It's been six years since the canal beside Paiboon Chusakul's house in southern Bangkok burst into flames, five years since his mother and sister started getting strange headaches and four years since Pai, under the cover of darkness, committed his first act of civil disobedience by scrawling 'Clean Up The Water' on the brick wall of an unlicensed chemical plant at the end of his road.
Without the luxury of anti-pollution laws, Pai's neighborhood has few options other than individual activism. It's a story that has played out almost weekly for much of the past decade. Not only in Thailand but across Southeast Asia and China as growth-crazed governments encourage industrial sprawl with nary a thought about who cleans up the mess.
In cultures based on social harmony and responsibility, no-one relishes challenging the status quo. But the cost of environmental degradation is mounting. The best piece of evidence is the toxic cloud that emerged over Asia last summer - a haze of burned fossil fuels and chemicals more than a kilometre thick hanging over the entire region.
There is little doubt that the pace of environmental awareness is quickening. When companies like AIG, Willis and Mitsui Sumitomo add environmental insurance coverage to their East Asian portfolios, something bigger than product diversification is going on. Even Phillips Petroleum and Dow Chemical have environmental-impact officers on their payrolls in Asia. 'Such nice people,' quips Chinese activist Chu An. 'But what about $20 million to clean up their chemical pollution?'
Yet foreign transnationals are only part of the problem. The cult of resource exploitation has many more domestic groupies - local entrepreneurs who believe that rapid industrial growth, government decentralization and unbridled consumerism make the true path to economic enlightenment. Trouble is, they're a generation of first-time polluters who really don't know what damage they're capable of inflicting on the earth.
Not surprisingly, the past decade has seen the first official recognition of environmental activist groups in most countries and the first statutes regulating government lobbying by environmentalists. It's taken 30 years to achieve this status and no-one is going to jeopardize it by calling politicians and business leaders 'Evil Polluting Pig Dogs' (a sign at the WTO protests in Seattle). International organizations like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth survive through choreographed and non-confrontational strategies.
Some countries in the region welcome them more than others. Vibrant democracies in Taiwan, the Philippines and Thailand allow their media to report environmental protests. The political eggshells are more fragile in China, Malaysia and Indonesia where eco-activists have gone to great lengths to convince governments that their role is to raise awareness not barricades.
Home-grown organizations like Taiwan's Environmental Protection Union, Thailand's Project for Ecological Recovery and China's South-North Institute for Sustainable Development often appear more concerned with their own legitimacy than with taking a stand. It's a balancing act but Asia has always held a long-term view of the unfolding world.
Success usually comes on a micro-level rather than the systemic shifts sought by Western movements. The process is tedious and frustrating but nonetheless grassroots activism has become the most viable option for people faced with the hazards of oil pipelines, petro-chemical plants and forced migration. Chu An believes it is exactly these local, community-based struggles that precipitated the changes he sees beginning at home. Without guerrilla-style tactics by environmentalists China's great, glorious march to industrialization would leave the already battered country in far worse shape.
The key lies in knowing which battles to choose. After a decade of breathing the poisonous effluent of a coal-fired power plant in a Beijing suburb, residents had finally had enough. They launched a lawsuit seeking damages for lost wages due to illness. Within six months the plant had installed scrubbers in the plant's chimneys. No government officials were hassled, which is probably why the outcome favored the neighborhood.
Compare that to China's Three Gorges Dam. The massive hydro-electric project has so far displaced more than a million people and the Government claims it desperately needs the scheme to meet future power needs and to contain annual flooding of the Yangtze River. International critics berate the project as a disaster in the making but more than 200 local protestors have been arrested, beaten and murdered.
'This is not a wise battle to choose in China, to confront officials on state projects,' says Chu An. Instead, he says, campaigns like the student-initiated one to cut the country's annual consumption of 45 billion pairs of disposable wooden chopsticks, 5 billion throw-away foam containers and 250 million New Year cards only work because they don't threaten the political élite - a lesson pro-democracy demonstrators learned the hard way in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The situation is radically different across the Formosa Strait where members of Taiwan's parliament regularly throw chairs and shake fists at each other. Confrontation is far more acceptable, especially if one of the country's muckraking media has a camera crew on-site. But real environmental success still tends to emerge from community-based activism.
