Elites vs Greens in the Global South

Jan 21

The
developing world’s stance toward the question of the environment has
often been equated with the pugnacious stance of former Malaysian Prime
Minister Mohamad Mahathir, who famously said 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.


The North has interpreted Mahathir as speaking for a South that doesn’t
have much of an environmental movement and that seeks to catch up
whatever the cost. Today, China has emerged as the prime exemplar of
this Mahathirian obsession with rapid industrialization that has
minimal regard for the environment.

In fact, however, the environmental costs of rapid industrialization
are of major concern to significant sectors of the population of
developing countries. The environmental movement, moreover, has been a
significant actor in the debates in which many countries are exploring
alternatives to the destabilizing high-growth model. While the focus of
this piece is Asia, many of the same trends can be observed in Latin
America, Africa, and other parts of the global South.

The Environmental Movement in the NICs

Among the most advanced environmental movements are those in South
Korea and Taiwan, which were once known as “Newly Industrializing
Countries” (NICs) or “Newly Industrializing Economies.” 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 sulphur 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
factories 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 United States. One result
was that 20% of farm land was polluted by industrial waste water and
30% 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 saw the emergence of an
environmental movement that was spontaneous, quite militant, drew
participants from different classes, and linked environmental demands
with issues of employment, occupational health, and agricultural
crisis. Direct action became a weapon of choice. “People have learned
that protesting can bring results; most of the actions for which we
could find out the results had achieved their objectives,” sociologist
Michael Hsiao points out. “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.

Environmental Struggles in Southeast Asia

Unlike in Korea and Taiwan, environmental movements already existed in
a number of the Southeast Asian countries before the period of rapid
industrialization, which in their case occurred in the mid-1980s to the
mid-1990s. These movements had emerged in the previous decade in
struggles against nuclear power, as in the Philippines; against big
hydroelectric dams, as in Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines; and
against deforestation and marine pollution, as in Thailand, Malaysia,
and the Philippines. These were epic battles, like the struggle against
the Chico River Dam in the northern Philippines and the fight against
the Pak Mun Dam in the northeast of Thailand, which forced the World
Bank to withdraw its planned support for giant hydroelectric projects–
an outcome that, as we shall see later on, also occurred in struggle
against the Narmada Dam in India. The fight against industrial
development associated partly with foreign firms seeking to escape
strict environmental regulations at home opened up a new front in an
ongoing struggle to save the environment.

Perhaps even more than in Northeast Asia, the environmental question in
Southeast Asia went beyond being a middle-class issue. In the Chico
struggle, the opposition were indigenous people, while in the fight
against the Pak Mun Dam, it was small farmers and fisherfolk. The
environmental issue was also more coherently integrated into an
overarching critique. Movements in the Philippines, for instance,
viewed deforestation 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. The middle class, workers, the urban poor, and
environmentalists were thrust into a natural alliance. Meanwhile,
transnational capital, local monopoly capital, and the central
government created an anti-environmental axis.

The environmental movements in Southeast Asia played a vital role not
only in scuttling projects like the Bataan nuclear plant but in ousting
the dictatorships that reigned there in the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed,
because authoritarian regimes did not perceive the environment as
“political,” organizing around environmental and public health issues
was not initially proscribed. Thus, environmental struggles became an
issue around which the anti-dictatorship movement could organize and
reach new people. Environmental destruction became one more graphic
example of a regime’s irresponsibility. In Indonesia, for example, the
environmental organization WALHI went so far as to file a lawsuit for
pollution and environmental destruction against six government bodies,
including the ministry of the environment and population. By the time
the dictatorships wised up to what was happening, it was often too
late: environmentalism and anti-fascism fed on one another.

The environmental movement is at an ebb throughout the region today,
but consciousness about threats to the environment and public health is
widespread and can be translated into a new round of activism if the
right circumstances come together.

