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Fake Forests, Extractive Industries And Elusive Aids Medicines


One of South Africa’s most fascinating environments is the terrain leading from the eastern mountain range in Mpumalanga (‘land of the rising sun’) province, down to the ‘lowveld’ and the well-stocked Kruger game park bordering Mozambique. The dramatic escarpment cliffs and stunning waterfalls were sites of gold exploration a century ago, followed by thoroughgoing displacement of black people by white agricultural settlers.

The main social tragedy remains the maldistribution of land, but in addition, the verdant scene is being destroyed by forests. Actually, that’s not the right term: monocultural timber plantations are not forests, I am learning from the World Rainforest Movement. Their publications are distributed here in the eco-social-justice movements by Philip Owen, an Afrikaner (never mind his English name) whose day job is running the famous Sudwala cave complex, but who on the side has become one of the country’s leading campaigners for radical changes in land use.

Locally, the Houtboslop Environment Action Link which he leads has innovative strategies for reviving local wildlife and redistributing land in the valley. Owen, who is nearly blind after an auto accident, fights the Mondi, Sappi and Safcol timber companies which are expanding ever further onto the fragile grasslands and indigenous forests. On occasion, I wander through this valley with Owen, using his sixth sense as a guide, along with three decades’ knowledge of where struggles were waged to eradicate alien invasive gum and pine trees that spread, inexorably, from the big timber plantations.

Now Owen is alerting his networks that the international Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) board is touring South Africa early next month. The FSC was established to protect forest eco-systems, issuing an FSC label to inform consumers of where timber and pulp are allegedly being harvested responsibly. But in South Africa, about four out of every five hectares under plantation have won FSC certification, even though they are run by uncaring corporations as well as by the apartheid-era national timber company, which has already failed in multiple privatisation attempts.

These firms’ legacy of community displacement, labour exploitation and ecological degradation should, in a just world, result in a wholesale rethink of the vast plantations, and in provisions for reparations. But their damage continues. Most obnoxious, Owen argues, is the export of wood pulp which, after massive doses of chlorine treatment (which in turn runs off into local watersheds), is destined for terribly wasteful advertising and packaging industries in East Asia, Europe and North America.

Owen is scathing: ‘These aren’t forests, they’re industrial monocultures, with the primary objective of supplying the optimum amount of pulp fiber. Permanent and ongoing destruction of remaining Southern African grasslands to make way for industrial timber plantations is NOT responsible. Uncontrollably utilising vast quantities of water is NOT responsible. Damaging and impoverishing the soils is NOT responsible. Industry related pollution of river systems with chemicals such as chloride and organochlorides is NOT responsible. Impacting on rural communities livelihoods and altering the environment at the expense of other options is NOT responsible.’

The FSC is also under attack by the World Rainforest Movement in Thailand and Brazil. As profiled in the activists’ 2003 book, Certifying the Uncertifiable, the FSC appears a scam operation, as do so many of the international bodies established to regulate environmentally-sensitive activities. Owen intends asking the visitors, ‘Can you people really facilitate the drastic changes needed within the industry, or are you just a way to make the forest lie pay?’

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Initially, I had the same negative impression about the ‘Extractive Industries Review’ (EIR). The study commission was set up in 2001 by the World Conservation Union and World Bank, and was headed by former Indonesian environment minister Emil Salim.

Things degenerated so much that an April 2003 meeting in Bali between the Bank, international mining industry officials and civil society ended in an uproar when 15 environmental and human rights groups left in protest. According to a report in the New York Times last June, ‘The group of reviewers set up by the Bank had already circulated its draft conclusions supporting the Bank’s oil, gas and mining investments, even though conferences organised to gather information from concerned groups and individuals in Asia, the Middle East and Africa had not yet taken place.’

Moreover, while the EIR was underway, the Bank approved huge loans for two infamous oil pipelines, Chad-Cameroon and the Caspian, despite fierce objections from the environmental, human rights and social justice communities.

But late last year, activist indignation compelled Salim to consider whether the EIR might thus become another source of legitimacy crisis for World Bank participation politics. Bank staff had recently sabotaged two similar efforts: the 1997-2002 Structural Adjustment Participatory Review Initiative and the 1998-2001 World Commission on Dams. Salim probably took into account his own legacy, as well, and to the surprise of activists, permitted a strong statement against subsidised plundering of fossil fuels into the EIR draft findings released last December.

The EIR recommendations, if adopted, would result in an end to World Bank coal lending by 2008 (worth billions in countries like India and China); mandatory revenue sharing from minerals and petroleum industries with local communities; extensive environmental and social impact assessments; ‘no go’ zones for mining or drilling in environmentally sensitive areas; no new mining projects that dump tailings in rivers; obligatory environmental restructuring and increased renewable energy investments.

Sceptical though I remain, the recommendations really do suggest that a dent can be made in global warming and energy-related oppression. Hence no one was surprised when, a couple of weeks ago, lead Bank energy staffer Rashad Kaldany and his colleagues strongly advised Bank president, James Wolfensohn, to reject the EIR’s main provisions.

Last September, at the Bank/IMF annual meeting in Dubai, three NGOs predicted this sort of backsliding in a report called Gambling with People’s Lives: ‘One of the Bank’s most important environmental reforms of the 1990s was its more cautious approach to high-risk infrastructure and forestry projects. This policy is now being reversed. The World Bank recently announced that it would re-engage in contentious water projects such as large dams in what it refers to as a “high risk/high reward” strategy.

