Letters: Student expeditions

The lurking dangers of student expeditions in Central America
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Sir: During the past few years, Nicaragua and Costa Rica has experienced a huge increase in organised student "expeditions". Ometepe Island, which has a wide array of tropical ecosystems and outdoor activities, is one of the most popular places.

Each student is required to raise £3,000 to cover the return air fare, 30 days of travelling in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, food, camping, and lodging in dorms or in inexpensive hotels.

The tour operator gives each student £400 pounds for expenses. This must cover guides, overcrowded and under-maintained local transportation, private transport, taxis, taxes, entrance to national parks, museums, food, medical emergencies, lost money, internet services, lodging and, where appropriate, tips. Given the present prices here, this puts the well-being of young people at risk. The travellers do not have sufficient resources to survive nor the local knowledge to get the most out of the experience.

Hiring local tour operators with bilingual guides who will handle finances can minimise problems and increase safety. Local cell phones are not provided.

Student groups are in jeopardy because of the lack of proper nutrition; they also fail to hire a sufficient number of local guides, particularly to hike the volcanoes. To save money, students skip meals, sleep in hammocks, eat junk street-food or in unsanitary restaurants with pit toilets, and share single beds.

They do not have enough money to buy bottled water and so they drink untreated water, with the expected consequences.

In the past three years, five foreigners have died in Ometepe, one a British citizen, along with an American, because they made an economic decision not to hire a local guide for $10. Extensive resources have to be spent to find bodies and send them home. The emotional cost of dealing with families and relatives is also enormous.

The present standards of British tour operators are not sustainable. Please help us provide a safer experience for these youngsters and reduce the emotional fallout of unnecessary emergencies.



Everyone has a right to self-defence

Sir: Israel has a right to defend itself because everyone has a right to defend himself against injustice. Then do the Palestinians have a right to defend themselves against the illegal occupation of the West Bank?

Do they have a right to defend themselves against illegal colonisation by Jewish immigrant settlers? Do they have a right to defend themselves from restrictions on their movements, their trade, the tilling of their land and tending of their olives?

Do they have a right to defend themselves against walls that encroach, and settler-only roads that segment their farms? Do they have a right to denounce the widespread Israeli vision of a "greater Israel" comprising all the Biblical "land of Canaan"?

And, against a state armed by the richest nation on earth, is it not deplorable, but also understandable, that the Palestinians have resorted to suicide bombs in crowded markets and cafés? Those atrocities are in the face of extensive abductions and imprisonments, "targeted assassinations", and Israel's willingness to cause Palestinian civilian deaths through "collateral damage", a substantial multiple of the total of Israeli civilian deaths caused by terrorist action.

George Bush and Tony Blair have traced the present violence to the abduction of Israeli soldiers and to Hizbollah's indiscriminate rockets. But before the Cairo summit, Mr Bush seemed to be saying that a lasting peace would require "negotiations that go to the root of the problem".

Mr Bush and Mr Blair must look to the centuries-old persecution of the Jews, though most of that was at the hands of Christian Europeans rather than Muslim Arabs, which led to the creation of a Jewish state that has impinged exclusively on Palestinian Arabs to whom Israel and post-Christendom have so far acknowledged few obligations.

Israel was imposed by force on an unwilling people. But history and realism require that it should be secure. At the same time, the international community must recognise that Arabs, like Jews, cannot be expected to bear the whole burden. Surely, the United Nations that created Israel must make clear that its internationally guaranteed borders should be those of 1967, that the illegal Jewish settlements that colonise the present occupied territories must be removed, that aspirations for a "greater Israel" must be disavowed, and that the world will give every assistance to the establishment of an economically and politically viable Palestinian state.



Sir: For all the talk of a "war on terror" and rooting out Hizbollah, for more than 50 years Israeli policy regarding Lebanon has remained a constant. Lebanon should become a vassal state, in alliance with Israel, with the Muslims dispersed and powerless.

The personal diary of Moshe Sharett, Israel's second prime minister, tells of the attempts of David Ben Gurion to exacerbate the sectarian divisions inherent in Lebanon's constitution, to create a Maronite Christian state and effectively annex the south up to the Litani River. As Mr Sharett wrote on 27 February 1954, "I got tired of struggling against a whirlwind". Only the alliance with France, which led to the Suez war, put paid to these schemes.

Moshe Dayan, then chief of staff, tried to hire a Lebanese army officer who would agree to serve as a puppet leader. In 1982, Ariel Sharon acted out this desire before being forced to resign in ignominy. Today, even this pretext is discarded as Israel attempts to fulfil General Dayan's dream to "liberate Lebanon from its Muslim oppressors".

In 1982, the pretext for invasion was the attempted assassination, by the renegade Abu Nidal group of Israel's London ambassador, Shlomo Argov. Today the pretext is the capture of two Israeli soldiers, Hizbollah's rockets and the influence of Iran and Syria. The pretexts change but the aim remains the same.



Sir: Dominic Lawson (Opinion, 28 July) cites only extremist Orthodox Jewish sects as an example of Jews who opposed the creation and the continued existence of Israel, because it is a secular state. He ignores the large number of Jews who opposed the idea of a national Jewish state and continue to do so for other reasons.

They did not accept Chaim Weitzel's argument that Jews could only truly and fully be themselves in their own nation state, and feared that the creation of a Jewish nation state would lead Jews , in the name of their nation, to exhibit the same violent nationalistic chauvinism of which millions of Jews had been victims.

