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Some critical environment issues after Rio

The following survey of some of the crucial global environment issues facing mankind in the post-Rio era is excerpted from a longer report prepared by TWN.


Genetic engineering and biosafety

A MAJOR development since UNCED has been the extremely rapid developments in the new biotechno-logies, especially genetic engineering. There has been the spread of agriculture and animal husbandry using genetic engineering, and the first sales of genetically-engineered foods (including tomato, soya- bean and maize) in the market. The developments are being driven by biotechnology-related companies, which are investing large funds for research in universities and whose activities and products involving genetic engineering are being significantly 'globalised'.

These rapid developments have elicited increasing concern among policy-makers (especially in developing countries), scientists, environmental groups about the potential environmental and safety effects of the use of genetically- modified organisms (GMOs) and the general public (large numbers of which in many countries are worried about safety aspects of genetically-engineered foods).

These concerns are rising because of plans by corporations to release a wide range of GMOs into the environment. There are many applications pending and even more potential ones being prepared, for the commercial planting of a wide range of crops involving GMOs. The concerns include the lack of adequate regulations, or the total absence of regulations in the case of most developing countries, whilst international transfers of the GMOs are already taking place, often without the knowledge of the governments of importing countries.

In a statement in 1995, an international group of scientists pointed out scientific flaws of the genetic engineering paradigm, showing why it is impossible to predict the consequences of transferring a gene from one type of organism to another in a significant number of cases (The Need for Greater Regulation and Control of Genetic Engineering,TWN 1995). This calls into question the value of genetically- engineered crops. Moreover, genetically-modified organisms (and especially micro-organisms) may migrate, mutate, multiply, and be transferred to other organisms and species, and in some cases the stability of affected organisms and ecosystems could be disrupted and threatened.

According to the scientists' statement, the more specific risks in agriculture are that some transgenic crops could become noxious weeds, and others could become a conduit through which new genes may move to wild plants which themselves could then become weeds. The new weeds could adversely affect farm crops and wild ecosystems. Similarly, genetically- engineered fish, shellfish and insects could become pests under certain conditions. There is also a possibility of new viral strains giving rise to new plant diseases. Of particular concern is the risk that transgenic crops may pose a threat to wild plants and traditional crop varieties and thus accelerate the process of the rapid loss of agricultural biodiversity, especially in the developing countries which are world centres of crop origin and diversity.

Another report by an independent group of experts, Biosafety: Scientific Findings and the Need for a Protocol (TWN 1996), provides details of recent findings of potential serious threats. These include the possibility of certain genetically-engineered bacteria unintendedly killing soil organisms, thus reducing nutrient supply to plants and threatening their survival; the rapid transfer of transgenes from oilseed rape (engineered to be herbicide tolerant) to its weedy natural relative; and the survival and spread of genetically-engineered organisms from containment.

These documents reinforce the conclusions of other scientists and of environmental groups that the transfer to developing countries of projects or experiments involving genetic engineering could be hazardous, at least until safety regulations are put in place in these countries. There is also the well-justified concern that the development of the new biotechnologies will develop food products which would displace the traditional export commodities of the South.

An expert consultation organised in September 1993 by the FAO in Asia, and attended by senior government and NGO officials, called for a moratorium on the introduction of genetically-engineered products in agriculture until adequate capacity is established to assess their environmental, health and socio-economic effects. They also proposed that the FAO help set up a mechanism to 'ensure that there not be the transfer of hazardous genetic engineering experiments, research and products to developing countries'.

At the 1993 Biodiversity Convention meeting, developing countries under the Group of 77 and China, proposed that a legally-binding international biosafety protocol be established under the Convention, in recognition of the potential hazards of genetic engineering. Many developed countries are also in favour of such a protocol. In November 1995 the Convention's Conference of Parties agreed to begin negotiations on an international legally-binding biosafety protocol. The negotiations are now proceeding.

At the third session of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) in April 1995, a group of NGOs and scientists issued a joint statement expressing 'extreme disappointment and concern about the unbalanced and scientifically uncritical manner in which biotechnology has been treated in the official Secretariat documents'. Their central concern stemmed from the way the CSD documents uncritically promote biotechnology with highly exaggerated and misleading claims, whilst trivialising the real and serious ecological, safety and socio-economic problems posed by genetic engineering. This approach, said the NGOs, is akin to a public relations exercise for the industry, and is obviously seriously biased against ecological and health considerations. Such an approach was most strange and worthy of strong reproach especially when the CSD is the prime international organ for promoting environmental safety.

