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Since the "Operation Morning Light" episode, some opportunities have come my way to find out what it would be like to live and work in some third world countries. These have arisen in the course of missions on behalf of the Internatioal Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and other such organisitions. One such mission was to Indonesia in the first months of 1989, where I spent almost two months with four others including Arthur Darnley, on a mission to plan a geophysical survey of the Islands of Kalimantan (Borneo) and Sulawezi. We were based at the Indonesian Geological Survey organisation in Bandung on the island of Java, about one hundred miles from Jakarta. It is a university centre and reasonably prosperous.
We found what can only be described as a flourishing foreign aid industry, housed in offices and laboratories in various parts of Bandung University. We met some Suedes and some Germans, both of whom had been seconded there by their respective governments to provide expertise in various technical areas for the benefit of the Indonesians. In too many cases "foreign aid" has been an excuse for governments to prop up their own industries with contracts for expensive scientific or other equipment which is then donated to third world countries, whether it is needed or not. I definitely saw evidince of that in Indonesia.
Corruption is rife as we found out when we tried to get the portable gamma ray spectrometer which we had brought with is, through customs. One member of our team was a Canadian, Jim McDivitt, who had been living in Indonesia for many many years. He was able to handle the problem with the appropriate under the table payment. He referred to this as "slippage in the system". We encountered a lot more "slippage" as time went on. Part of the problem was the fact that government organisations like the Indonesian Geological Survey, simply did not have enough money to meet their payrolls. As a result the staff had no option but to make ends meet by teaching in schools or working in what ever service jobs came their way. McDivitt expained to us that this was the reason that the Geological Survey building seemed to be half empty most of the time.
Driving in Indonesia is a death-defying experience. Traffic lights and speed limits are universally ignored and the only redeeming feature is that there is no drunk-driving problem, because Indonesians are devout Sunni Muslims. I remember one occasion when we pulled out to pass something on a bend where there was absolutely no way to tell what might be coming head-on in the other direction. We all said our prayers and they must have worked, because we lived to tell the tale. Almost ninety percent of the vehicles there are diesel for obvious economic reasons, but the pollution caused by badly maintained diesel engines is appalling. The black fumes belched out by buses and trucks were so bad that it was often impossible to see two cars ahead after being passed by one.
There was a particular incident that brought home to us just us how different the mores in third world countries really are from our own, despite the outward trappings of western industrialisation. It occurred during a visit to one of the many institutions that we had to deal with in Bandung. We had a vehicle at our disposal throughout the whole time. The driver was reliable, friendly, and eternally cheerful, his English was good enough that we could converse with him fairly easily and he seemed to be just like any taxi driver that one might encounter in North America.
One day we were driving through the city with the usual disregard for elementary safety when a rather young and obviously disoriented little dog hove into view standing mesmerised in our path, not knowing which way to turn. We instinctively braced ourselves against the deceleration that would come when the anchors went out. We need not have bothered, our friendly reliable driver simply drove right over it without batting an eye. There was a sickening thud as we hit the poor little animal and we turned round to see it writhing and yelping on the road behind us as we drove on without a pause. We could hardly believe what had happened and had trouble turning our minds to our mission for some time after that.
We had occasion to take the train from Jakarta to Bandung, following a visit to the capital to meet with high government officials. It took us through scenes of the most appalling filth and squalor imagineable. For example people living by a river in corrugated iron shacks had their outhouses suspended over the water. The river was thus both the sewer and the source of water for cooking and bathing and washing of clothes. As the train left the teeming city and started up into the mountains, the transformation from poverty to relative prosperity was almost unbelievable. The fertile soil, replenished periodically by ash from the many active volcanoes in the region, produces rich, lush vegetation. The train crossed several trestle brigdes on the journey, giving views of hillsides with colourful rice paddies in a series of ledges like giant steps from top to bottom. There were primitive houses with thatched rooves and animals galore, all neat, colourful and quite obviously prosperous.
