Thursday, September 8, 2016

Guarding the Flame. Reflecting on the Herbal Medicine Traditions

The Western herbal medicine tradition represents a neglected and devalued repository of much of the knowledge developed over many thousands of years of medical experience in Europe, the Mediterranean and the Americas. Practitioners of herbal medicine throughout the world continue to make use of several hundred medicinally-active plants many of which have a long and established history. A few among these plant medicines have found popular use in recent decades - even to the point of reaching the hallowed shelves of Western supermarkets. Such plants include echinacea which stimulates activity in the immune system, ginkgo which enhances cerebral circulation, saw palmetto which is useful in the treatment of prostatic enlargement, and St. Mary's thistle which stimulates liver detoxification. Yet the Western herbal medicine tradition represents far more than a source of agents that can serve as alternatives to more commonly available pharmaceuticals.

The audio below offers an in-depth discussion between two experienced educators and practitioners in the Western herbal  medicine tradition. Mary Allan has taught herbal medicine in New Zealand and is currently editor of Avena, the Journal of the New Zealand Association of Medical Herbalists. Vincent Di Stefano has taught herbal medicine in a number of theatres in Australia and is author of Holism and Complementary Medicine. History and Principles (Allen and Unwin, 2006).

The discussion explores not only many aspects of herbal medicine, but examines the nature of healing in its broader sense, ranging from personal and interpersonal healing to planetary healing. This post also carries an essay that examines the nature of contemporary medicine and technology, the role of practitioners of herbal medicine in the broader work of healing, and the longer-term role of medicinally active plants as agents of healing.

Guarding the Flame can be streamed using the media player above. A CD quality mp3 file is available for download here.

Production Notes

Mary Allan
Vincent Di Stefano

Dice, Midnight in Lismore

The Herbal Medicine Tradition. A Long-burning Torch for Darkening Times

Joseph Wright. The Alchymist, 1771
Practitioners of herbal medicine hold the curious privilege of being carriers of a tradition whose origins can be barely traced through the mists of history during a time when traditional knowledge has been demeaned and devalued by a civilisation that celebrates transience and power.

Contemporary biomedicine continuously skirts the edge of ever-imminent "breakthroughs" that promise the conquest of refractory diseases through the discovery of new drugs and the development of new procedures. There are regular calls for increased funding from all available sources, from government, from industry and from the donations of a generous public in order that such salvific developments can proceed unhindered.

The biomedical establishment draws upon the energy of numerous dedicated individuals and also draws from the immense reserves of both national governments and multinational corporations in the knowledge that any successful "breakthrough" will bring immense financial returns.

Meanwhile, the whole apparatus hangs on the assumption that there will be uninterrupted freedom and continuity in the various institutions and infrastructures through which such activities are initiated, pursued, marketed and delivered to established "health care" networks. We are just beginning to understand that business may not necessarily continue as usual in what is becoming an increasingly uncertain future.

The resources deployed within the biomedical enterprise are huge. They begin with the medical schools throughout the world that induct elite cadres of young aspirants through rigorous initiations which include a not-so-subtle professional socialisation and a detailed and extensive training in anatomy, physiology, histology, embryology and pathology. The public hospitals in which their developing skills are exercised consist of vast and finely coordinated structures in which ambulance facilities, casualty departments, in-patient wards, operating theatres, intensive care wards, pathology units and pharmacy departments are serviced by large numbers of paramedics, nurses, nutritionists and caterers. medical officers, specialists, cleaners and hospital administrators.

The hospital system itself both supports and is supported by medical practitioners within the general community, by manufacturers of medical hardware ranging from disposable syringes, swabs and bandages to intravenous drips, cardiac monitors, fibre optic devices, defibrillators and magnetic resonance imaging scanners, and by a vast and powerful multinational pharmaceutical industry that produces the drugs which are dispensed and sold in huge quantities throughout the world.

This vast and interconnected network of activities both defines and supports the institution of biomedicine. Most governments in the developed world uphold this structure through political and legislative support, through the bankrolling of medical schools and public hospitals, and through subsidising the cost of diagnostic testing and pharmaceutical drugs.

Practitioners of herbal medicine are effectively outside of the loop. They have little if any legislative support, receive their training in exceedingly modest educational facilities, have no access to the public hospital system, limited access to diagnostic services, and a questionable professional status. Despite this, the practice of herbal medicine continues to remain a vital and enduring source of satisfaction both for those who would carry the tradition through mastery of its methods and for those who seek out the services of knowledgeable practitioners.

What is going on here? Are practitioners of herbal medicine a quaint but harmless anachronism determined to cleave to largely discarded ways during a time where health care in most of the developed world has been technologised, corporatised and universalised? Are those who practise herbal medicine obstinately refusing to accept the reality of modernism with its celebration of centralisation, globalisation and standardisation? How is it that they do not covet the awesomely powerful methods that have become the signatures of biomedicine? Just what does the contemporary practice of herbal medicine represent?

The Promethean Entrancement

Francis Bacon
Much of the driving force that has propelled technological civilisation and its extraordinary manifestations - including biomedicine - derives its influence from a philosophical position that separates us from the natural world. Early in the seventeenth century, Francis Bacon exhorted all who would build the New Atlantis to subject nature to their will in order to forcibly extract those "secrets" that enable control and mastery of her forces. By mid-century, Rene Descartes declared the world and all that was in it to be a soulless machine that could be understood, controlled and manipulated by the exercise of human reason. And by the end of the century, Isaac Newton had confirmed that the physical universe operated according to immutable laws that, once known and understood, conferred immense powers of control and predictability to those who understood them.

