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Elites vs. Greens in the Global South

Last month’s conference [December 2007] on climate change in Bali, Indonesia, brought the North-South fault line in climate politics into sharp relief. While U.S. intransigence on the question of mandatory cuts in greenhouse gas emissions took center stage, not far behind was the issue of what commitments fast-growing developing countries like China and India should make in a new, post-Kyoto climate change regime.

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.


— 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)

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.