Friday, January 24, 2014

My Log 403 Jan 24, 2014: Second episode of AlJazeera’s Orphans of the Sahara even more devastating than the first

Tuaregs at an Islamic baby baptism
Tuaregs at an Islamic baby baptism (Photo credit: 4Cheungs)
Tuareg Nomads
Tuareg Nomads (Photo credit: Brad Watson Media)
Tuareg area ru
Tuareg area (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Tuareg from the Hoggar (Algeria) sitt...
 Tuareg from the Hoggar (Algeria) sitting in the sand  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Picture of tuareg nomads in the south...
English: Picture of tuareg nomads in the south of Algeria. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The second episode of Al Jazeera’s series Orphans of the Sahara turns out to be even more devastating and revealing than was the first episode (see My Log 400).
This one outlines the history of Tuareg rebellions  which have seen them several times set up an independent country over part of their immense  traditional territory, the most recent being last year; which also emphasizes the appalling poverty and misery in which these people live; and which contrasts that with the fact that France is taking millions, indeed probably billions, of francs worth of wealth out, in the form of the uranium they are mining there, from under the feet of the very land these people have always lived on.
These Tuaregs, although, as one of their leaders says in the film, they are poor and illiterate, know perfectly well that they have been, and are being every day, robbed. A state-owned French company  called Areva, maintains a mine in Tuareg lands in neighbouring northern Niger where their people, once proud denizens of the tough life of the desert, now live in shacks made of scraps of old metal and rags from discarded clothing and such, and are so poor they cannot afford even the minimal health care that is available in the city hospital in the small mining town of Arlit.
Although the company hands out circulars claiming their operations are carefully monitored to ensure they have minimal impact on the local inhabitants, the film tells the story of one woman who gave birth to a child with something protruding from the back of its brain, which, when they took it to the hospital, a doctor told them “the radiation has come out through your child.”
The mother fell ill with something wrong with her stomach, but when her husband took her to the company hospital they were turned away, although the company boasts it maintains the hospital for its workers, their families and the local inhabitants. They were told to go to the city hospital, but, as the husband said, “they want money and we have no money.” The film shows people lying around in a large tent, and comments that these are all sick people who have been turned away from the Areva hospital.
The film claimed the husband phoned a nurse of his acquaintance at the Areva hospital and asked him why the document they gave the family referring to the death of their child did not mention the word “radiation.” The nurse told them that word could never be written down, it was impossible. And when the father asked for a death certificate he was told such a certificate could not be issued since he had spoken the word radiation, an impermissible word.
“Our homeland has been taken by them,” says a Tuareg in the film, claiming that hundreds of millions of tons of radio-active waste have been dumped all over their traditional grazing lands. It had so affected the animals --- even those who ate the nice-looking green grass that was being grown near to a well close to the mine --- that most of them had died, just as those of their children who had drunk water from the well had been sick. Even animals that had survived were ill; some camels could no longer stand up.
The filmmaker claims in a voiceover that the mine has required such huge quantities of water that it has worn out the acquifer lying under the desert, presumably diminishing it in size as well as polluting it with radio-active materials.
A former attempt to create an independent Azawad state, as the Tuaregs call their country, was put down when Gadhaffi, the Libyan leader, had used his influence to bring the rebellion to an end. So after two years, they had called it quits, and now 4,000 Azawadi former fighters  are sitting idle in Arlit, with nothing to show for all their efforts.
This is the background against which the filmmakers ask their audience to view the recent return of the French army, at a time when the MNLA (the Tuareg rebels) had succeeded in establishing again their own state, in spite of the unwelcome help given them by the gun-toting affiliate of AlQueda that had moved in from neighbouring countries. This had been dealt with in the previous episode, which showed how these violence-prone religious warriors had taken over Timbuctu, ancient capital of the Tuaregs, and established a strict and pitiless version of sharia law that the Tuaregs, although Muslim to the core,  had never experienced before, and did not like.
The French presence, the film left no doubt, has been not to re-establish democracy under the leadership of the southern Malian army (that the Tuaregs had driven out), but rather to safeguard France’s precious supply of uranium that they need so desperately to keep running the many power stations that provide France with 80 per cent of its electric power.
Areva, incidentally, has properties in Canada, with four mines, both active, and depleted and closed, in northern Saskatchewan, and numerous other nuclear facilities.
Canada, indeed, has a history of the health effects of uranium mining, and of  radio-active substances in mines. I came across these in the 1970s when I made a series of films for the National Film Board on the subject of occupational health. One of the first conclusions of my research was my discovery that companies had been poisoning or killing their workers since at least 1300, and had seldom done anything about it until forced to by the modern union movement. (I was reminded of the immortal words of Mr.Gradgrind, the factory owner in one of Dickens’s novels, Hard Times, I think I was. “You see that smoke, sir….That is meat and drink to us,” he declaimed.)
In one town, St Lawrence, Newfoundland, a mine operated by Alcan had so much naturally-occurring radon, as to have poisoned a whole generation of the town’s men, leaving a large number of widows to carry on their lives as best they could. I also visited Elliot Lake, where Denison mines operated Canada’s first uranium mine, and I saw the immense tailings ponds left behind from that experience, and was told by local mine leaders of the deleterious effects of the mining on the health of their members. The Elliot Lake mines have since been closed, and --- wonder of wonders --- Elliot Lake has been established as a sort of retirement village for seniors.
I discovered during that series that other Canadian companies had been negligent in the care of their workers --- for example I filmed with a widows’ committee of several hundred widows of Sudbury miners who had been poisoned in one Inco plant, since closed, their bitter survivors trying to find a way to cope with what had been left for them of a normal life. “I understand that when a man is murdered, someone is sentenced….But who will I sentence now?” asked one embittered German widow, whose husband had shrunk from a healthy young man to a bag of bones gasping his last…...
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