The so-called European "Enlightenment" further encouraged a philosophical clearing of the decks of all that was deemed to be uncertain or "irrational" in order that a new era based on development, progress and control could proceed without interference.

The fruits of such methods and understandings have, during the time since, completely transformed the world. Yet our fascination with the productions of industry and technology and our participation in the power they confer have blinded us to their effects on our view of ourselves, on our relationship with powerful institutions, and on our sensitivity to the natural world.

At the most basic level, we have become curiously alienated from those potencies within our own natures and within the natural world by which we are formed, sustained and regenerated. Though we may live by more than bread alone, that bread has now been tainted and denatured by the methods of industrial agriculture and food production. Top-soils have been everywhere destroyed; fruits, often laced with low levels of insecticide residues, are gathered long before they are ripe and transported over long distances - even across the great oceans - before they reach our tables; the genetic structure of many staple grains has been knowingly altered with unknown consequences to future generations; the bee populations in many countries have repeatedly caved under the onslaught of agricultural chemicals. And this is to say nothing of the plethora of heavily processed foods stacked on the overburdened shelves of supermarkets everywhere.

We seem to have collectively lost sight of the fact that our physical bodies are continuously reconstituted from the foods that we eat, the air that we breathe, and the liquids that we drink. In the early 1950s, long before chemical-heavy industrial agriculture had reached anything like its present levels, Max Gerson showed through his nutritionally-based cancer therapy the vital importance of using fresh, unprocessed, chemical-free foods if healing is to be activated after health has broken down. This understanding has yet to reach the busy kitchens of public hospitals throughout the Western world.

The anatomising of the body into its constituent tissues and organs is echoed in the anatomising of our foodstuffs into their constituent fats, proteins, sugars and calories. There is no measure that can accommodate the integrity, the totality and the equilibrium of living matter.

Dark Fruits

And so it is with the natural world. Our civilisation has recklessly plundered every identifiable resource with little thought to its relationship with the rest of the created order. Our forests have been felled, our soils destroyed, our rivers and lakes laden with the detritus of industry, our oceans robbed of their myriad fish species, our air thickened by the burning of fossil fuels. And we wonder why the cost of health care throughout the developed world continues to steadily rise despite endless medical "breakthroughs" and all the fancy hardware and clever medicines.

Two decades ago, Thomas Berry reflected:
"We cannot have well humans on a sick planet. Medicine must first turn its attention to protecting the health and well being of the Earth before there can be any effective human health."

The Hidden Flame

Before we can seriously direct our attention to protecting the health and well being of the earth, we must address our sense of separation from the phenomenal world. We must somehow awaken from the illusion that we are masters of creation who are free to do what we will with both the earth and with our bodies. We must somehow reconnect with the forces that unite us with the natural world from which we can never truly be separate without damaging ourselves and the world within which we live.

The force by which a grain of pollen unites with an ovule to produce a seed that carries the full potency of the parent plant is no different to that which enables every new human life to come into existence. The power by which a plant draws water and nutrients from the earth, and oxygen, carbon dioxide and sunlight from the air to produce its myriad structures and chemical compounds is no different to that which enables our physical bodies to grow and to repair themselves after injury and illness.

Howard Terpning. Medicine Man, 1983
Generations of healers in all times and in all places have identified plants that will serve as reliable allies so long as we continue to take human form upon the earth. In the present time, the biomedical profession has claimed the exclusive right to make use of extracts and derivatives of such plants as Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy, Claviceps purpurea, ergot of rye, Digitalis purpurea and D. lanata, the purple and woolly foxgloves, Ephedra sinensis, ma huang, and Atropa belladonna, the deadly nightshade. Yet these and other powerful plants were long known and used skilfully and carefully by untold generations of healers, herbalists, midwives and shamans. These and many other plants of softer power will continue to spring forth from both wild and cultivated spaces for as long as the earth remains hospitable and habitable.

There will always be a community of knowledgeable individuals who will safeguard and transmit the knowledge of how these plants can enable us to better pass through the pains and afflictions that are an inevitable part of human life.

The methods of phytochemistry and pharmacology have recently confirmed the particular usefulness of many plants which have long been used in the various herbal medicine traditions. These include such plants as Echinacea angustifolia, which stimulates activity in the immune system, Ginkgo biloba, which enhances cerebral circulation, Serenoa repens, which is useful in the treatment of prostatic enlargement, Hypericum perforatum, used in the treatment of depression and other nervous system disorders, Crataegus monogyna, which can lower blood pressure and stimulate coronary circulation, Valeriana officinalis, useful in the treatment of insomnia, and Silybum marianum and Cynara scolymus, both of which support liver function. Such plants and their extracts are no longer used exclusively by herbalists and are now prescribed or recommended to patients by a growing number of practitioners of biomedicine. Yet there remain may other plants within the herbal medicine traditions whose actions are perhaps too subtle to be easily determined by the harsh methods of phytochemical fractionation and pharmaceutical statistics.

