1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Special Events

The Environmentalism of the Poor (Draft)



The world economy is increasing its input of energy and materials, and also its output of different sorts of waste. Optimistic views on the “dematerialization” of the economy are premature. The environmental load of the economy, driven by consumption and by population growth, is growing all the time even when the economy (measured in money terms) is based on the service sector. Hence, the many ecological distribution conflicts that arise. They are not only conflicts of interests but also conflicts on values. In this report, several such conflicts are described, and the discrepancies in the languages of valuation used by different agents are emphasized.

Poor people have defended the environment in rural areas, and also in cities. Well-known instances include the Chipko movement in the Himalaya, the struggle on the Narmada dams, Chico Mendes’ fight in Amazonia, and the struggles by the Ogoni, the Ijaw and other groups in the Niger Delta against the damage from oil extraction by Shell. Until recently, the agents in such conflicts rarely saw themselves as environmentalists. Their concern is with livelihood, with oikonomia. They struggle for environmental justice, and thereby they contribute to the environmental sustainability of the economy. Such environmentalism of livelihood is often expressed as the defence of legally established old community property rights. Sometimes, new community rights are invoked. The intermediary NGOs have given an explicit environmental meaning to such livelihood struggles, connecting them into wider networks and proposing new policies of worldwide relevance.

The report starts with conflicts related to the issue of biopiracy in agriculture, the fact that peasant varieties of crops and peasant knowledge have been up for grabs while “improved” seeds are increasingly protected by regimes of intellectual property rights. Such conflicts are reinforcing a view of agriculture based on the ideas of agroecology, energy efficiency, food security, no subsidies to exports, and the in situ conservation and co-evolution of plant genetic resources, which is expressed by networks such as Via Campesina. The second section studies urban conflicts. Large cities have “ecological footprints” much larger than their own territories. This section considers the ecological conflicts caused by the growth of cities that are internal to the cities themselves (local conflicts on air, soil and water pollution, for instance), and also the conflicts that are “exported” to larger geographical scales. Where are the main actors of the environmental conflicts caused by urban growth? Are indicators of urban unsustainability indicators also of social conflicts?

The third section describes conflicts on the extraction of oil. The Texaco case in Ecuador and the Shell case in the Delta in Nigeria raise important issues of corporate accountability. Other cases (Unocal in Myanmar, Occidental Petroleum in U’Wa territory in Colombia) are considered, showing how languages of human rights, indigenous territorial rights, and sacredness, are brought into play. In the international NGO environmental movement, the relations between local and global concerns are established through single-issue networks or groups such as the International Rivers Network, the World Rainforest Movement, RAFI (now ETC), or through specific programmes and campaigns of confederations such as Friends of the Earth, or thanks to the help of global environmental organizations such as Greenpeace. OilWatch is a global network born of community struggles against oil and gas extraction, it provides south-south links among activist groups in tropical countries. Oilwatch has tried to link up local oil extraction conflicts with the global issue of climate change.

The fourth section considers the conflict between mangrove conservation and shrimp exports in different countries. Some organizations in the South have asked for northern consumers to boycott imports of farmed shrimp. This turns the tables on the (false) issue of northern “green protectionism”. The mangrove forests are surrounded by shrimp growers. Shrimp production entails the loss of livelihood of people living directly from, and also selling, mangrove products. Other functions of mangroves are also lost, such as coastal defence against sea level rise, breeding grounds for fish, carbon sinks, repositories of biodiversity, together with aesthetic values. Which languages of valuation are used by different agents in order to compare the increase in shrimp exports and the losses in livelihoods and in environmental services? Who has the power to impose a particular language of valuation?

The fifth section describes one conflict on tree plantations in Costa Rica, one of many conflicts caused by the growth of wood and paper pulp exports from the South. The slogan that sums up the resistance against such trend is “plantations are not forests”. Plantation forests are not true forests. Many of the ecological and livelihood functions of the forest are lost, and poor people tend to complain accordingly. In the sixth section, gold and copper mining conflicts are described, mainly in Peru and in Papua New Guinea, both historical and contemporary. In some cases (such as Tambo Grande in Peru and Intag in Ecuador) the resistance to mining has been successful, and it has given rise to alternative development projects. Both in oil and mining conflicts, issues of corporate accountability and liability, compensation for damages under the Alien Torts Claims Act, procedures for project evaluation and decision making, are considered.

The final section summarizes the main features of the environmentalism of the poor as an environmentalism of livelihood concerned not only with economic security in the market sphere but also concerned with non-market access to environmental resources and services. This section includes a brief discussion on the role of women in ecological distribution conflicts. At the international level, the notion of the “ecological debt” from North to South (including the “carbon debt”) is explained. New policy proposals in the areas of International Trade, Corporate Accountability, Climate Change, and Agriculture are submitted, based on the ideas growing out of the worldwide movement for environmental justice.