New Internationalist

Polluting The Poor

Issue 171

new internationalist
issue 171 - May 1987

Polluting the poor
Green activists - from Brazil to Bangladesh - are rejecting
the view that ecological concern is the preserve of the industrial world.
Khor Kok Peng argues that underdevelopment and environmental
decay are two sides of the same coin.

To be Green in the Third World today means standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the marginalized. It means fighting for safe and sustainable development that can feed the hungry in rural villages and shelter the homeless of the sprawling urban slums.

Not long ago, 'environmental issues' were considered a luxury for the Third World. The first priority was to speed up economic growth to eliminate poverty; only then could we afford to worry about negative side-effects like pollution or occupational safety. So went the conventional argument from governments in both rich and poor countries. Those who had doubts about this logic - people who today might call themselves Green - were dismissed as dreamers and reactionaries.

Today the 'growth first' stance is indefensible. Poverty has increased despite growth and there is overwhelming evidence that the environmental destruction it has caused has disrupted the sources of livelihood and threatened the health and even lives of poor Third World communities.

Much of that destruction has been imported. Environmental and health disasters in the Third World often result from Western products, technologies and development models. The Bhopal gas tragedy, where 3,000 lives were lost and another 200,000 are suffering disabilities, is the outstanding example of what happens when a western transnational adopts industrial safety standards far below those acceptable in its own country. There are hundreds of other substandard plants sold to the Third World (the Bataan nuclear plant in the Philippines, for example) or which have been shifted there by transnationals to escape health and pollution standards in their home countries.

Then there are the aid-fueled development packages that uproot indigenous systems of agriculture and land-use, converting them for rich-nation interests. The Green Revolution, for instance, has wiped out thousands of indigenous rice varieties that had withstood generations of pests and substituted a few high-yielding varieties that are very susceptible to pest attack. The ever-increasing use of chemicals to counter pests had not only heightened Third World dependence on agribusiness transnationals, it has also resulted in 40,000 pesticide poisoning deaths annually. Meanwhile, with the disappearance of indigenous varieties, Third World farmers and governments will increasingly be at the mercy of a few transnationals which have collected and patented seeds and geneplasm originating from the Third World itself.

Fishermen in many Third World countries find their catch dwindling. The large-scale introduction of modern trawl boats, often aid-financed, has rapidly depleted ocean fish stocks. Not only is a major source of Third World protein at risk but millions of traditional coastal fisherman depend on the fishery for their survival. Effluents from industrial factories, many owned by transnationals, kill off riverine fish, whilst the new agricultural chemicals are also wiping out fish in rice ponds.

Mega-projects in the Third World now consume a gigantic portion of development funds. They include hydro-electric dams, nuclear power stations and industrial plants, and are invariably marketed and pushed by transnationals who stand to gain billions of dollars per project approved. Many of these environmentally damaging mega-projects are oiled by kickbacks and bribes - often from transnationals and their agents. Coupled with this is the short-term vision of politicians who want to maximize growth in the present since conservationist policies would transfer the benefits to a future generation - but are useless to a leader who wants popularity now.

Such projects are usually inappropriate for genuine development. They end up underutilized, grossly inefficient or even too dangerously designed and built to be used at all. Absorbing so much investment, they deprive communities of much-needed finance for genuine development projects, and moreover lead the borrowing Third World nations into debt.

The ultimate environmental and social tragedy of our age is that industrial technology could, if properly designed and applied, provide for every human being's physical needs. Instead it is being used to take resources away from the Third World largely for the production of superfluous goods; whilst the majority of Third World peoples sink deeper at the margins of survival. Worse yet, the very processes of extracting Third World resources result in environmental disasters - deforestation, massive soil-erosion and desertification, pollution of water supplies and the horrible human toll in poisoning from toxic substances and in industrial accidents.

Despite the record of disaster, environmental concepts and groups in many Third World countries are still met with skepticism and even anger. They are called 'romantics' or crackpots who love blue skies and butterflies. In some Third Word countries they are denounced as selfish groups who want to preserve Nature and thus deprive poor people of land; or they are accused of being lackeys of Western environmental groups who want to keep the Third World poor by stopping their economic growth; or they may even be termed subversive because of 'anti-development activities'.

But environmental consciousness is still growing rapidly in many parts of the Third World. It is just too obvious that environmental degradation and increasing poverty go hand in hand. Environmental issues are no longer a 'luxury' but matters of life and death.

In Brazil, several groups are trying to stop the cultural massacre of Indians as the Amazon forest is opened up. In India, dozens of organizations have sprung up, including the Chipko Movement to save trees, the People's Science Movement and groups emerging out of the Bhopal disaster. And there are growing demonstrations against nuclear power in India. In Thailand 100,000 people infuriated by the setting up of a plant producing radioactive material burnt down the factory in Phuket in 1986. In the Philippines, environmental protests have persuaded the Aquino Government to mothball the Bataan nuclear plant. And in Malaysia activist groups like Sahabat Alam Malaysia (Friends of the Earth) have helped scores of communities defend their environment from trawler boats, pollution, occupational hazards and ecologically destructive projects. Court action by 3,000 residents in Bikt Merah put a stop (at least temporarily) to the operations of a plant producing radioactive waste, whilst 3,000 indigenous peoples signed a petition to the Government not to embark on a eight-billion-dollar hydro-dam project in Bakunm Sarawak.

