyone.

Shan Ali

For further information contact the author at fax: +61 2 457 8805, email: [email protected]
or Grameen Bank Support Group, 7 Burke Place, Mount Colah NSW 2079, Australia.

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Critical cyclists
Reclaiming the streets worldwide

Since 1992 traffic has been brought to a standstill in major towns and cities in many parts of the world on the last Friday of every month. The cause of these tailbacks is not insane road traffic control nor deteriorating road conditions, but hordes of as many as 1,500 cyclists taking to the roads en masse to reclaim the streets. They ride under the banner of Critical Mass.

From its beginnings in San Francisco in 1992, under the instigation of graphic designer Chris Carlsson, Critical Mass quickly became a global phenomena. Described by participants as a ‘planned coincidence’, each event operates almost solely without any central organizing body or steering committee. Chris Eardley, an engineer from South London and one of the people responsible for bringing Critical Mass to the city explains: ‘One or two people do the publicity, and that’s about all the publicity there is. Everyone turns up and it goes from there. People make a route or do what they like.’

The idea arose out of concerns about road safety amongst San Francisco’s cyclists. Vikter Veezee, a veteran of both the San Francisco and London Critical Masses, remembers: ‘It was just Chris Carlsson basically going “gee, we should ride together in some kind of safety-in-numbers concept”. And also with the idea that there’s a lot of people who get off work at 5.30pm or so in downtown San Francisco. Certainly quite a few of them are bicycling home in the same direction and if you got them all together, it would be safe, it would be fun, it would be community forming.’ After much leafleting they managed to get around five hundred people to attend the first one in early 1992. By the summer of 1993 they had nearly two thousand.

By April 1994 mass rides were occurring all over Europe, including regular ones in London, Berlin, Barcelona and Poznan. Now they happen on every continent – except Antartica.

The core belief that unites the participants, who are of all ages and from varied backgrounds, is that bicycles are a superior form of urban transport. They don’t cause pollution or fatal accidents, they don’t block up the road with traffic (except during a Critical Mass rally), they are easy to park and store and their use benefits health. Yet cars still get almost all existing road space, road building programmes and tax breaks via schemes like the company car and special government attention.

Perhaps the ultimate aim of the rallies is best summed up by Chris Eardley. ‘The Government has this big problem about how does it deal with transport chaos in towns. Cyclists know the answer; they use the answer everyday. You just get the feeling you need to shout at people all the time, “This is the answer, I am riding it.”

Jaspre Bark

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Action Cambodia
This photograph, published in the April 1993 edition of the NI on Cambodia was deemed by the British police to be in contravention of the Public Order Act 1984. Some 30 people carrying the photo as a placard gathered to protest at the British Government’s continued resistance to the implementation of a total ban on landmines. Inspector Bhangoo of Charing Cross police station told them that a public order offence would be committed unless the picture was removed.

Harry Cohen, a British Member of Parliament said: ‘The whole point of the picture is that it shows a shocking situation. This demonstration is intended to underline the need to ban these horrendous weapons in order to stop scenes like that depicted in the picture being continually repeated across the world.’

Paul Donovan

For further information contact:
Action Cambodia, 41 Westbury Court, Nightingale Lane, London SW4 9AB, England.

Right livelihood
We are delighted that one of the winners of the 1995 Right Livelihood Award (often referred to as ‘the Alternative Nobel Prize’) is NI contributor Carmel Budiardjo, who has campaigned over 20 years for Indonesian political prisoners and the people of East Timor. The Jury honoured her for ‘holding the Indonesian Government accountable for its actions and upholding the universality of fundamental human rights’.

Among the three other winners of this year’s prize are the Serb Civic Council of Bosnia, a body which has resolutely refused to succumb to ethnic hatred and works by political means for a peace in Bosnia which would protect human rights and parliamentary democracy. The Council has about 50,000 members, which is a third of all Bosnian Serbs living in areas still controlled by the Bosnian Government.


‘Peace is such a delicate matter it should not be left in the hands of pacifists.’

Charles Krettien, French Ambassador to Guatemala, to a Greenpeace
demonstration on the steps of his embassy.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

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New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

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