Elites vs. Greens in the global South.

Author:Bello, Walden
Position:Economics of Producing Less - Environmental concerns in South Asia

The December 2007 conference on climate change in Bali, Indonesia, brought the North-South fault line in climate politics into sharp relief. While US 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 sulfur 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 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...

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