It is important to understand that medicinal plants and their extracts are categorically different to the pharmaceutical drugs used in biomedicine. A single medicinally active plant or its extract typically contains small quantities of numerous compounds and influences which can, both individually and synergistically, interact with our own natures. Although any given plant may contain a specific potency, as is the case with opium poppies and their narcotic alkaloids, foxglove and its cardioactive glycosides, and the buckthorns with their purgative anthracenosides, most plants used as medicines carry a constellation of influences which may include minerals, organic acids, essential oils, bitter compounds, flavonoids, steroids and so forth. This is certainly the case with such gentle treasures as lemon balm, golden rod, white horehound, cleavers, agrimony, motherwort, chamomile, plantain, dandelion, yarrow and many other plant medicines.

During this time when the ways of herbal medicine are often dismissed and demeaned as outmoded and useless superstitions, we are well advised to deepen our familiarity with the healing plants both in our gardens and in the wild. This will ensure that regardless of whether the future holds a bang or a whimper, this soft system of healing will remain available as a living force for the benefit of future generations.

Vincent Di Stefano N.D., D.O., M.H.Sc.

An earlier version of this essay was published in Avena, Journal of the New Zealand Association of Medical Herbalists, Winter 2011



1. In Search of the Deeper Healing

The technological project has permeated virtually every aspect of biomedicine from the manufacture of drugs and the analysis of blood samples to such visualisation technologies as fibre optiscopes and PET scanners.

Yet healing partakes of more than material interventions. This post reflects on the movements of mind, faith and spirit in the work of deep healing.



2. Of Love and Medicine

In her book Kitchen Table Wisdom. Stories that Heal, Rachel Naomi Remen makes the following observation: "For all its technological power, medicine is not a technological enterprise. The practise of medicine is a special kind of love."

This post offers a short phenomenological reflection on the experience of being admitted to the Emergency Ward of a small public hospital on the outskirts of Melbourne, Australia.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Slow Bleed. Fukushima Five Years On

Fukushima, Reactors 3 and 4
The melt down of three nuclear reactors at Fukushima in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami of 11th March 2011 seems to have quietly slipped out of our collective awareness - as quietly as the cauldrons of radioactive elements that were once within the active cores of the reactors invisibly bleed into the groundwaters and seawaters of the region. This event has become yet another minor detail in the distorted mosaic of ruin that mirrors the latter days of a civilisation in free-fall.

Arnie Gundersen is looking a little weathered these days. He has just returned from a five-week long speaking tour of Japan. He spent much of that time in the company of many whose lives have been indelibly seared by the Fukushima catastrophe. What he reports is unlikely to appear in the mainstream media, but such has ever been the case when it comes to the hidden machinations of big government and big business.

What Gundersen has to say is worth closely attending to. As a nuclear engineer, he has been deeply involved in the American nuclear industry for over four decades. He has a special interest in the design and safety of containment structures and holds a patent for a nuclear safety device. He has also managed and coordinated nuclear projects at 70 nuclear power plants in the US and is a former nuclear industry senior vice-president. He knows the industry well, particularly its toxic underbelly.

Arnie Gundersen served as an expert witness in the investigation of the 1979 Three Mile Island accident, and found that releases of radioactivity from that particular event were 15 times higher than the figures published subsequently in a government report. He is no stranger to the prevarication and deceit that have too often accompanied statements made by the nuclear industry and its government supporters.

Gundersen has been an active critic of the nuclear industry for over two decades. More recently, he has co-authored a Greenpeace International report on Fukushima. He was among the first North American commentators to speak publicly and forcefully on the implications of Fukushima in the days and weeks after the meltdowns. And since that time, he has been tireless in his efforts to provide an informed narrative of developments at Fukushima and their consequences for both the inhabitants of Japan and on the global community.

Arnie Gunderson reports that the Japanese Government continues to put the interests of Japanese banks and power companies ahead of the safety of its people. Within a short time of the Fukushima meltdowns in 2011, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) who were in power at that time arbitrarily raised the "acceptable" limits of radiation exposure twenty-fold: from 1 millisievert (mSv)/year - the maximum dose recommended by the International Commission on Radiological Protection - to 20 mSv/year. In 1998, over a decade beforehand, Rosalie Bertell presented the findings of a number of independent studies published in peer-reviewed journals, including the British Medical Journal and the Journal of the American Medical Association that showed unequivocally that radiation doses as low as 2.5 mSv/year were associated with significant increases in the incidence of leukaemias and myelomas, and cancers of the pancreas, lungs and female reproductive organs in nuclear industry workers.

As Japanese medical practitioners begin to  encounter the effects of radiation exposure in their patients - particularly children - the government now refuses to pay doctors who record a diagnosis of radiation-induced sickness in their patients. This will come as no surprise to those who followed the actions of the Soviet government and later, the Russian, Ukraine and Belarus governments in their concerted suppression of medical reports dealing with the consequences of radiation exposure on the lives of their citizens after the Chernobyl meltdown.

Rearranging the Deck Chairs

Temporary housing for Fukushima evacuees
Over 100,000 people are still not able to return to their homes in Fukushima prefecture since the meltdowns. In a disturbing disclosure, Gundersen reveals that many of the evacuees have received virtually no information regarding the issue of radiation exposure either from the Japanese government or from TEPCO, the operators of the Fukushima power plant. The subsistence stipend that they have received since being evacuated will cease in March 2017. Considerable pressure is being put on former residents by the government that they now return to Fukushima and tough it out regardless of the ongoing contamination. Many have grave concerns regarding the effects of such a move on the future health of their families.

