Thursday, July 21, 2005

The cost of war

July 19th:

After breakfast, I went to an Internet center to check e-mail and send out blogs. It took longer than planned and I entered the Plenary late. This was on militarization. Outside, I met Nadia and exchanged notes on Monday. She said that her track had decided to shorten presentations and try to facilitate small group discussions so that the afternoon workshops would not turn into mini plenaries. The translation headphones had run out, so she had come out of the session to make phone calls. I went in to find out that the talk was in English – whew!
I also came in for what might be considered the highlight of the session – a presentation by Dr. Salaam Ismael of the Doctors from Iraq society. Dr. Ismael spoke from his heart. No, from his gut. I have been reading quite a bit on the war in Iraq – the casualties, the human rights violations, the devastation. But none of this was enough preparation for listening to a firsthand account of the horrors of Fallujah. Dr. Ismael talked about multiple ways in which health has been impacted – the new weapons of war (cluster bombs, depleted uranium), structural failures (power failures, lack of water), shortage of supplies (medicines, oxygen, anasthesia) and the brain drain of medical professionals. With photos and personal anecdotes, he thrust the situation into our midst. He had to cut short his talk due to time constraints – a crying shame. The crowd gave him a standing ovation.
The next presentation was the Medact report on Iraq by Judith Cook - a summary of statistics, a few of which had been covered by Dr. Ismael, and a list of recommendations. A valiant effort it was, but felt like the lull after a storm. Next was Dr. Bert de Belder from Belgium with an analysis of US military strategy and some actions Belgian doctors have taken. A little more lively. A statistic he quoted from was that so far $178.741 billion has been spent on the war. This money could provide 59 years of basic immunizations for all children in the world. An action his group had undertaken was to present a bill of medical expenses for an Iraqi child to the US government. This child had been injured during a US military operation. Reuters had picked up this story and thus it got circulated widely.
Again I had to leave early – we were singing near the food tent at 1 pm. At lunch, Pervez sat at my table and talked about the film he wanted to make and the struggle in obtaining funding for it. Pervez is an ex-psychiatrist who now makes films and performs. He comes from a family of activists – more pedigree. At our table was Patty of IPAS, a group that works on providing safe abortions based in North Carolina (!) and Brahm from the people's grocery in California.
The performance started late, as usual. This time, PHA attendees were present. A positive response here too.
Post-performance, some chitchat and then confusion in finding the venue led to me reaching the Nutrition and Health session late. The room was completely inadequate for the crowd. The smell of sweat permeated the atmosphere and there was barely enough space to stand. Narendra Gupta from Rajasthan was presenting when I arrived. He talked about the Right to Food, Information and Employment campaigns that were launched through mobilization, pressuring of government officials and other approaches. The questions he was asked were about the white revolution, on conditions of Dalits and the use of traditional medicines compared to Western medicine.
Next were two speakers from Columbia. The first speaker talked about a nutrition program launched by her group in a remote rural area of Columbia. This area is at a high altitude and experiences very high humidity. It seems the people in this area were eating a diet heavy in carbs but low in vitamins and minerals. The group went in with ideas about growing quinua, a highly nutritious cereal, and vegetables. To interest the villagers, they conducted cooking classes with recipes including quinua and vegetables. They helped the community set up vegetable gardens and rear hamsters for consumption. After 2 years, there has been marked improvement in nutrition in the area. The second presenter, an agriculture student, presented a proposal for a similar project in Sumapaz, a rural area of Columbia. He also talked about quinua. Incidentally, he talked later about the problems with monoculture, including the increased use of pesticides. But he didn't elaborate on strategies to combat that.
I had a number of questions: one, is quinua a non-native plant to the area, or was it just forgotten by these communities? (I'm guessing they migrated from lower altitudes) If non-native, are there native plants that could provide the same kind of nutrition? What are the pitfalls of introducing a non-native crop? Were they trying any kind of mixed cropping? If so, what?
A number of people raised their hands, however, and asked extremely valid questions. One was about land ownership. The answer was that this is a land reserve, so all land belongs to the government. Which means that the people can be forcibly evicted if the government wishes it. The next question was: how can any work in the area be done without allegiance either to government forces or the guerrilas? The answer was diplomatic, on the lines of 'We are doctors, we can be neutral'. After that, a number of audience members began asking about Plan Columbia – how one could even conceptualize a program for the Right to Food without the Right to Life. A number of people began speaking, there was shouting and I figured my questions could keep – it was past 5 pm and it didn't look like anything else would happen.
I handed my earphones back, thanked the translator (they truly have a thankless job and are exhausted – simultaneous translation is no joke with extremely passionate, rapid fire speakers). Claudia and Jael, a Jewish native of Calcutta currently working for the Ford Foundation, met me outside. They were in the Gender session. We wanted to play hookey the next day and visit either Cajas National Park or Ingapirca, a place with Inca ruins. We went back to the hotel and in search of a travel agent – IXA tours, the official travel company for the Assembly was swamped anyway. We booked a tour to Cajas for the next day.
Next, we headed to the North American delegation meeting. This time, the room was much fuller and we had some involved discussion. Not as much as I would have liked, but I have to agree that longer discussions should be carried out with smaller working groups. Working groups were asked for their reports and sadly had little to talk about. A group was set up to frame a press release – no shortage of volunteers for that! Tawnia was to coordinate a group to work on social determinants for health – I volunteered for that. Sonia and I talked about doing some work on the issue of Trade and Health. Then was time for logistics – Sarah Shannon has been worked hard on this. Some of us had to pay for our tickets even though we had paid Hesparian, others had to run around for hotels. The logistics for this event have been bad. It didn't need to be this way – so many things were done in a hurry in the last month inspite of a year of planning. Anyway, the delegation decided to meet again on Thursday.
A group of us went out to dinner and we convinced Patty to join us on our trip the next day. Lots of food and laughter later, the day came to a close.

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