There was evidence everwhere of the legacy from the Dutch colonial rule, from the red tiled rooves across Jakarta which are so visible from the air, to the spacious buildings in Bandung. There was also evidence of the Japanese occupation during the second world war. We were taken to a series of caves which the Japanese had used as a magazine for storage of their weaponry. I learned a lot more about the the Japanese connection later on my way home. The route took me from the island of Bali via Singapore, Hong Kong and Vancouver. At one of the many airport bookshops I ambled through while waiting for yet another plane, I saw a familiar face on the cover of a pocket book. It was Dirk Bogard's autobiography and I bought it for some light reading.
It turned out by an astonishing coincidence that he had actually been involved in chasing out the Japanese from "Bandoeng" (as he spelled it), in the final months of the war. He described how terrified the remaining Japanese were when they realised that the jig was up and thought about what their fate was likely to be at the hands of the people they had abused so brutally and for so long. He said that the liberation of Java had been cynically managed by the Dutch and the British, to ensure that there would be no opportunity for any sort of nationalist uprising by the Javanese to loosen the hold the Dutch had over the region. We chartered a twin engined "Casa" aircraft to fly across Borneo and Sulawezi and see for ourselves what the problems would be of mounting airborne surveys in that terrain. We soon found out. We flew along the equator from one side of Borneo to the other at a nominal altitude of 1500 feet. The scenery was mind- boggling, an almost continuous rainforest canopy with huge limestone escarpments, and the occasional mountain peak rising above ten thousand feet. The maps were sketchy, with white areas simply marked "believed to contain mountains not exceeding 11,000 feet". We flew across the shallow sea between Borneo and Sulawezi and saw idyllic coral islands with submerged barrier reefs surrounding them, clearly outlined beneath the surface.
Sulawezi was even more dramatic than Borneo, with much higher peaks and steeper valleys. At one point we found ourselves suddenly engulfed by an inky black cloud that seemed to come from nowhere. It was moderately scarey because we were surrounded by all these peaks which we could no longer see. The pilot climbed as steeply as he could at full throttle in the direction of the last gap that he had seen and after about five rather tense minutes, we pulled out of the cloud and into clear brilliant sunshine again. We saw at first hand the devastation that uncontrolled logging of the prized hardwoods had already done. Logging roads criss-crossed the terrain periodically, ending in bald patches scarring the landscape where the areas had been clear-cut. The logging operations however were nothing compared to the devastation caused by the mining operation of International Nickel (INCO) in Sulawezi. This was a so called "open pit" mine, where the ore is actually at the surface in low concentrations and huge tracts of the countryside are denuded to scrape the stuff up. The site was visible on and off from the air for miles as a giant red patch in the green canopy. As we approached and descended for a landing at the local landing strip, we could see the extent of the operation. I do not regard myself as a fire- eating environmentalist, but I must admit I was quite shocked at the way the scenic rain forest there had been literally raped by the open pit operation.
We made an overnight stop at the mining camp which was a very interesting experience. It so happend that it was the company party that night and we were invited to the feast. It was exactly like something out of a Somerset Maugham novel, describing British expatriates in Singapore or Kenya in the twenties. The mine was operated by the Candian arm of INCO and they were mainly youngish Canadian expatriates (twenties and thirties), there with their families for two or three year stints. There was only one topic of conversation (apart from the universal one of internal politics) and that was - home.
Young women chatting about one of their number who would soon be taking a new baby back on a visit to see the grandparents, when they were going and for how long, which schools the kids would eventually be attending when the great day came to go back home for good, what the latest news was from the INCO headquarters in Sudbury, who had done what and so on. They had life styles that would have been the envy of practically everyone else in Canada, but despite the luxuries, the servants, the exotic scenery (if one looked away from the mine site), and the climate, they would all apparently have forsaken it with no regrets, for a chance to get back to Canada, their homeland. No surprise of course, that after all was exactly the theme of many of those Somerset Maugham novels, set in the far flung outposts of another Empire, seventy or more years ago. Plus ca change...