These community-level actions are crucial to the development of 'Green Consciousness' at the grass roots of the Third World. However, a deeper understanding of environmental problems in the Third World would have to link them to the global dimension of the economic, social and political system. It is unacceptable to preach that the Third World adopt appropriate technologies or preserve simple lifestyles whilst people in rich nations continue to destroy the world's resources in producing luxuries with capital-intensive technologies. Changing this pattern will require a fundamental restructuring of industrialism and its culture of expansion in both the capitalist and the socialist North.

Third World governments must also be willing to redistribute wealth, resources and income and increase goods and services so reducing dependence on expensive imported goods. This would at least slow down the unecological exploitation and firesale of Third World resources on the international market.

With increasing self-reliance based on income redistribution and the growth of indigenous agriculture and industry, the Third World could also afford to be tough with transnationals who ignored health and safety and pollution standards. It could afford to reject inappropriate products, technologies, industries and projects. The principle should be 'sustainable development'; the sparing use of non-renewable resources and the adaptation of alternative renewable resources. Sustainable development also means devising technologies, practices and products that are durable and safe and which satisfy real needs. Taking an environmental position in the Third World thus means joining in the fight for a just and sustainable world order - the only way we can survive. Being 'Green' in the Third World is not a luxury at all but a necessity.

Khor Kok Peng is research director of Malaysia Friends of the Earth.

Education for survival
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On what was once a piece of abused Industrial wasteland In suburban Christchurch there is now a thriving Environmental Education Centre. It is the product of human energy, garbage and ecological wisdom drawn from many cultures over the past century.

Any notions of utopian fantasy are quickly dispelled on meeting Ofelia Suarez Chambers, the project founder. A specialist in adult education Ofelia's commitment of 'permaculture' (the production of permanent, integrated, self-reliant eco-systems to fulfil human needs for food, energy, shelter, clothing and education) springs directly from her experiences of the harsh socio-economic realities of her homeland, Venezuela.

Ofelia feels that Aotearoa's beleaguered farmers are ready for a new approach to agriculture. The soil is exhausted and the people are exhausted. The poor farmers only know about sheep they know nothing about the eco-system. We need to teach them about sustainable agriculture before this country becomes like the Sahara'.

On completion, the garden in the Environmental Education Centre will be an edible and productive landscape of vegetables, herbs and flowers, with permanent exhibits inspired by Maori pre-European and pre-industrial age gardens. In various stages of development are miniature orchards, desert-like 'dry eco-systems', worm farms, native bush and flax plantations and numerous plots of vegetables, flowers and herbs demonstrating some of the 17 different, non-polluting cultivation methods which are taught at the Centre.

The Centre is designed to provide a model environment where the community - and in particular the indigenous Maori people, children and the disabled - can experience and learn the principles of permaculture. The Centre also provides training programmes for the unemployed. The courses teach both the theory and practice of permaculture. how to work in teams, solve problems and make decisions by consensus. The students then act as 'multiplying agents' as they return to their own environments and begin repeating elements of the project in the community.

To date, trainers have extended the project to a local Marae (Maori meeting place), a Women's Refuge, a school, herb farm, the University College of Agriculture and a farm.

For further information about the project contact Christchurch Environmental Educational Trust, P0 Box 9262, Christchurch, Aotearoa (NZ).


Eco-spaces
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In the heart of the once bustling Port of London amid crumbling warehouses and decayed deserted docks, a living green natural park has been created on the site of the recently demolished Old Surrey Docks. There are woodlands here and ponds with marshland close by; and spacious green grasslands. There are fish in the ponds and songbirds in the bushes. Wild flowers grow in profusion. To the local residents it is a green oasis in the midst of urban Industrial blight. They come here to walk or just to sit and enjoy the sight, sound and scent of living things around them. This is the Rotherhithe Ecological Park created by the Trust for Urban Ecology (TRUE).

TRUE was founded in response to a growing public call for the greening of British cities, particularly those blighted areas that have been abandoned by industry. TRUE's purpose is to preserve and protect urban wildlife both for its own sake and to allow for educational and recreational uses. The Trust works closely with municipal authorities, ecologists, planners, social welfare agencies and local residents to convert inner city wastelands into parks. The natural habitats are created to reflect and protect biological diversity - native species of plants and flowers as well as a profusion of urban wildlife.

The Trust hopes that people who have lived all their lives in urban environments will find peace and enjoyment in these parks and will develop a reverence for non-human forms of life. With this in mind TRUE tries to involve local people in the planning and creation of a park in order to encourage local use and upkeep. It also promotes school group visits to the parks and has succeeded in having field-work made part of the regular curriculum for the General Certificate of Secondary Education.

TRUE's address is Southbank House, Black Prince Road, London SE1.

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