The facts that, despite continued strains of anti-Semitism, Jewish communities continue to thrive in all European countries, and the behaviour of Israel since 1948, seems to vindicate them.



Sir: I have been a resident of Syria for 35 years, and have effectively lived between Syria and England for that time. I have been interested to find that UN resolutions apply to the last iota to Arab countries, but are unfair and ignored if they apply to Israel. Also, if the Israelis invade land and kill people, it is in defence of their legitimate interests, but if the survivors try to get anything back it is terrorism.

The present conflict is fairly typical. Hizbollah want their land back and their prisoners released before they stop fighting. Here, they used to be seen as the lunatic fringe, now boys make cash selling Hizbollah flags.

I was never bullied in school, but now I know what it is like to live next to the biggest bully you ever had nightmares about, and one who is teacher's pet as well.



Shipman irrelevent to GMC proposals

Sir: Unfortunately, although Sir Liam Donaldson's proposals regarding the General Medical Council (Leading article, 29 July), may have merit in addressing competency issues, it is unlikely they will address either issues of trust or kindness as suggested. It is difficult to know how a regulatory body could test for these characteristics.

Again, Dr Harold Shipman is mentioned as the reason to make these changes. There is no evidence that Dr Shipman was an incompetent doctor yet he was undoubtedly a homicidal psychopath. It is unlikely the changes proposed by Sir Liam would have prevented Dr Shipman's criminal activities.

These proposals are no more likely to detect future Dr Shipmans than a regulatory framework for German artists in the 1920s would have prevented the emergence of Adolf Hitler as leader of Germany.



No half-way houses for prisoners

Sir: Days ago, I sat as a member of a Mental Health Act panel in a local medium-secure unit, hearing the case for renewal of section for a 31-year-old man. He has a history of violence and several convictions, but with the expert care he has had, and through his own determination, he has moved to a point where he is ready to move to low-level supervision, with a view to his eventual rehabilitation.

But there is nowhere for him to go. Two local places which could have offered intermediate care have closed, and there is now no NHS unit within a 50-mile radius to offer the right kind of supervision for him. He becomes demoralised and his condition deteriorates each time hope is held out, then withdrawn.

Recently, £2m has recently been cut from the budget of the specialist mental health trust responsible for him, to bail out failing PCTs.

In view of the widely accepted estimate that at least 70 per cent of prison inmates have mental health problems, can we take it that at least 5,500 of the new 8,000 prison places promised by the Home Secretary, John Reid, will be filled by mentally ill people?

Perhaps if Mr Reid paid more attention to cases such as that of Anne-Marie Bates, and less to the "hang 'em, flog 'em" brigade, he would agitate for more mental health provision, and more half-way and three-quarter-way accommodation. Then, more people could successfully be rehabilitated and live productive lives, and tragedies such as that of Anne-Marie could start to diminish.



Sir: The Home Secretary's determination to build more prisons will exacerbate rather than relieve the penal crisis (Leading article, 26 July). More prisons will result in more men, women and children being unnecessarily imprisoned and further tragic and preventable deaths like that of Anne-Marie Bates.

The only way to prevent prison suicides and, at the same time, cut crime is to reduce the use of custody whilst developing excellent community sentences.

Community sentences can cut re-offending by up to 14 per cent compared to prison, and the Howard League for Penal Reform Awards for community programmes prove that good schemes can work with both the young and adults.

Contrary to the impression given by ministers in their get-tough approach, prison cannot protect the public in the long term, does not reduce re-offending, and its gross overuse continues to shatter so many lives.



Cut it out

Sir: On the subject of BBC mispronunciation, (Letters, 29 July), can we get their announcers and actors to stop mispronouncing "dissect" as "di-sect"? The word "disect" means to cut into two; "dissect" is to cut apart.



A mystery solved

Sir: When buying The Independent at Sainsbury's in Suffolk (at the age of 62), I too was asked for proof of being over 16 and was told there is a simple explanation (Letters, 28 July). More than three months ago, The Independent included a free CD which was considered suitable only for those over 16, hence the check. Those responsible for the Sainsbury's IT systems have failed to remove the automatic age query



Wrong link

Sir: The feature on the Congo (28 July) contained a picture of a handful of rounds, captioned "bullets for an AK47". The ammunition shown was in a metal-link belt, for use in a machinegun; bullets for an AK47 assault rifle are loaded individually into magazines. Sorry for being such an anorak, or should that be a combat jacket?



Religion, not race

Sir: Islam is not a race ("Muslims on front line as racism rises across EU", 26 July). Certainly, many Muslims are of an ethnicity racists object to but that does not link the two. The imprecision contributes to the worryingly common misconception that if one takes issue with religion one is a racist.



Sized up in the US

Sir: In the United States postal service, shape and size are a key element when calculating US postal charges (Letters, 29 July). A square envelope, for example, attracts a surcharge of 13 cents, because it has to be manually sorted. And yes, at Christmas, the unknowing are caught out.



Natural cycle

Sir: David Love (Letters, 26 July) is wrong when he states that the undoubted rising global temperatures are correlated with the rise in atmospheric CO2. For most of the period between 1945 and the mid-1970s, global temperatures fell, despite rises in CO 2 levels. The temperature changes correlate with solar activity, and have done so since 1860, as far back as reliable records go. Since solar activity is expected to decline soon, the implication is that global warning is a part of a temporary, natural climate cycle.



Sir: I wish to propose a competition for new ideas for making use of the higher temperatures we are going to suffer to generate electricity.