The continued degradation of forests

Concern over tropical rainforests was a central issue in the UNCED process. Many developing countries successfully argued that tropical forests should not be singled out but that UNCED should focus on all types of forests, keeping in mind also that the developed countries had already deforested large portions of their forests. The result was a commitment to address the crisis over all types of forests, in a legally non-binding forest agreement.

Many Northern NGOs pushed for a convention on forests, while many Southern NGOs argued that an international agreement will not save forests nor secure the rights of indigenous peoples and other forest dwellers. At the governmental level, Southern countries with large tracts of forests were adamant against a treaty for fear that a national resource would be 'globalised' for control by the North. Meanwhile, the degradation of natural forests has continued at a rapid rate. This is the case with some Northern countries, where there have been environmental protests against logging, for example in the US and Canada. In developing countries, logging has expanded to previously remote and inaccessible forests - for example, in Pacific islands and South America - and the remaining African forests are also under threat. Logging companies from South-East Asian countries have also recently emerged as transnational players, having major concessions in several Asian, Pacific and South American countries, although the market for tropical wood is still largely Japan, Europe and North America.

Since Rio, the condition of the world's forests continues to deteriorate at a rapid rate, indicating a failure so far to check the situation overall, let alone reverse the deforestation process. A new FAO report released in March 1997, The State of the World's Forests 1997 (IPS, 1997), shows continuing high rates of deforestation in 1990-95 during which an estimated 11.3 million hectares of forests were lost worldwide yearly on average. In the five-year period, forests in developing countries decreased by 65.1 million ha. This was partly offset by an increase of 8.8 million ha of forest in developed countries. Thus, in net terms just over 56 million ha were lost. The report estimated the annual rate of loss in the developing world at 0.65%. Natural forests in developing countries decreased by 13.7 million ha annually in the 1990-95 period. This is still high, although slightly lower than the 15.5 ha per year in the decade 1980-90. Deforestation was also highest in the tropical zone of developing countries, with the highest annual rate of loss of 0.98% in tropical Asia-Oceania. In developed countries, deteriorating forest condition remains a serious concern in Europe and North America; major threats include forest fires, pests, diseases and air pollution.

The data show that there has hardly been progress overall in the forest situation since UNCED. Where logging is concerned, as the area of loggable forests decline in many countries, timber activities have opened up in several new regions and countries, and there are also further plans to provide logging concessions over vast tracts of tropical forests.

An Intergovernmental Panel on Forests (IPF) was set up under the CSD to work on a consensus plan of action, to be reviewed by the Special Session of the UNGA in 1997. While the terms of reference acknowledge the need to address fundamental causes of deforestation (including the external debt of the South, unfair trading terms, unsustainable consumption/production, etc) due to strong NGO lobby, the focus of the IPF is very much on forestry. The timber industry and countries with a vested interest in that sector are dominant actors in the IPF process. There are NGO concerns that the concrete outcome of the IPF would be a set of criteria and indicators for sustainable forest management that would essentially legitimise continued commercial logging. As a result there is the danger that fundamental causes of deforestation will not be addressed; nor would community rights protection and conservation of biodiversity/forest ecosystems. Several NGOs which had lobbied for a forest agreement in UNCED afterwards held a press conference objecting to a global treaty as they are apparently worried about the direction of the IPF.

There is the danger that as international wrangling continues at the policy level, on the ground, it will be 'business as usual' as the process of further liberalisation of the forest sector and the globalisation of commercial timber and other economic activities lead to further high rates of deforestation.

Lack of progress on sustainable agriculture

In the past decades, the globalisation process has spread environmentally unfriendly agriculture and its technology to many parts of the South. In recent years, the harmful effects of this model have been recognised. UNCED has agreed that in its place, 'sustainable agriculture' should be promoted. Unfortunately, little has been done at the international level to implement sustainable agriculture. This lack of commitment is probably related to the fact that the current dominant models of chemical-based agriculture are relied upon by commercial agribusiness corporations for generating their revenues, whereas ecological and organic forms of agriculture rely on low inputs and are thus not in the interests of commerce. Thus, the commercial interests that finance research and agriculture projects are not eager, to say the least, for sustainable agriculture to make headway.

