Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Environmental Movement in the Global South - The pivotal agent in fight against global warming?

[11/17/2007] The mid-December summit in Bali to negotiate a new agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol is shaping up to be one of the most decisive events of this generation. The question on everyone’s lips is what kind of bargain the developed North and the developing South will strike to deal with the massive threat posed by climate change.

The developing world’s stance towards the question of the environment has often been equated with the pugnacious comments of former Malaysian Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir, such as his famous lines at the Rio Conference on the Environment and Development in June 1992:

“When the rich chopped down their own forests, built their poison-belching factories and scoured the world for cheap resources, the poor said nothing. Indeed they paid for the development of the rich. Now the rich claim a right to regulate the development of the poor countries…As colonies we were exploited. Now as independent nations we are to be equally exploited.”

Mahathir has been interpreted in the North as speaking for a South that seeks to catch up whatever the cost and where the environmental movement is weak or non-existent. Today, China is seen as the prime exemplar of this Mahathirian obsession with rapid industrialization with minimal regard for the environment.

This view of the South’s perspective on the environment is a caricature. In fact, the environmental costs of rapid industrialization are of major concern to significant sectors of the population of developing countries, and in many of them the environmental movement has been a significant actor. Moreover, there is currently an active discussion in many countries of alternatives to the destabilizing high-growth model. In the following talk, I focus on the environmental movement in Asia. However, many of the same trends can be observed in Latin America, Africa, and other parts of the global South.

Emergence of the environmental movement in NICs

Among the most advanced environmental movements are those in Korea and Taiwan, which were once known as “Newly Industrializing Countries” (NICs). This should not be surprising since the process of rapid industrialization in these two societies from 1965 to 1990 took place with few environmental controls, if any.

In Korea, the Han River that flows through Seoul and the Nakdong River flowing through Pusan were so polluted by unchecked dumping of industrial waste that they were close to being classified as biologically dead. Toxic waste dumping reached critical proportions. Seoul achieved the distinction in 1978 of being the city with the highest content of sulfuric dioxide in the air, with high levels being registered as well in Inchon, Pusan, Ulsan, Masan, Anyang, and Changweon.

In Taiwan, high-speed industrialization had its own particular hellish contours. Taiwan’s formula for balanced growth was to prevent industrial concentration and encourage manufacturers to set up shop in the countryside. The result was a substantial number of the island’s 90,000 hectares locating on rice fields, along waterways, and beside residences. With three factories per square mile, Taiwan’s rate of industrial density was 75 times that of the US. One result was that 20 percent of farmland was polluted by industrial waste water and 30 percent of rice grown on the island was contaminated with heavy metals, including mercury, arsenic, and cadmium.

In both societies, farmers, workers, and the environment bore the costs of high-speed industrialization. Both societies, it is not surprising, saw the emergence of an environmental movement that was spontaneous, that drew participants from different classes, that saw environmental demands linked with issues of employment, occupational health, and agricultural crisis, and that was quite militant. Direct action became a weapon of choice because, as Michael Hsiao pointed out:

“People have learned that protesting can bring results; most of the actions for which we could find out the results had achieved their objectives. The polluting factories were either forced to make immediate improvement of the conditions or pay compensation to the victims. Some factories were even forced to shut down or move to another location. A few preventive actions have even succeeded in forcing prospective plants to withdraw from their planned construction.”

The environmental movements in both societies were able to force government to come out with restrictive new rules on toxics, industrial waste, and air pollution. Ironically, however, these successful cases of citizen action created a new problem, which was the migration of polluting industries from Taiwan and Korea to China and Southeast Asia. Along with Japanese firms, Korean and Taiwanese enterprises went to Southeast Asia and China mainly for two reasons: cheap labor and lax environmental laws.


The environmental issue was also more coherently integrated into an overarching critique. In the case of the Philippines, for instance, deforestation was seen as an inevitable consequence of a strategy of export-oriented growth imposed by World Bank-International Monetary Fund structural adjustment programs that sought to pay off the country’s massive foreign debt with the dollars gained from exporting the country’s timber and other natural resources and manufactures produced by cheap labor.


Dams often represented the modernist vision that guided many Third World governments in their struggle to catch up with the West in the post-War period. The technological blueprint for power development for the post-World War II period was that of creating a limited number of power generators -- giant dams, coal or oil-powered plants, or nuclear plants -- at strategic points which would generate electricity that would be distributed to every nook and cranny of the country. Traditional or local sources of power that allowed some degree of self-sufficiency were considered backward. If you were not hooked up to a central grid, you were backward.

Centralized electrification with its big dams, big coal-fired plants, and nuclear plants became the rage. Indeed, there was an almost religious fervor about this vision among leaders and technocrats who defined their life's work as "missionary electrification" or the connection of the most distant village to the central grid.

Jawaharlal Nehru, the dominant figure in post-World War II India, called dams the "temples of modern India," a statement that, as Indian author Arundhati Roy points out, made its way into primary school textbooks in every Indian language. Big dams have become an article of faith inextricably linked with nationalism. “To question their utility amounts almost to sedition."

In any event, in the name of missionary electrification, India's technocrats, Roy observes in her brilliant essay, “The Cost of Living,” not only built "new dams and irrigation schemes ... [but also] took control of small, traditional water-harvesting systems that had been managed for thousands of years and allowed them to atrophy." Here, Roy expresses an essential truth: that centralized electrification preempted the development of alternative power-systems that could have been more decentralized, more people-oriented, more environmentally benign, and less capital intensive.

The key forces behind central electrification were powerful local coalitions of power technocrats, big business, and urban-industrial elites. Despite the rhetoric about "rural electrification," centralized electrification was essentially biased toward the city and industry. Essentially, especially in the case of dams, it involved expending the natural capital of the countryside and the forests to subsidize the growth urban-based industry. I
Industry was the future. Industry was what really added value. Industry was synonymous with national power. Agriculture was the past.

While these interests benefited, others paid the costs. Specifically, it was the rural areas and the environment that absorbed the costs of centralized electrification. Tremendous crimes have been committed in the name of power generation and irrigation, says Roy, but these were hidden because governments never recorded these costs. In India, Roy calculates that large dams have displaced about 33 million people in the last 50 years, about 60 percent of them being either untouchables or indigenous peoples. India, in fact, does not have a national resettlement policy for those displaced by dams.

The costs to the environment have been tremendous. Roy points out that "the evidence against Big Dams is mounting alarmingly -- irrigation disasters, dam-induced floods, the fact that there are more drought-prone and flood-prone areas today than there were in 1947. The fact is that not a single river in the plains has potable water."

Things changed when the government announced its plans to dam the mighty Narmada River in the late seventies. Instead of quietly accepting the World Bank-backed enterprise, the affected people mounted a resistance that continues to this day. The Narmada Bachao Andolan movement led by Medha Patkar at the Sardar Sarovar Dam and Alok Aggarwal and Silvi at the Maheshwar Dam drew support from all over India and internationally.

Here is the full article.