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Friday 1 February 2008
Letters: Brazilian rainforests
Want to save the rainforest? Stop paying for it to be destroyed
Sir: As a Brazilian biologist who has worked in World Bank-funded projects, as well as in several environmental impact assessments and conservation initiatives in the region, I'd like to offer my view on the current boom of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon ("There is a way to save the rainforests", 31 January).
The major drive for destroying the forest is the hunger of foreign markets for the cheap Brazilian beef and grains, especially soybeans. The EU is among the major importers of those products from Brazil, if not the major one. So, my plea to the Europeans is: please stop buying Brazilian beef and soy if you are sincere about conserving the Amazon. That would also help issues such as land-grabs and slave labour associated to the cattle industry.
Our president actually doesn't give a damn for conservation, and the environment minister, Marina Silva, actually helped to weaken the environmental agencies in charge of controlling illegal forest clearance, logging etc. Although the foreign press love those characters, they have been a disaster for conservation, despite all smoke screens.
Brazil will behave in a responsible way regarding environmental issues only if strong economic pressure is applied by markets which are paying for the Amazon to be destroyed.
Sao Paulo, Brazil
Why are MPs let off so lightly?
Sir: How come an MP can use £13,161 of our money and be allowed to return it and remain an MP for two more years, whereas someone who steals a few pounds worth of goods from a supermarket gets a criminal record and possibly loses their prospects of ever having a job?
Is it not time that this whole filthy stable at Westminster is cleaned out, and we start again with a new set of MPs, who are not in receipt of such grossly inflated salaries, perks, and secret donations that they will never vote as their consciences dictate but as their purses dictate?
Sir: "Bar partners and relatives from working for MPs," Steve Richards proposes (31 January), "that would guarantee no more Conways." No it wouldn't. Smith MP "employs" the young Turner, Turner MP "employs" Carter fils; and Carter MP "employs" the daughter of Smith. Has any journalist or politician investigated whether this is happening?
Sir: It is not only Derek Conway's integrity which should be at issue but also the worrying notion that an MP has been voting in the Commons in factual ignorance. MPs rely heavily on the information provided by their research staff, and if, as it appears, his sons did little or none of the work for which they were paid, Conway would have been severely hampered in his ability to make informed and balanced decisions.
Sir: Conservative politicians are demanding to extend the powers of "stop and search". This is a good idea and would be popular with the electorate – that the police should be given the power to stop all MPs and search their expense sheets, hopefully to be followed by a robust examination of their financial affairs. Then, and only then, will trust in the integrity of our elected representatives be restored.
No way to bridge the schools divide
Sir: In my town there are two secondary schools, one independent and one comprehensive. I taught at the former for more than 30 years and am now a governor at the latter.
The independent pupil has his own desk in a study of half a dozen or so: the comp pupils have no coat-hook even and have to carry all their possessions from class to class.
The public school has a dozen grass pitches and an all-weather pitch, squash courts, fives courts, swimming pool, gym and sports hall. At the state school, more than twice the number of pupils possess two grass pitches, a gym and a joint-use sports hall and two tarmac areas for tennis and basket ball. The independent school has a new music school, an adequate technology area, a large library and two theatres: the comprehensive has one poorly equipped theatre and a small library.
The state school has a better art centre, because it is a specialist art school, and its IT is probably better.
So Dr Seldon, the headmaster of Wellington College, has a point when he complains of educational apartheid (15 January). But it is difficult to see how the independent sector can help.
Taking the ablest state-sector pupils through assisted places would exacerbate the biggest challenge the comprehensive faces: lack of pupil and parent aspiration. Independent schools thrive because parents are ambitious for their children, and clever and well-motivated children are a doddle to teach and encourage each other to do well. Independent schools are not geared up to the problems that comprehensive school teachers face.
It would be better if the independent schools lost their charitable status and the tax so realised was devoted to improving facilities at the nearest comprehensive. I don't think Dr Seldon can square the circle.
Sir: Dr Gerard Duveen, in his letter of 26 January, responds to the argument that the human right of parents to have children educated according to their religious and philosophical views makes it impossible to ban private schools. Dr Duveen asks whether any declaration of human rights states that the rights are only available to those who pay for them.
Many such declarations do state that the rights may be subjected to reasonable conditions. The right of citizens to travel freely within the EU is guaranteed, but you still have to pay for your passport and your ticket.
Professor P S Atiyah
Hayling Island, Hampshire
Sir: Dr Gerard Duveen misses the point: the vital human right is the ability to opt of out state education. The state provides what it likes to claim is an adequate education free of charge; obviously if parents wish not to avail themselves of it for their children, they must pay. Do not forget that this right was entirely denied to citizens of the USSR and similar regimes.
Birds that 'sing' with their tail feathers
Sir: I was surprised to see it reported that Anna's hummingbird is the first bird that has been shown to make a deliberate noise by causing air to rush through its tail feathers in such a way as to make them vibrate ("Revealed: the bird that sings through its tail", 30 January).
Male common snipe are well known to make conspicuous display flights – known as drumming flights – in which repeated steep dives cause the tail feathers to make a bleating or humming sound. During the dive the tail feathers are fanned and the outermost feather on each side is held almost at right-angles to the body and separate from the rest of the tail.