In the past, most agricultural aid has been for promoting the Green Revolution model, which uses seeds with a high response to big doses of inorganic fertiliser and chemical pesticides. These few seed varieties have displaced a wide range of traditional seeds, thus eroding crop biodiversity. There is also mounting evidence of and growing concern with other ecological problems, such as increasing soil infertility, chemical pollution of land and water resources, pesticide poisoning, and pest infestation due to growing pest immunity to pesticides. These are symptoms of a technological system in decline and the system's main claimed benefit, high productivity, is itself now in question.

With disillusionment setting in on the Green Revolution, commercial resources are now turning to the new biotechnologies. There is need for great caution in this regard, for the claimed benefits of genetic engineering are far from being proven, whilst there is increasing evidence of real and potential risks (see Section on Genetic Engineering). Given the concerns about biosafety, aid resources should not be channelled to developing the new biotechnologies as a new technological panacea. To do so would mean that the lessons from the Green Revolution experience have not been learnt, and developing countries could then face a new set of ecological and safety threats.

Instead, priority should be given to support research and projects on ecological and community-based farming practices and systems. So far, relatively little resources have been made available for this. There is a premise that whilst 'sustainable agriculture' may be ecologically good, it is inferior and inadequate in terms of productivity. This premise could actually be a prejudice, for there is evidence that ecological farming can be high yielding as well as higher yielding than the output from the Green Revolution method. Since UNCED in 1992, there has been little official action to phase out chemical-based agriculture or to promote sustainable agriculture despite a tremendous increase in public demand for organic foods. As pointed out earlier, this inertia could well be due to the fact that organic agriculture is against the commercial interests of agri-business since a switch in that direction would sharply reduce the sale of its inputs.

As a result of lack of support, sustainable agriculture today remains at the level of anecdotes and case studies and the biases against it are deep-seated.

Proliferation of commercial aquaculture

Another recent negative environmental impact of globalisation is the damage to coastal land resources and marine resources caused by the mushrooming of large-scale commercial aquaculture schemes in Asia and parts of Central and South America to produce prawns and other marine products mainly for export. This phenomenon is fairly recent, and has accelerated in the past few years. The farms mainly produce large shrimps (for example, 'Tiger prawns') and other exotic items such as eels, which are mainly exported to the United States, Europe and Japan where shrimps fetch high prices and have become a fashionable and expensive cuisine item.

The rapid expansion of commercial, intensive aquaculture has often been called the 'Blue Revolution', following the term 'Green Revolution' used to describe the introduction of chemical-based agriculture. Since the 1970s, global production of cultured shrimp has jumped by incredible rates, mostly in Asia which in 1990 produced 556,500 metric tons or 80% of the world output. In the same year, it was also estimated that 820,000 hectares were being used for coastal shrimp aquaculture in Asia.

Whilst the problems associated with the Green Revolution are only now increasingly showing up, the so-called Blue Revolution is already being plagued by a wide range of environmental and social ill effects. The projects have destroyed the coastline ecology (including valuable mangroves and wetlands), polluted seawater, deprived fisherfolk of their landing areas, depleted groundwater and poisoned farmlands of surrounding villages. Thousands of miles of shoreline in India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, Ecuador and Mexico, among others, are affected. Hundreds of farming and fishing communities are protesting against the intrusion into their lands and the despoilation of their land and water resources by the aquaculture farms.

In late 1996, in a case filed by communities affected by aquaculture, the Indian Supreme Court made an order to close down all commercial aquaculture projects in the country which were within 500 metres from the coast, a decision hailed as a major victory for social and environmental concerns. A cost- benefit analysis commissioned by the Court concluded that for every dollar in benefits derived from the shrimp industry there are $4 in costs associated with it. (see page 34)

Meanwhile, many hundreds of fishing and farming communities in several countries continue to be affected by the negative effects of commercial aquaculture, and protests by these communities are increasing.

Depletion of fisheries

The depletion of the world's fish stocks has worsened since the early 1990s due to overfishing and pollution and the FAO has warned that 69% of the world's fishery resources are fully exploited, over-exploited or seriously depleted. The global fish catch rose fivefold between 1950 and 1989 to 100 million tonnes a year, but growth has since stagnated.