Environmental Protests in China

The environmental movement in China exhibits many of the same dynamics
observed in the NICs and Southeast Asia. The environmental crisis in
China is very serious. For example, the ground water table of the North
China plain is dropping by 1.5 meters (5 feet) per year. This region
produces 40% of China's grain. As environmentalist Dale Wen remarks,
“One cannot help wonder about how China will be fed once the ground
aquifer is depleted.”

Water pollution and water scarcity; soil pollution, soil degradation
and desertification; global warming and the coming energy crisis –
these are all byproducts of China’s high-speed industrialization and
massively expanded consumption.

Most of the environmental destabilization in China is produced by local
enterprises and massive state projects such as the Three Gorges Dams,
but the contribution of foreign investors is not insignificant. Taking
advantage of very lax implementation of environmental laws in China,
many western corporations have relocated their most polluting factories
into the country and have exacerbated or even created many
environmental problems. Wen notes that the Pearl River Delta and
Yangtze River Delta, the two Special Economic Zones where most
transnational subsidiaries are located, are the most seriously affected
by heavy metal and POPs (persistent organic pollutants) pollution.

Global warming is not a distant threat. The periodical Frontline
reports that the first comprehensive study of the impact of the sea
level rise of global warming by Gordon McGranahan, Deborah Balk, and
Bridget Anderson puts China as the country in Asia most threatened if
the sea level rises up to 10 meters over the next century.

Ten percent of China's population, or 144 million people, live in
low-elevation coastal zones, and this figure is likely to increase as a
result of the export-oriented industrialization strategies pursued by
the government, which has involved the creation of numerous special
economic zones. “From an environmental perspective,” the study warns,
“there is a double disadvantage to excessive (and potentially rapid)
coastal development. First, uncontrolled coastal development is likely
to damage sensitive and important ecosystems and other resources.
Second, coastal settlement, particularly in the lowlands, is likely to
expose residents to seaward hazards such as sea level rise and tropical
storms, both of which are likely to become more serious with climate
change.” The recent spate of super-typhoons descending on the Asian
mainland from the Western Pacific underlines the gravity of this
observation.

As in Taiwan and Korea 15 years earlier, unrestrained export-oriented
industrialization in China has brought together low-wage migrant labor,
farming communities whose lands are being grabbed or ruined
environmentally, environmentalists, and the proponents of a major
change in political economy called the “New Left.” Environment-related
riots, protests, and disputes in China increased by 30% in 2005 to more
than 50,000, as pollution-related unrest has become “a contagious
source of instability in the country,” as one report put it.

Indeed, a great many of recorded protests fused environmental,
land-loss, income, and political issues. According to the Ministry of
Public Security, “mass group incidents” have grown from 8,700 in 1995
to 87,000 in 2005, most of them in the countryside. Moreover, the
incidents are growing in average size from 10 or fewer persons in the
mid-1990s to 52 people per incident in 2004. Notable were the April
2005 riots in Huashui, where an estimated 10,000 police officers
clashed with desperate villagers who succeeded in repelling strong
vested interests polluting their lands. As in Taiwan, people have
discovered the effectiveness of direct action in rural China. "Without
the riot, nothing would have changed," said Wang Xiaofang, a
43-year-old farmer. "People here finally reached their breaking point."

As in Southeast Asia, struggles around the environment and public
health may be leading to a more comprehensive political consciousness.

The strength of China’s environmental movement must not be exaggerated.
Indeed, its failures often outnumber its successes. Alliances are often
spontaneous and do not go beyond the local level. What Dale Wen calls a
national “red green” coalition for change remains a potential force,
one that is waiting to be constructed. Nevertheless, the environmental
movement is no longer a marginal actor and it is definitely something
that the state and big capital have to deal with. Indeed, the ferment
in the countryside is a key factor in making the current Chinese
leadership more open to suggestions from the so-called “New Left” for a
change of course in economic policy from rapid export-oriented growth
to a more sustainable and slower domestic-demand led growth.