Whilst the noise produced can hardly be called singing it is hard to doubt that it is a "deliberate" part of the display – especially as drumming may carry on into the hours of darkness.
Newcastle upon Tyne
Binge drinkers will pay higher taxes
Sir: There are contradictions in arguing for increased taxes on alcohol to curb binge drinking (report, 24 January).
First, the heaviest drinkers seem to be successful managers and professionals. Almost by definition these will not be deterred by higher prices; they may even see it as a mark of success that they can afford whatever they have to pay.
Second, this group is probably the key constituency in any general election, so no government will risk alienating it without compensatory support for other aspects of its performance. Third, despite a fall in the relative price of alcohol, people will readily accept the inducements of cross-Channel operators to join the booze cruise, so instead of £2bn in lost revenue each year the Chancellor would be facing losses of £3bn or more.
The only realistic policy is to discourage the production of beer and wines with high alcoholic strength. This would demand an EU initiative, however, although it could quickly be achieved by the well-established EU method of offering incentives to producers. Differential tariffs according to alcohol-by-volume could be applied to imports from other areas.
Yes, you can resist Gilbert and Sullivan
Sir: We "can't resist Gilbert and Sullivan" (Extra, 31 January). Ah, but it can be done. When my partner and I set up house together 34 long years ago, we had many tastes in common, except that he liked G&S and ballet.
Feeling, in the fresh bloom of love, that I ought to show willing, I sampled them both and plumped for ballet because I found it hilarious (I don't think it was meant to be) whereas Gilbert and Sullivan tried too relentlessly to be funny. Ballet made me laugh – so much so that he stopped taking me. I won that round, at least.
Days that started with Miles Kington
Sir: I was so shocked to read about the premature death of Miles Kington. His column started the day for me. It was like a Christmas stocking – you never knew what you were going to get, but it was always fun.
He became almost like a relative, such was the intimate relationship he created through his unique brand of whimsical expression. What an achievement to have been able to do this every day of the week.
Sir: How sadly ironic that Miles Kington's death should coincide with the latest attack on the British media by Alastair Campbell – whose erstwhile boss described them as "feral beasts", singling out The Independent.
Kington's column was a beacon of wit, humanity and erudition: it would set you up for the day like a good cup of coffee. Au revoir, Miles, tu vas nous misser. Have a great time up there jamming with the other Miles.
Sir: "Miles Kington is away," it says at the foot of Terence Blacker's column.
"I haven't seen that journalist chap for a while," said the lady with the green hair. The major and the man with the dog nodded. "No," said the Welshman.
"Ah there you are," said the Chairman of the United Deities, "just in time to take the minutes." No rest for the wicked humourist.
Douglas, Isle of Man
Sir: I am absolutely devastated on opening my Independent to read that Miles Kington is dead. I am sure that Sir Gubby will have something to say about that.
Very occasionally, there is a writer (or a broadcaster such as Alan Coren) who hits the spot every single time and lightly teases out the fatuous side of life. Miles Kington scored every time, and there will be thousands of people like me who have just read the ghastly news and who are truly in mourning.
My condolences to his family and colleagues.
Mary Rose Gliksten
Sir: I was saddened to read about the death of Miles Kington. Two years ago I wrote to tell him how much I enjoyed his column in The Independent, and to my surprise he wrote back, with a three-page individualised letter. For him to take the time to do that was amazing, and to someone experiencing teenage angst at the time it really brightened my mood that he'd taken the care to reply. A witty columnist, and a caring individual – he will be greatly missed.
St. Anne's College, Oxford
Deported into danger
Sir: The Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises people not to travel to parts of Kenya for any reason. The Home Office deports people to Kenya. Lack of joined-up government, or simply an uncaring, racist Home Office?
Exuberant but 'guilty'
Sir: The Martin Amis interview (29 January) made marvellous reading – mainly because of the novelist's exuberant ideas and his story-teller's spellbinding style. I loved the Tale of the Three Girlfriends. But Johann Hari was going for a conviction on the racism charge. He could hardly secure this on Martin Amis's own admission, so he went for the old Trotskyite Guilt by Association. Mind you, what can one expect from someone who was indulging in that reactionary fascist practice of smoking?
Sir: Steve Richards is correct to say that London needs a more powerful government to promote the interests of Londoners, but he is wrong to think that London needs a more powerful mayor (Opinion, 24 January). The power of the mayor has already outstripped his accountability: let's not make the accountability deficit worse. More powers for London should be accompanied by a stronger elected London Assembly, so that Londoners can have an effective political voice more frequently than in the election every four years.
Director, Federal Union, London SE1
Over the border
Sir: Mary Dejevsky writes: ". . . exacerbated by the almost completed barrier along the length of [Israel's] eastern border" (Opinion, 29 January). Were that only true. The barrier is not along the border but well within Palestinian land, cutting off the farmer from his farm, a village from its nearest hospital, etc. Its course is determined by the water sources, enclosing all the water within Israeli control. That is why the Wall is so abhorrent.
Swaffham Bulbeck, Cambridgeshire
Sir: At last Gordon Brown has found his own policy for education. For 10 years we had Mr Blair's "Education, education (and if you can afford the fees) education". Now something new: "Education, education and oh, a Big Mac with fries."
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