A survey of the Asian region, which accounts for over half the global fish catch and consumption, reports that there has been gross overfishing by fishing fleets using increasingly powerful techniques, including aircraft, radar and satellites to track shoals. Trawlers using drift nets increase both the catch and 'by-catch' (species inadvertently netted and discarded); a quarter of all fish caught is estimated by the FAO to be discarded. Increased competition has led to several conflicts among fishing fleets from different countries and increased regional tensions. The number of fishing vessels has continued to rise worldwide since 1989. A fishery researcher was quoted as saying: 'New boats are rolling off the docks all the time, big monsters processing 200,000 tonnes a day, operating around the clock and competing with each other. The older fishing boats have to compete even harder. It's a madhouse out there.'

The depletion and falling catch has led governments in the region to promote aquaculture as a source of future rapid growth in fish products. The share of farm-based fish has nearly doubled from 1984 to 1993 to 22% of total supply. However, the aquaculture industry has itself resulted in severe environmental and social problems (see section above).

Continuing development of coastal areas (land reclamation and other infrastructure) and pollution from land-based activities have also increased since UNCED, thereby adversely affecting fisheries.

Agenda 21 clearly recognises the freshwater crisis, citing the current development model as environmentally destructive. Since UNCED, more reports have sounded the alarm. The situation is so serious that freshwater availability, access and cleanliness is possibly the most critical environmental constraint and certainly a potential social, as well as geo- political, time bomb.

The World Water Council, pointing out that the demand for freshwater doubles every 20 years, reported that in 1950, only 12 countries with 20 million people faced water shortages; by 1990 it was 26 countries with 300 million people and by 2050 it is projected to be 65 countries with seven billion people, or 60% of world population.

According to a report of the CSD Secretariat, over 8% of the world's population now live in countries that are highly water stressed and another 25% in countries with moderate to high water stress (ECOSOC Document E/CN.17/1997/2). If current trends in water use persist, two-thirds of the world's population could be living in countries with moderate or high water stress by 2025. The report says that an analysis under the Comprehensive Assessment of Freshwater Resources of the World 'gives rise to serious concerns as to the sustainability of current pathways of water resources development and utilisation in many developed and developing countries alike'.

Competition for scarcer water resources is now widely predicted to be an increasingly important source for conflict between countries sharing waterways, and also within countries. Whether it is the Pacific Northwest of the US or the Mekong River basin, water conflicts are on the increase as the fight for the use of the resource as well as pollution increase. These conflicts are geographical as well as social. There is a tendency for poor people to lose out to commercial interests and those who can pay.

Industrialisation, urbanisation, tourism, commercial agriculture are among the biggest users and competitors. Since these processes and activities have continued to expand, greater stress has been put on availability and quality of water.

Better watershed management and an integrated approach to water conservation was called for in Agenda 21, but since the Rio Summit, the situation has worsened. Activities such as logging, mining, tourism and export crop agriculture are threatening watersheds. The displacement of poor people from lowlands to upland areas continues in many countries, again disturbing sensitive watersheds.

Water pollution also is a major problem, with industrial, agricultural and urban wastes being the primary causes. Groundwater resources have received scant attention in most countries and at the global level. These are not regulated and thus not managed, ending up as a 'free for all' resource. According to the CSD Report (ECOSOC 1997), 'fresh water reserves continue to be used as a sink for the dumping of wastes from urban and industrial sources, agricultural chemicals and other human activities. Current estimates indicate that about 90% of waste waters from urban areas are discharged without any treatment in many developing countries. Altogether, water quality has degraded rapidly, and has in some regions become so bad that ground water is not suitable even for industrial use.'

Awareness of scarcity and pollution has given rise to proposed market-based solutions, including raising the price of water to reflect scarcity. Whilst this may provide disincentives to the wasting of resources (if not carefully planned), the rise in water prices could also reduce the access of poorer consumers to water. A more fundamental approach would be to identify and reduce the sources of water depletion and pollution, through environmental laws and development planning, constraining the economic activities responsible. For example, the intensity of water use should be a major factor in the consideration of industrial policy and projects and urban planning; and the degree of threat to watersheds should be the key factor in determining development proposals in hill areas.

Hydropower development continues to be controversial with proponents claiming that multipurpose dams offer sound water management. Opponents assert that huge dams are environmental and social disasters. In the post-UNCED period, there has been a significant increase in plans for building large dams. The Three Gorges Dam (in China), Bakun Dam (in Sarawak, Malaysia) and the Mekong projects (in Indochina) are notable examples. In some developed countries, there has been increased awareness of the negative effects of large dams, and the decommissioning of some dams and efforts at environmental rehabilitation.