Endless Acres of Radioactive Waste
Another remarkable aspect of the present situation concerns the manner in which highly contaminated materials - which include radioactive soil, leaves and other debris - have been dealt with. Thirty million tons of such debris has so far been gathered from throughout the Fukushima prefecture. Much of this is now stored in over 9 million large plastic bags scattered throughout the affected areas. Three years after being filled, the bags have started to disintegrate and nobody seems to know what to do next since their contents need to be kept isolated for at least another 30 years. One favoured option is to incinerate them. This would certainly decrease their number, but would inevitably result in the further dispersion of radioactive elements in aerosol form around Japan.

There are clearly some who still hold to the old but ultimately banal adage that, the solution to pollution is dilution.

Contaminated Water Storage Tanks at Fukushima
Dwarfing the problem of solid wastes is the ongoing leaching of radioactive elements from the melted reactor cores into groundwater and seawater. For the past five years, between 200 and 500 tons of groundwater flow through the reactors every day as a result of multiple cracks in the containment structures. Some of this water has recently been diverted away from the reactors, but an estimated 150 tons of groundwater continue to flow through the reactors daily. This irradiated water inexorably flows on, steadily bleeding into the northern Pacific. Furthermore, 700,000 tons of highly radioactive water salvaged from cooling operations since the meltdown is presently stored in massive tanks that now pepper the reactor site. More are being built as contaminated water continues to accumulate.

The Tragic Absurdity

It is common knowledge that engineers will be busy for the next 30 to 40 years in their efforts to put the lid on the cauldron of radioactivity that seethes in the reactor basements at Fukushima. Meanwhile, the Pacific tectonic plate continues its own inexorable movement beneath the continental Okhotsk plate on which Japan sits creating the conditions for future mega-thrust events like that which shook the region on 11th March 2011. The unspoken terror is that it could all turn again in the blink of an eye.

Despite what has happened at Fukushima, the Abe Government is determined to restart Japan's nuclear reactors that were all shut down after the 2011 earthquake. Widespread anti-nuclear protests throughout Japan have been ignored and three nuclear power plants - two at the Sendai nuclear complex in seismic-sensitive Kagoshima prefecture and another in Fukui prefecture - have been restarted since August 2015. Over the next year, a further six to twelve reactors are slated to resume operations. Business reigns as usual.

There are many who proudly insist on riding the nuclear beast regardless of the human and environmental consequences. They trumpet that this is the way of the future and a "necessary" solution to the problems of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and an ever-accelerating movement towards numerous tipping points which include ocean acidification, loss of polar albedo effects due to melting of polar ice, and the bubbling up of vast new wells of methane gas from the melting of northern permafrost and sea-floor deposits. In the immortal words of the poet Edwin Arlington Robinson, what folly is here that has not yet a name?

Arnie Gundersen's Report

The video clip below ( presents an interview between Arnie Gundersen and Margaret Harrington recorded soon after he returned from a recent speaking tour of Japan. The first 25 minutes of the interview offers deep insight into how the worst industrial accident in the history of humanity has affected the people of Japan, and how the Japanese government increasingly serves the interests of power companies and their financial backers rather than those of its own people. Arnie Gundersen is unambiguously clear regarding the nature of what has gone down in Fukushima in this presentation. And the moral abandonment of both the Japanese government and TEPCO in the downplaying of the present and future consequences of the meltdown are not lost on him.

The second half of this clip offers a detailed review by Gundersen of the developments at Fukushima over the past five years. A separate high-definition version of the second segment can be accessed here.

Vincent Di Stefano D.O., N.D., M.H.Sc.
Inverloch, April 2016

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Blood on the Sand, Blood in the Sea. Of Courage and Treachery on Libya's Shores

"One incurs no blame in giving up one's life that the good and the right may prevail.
There are things that are more important than life."
(Hexagram 28, Line 6, Preponderance of the Great. I Ching, Wilhelm/Baynes translation)

I am no stranger to Libya. I spent most of the third year of my life travelling with my parents between Tripoli and Benghazi. And long before I had entered this world, my father, together with many other young Italian men, had come to know Libya's towns and deserts very well. Most of them had taken leave of their families because there was no work to be had in their towns and villages. The wages they earned helped to sustain the lives of mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters back home.

The world in which those young men lived is virtually inconceivable for most who live in the so-called developed world today with its fully charged and fully wired ways. The spaces in which we live are now awash in a chaos of invisible energies beamed by over 1,100 communications satellites orbiting the earth. They endlessly transmit our voices, our images, our texts, our financial transactions. They direct the movements of fighter jets and devastatingly lethal missiles.

Yet even in the midst of the technological power and control that dominates the times, there are some things that have barely changed. Among them is the deep poverty in which many continue to live despite the good times and fast living that the western world distractedly pursues. Over three billion people - nearly half of the world's population - live on less than $2.50 a day. This would not even cover the cost of a morning coffee. 