The Environmental Movement in India

As in China, the environment and public health have been sites of
struggle in India. Over the last 25 years, the movement for the
environment and public health has exploded in that country,
contributing to a deepening of Indian democracy. Also, many of the
leaders of environmental struggles in India have also become key
figures in the international movements for the environment .

Although environmental and public health struggles go way back, perhaps
the single biggest event that propelled the movement to becoming a
critical mass was the Bhopal gas leak on December 3, 1984. This tragedy
released 40 tons of methyl isocynate, killed 3000 people outright, and
ultimately caused 15,000 to 20,000 deaths. The struggle for just
compensation for the Bhopal victims continues till this day.

Today struggles proliferate in this vast country. There is the national
campaign against Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola plants for drawing ground
water and contaminating fields with sludge. There are local struggles
against intensive aquaculture farms in Tamil Nadu, Orissa, and other
coastal states. There is a non-violent but determined campaign by
farmers against GMOs, which has involved the uprooting and burning of
fields planted to genetically engineered rice.

The most influential of India’s mass-based environmental movement has
been the anti-dam movement. Dams have often represented the modernist
vision that guided many Third World governments in their struggle to
catch up with the West. 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 to generate electricity
that could be distributed to every nook and cranny of the country.
Traditional or local sources of power that allowed some degree of
self-sufficiency were unfashionable. 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-war 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 such an article of faith that “to
question their utility amounts almost to sedition,” Roy writes in her
brilliant essay, “The Cost of Living.”

In the name of missionary electrification, India's technocrats, Roy
observes, 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.
Especially in the case of dams, it involved expending the natural
capital of the countryside and the forests to subsidize the growth of
urban-based industry. 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,
the rural areas and the environment 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% either untouchables or indigenous peoples

Things changed when the government announced its plans to dam the
mighty Narmada River in the late 1970s. 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. The resistance of the people, most of them
adivasis or indigenous people, succeeded in forcing the World Bank to
stop funding the project. Saddled with delays, the dam’s completion has
become uncertain. The Supreme Court, for instance, ordered
rehabilitation for all those affected by the Sardar Sarovar Dam's
construction, and in March 2005 ruled to halt construction on the dam
until this had happened. Construction of the dam has now been halted at
110.6 meters, a figure that is much higher than the 88 metres proposed
by the activists, and lower than the 130 meters that the dam is
eventually supposed to reach. It is unclear at this point what the
final outcome of the project will be or when it will be completed,
though the entire project is meant to be finished by 2025. The fate of
the Maheshwar Dam is similarly unclear.

Equally important was the broader political impact of the Narmada
struggle. It proved to be the cutting edge of the social movements that
have deepened India’s democracy and transformed the political scene.
The state bureaucracy must now listen to these movements or risk
opposition. The political parties must heed their messages or risk
being thrown out of power. Social movements in the rural areas played a
key role in stirring up the mass consciousness that led to the defeat
in 2004 of the neoliberal coalition led by the Hindu chauvinist BJP
(Bharatiya Janata Party) that had campaigned on the pro-globalization
slogan “India Shining.” Its successor, the Congress Party-led
coalition, has turned its back on the rural protest that led to its
election. Following the same anti-agriculture and pro-globalization
policies of the BJP, the coalition risks provoking an even greater
backlash in the near future.

The environmental movement faces its biggest challenge today: global
warming. As in China, the threat is not distant either in space or in
time. The Mumbai deluge of 2005 came at a year of excessive rainfall
that would normally occur once in 100 years. The Himalayan glaciers
have been retreating, with one of the largest of them, Gangotri,
receding at what Frontline described as “an alarming rate, influencing
the stream run-off of Himalayan rivers.”

Six percent, or 63.2 million, of India’s population live in low elevation coastal zones that are vulnerable to sea-level rise.