Mining activities

The extraction of minerals, including fossil fuels, was conspicuously absent from the UNCED negotiations, and thus from Agenda 21. It is a serious anomoly and deficiency in Agenda 21, which should be rectified. Perhaps it was an admission that mining cannot be sustainable: the destabilisation of local environments caused by mining is undeniable, with forests stripped bare, soils degraded and water channels polluted. Besides suffering the ecological effects, millions of people also find their land rights and livelihoods are threatened by mining activities.

The escalation of mining projects in recent years is alarming. Massive projects are underway or proposed in every continent, accompanied by violent protests in a number of cases. These include Venezuela, Ecuador, Ghana, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Burma, Borneo, the Philippines.

As technology advances, and the more accessible deposits are exploited, mining companies are penetrating more remote areas. These are usually remaining forests, watersheds and mountainous regions. To mine these areas would be to cause more devastating environmental damage. Most of these areas are also indigenous peoples' lands, recognised or claimed.

TNCs from Australia, Canada and the US are extending their spread more aggressively. In Africa, South African-based companies are moving across the continent. While specific companies in specific instances have been highlighted (e.g. SHELL in Nigeria and CONOCO in Ecuador) there is no systematic monitoring of TNCs to match the increased activity in the mining sector.

At the same time, pressure on the South to open up their countries to foreign investors have led to new or amended mining laws that will damage the environment and result in widespread dislocation of communities and social chaos.

A study of recent trends in the global mining industry, has concluded: 'In the mid-l990s technological advances coupled with the fast globalisation and liberalisation of the mining industry, which is called the "the mining sustainability framework", allowed the transnational mining corporations to temporarily ease themselves out of a crisis (that they faced in the 1980s due to low prices). The higher profits by the mining TNCs, however, meant higher sacrifices on the part of the majority who are marginalised and greater devastation for the global environment. Among those who have suffered the most from the liberalisation of mining are indigenous peoples, the women, and even the workers, despite the promise that this will increase employment.' The study also reveals the following.

* By the mid-1980s, the states in many developed countries started to divest themselves of their interests in mining and metals companies. By l993 there was significant reduction in state control for nearly all minerals. In the South, liberalisation took a different form: liberalisation of mining laws, derestriction and deregulation. The common trend in many Third World countries is the removal of most barriers and instruments previously used by governments in the preservation, development and the utilisation of their mineral resources. Around 70 countries in Latin America, Africa, Asia- Pacific are now fully liberalising their mining laws and implementing deregulation in a wide range of areas, including land rights and mineral rights, taxation, environment protection, in order to attract foreign mining investors.

* This liberalisation policy at national level is accompanied by the globalisation of mining operations. Mining TNCs have developed a framework which they call 'mining sustainability' which refers not to 'sustainable development' but to lengthening of the lifespan of mining operations. It refers to the acquisition by mining companies of large tracts of mineral lands worldwide and removal of restrictions to their control and use of such lands so that mining operations should no longer be hampered by territorial boundaries and planning can be done on a global scale. Due to intense competition, to maintain their industry position, mining companies have to be aggressive in extending their borders and compete to acquire mineral lands. Canadian mining companies for example have around 1,700 mine projects outside of the Canada and the US, mostly in Central and South America and Africa but including Asia.

Another trend is the increase in mergers among mining companies; in 1996 there were mergers of CRA of Australia and RTZ of England, Western Mining Company of Australia and ALCOA of the US, Broken Hill Property of Australia and Magma Copper Co. of the US, Cyprus and Amax, Billiton within Gencor, American Barrick and Lac Minerals, Inco and Diamond Fields Resources, Anglo American and Ashanti, and Battle Mt. Gold and Hemlo.

Such mergers concentrate the power of mining TNCs even further, putting them in a better position to further expand their control over mineral lands. Increased operations will lead to more ecological problems and the displacement of people.

Mining TNCs are motivated to open up in the Third World because of the tightening environmental standards in their own countries, increasing resistance from the indigenous peoples and environmentalists in their own countries and depletion of their mineral resources. To escape from the high environmental regulations which require them to install expensive anti- pollution technologies and devices and other environmentally sound technologies, many companies transfer their operations to countries which have no or low regulations.