Chiku township on Taiwan's southwest coast was faced with the loss of 16,000 aquaculture jobs when a naphtha-cracking plant and steel mill was to be built along its fragile shoreline. In 1995, local scientists pointed out that the industrial site would also destroy the migration-staging area of the endangered black-faced spoonbill. Residents soon had a dozen busloads of eco-tourists arriving at the tidal mudflats each month to view the venerated (in culture and song) spoonbills. The industrial development was eventually shelved. The solution was so simple and sane that Taiwan is talking about embedding eco-tourism alternatives in its constitution.
In Hong Kong, it's the same church but a different pew. Weaned on British Common Law and seemingly unable to let go of its bureaucratic embrace (despite being under Beijing's control) Hong Kong is home to a clutch of major environmental organizations. Last year, WWF successfully campaigned to protect a migratory-bird habitat: thousands of people prevented the railway from running a spur line through the Long Valley wetlands near the China border. Everyone won, except maybe the Hong Kong entrepreneurs who commute to the mainland to visit their mistresses.
Choosing the right battle may be vital, but there's more to the unfolding of the region's environmental conscience than confrontation. There are strong cultural roots to what has so obviously become a social imperative. You don't have to dig deeply to find landowners and farmers within the families of Asia's political and business leaders. This breeds empathy as well as political expediency. It's just savvy politics to acknowledge concerns about unchecked economic growth upsetting historically balanced societies. And with about 60 per cent of the region's people under the age of 25, the enthusiasm of youth for environmental issues can't be ignored.
The sentiment is obvious in Singapore with its often-criticized but always re-elected benevolent dictatorship. Residents may not be able to toss chewing gum on the streets or get nightly screenings of 'When Cops Go Bad' on television. But the Government has just started giving tax breaks to natural-gas-powered cars and says it can hit its Kyoto Protocol greenhouse-gas commitments within two years.
Thailand is a different story. Never colonized and currently free of military rule, Thais are quick to exploit the 'bottom-up' possibilities of decentralization. Environmental protection is linked to development under the kingdom's constitution. Even so, the deck remains stacked against sustainability. Protests here can be among the region's most violent - at least eight environmental activists have died this year in ten major campaigns.
Groups of Thai villagers have delayed construction on two pipeline projects for several years - one crossing Thailand's border with Burma and the other with Malaysia. Protestors don't want the projects scrapped; instead they want them re-routed to less ecologically sensitive areas. Offering alternatives has earned the villagers allies in the Government, one of whom is lobbying to leave the siting of future projects up to provincial officials.
This kind of decentralization is also evident in the Philippines where community-organized 'People Power' has brought down corrupt governments and forced politicians to devolve responsibility for water, fisheries and other coastal resources to local officials.
In the capital Manila, activists have asked the city's three-million cellphone users to report the licence numbers of cars spewing black smoke. The numbers are then passed on to transport officials who haul the offenders in for 'consultation'. The project's first two weeks produced 125 fines and the number of vehicles reported is increasing to thousands weekly.
Ironically, less headway is usually made in those countries with the greatest environmental pressures. Indonesia, and to a lesser degree Malaysia, reveal how foreign debt and crushing poverty can continually reverse environmental momentum. As non-governmental organizations focus on the perils of deforestation and mining, transnational corporations continue to pour in money to prop up failing economies - so long as they get their pick of natural resources in return. In many cases they profit from illegal extraction that is overlooked because of the official need for cash.
The world's third-largest tropical rainforest in Indonesia is maintained thanks more to the buzz of hundreds of tiny, local protests than to all international lobbying combined. In the same way, local wildlife advocates hammered away at government officials for a generation before the orangutan reserve in Tanjung Puting National Park was protected by law.
Indonesia's indigenous people, from Sumatra to Kalimantan, often provide the footsoldiers for the hit-and-run environmental protests. The situation in Malaysia is similar, with resource extraction and environmental degradation a way of life for most of the country's rural inhabitants.
There are success stories, such as the protests that convinced the Malaysian Government to turn a former tin mine at Paya Indah into a bird sanctuary instead of a high-tech estate. And in both countries an unlikely ally has emerged - Islamic fundamentalism that equates eco-exploitation with economic servitude. It tends to scare the pants off Western democracies, especially the US. In fact, across the region the battle for environmental protection is creating some strange bedfellows - hill tribes and scientists, villagers and bureaucrats. And each little success adds to the belief that rampant exploitation doesn't have to be the status quo.
Pai Chusakul's heart was pounding when he snuck out for that little bit of 'midnight madness' in 1998. Today he gives interviews. 'How can I be afraid,' he asks, 'when I'm not alone any more?'
© Copyright 2002 New Internationalist
Publications Ltd. All rights reserved.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7