Concern for the environment is often described as a luxury, something that emerging middle classes can pick up once more pressing development needs have been met. It’s an argument that some developing countries have used to duck out of climate change negotiations. It’s also used by commentators who say that economic growth is the most important thing, citing the ‘environmental Kuznets curve’ – more on that mythical beast here.
In reality, many poor communities around the world are involved in environmental activism. It’s just that they are more likely to be local issues rather than global ones. Being poor, small indigenous movements are also less likely to have access to the communications networks that would bring their causes to wider attention.
Another reason we might not spot the environmentalism of the poor is outlined by Spanish economist Joan Martinez Alier. In a paper of the same name (and this more recent work), he suggests that many would not necessarily identify with the global environmental movement, but would see theirs as a struggle for livelihood and for traditional community ownership structures. He identified several key issues that regularly demonstrate the environmentalism of the poor.
Biotech – there have been a number of instances of farmer or peasant movements around biotech, particularly the issue of seed patenting. The most famous case is the attempt by Ricetec to patent Basmati rice. It led to an outcry from Indian farmers who would have to pay a fee to grow something they had been planting for generations. More recently, India has seen protests against GM cotton – not because it is GM, incidentally, but for the monopoly on seeds that Monsanto has carved out for itself.
Urban expansion – there are environmental campaigns among poor communities in cities too, often around pollution. When industry is growing faster than infrastructure, the result can often be a overflowing sewers, chemical contamination, or a build-up of rubbish. Leather production in Dhaka, Bangladesh, for example, is a hugely polluting industry right in the city, and toxic chemicals run freely through slum areas.
Oil – this is perhaps more exceptional in that many people have heard of grassroots protest around oil extraction. The most famous case is the Ogoni people of Nigeria, who were in the news again last week after another Amnesty International report. Texaco’s long running dispute with communities in Ecuador is another. Water contamination, gas flaring and forest clearance are among the concerns.
Mining – on a similarly extractive theme, mining companies often face local protests as land is seized and polluted. The violence done to the land often has a spiritual element in traditional cultures, a recurring theme in mining in Australia. Forest communities in Venezuela have seen local watercourses contaminated with mercury from gold mines, and in some cases have successfully blocked mining operations. Rio Tinto has recurring problems in Madagascar over its human rights and environmental abuses.
Aquaculture – the enclosure of mangroves and traditional fishing grounds for commercial shrimp production has spawned protests among coastal communities in several parts of the world, from Thailand and Malaysia to Latin America and parts of East Africa. Although the protests are primarily about traditional fishing rights, the concomitant loss of biodiversity and floodplains make them environmental protests too.
Forestry – commercial forestry is often at odds with communities that live in and around the forest, and who lack formal ownership. That includes land clearance for mining, logging, and the land change from forest to plantations. Costa Rica has some of the most successful local campaigns around forestry, and there’s a long history of action against commercial plantations throughout central America.
Water – There are a growing number of protests over water, both the appropriation of water supplies and their contamination. Among the many examples are the protests against Coca Cola in India, where accusations of groundwater depletion and pollution have been running for decades and continue to be a problem.
For some, these sorts of examples might not represent true environmentalism, as human rights and social justice concerns are often to the fore. But motives are always mixed on these sorts of issues – and of course they are, since we are part of the environment and rely on its services. Campaigns against pollution are often about human health too. The global fight to save bees is at least in part to maintain pollination and protect the livelihoods of fruit farmers. Some of those turning out to wave anti-fracking placards will be doing so because they’re afraid that fracking near their village will lower house prices.
Alier quotes Hugo Blanco, a Peruvian activist among peasant communities, and I’ll give him the final word:
There are in Peru a very large number of people who are environmentalists. Of course, if I tell such people, you are ecologists, they might reply, “ecologist your mother” or words to that effect. Let us see, however. Isn’t the village of Bambamarca truly environmentalist, which has time and again fought valiantly against the pollution of its water from mining? Are not the town of Ilo and the surrounding villages which are being polluted by the Southern Peru Copper Corporation truly environmentalist? Is not the village of Tambo Grande in Piura environmentalist when it rises like a closed fist and is ready to die in order to prevent strip-mining in its valley?