Many decades after the time that my father worked on construction sites in and around Benghazi, Libya remains a place where both young men and older men from impoverished families continue to look for work. Egyptian men in particular. But Libya has become a far more dangerous place than ever it was before, as we so graphically learned in mid-February 2015.

Because a Few, by Fate's Economy shall Seem to Move the World the Way it Goes

Long before the attack on the Twin Towers in September 2001, the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, the Shock and Awe attack that preceded the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011, and the ruinous dismembering of Syria that has been steadily progressing since March 2011, the game plan for the Middle East had already been drawn up.

The Project for the New American Century was formed in 1997. It gathered together many of the militarist hawks who would soon after form the inner circle of George W. Bush's presidency. It included such shadowy luminaries as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and John Bolton. Within months of its formation, an open letter was sent to President Bill Clinton. The letter was signed by the core members of the group as well as carrying the signatures of an additional 30 political and military heavy-weights. The letter unambiguously called for the removal of Saddam Hussein from power: "What is needed now is a comprehensive political and military strategy for bringing down Saddam and his regime."

Its first formal declaration Rebuilding America's Defences was published in September 2000. The following comment appeared in that report: "[T]he process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic event like a new Pearl Harbour." The report also urged that the methods to be used to maintain US global hegemony should include the right to launch pre-emptive military strikes and the freedom to overthrow regimes deemed "hostile" to US interests.

Ground Zero, New York
The desired "new Pearl Harbour" event dramatically materialised within 12 months of releasing the report when the Twin Towers were brought down by two passenger planes that had been hijacked by 10 young men. Seven of the men were from Saudi Arabia, two were from the United Arab Emirates, and one was from Egypt. Within 24 hours of the 9/11 attack, both Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz had called for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Their moment had come and these men were determined to whip the horse as hard as they could.

The first stage of the program was enacted through the saturation bombing of Taliban positions in Afghanistan a month later. Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and their inner circle patiently waited a further 18 months until Afghanistan had been sufficiently "subdued" and the American people sufficiently "persuaded" that Sadam Hussein was somehow behind the attack on the Twin Towers.

A torrent of missiles was unleashed upon Iraq on the night of March 19th 2003 in a spectacle that was broadcast and viewed as live "entertainment" throughout the western world.

By Dint of Slaughter, Toil and Theft

The invasion of Iraq was built on two lies. The first was that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. The second was that Iraq had been a haven for al-Qaeda and that Saddam Hussein was in league with Osama Bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was non-existent in Iraq when the US-led attack commenced in March 2003. But within a few months, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a former Jordanian lone-wolf militant had sufficiently exploited the chaos in Iraqi society to gather around him a sizeable group of former Iraqi military commanders and assorted Sunni Jihadists. In April 2004, he formally pledged his allegiance to Osama Bin Laden and declared himself head of the newly-formed al-Qaeda in Iraq. Soon after, he released a video depicting an act of breath-taking cruelty which set a precedent that has been ritually re-enacted throughout the Middle East on numerous occasions since.

American telecommunications contractor Nick Berg was abducted in Baghdad by al-Zarqawi's men in April 2004. His headless body was found near a highway overpass near Baghdad on 8th May 2004. Three days later, a grisly five minute video was broadcast by an Islamic website. It showed Berg in an orange jump suit - a standard issue item for Islamic detainees in the notorious Abu Graibh prison near Baghdad. Berg was surrounded by five masked men. After identifying himself, two of the men held him down while a third - allegedly Abu Musab al-Zarqawi - beheaded him with a knife. A fourth man then read a statement that concluded with the following remark: "You will not receive anything from us but coffins after coffins . . . . slaughtered in this way." The sands of the desert and the shores of the Mediterranean have been awash with hand-drawn blood ever since.

Al-Zarqawi was himself killed in an air strike in June 2006. His fellow-combatant and senior aide Abu Ayyub al-Masri immediately stepped into his shoes. Within four months, al-Masri had succeeded in merging al-Qaeda in Iraq with a number of other Sunni insurgent groups and declared the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq, nominating the shadowy Iraqi nationalist scholar Abu Umar al-Baghdadi as its head. Both were killed in 2010. The reins were then taken over by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Within 3 years, The Islamic State of Iraq was fully operational in Syria. In April 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi formally announced a change of name, and declared the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or ISIL (more commonly referred to as ISIS or simply IS). A year later, he proclaimed himself as Caliph of the Islamic State, a successor of Muhammad, and leader whose exercise of power is absolute.

The invasion of Iraq by the US and its "coalition of the willing" not only enabled al-Qaeda to firmly establish a presence where it had not been, but ultimately created the conditions whereby a far more lethal entity was able to sink firm serpentine roots into the wracked and bloodied soil of Iraq and thence to spread its cancerous venom throughout the Middle East.

Over the past two years, ISIS militants have taken advantage of the chaos ensuing in Libya after the "successful" NATO campaign to oust Muammar Gaddafi, who was brutally murdered in October 2011. The presence of ISIS in Libya was dramatically brought to the attention of the western world in February 2015 when it released a shockingly graphic video of the beheading of 21 Christian migrant workers on the shores of Sirte in northern Libya.