In 2002, the Bank dismissed its “risk-averse” approach to the forest sector when it approved a new forest policy. The World Bank is also considering support for new oil, mining, and gas projects in unstable and poorly governed countries, against the recommendations of its own evaluation unit.’

Forcing the Bank and related lenders out of environmentally destructive activities is not likely to succeed without a financial threat. That’s why, during the upcoming late April protests against the Bank/IMF 60th birthday, it makes sense for Northern activists to defund the institution, through the World Bank Bonds Boycott (http://www.worldbankboycott.org).

Meanwhile, earlier this month at a corporate-dominated Cape Town conference, South Africa’s minister of minerals and energy, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, made it clear to senior Bank staff that they should oppose ‘green lobbyists’ on the EIR. The minister’s spokesperson claimed, ‘We are already implementing sustainable development programmes’ across Africa, notwithstanding evidence of massive corruption and eco- destruction in countries like Angola and Nigeria, and a failure to trickle benefits of mining down in even the best-case country, Botswana.

So what we have here is yet another example of bogus reformism from a South African government that often talks left but typically walks right. Mlambo-Ngucka and her colleague Alec Erwin – the trade minister recently cited in the establishment journal Foreign Affairs as a likely WTO director general in 2005 – are, simultaneously, also trying to attract the controversial Canadian company Alcan to South Africa, in order to build Africa’s most expensive metals smelter project. It matters not that South Africa’s carbon dioxide emissions, measured on the basis of per capita efficiency of GDP, is already twenty times worse (in relative terms) than that of the world’s most irresponsible polluter, the USA.

(Good sources of information on the EIR are http://www.brettonwoodsproject.org/ topic/governance/g2801eir.html and Environmental Defence, Friends of the Earth, and International Rivers Network (2003), Gambling With People‘s Lives, Washington and Berkeley, 19 September.)

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Early February also witnessed South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) attacking president Thabo Mbeki, in the wake of further government prevarication on AIDS treatment. Claiming that Mbeki ‘misrepresented facts and once again caused confusion on HIV/AIDS’ on national television, TAC’s Zackie Achmat accused him of ‘denialism.’

For the country’s five million people who are HIV-positive, last November’s commitment by Mbeki to provide anti-retroviral (ARV) medicines was a long-awaited victory (see my interpretation in ZNet, December 5). Suddenly, health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang announced last week that the medicines roll-out would be delayed indefinitely. Pretoria had originally promised to distribute AIDS medicines to at least 50,000 people within a year, and to reach everyone in need of treatment within five years.

Tshabala-Msimang blamed slow drug procurement – Pretoria’s own fault – and the lack of qualified health personnel, while TAC rebuts that many hospitals are ready to supply ARVs but have no medicines. The finance ministry has also cut the budget required for medicines purchases dramatically.

(Tshabala-Msimang was also criticised by the SA Medical Association, whose chairperson, Dr Kgosi Letlape, last week accused her of ‘dividing the profession when we have gone to great lengths to unite it,’ through her unsuccessful attempt to halt a protest march of 2000 medics to parliament against poor conditions in public health facilities.)

Supporting his minister, Mbeki told the SA Broadcasting Corporation that the major problem was inaccurate mortality statistics which made it impossible to know whether AIDS was as fatal as claimed. According to Mbeki, diabetes is also an epidemic, and he questioned why no-one talks about diabetes.

Replied Achmat, ‘Drugs for treating diabetes are heavily overpriced; there should be a campaign for their reduction. But unlike HIV until November 2003, diabetes is treated in the public health sector. However, the president should be aware that according to an initial investigation into the burden of disease estimates in South Africa released in 2003 by the Medical Research Council, AIDS was responsible for 39% of lost life- years in 2000 — more than the next 10 worst diseases. Diabetes is the 12th worst disease and is responsible for slightly more than 1% of lost life-years. The two diseases are incomparable in scale.’

Achmat also criticised Mbeki’s claim that ‘few countries can hold a candle to South Africa’s HIV/AIDS programme.’ In reality, he rebutted, ‘A number of developing countries do much better than South Africa when it comes to HIV prevention and treatment, often with far fewer resources. Currently, South Africa treats approximately 1,500 people in its public sector, who are not on drug trials, paying for their own medicines or being sponsored. By contrast, Brazil’s government treats over 100,000 people and has less than a quarter of South Africa’s HIV infections. Botswana is treating approximately 15,000 and Cameroon approximately 7,000 people.’

Sabotaging the social campaign against HIV/AIDS seems second nature to a government which lacks the political will to address South Africa’s worst- ever health holocaust. Tellingly, Mbeki also made only a single passing reference to AIDS in his February 6 State of the Nation address to parliament.

Another revealing controversy arose over Erwin’s claims last week that two million ‘jobs’ (he meant informal sector opportunities) were created since liberation in 1994. The Cosatu trade union federation ridiculed Erwin’s statistics and redefinition of ‘employment’. A decade ago, Erwin was Cosatu’s main strategist, and a decade before that, one of the country’s leading left critics of the African National Congress.

In opposition to the rightward drift personified by Erwin, hundreds of delegates to the Anti-Privatisation Forum’s vibrant annual general meeting in Johannesburg last weekend resolved to oppose Mbeki’s reelection, and to encourage members to spoil (ruin) their ballots as a protest statement. The vote is scheduled for April 14, and the ruling party will win with around 70% because there is no Left alternative yet – but stay tuned because that is not the only political news out of South Africa.

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