At the end of the mission another member of the party and I went for a few days to Bali, not the expensive and ritzy centre on the south shore of the island, but to the north shore, where there are almost no tourists to be seen. The sand on the beaches is black and the fish are so plentiful that people can catch them by casting nets by hand standing waist deep in the clear warm water. There are Hindu temples everywhere, with gardens and fruit trees surrounding the ornate statues and carvings. Women walk with ubelievably heavy loads balanced on their heads and carrying babies on their hips. All the dogs (of which there are too many) look exactly the same, light brown and short haired, with sharply pointed ears, a sort of international standard dog.
I was only there for a day or two and I had arranged with the chap who had driven us across the island, to pick me up at five in the morning to drive me back again to the airport. I paid him half the return fare before he left us, so he was sure that I would keep my end of the bargain. I was then reasonably sure that he would keep his, knowing he would get the other half of what for him was a considerable sum of money. He did, but I had some moments of apprehension as five o'clock came and went. Although it was still dark, we drove through villages teeming with people going about their daily business. Later we saw "crocodiles" of school children, all neatly dressed in very English school uniforms, complete with caps for the boys and hats for the girls and blazers with different colours according to whether they were junior, middle or senior pupils.
This was something about Indonesia that surprised all of us. The single mindedness with which the government pursued the business of education. For example it is the only country I have ever been in, which has a TV program to teach high school algebra to the masses each evening during the supper hour! One very good reason is that Inonesia is yet another nation with a young and burgeoning population. One hundred and seventy million people with half of them under the age of twenty. They too want the western living standards that they see on television and the government realises that a sine qua non for getting there is an educatied work force. Sadly it also knows that the wealth from the sort of rapacious logging and mining operations that we saw, will make their task a lot easier.
China, Venezuela and Egypt
Much shorter missions have taken me to China, Venezuela and Egypt. The visit to Beijing was made in October 1989, just four months after the Tianeman Square massacres, and the nervousness of the regime was all too evident. I saw heavily armed military posted at every highway overpass and there was an immediate and obviously hostile response from some soldiers in Tianeman Square itself, when they saw my video camera trained on them as I cruised by in a taxi. There were armed guards with bayonets on their rifles at every entrance at the Chinese Atomic Energy Establishment, where my business was.
In all these countries the mismatch of scientific aid with the needs of the recipients has been all too apparent. What also comes through is the enormity of the tasks which they face and the almost totally inadequate scientific and engineering resources that they have to deal with them. A case in point is Egypt. The Egyptians, along with their neighbouring countries are desperately short of water already for their existing populations. This problem can only get worse as the availability of western standards of health care decreases infant mortality and increases life spans. The only source of water is the Nile, that point is driven home just by flying over it. The only green areas are the strips on either side that extend only as far as the irrigation does and these are essentially the only habitable parts of Egypt. They have a program to explore for uranium which is supported by the IAEA (on whose behalf I was there). The object is the eventual provision of nuclear power for de- salination plants on the Red Sea and elsewhere, to meet the need for water.
There is, geologically speaking, reason to be optimistic about the prospects for finding enough uranium in Egyptian territory to meet those needs without having to import it. The problem is that the infrastructure required for a successful exploration program on the scale needed to achieve these objectives, simply does not exist. The increasing demand in Egypt and the other developing African nations through which the Nile flows, for more water than it can possibly provide, will in my judgement lead inevitably (and fairly quickly) to a major crisis in the whole region, unless de-salination plants are set up to augment the supply. No community after all can survive without water. Since Egypt has no oil, natural gas, or other source of energy within its borders, then the only solution would appear to be the nuclear option, no matter how unpalatable that is for all the reasons that have been debated at length in the industrialised countries.
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