Black-Drawn Against Wild Red

On the night of December 27th, 2014, a group of Egyptian workers, all Coptic Christians, were abducted by members of ISIS from their quarters in Sirte, a coastal city situated mid-way between Tripoli and Benghazi in northern Libya. A week later, another group was similarly abducted. Their captors chose only Christian workers, releasing all Muslim fellow-workers who were staying in the same compounds. The Egyptians all knew of the dangers of working in Libya since the killing of Muammar Gaddafi. Before the Arab Spring which began in Tunisia late in 2010, two million Egyptian men were employed in Libya at any given time. For virtually all of them, such work represented a life-line for their impoverished families enabling them to have food on their tables and to provide schooling for their children. By late 2014, their numbers had dropped to 750,000.

Thirteen of the men who were abducted were from Al Aour, a village and farming community of a few thousand people situated three hours south of Cairo. For seven weeks there had been no word regarding their fate or the fate of the other men who had been captured. On Sunday 15th February 2015, ISIS released a video that confirmed the worst fears of their families. This highly produced film showed a group of 21 men being led single file along a rocky shoreline. The men were dressed in orange jump-suits similar to that worn by Nick Berg when he was beheaded by Abu Masab al-Zarqawi in Iraq 10 years beforehand. Walking behind each man was a black-robed masked ISIS militant of gigantic stature. This was all part of the grotesque theatricality that had long been favoured by ISIS in portraying itself as a ruthless super-human force to be universally feared.

As Quiet Fiends Would Lead Past Our Eyes Our Children to an Unseen Sacrifice

Mathew Ayairga and Companions
The 21 men who were led along the Wilayat Tarabulus coast in Libya went knowingly to their fate. Each of them was offered their freedom if they renounced Christianity and embraced Islam. Each of them refused. Remarkable in this story is that one of the captives, Mathew Ayairga a worker from Chad, was not a Christian but had somehow been included with the 20 Coptic men. The original video aired by ISIS shows that he was given an opportunity to save himself. When asked "Do you reject Christ?", he replied unflinchingly, "Their God is my God."

The hidden story of the 21 martyrs is documented visually in the following short video clip, which is a highly moving collage of news reports, still images, and edited excerpts from the ISIS video. It offers a rare and precious experience of human faith and courage in an age that has been overtaken by the cult of ego, the pursuit of distraction and the collapse of depth. It provides a glimpse of the hidden pain of those whose lives have been shattered by inhuman cruelty wilfully inflicted on others. It points to the ultimate transience of human life. And it reveals the peace that can be carried within a man that will, in the fullness of time, find expression in a renewed humanity.


1. "Enemy of Enemies: The Rise of ISIL" is a superbly produced documentary that carries extensive archival footage of the peculiar sequence of political and strategic mutations that led to the formation of the Islamic State in its present manifestation. A significant part of the presentation centres around discussions between highly informed and articulate commentators, each of whom has participated intimately in the movements of events from the invasion of Iraq in 2003 to the present impasse.

2. The headers in this essay are drawn from E.A. Robinson's perceptive and prescient poem first published in 1916, "The Man Against The Sky", which offers an early reflection on the mental character of a civilisation gone awry.

Vincent Di Stefano D.O., N.D., M.H.Sc.
Inverloch, February 2016

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Art of Disregard. Jaduguda and the Indian Nuclear Project

 For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, 
against powers, against the rulers of darkness in this world, 
against spiritual wickedness in high places. 
                                                                   St. Paul, Ephesians 6:12

I had considered myself to be reasonably conversant with what is going down in matters nuclear. The language is no problem as physics, chemistry and mathematics were all part of my schooling. And together with many of my generation, I was drawn into political activity during the deadly '80s when over 50,000 nuclear warheads bristled in nuclear silos, on mobile launchers and in nuclear submarines silently plying the dark oceans of the world.

Like many during that time, I attended anti-nuclear conferences and rallies, participated in study groups, worked with community radio stations, and wrote papers. Sellafield, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl were all part of our common lexicon, as were Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Cuban Missile Crisis. More recently, we watched as shadowy forces on both sides of Australian politics manipulated policies so as to expand uranium mining in this country. We witnessed cold pragmatism and moral treachery as a former anti-nuclear rock singer turned environment minister signed off on a deal to double the uranium output of the BHP Billiton Olympic Dam Mine in South Australia. The triple meltdowns at Fukushima in March 2011 put the brakes on that one however, and the global nuclear industry pulled back on a widely-heralded nuclear renaissance that aimed to fill the world with a new generation of nuclear reactors. At the present time, closed room discussions focus on ways to soften the people of Australia for the eventual construction of nuclear power stations and the creation of nuclear waste dumps in South Australia and the Northern Territory.

Protesters at Kudankulam
I had some small knowledge of the Indian nuclear project: That it was a relative latecomer, starting in the late 1960s by which time the US, the Soviet Union, Canada, and several European countries were all in possession of nuclear reactors. That it had refused to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in 1968. That it had detonated its first nuclear bomb, quaintly named Smiling Buddha, in 1974 and conducted further nuclear tests during the 1990's. That it had highly ambitious but largely unrealised goals for fuelling its economy by a massive expansion of nuclear power plants. That not everyone in India was particularly happy about the prospect, as was shown in the protests against the Kudankulam nuclear reactor complex in southern India in 2012.