As in China, the challenge in India lies in building up a mass movement
that might be unpopular not only with the elite but also with sections
of the urban-based middle class sectors. The middle class, after all,
was the main beneficiary of the high-growth economic strategy that has
been pursued since the early 1990s.
National Elites and Third Worldism

The reason for tracing the evolution of a mass-based environmental
movement in East Asia and India is to counter the image that the Asian
masses are inert elements that uncritically accept the environmentally
damaging high-growth export-oriented models promoted by their governing
elites. As the geographer Jared Diamond notes in his influential book
Collapse, people in the Third World “know very well how they are being
harmed by population growth, deforestation, overfishing, and other
problems. They know it because they immediately pay the penalty, in
forms such as loss of free timber for their houses, massive soil
erosion, and…their inability to afford clothes, books, and school fees
for their children.”

It is the national elites that spout the ultra-Third Worldist line that
the South has yet to fulfill its quota of polluting the world while the
North has exceeded its quota. They insist on an exemption for the big
rapidly industrializing countries from mandatory limits on the emission
of greenhouse gases under a new Kyoto Protocol. When the Bush
administration refuses to ratify the Kyoto Protocol because it does not
bind China and India, and the Chinese and Indian governments say they
will not tolerate curbs on their greenhouse gas emissions because the
United States has not ratified Kyoto, they are in fact playing out an
unholy alliance to allow their economic elites to continue to evade
their environmental responsibilities and free-ride on the rest of the
world.

This alliance has now become formalized in the so-called “Asia Pacific
Partnership” created last year by China, India, Japan, Korea, and the
United States as a rival to the UN-negotiated Kyoto Protocol. Having
recently recruited Canada, which is now led by Bush clone Stephen
Harper, this grouping seeks voluntary, as opposed mandatory, curbs on
greenhouse gas emissions. This dangerous band of renegade states simply
wants to spew carbon as they damn well please, which is what voluntary
targets are all about. They are the core of the Major Economies Meeting
slated later this month in Honolulu that many fear is designed to
derail the recently agreed “Bali Roadmap.”

The Need for Global Adjustment

There is no doubt that the burden of adjustment to global warming will
fall on the North. This adjustment will have to be made in the next
10-15 years, and it might need to be much greater than the 50%
reduction from 1990s level by 2050 promoted by the G 8 for the
developed countries. Some experts predict that necessary reductions
will be closer to a 100-150% reduction from 1990 levels. However, the
South will also have to adjust, proportionately less than the North but
also rather stringently. Bringing in China, now the second biggest
emitter of greenhouse gases, into a regime of mandatory reductions
would be a first step in this process.

The South’s adjustment will not take place without the North taking the
lead. But it will also not take place unless its leaders junk the
export-oriented, high-growth paradigm promoted by the World Bank and
most economists.

People in the South are open to an alternative to a model of growth
that has failed both the environment and society. For instance, in
Thailand, a country devastated by the Asian financial crisis and
wracked by environmental problems, globalization and export-oriented
growth are now bad words. To the consternation of the pro-market
Economist, Thais are more and more receptive to the idea of a
“sufficiency economy” promoted by King Bhumibol, which is an
inward-looking strategy that stresses self-reliance at the grassroots
and the creation of stronger ties among domestic economic networks,
along with “moderately working with nature.”

Thailand may be an exception in terms of the leadership role for a more
sustainable path played by an elite, and even there the commitment of
that elite to an alternative path is tentative. Clearly, one cannot
depend on the elites and some sections of the urban middle class to
decisively change course. At best, they will procrastinate. The fight
against global warming will need to be propelled mainly by an alliance
between progressive civil society in the North and mass-based citizens’
movements in the South.

As in North, the environmental movements in the South have seen their
ebbs and flows. As with all social movements, it takes a particular
conjunction of circumstances to bring an environmental movement to life
after being quiescent for some time or to transform diverse local
struggles into one nationwide movement. The challenge facing activists
in the global North and the global South is to bring about those
circumstances that will trigger the formation of a global mass movement
that will decisively confront the most crucial challenge of our times.

Sources

Walden Bello and Stephanie Rosenfeld, Dragons in Distress: Asia’s Miracle Economies in Crisis (San Francisco: Food First, 1990)

Jared Diamond, Collapse (New York: Viking, 2004)

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