TOP OF THE FOOD CHAIN T.C. Boyle, in Without a Hero and Other Stories
THE thing was, we had a little problem with the insect vector there, and believe me, your tamer stuff, your Malathion and pyrethrum and the rest of the so-called environmentally safe products didn't begin to make a dent in it, not a dent, I mean it was utterly useless-we might as well have been spraying with Chanel Number 5 for all the good it did. And you've got to realize these people were literally covered with insects day and night-and the fact that they hardly wore any clothes just compounded the problem. Picture if you can, gentlemen, a naked little two-year-old boy so black with flies and mosquitoes it looks like he's wearing long johns, or the young mother so racked with the malarial shakes she can't even lift a diet Coke to her lips-it was pathetic, just pathetic, like something out of the Dark Ages.... Well, anyway, the decision was made to go with DDT in the short term, just to get the situation under control, you understand.
Yes, that's right, Senator, DDT. Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane. Yes, I'm well aware of that fact, sir. But just because we banned it domestically, under pressure from the bird watching contingent and the hopheads down at the EPA, it doesn't necessarily follow that the rest of the world-especially the developing world-is about to jump on the bandwagon. And that's the key word here, Senator: developing. You've got to realize this is Borneo we're talking about here, not Port Townsend. These people don't know from square one about sanitation, disease control, pest eradication -or even personal hygiene, if you want to come right down to it.
It rains a hundred and twenty inches a year, minimum. They dig up roots in the jungle. They've still got headhunters along the Rajang River, for god's sake. And please don't forget they asked us to come in there, practically begged us-and not only the World Health Organization, but the Sultan of Brunei and the government in Sarawak too. We did what we could to accommodate them and reach our objective in the shortest period of time and by the most direct and effective means. We went to the air. Obviously. And no one could have foreseen the consequences, no one, not even if we'd gone out and generated a hundred environmental-impact statements-it was just one of those things, a freak occurrence, and there's no defense against that. Not that I know of, anyway....
Caterpillars? Yes, Senator, that's correct. That was the first sign: caterpillars. But let me backtrack a minute here. You see, out in the bush they have these roofs made of thatched palm leaves-you'll see them in the towns too, even in Bintulu or Brunei- and they're really pretty effective, you'd be surprised. A hundred and twenty inches of rain, they've got to figure a way to keep it out of the hut, and for centuries, this was it. Palm leaves. Well, it was about a month after we sprayed for the final time and I'm sitting at my desk in the trailer thinking about the drainage project at Kuching, enjoying the fact that for the first time in maybe a year I'm not smearing mosquitoes all over the back of my neck, when there's a knock at the door. It's this elderly gentleman, tattooed from head to toe, dressed only in a pair of running shorts-they love those shorts, by the way, the shiny material and the tight machine-stitching, the whole country, men and women and children, they can't get enough of them.... Any- way, he's the headman of the local village and he's very excited, something about the roofs-atap, they call them. That's all he can say, atap, atap, over and over again.