I still recall my disgust at the degree of brutality exercised by Indian police against villagers who were protesting peacefully at the time. They showed their fidelity to the cause of serving as protectors of the people by shooting into crowds of unarmed civilians, killing one 44 year old fisherman and injuring many others, destroying property, and then proceeding to spit and urinate inside the Mother of Lourdes Church in Kudankulam which had served as a base around which 8,000 to 10,000 local villagers had gathered for the protest.

I have more recently been made aware of how little, in fact, I know about the nuclearisation of India and its consequences. A recently-published article by London-based journalist Adrian Levy reveals how deeply hidden the ugly side of the Indian nuclear project has been from the very outset and how callously many communities that are out of sight of the rest of the world have been crushed and ignored in order to satisfy the Promethean aspirations of their governments.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

The village of Jaduguda is situated in the newly created state of Jharkhand in north-east India. Low-grade uranium ore was discovered there in the early 1950s and mining started in 1967. In the intervening decades, approximately 1,000 tons of uranium ore has been brought to the surface daily and processed at a mill situated adjacent to the mine. Milled uranium concentrate is then transported some 1,400 kilometres to Hyderabad where it is further processed into uranium oxide pellets that charge the fuel rods powering ten of India's nuclear reactors. Approximately 25% of the uranium used by the nuclear industry in India comes from the Jaduguda mines.

History has shown that mining is a destructive and dirty business. Over 500 years ago, the great physician Paracelsus wrote a treatise on diseases that were peculiar to miners. In the intervening centuries, we have come to know that it is not only those who spend their time in underground mines who suffer the consequences of inhaling the toxic dust produced in mining operations, but that the surrounding environment is often contaminated with the by-products of such activities. And over the past 70 years, we have come to understand the particularly noxious effects of unearthing radioactive elements on the surrounding air, land, waterways and eventually, the communities that happen to live nearby.

Jaduguda is no exception. In fact, it has become a tragic example of the prevarication, deceit and disregard that are endemic to the whole nuclear enterprise.

The Indian government was determined to pursue a nuclear future in the immediate post-war period. The Indian Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was established in 1948, and the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) in 1954. Geological surveys established early that Indian uranium ores were scarce and of poor quality, but that vast amounts of thorium were available. The decision was made to exploit uranium deposits in and around Jaduguda, at that time part of Bihar state. The area was home to numerous tribal communities that had lived as autonomous and thriving cultures for many centuries until the time of British colonial rule during the middle to late nineteenth century. The cultural stability of these local indigenous communities, the Adivasis, was insidiously undermined by the entrepreneurial drive of industrialists who were eager to exploit such resources as coal, minerals, forests and water which were abundant throughout the area, a story that has been replicated many times and in many places throughout history.

Without even the semblance of a consultation process, local land was acquired by the Uranium Corporation of India (UCIL), a subsidiary of of the Department of Atomic Energy in 1962, and work commenced on the establishment of three underground mines near the villages of Jaduguda, Batin and Narwarpahar, all situated within a few kilometres of each other. Tailings dams were constructed near the Jaduguda mine in order to provide repositories for the huge quantities of liquid waste produced by the mining and milling operations.

Tailings dam situated 100 m. from Santhal village, Jaduguda
Some 20,000,000 tons of uranium ore has been brought to the surface and processed since the Jaduguda mining and milling complex commenced operations in 1967. The extraction of uranium from its ore requires immense amounts of water, corrosive acids and toxic solvents.The wastes or mill-tailings produced in this process are then converted into a liquid slurry that is carried through a series of crude pipelines (that have on a number of occasions burst and discharged their contents into the countryside) to eventually discharge into the tailings dams. All of these activities have taken place on the very margins of local villages, with some houses being situated only 30 metres from the tailings dams. Around 50,000 people live in and around 15 villages within a 5 kilometre radius of these operations.

Tailings pipeline, Jaduguda
Because of the poor quality of the uranium ore, which contains only 0.065% uranium, huge amounts of both solid and liquid wastes are generated in milling operations. It is estimated that the extraction of one kilogram of uranium concentrate from the Jaduguda mines results in the production nearly two tons of solid waste and uses up nearly three times that amount of water. Since the Jaduguda operation commenced, immense quantities of solid waste have been generated. This material carries both radioactive elements and highly toxic minerals. UCIL, the government agency in charge of the mining operations at Jaduguda and throughout India, has devised a number of novel methods for disposing some of this waste. It has been used in the building of local roads and as construction material for the walls of local houses, and more recently, as rock linings to be used in the construction of 80,000 new water wells throughout Jharkhand.

Massive amounts of liquid waste have been pumped into the poorly constructed tailings dams over the past five decades. Water from these tailings dams, together with its burden of radioactive elements and toxic chemicals, has slowly and inexorably wept into the groundwater of the region. And as if that were not enough, there is strong evidence that UCIL has used the Jaduguda mill and tailings ponds as disposal sites for nuclear wastes from other parts of India.

Dark Waters, Thickened Airs

The consequences were starkly predictable. By the 1980s, local communities began to notice an increase in general malaise, skin conditions, stillbirths, deformities in newborn babies, deformities in newborn calves, skin diseases in fish caught in local streams and rivers, and a widespread disappearance of small mammals such as monkeys, mice and rabbits from the area.

All requests for assistance and assessments made by the local communities were effectively ignored until 1993 when a series of radiological and health investigations were initiated. By that time, the Adivasis of the Jaduguda area had endured 26 years of continuous exposure to tainted air, polluted water and contaminated grazing and agricultural lands.

The survey took two years to complete and confirmed the fears of local communities. Ajitha George, who co-ordinated the study offers the following account of the findings:
"The report revealed that 47% of women suffered disruptions in their menstrual cycle, 18% said that they had suffered miscarriages or given birth to stillborn babies in the last 5 years. 30% suffered fertility problems. Nearly all women complained of fatigue, weakness and depression. Further, the survey found a high incidence of chronic skin diseases, cancer, tuberculosis, bone, brain and kidney damage, nervous system disorders, congenital deformities, nausea, blood disorders and other chronic diseases. Children were the most affected. Many were born with skeletal distortions, partially formed skulls, blood disorders and a broad range of physical deformities. Most common were missing eyes or toes, fused fingers, or limbs incapable of supporting them. Brain damage often compounded these physical disabilities."
The study also confirmed that tens of thousands of people who lived within five kilometres of the mining operations were exposed to abnormally high levels of radiation. UCIL simply refused to acknowledge these findings and continued business as usual.

Jaduguda Mine and Processing Mill
A few years later, Dr Sanghamitra Gadekar, a specialist in radiation hazards conducted further medical studies. Her findings confirmed those of the the earlier survey but did little to prompt action by UCIL. On the contrary, UCIL continued to expand its mining operations around Jaduguda. Early in 1996 while under the protective cover of local police and paramilitary units, UCIL contractors and their heavy machinery moved onto lands it had "acquired"11 years earlier and summarily demolished 30 houses. They then began to overturn and uproot agricultural fields, local graveyards and sacred groves of trees in order to create a third tailings dam.

Word travelled fast and within three days, massive protests were mobilised and many women lay down in front of bulldozers to prevent further destruction. Legal action was taken by politically active local Adivasi groups. The local courts appeared to be in collusion with UCIL and did nothing to restrain the demolitions and dam construction.

Before long, a mass protest by Adivasi communities throughout the region gathered at the dam site but they were met with organised police violence. Many were arrested and incarcerated. Two weeks later, Adivasi groups throughout Jharkhand began to mobilise and assembled in Jaduguda in great numbers. The police then backed off.

The indigenous people of Jaduguda have endured effective dispossession by their governments. Medical studies, radiological surveys, mass protests, political action and media mobilisation have done little to curb the determination of the Indian government to pursue its nuclear agenda at any cost.

The central Jaduguda mine was closed in 2014 as its reserves are close to exhausted although the processing mill continues its operations. In the meantime, three further uranium mines and another processing mill have commenced operations at Turamdih, Mohuldih, and Banduhurang, all situated nearby. Since these new mines were opened, extraction of uranium ore has increased to 5,000 tons daily.

Similar tactics were used by UCIL in the acquisition of land for the mines as occurred in Jaduguda 60 years ago. Hundred of acres of tribal lands have been summarily seized, and the mines have been built in total disregard of the wishes of the local community. Concerns continue to be expressed about the effects of these operations by many within the medical profession.

And What will be Left to Inherit?

The story of uranium mining in Jharkand mirrors that experienced by indigenous communities throughout the world: In Australia, in North America, in the former Soviet Union, in Africa, and most recently, in Tibet. The lives that have already been destroyed and irrevocably afflicted are a foretaste of what confronts future generations as long-lived radionuclides progressively spread through ecosystems everywhere. One can only hope and pray that a world-wide awakening will recognise the folly of the blind and dangerous pursuit of nuclearisation that has been driven by those within the military, by mining corporations, and by governments willing to tear the earth apart and poison the future of coming generations in order to maintain their power and a way of life that is ultimately destructive and unsustainable.

Telling it from the Inside

The story of Jaduguda was first documented visually by Indian film-maker Shri Prakash in his 1999 production, Buddha Weeps At Jaduguda. This sensitively produced low-budget film examines the activities of UCIL - the Uranium Corporation of India - on the lives of the Adivasi people of Singhbum district of Jharkhand. It offers a gentle entry into Adivasi culture through images of village life, music, dance and interviews with community members and representative elders. The film documents the gross negligence of UCIL towards the safety of both workers and of members of local communities.

Buddha Weeps at Jaduguda is an artfully understated presentation whose message is carried as much through images and music as through the thoughts and words of those who are interviewed. It is a superb example of what can be achieved by frugal means and dedicated commitment. It was written and directed by Shri Prakash and produced by a single cameraman and a single editor.

And Fifteen Years Later

The clip below was recorded at the World Uranium Symposium held in Canada in 2015. In the first section, Dr Shakeel Ur Rahman describes the findings of a study of 2,000 households living around Jaduguda that was undertaken in 2007. The study confirmed that there was an increased incidence of infertility, infant mortality, congenital deformities among children, and cancers of many types. The study also found decreased life expectancy among those who lived in the area.

The second section carries a substantive presentation by Shri Prakash, director of Buddha Weeps in Jaduguda reflecting on his visit to Jaduguda fifteen years earlier. He notes how little has changed for the local Adivasis in the time since. It is gratifying to see that Shri Prakash has maintained his advocacy for and commitment to the cause of the Jaduguda communities even into the present time.

Vincent Di Stefano D.O., N.D., M.H.Sc.
Inverloch, January 2016