Toxic/hazardous waste and substances

(a) Hazardous Waste

In recent years, there has been significant progress in the control of the hazardous wastes trade, when the Basel Convention was upgraded from its original restriction (export being allowed only on a prior-informed-consent basis) to an outright ban of such wastes from OECD to non-OECD countries. Nevertheless, there is evidence of violations in practice, strengthening the need for increased capacity in monitoring and liability on the part of the culprits. In 1996, a series of cases were reported of US and European domestic waste being dumped in China; these were shipments conducted in the name of 'recycling'. Two well-known incidents involved the rejection of shipments by the Chinese authorities. The Indian Supreme Court also ordered the banning of waste imports. But in many developing countries, recycling has become a huge business, making it harder for control.

The physical environment is more and more contaminated and soil and freshwater resources are poisoned. Disposal sites for waste are becoming scarce due to lack of space and/or intense opposition from citizens who vehemently say 'Not in my backyard' to proposed treatment/disposal sites.

In many communities across the world, health problems caused by hazardous wastes have emerged and these continue to escalate. The United States, which set up a multi-billion- dollar Superfund for 'cleaning up' toxic waste sites, now admits that the programme has failed. In almost all cases, clean-up has not been possible. Many of these sites have in fact been declared to be so contaminated that they can never be safe again.

Many developing countries have been pursuing the same development model of the developed countries that generated the waste crisis in the first place. East and South-East Asian countries are witnessing exponential increases in waste generation. Meanwhile, industrialised countries in the OECD grouping are fighting to regain economic growth. While many of their hazardous industries have been relocated to developing countries, they are still faced with unresolved problems of wastes generated in the past few decades. Hence the dumping of wastes in the South, including in the guise of export of recyclable wastes.

(b) Radioactive Wastes

Radioactive wastes are yet another threat to human health and the environment. These are generated in the nuclear fuel cycle as well as nuclear applications, that is, the use of radionuclides in medicine, research and industry. As of 1992, nuclear power production every year generated 200,000 cubic metres of low-level and intermediate-level waste and 10,000 cubic metres of high-level waste (including spent nuclear fuel destined for final disposal). These amounts are increasing as more and more nuclear power plants are built and operated, nuclear facilities decommissioned, and the use of radionuclides increases.

While high-level radioactive waste has the largest risk, recent data on low-level radiation confirms that the latter is also an ominous threat. Moreover, even though waste volumes from nuclear applications may be much smaller than power plants, the activity concentration (especially in sealed radiation sources) might be high, thus presenting high risks.

Strong public opposition in the US and Western Europe has stalled new nuclear power projects, but the industry is aggressively promoting the technology in developing countries. Concerns are growing over the spread of nuclear power plants in Asia. With fast-growing economies in the region, power demands have escalated in the past decade. Indonesia, for example, has ambitious plans for nuclear power generation, and the first plant is already under construction. China is moving rapidly ahead with more plant construction even though the Daya Bay plant, a French project, has been plagued with safety problems since its operation two years ago. Japan has started receiving its re-processed wastes from Europe, amidst domestic and international protests from environmental and citizens' groups. The leakage from a reprocessing plant in March 1996 again raised the spectre of the hazards of nuclear waste. In early 1997, Taiwan approved another plant in the face of tremendous public and parliamentary objections. South Korea is similarly expanding its nuclear power programme; again public protest is strong. The most recent development is the plan by Taiwan to send its waste to North Korea.

The problem of how to ensure 'safe' disposal of radioactive waste from nuclear power plants still remains unsolved. OECD countries with accumulated waste have yet to deal with the situation effectively.

(c) Hazardous Materials, Products and Industries

Since the Rio Summit, there has been some progress in establishing new international arrangements for controlling the movement of hazardous materials and products. Recently, two new international entities have been formed: in 1994 the Inter-Organisational Programme for the Sound Management of Chemicals (IOMC), where governments cooperate on risk assessment and management of chemicals; and in 1995 the Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety (IFCS), to coordinate efforts of various UN agencies and the OECD to assess and manage chemicals. In the area of prior informed consent (PIC), negotiations are underway for a legally-binding instrument for PIC procedure for the trade in certain hazardous chemicals and pesticides. In 1995, an intergovernmental conference in Washington on protection of marine environment from land-based activities agreed to develop a global, legally-binding instrument to reduce or eliminate emissions, discharges and where appropriate the manufacture of POPs.

However the plans and measures have not been adequate or have been too slow to prevent an expansion in the production, trade and use of unsafe and ecologically damaging chemicals and other substances. Hazardous pesticides continue to be exported to developing countries, incurring a heavy toll in lives, health and pollution. There is also a phasing out of some industries using or producing toxic chemicals (such as chlorine) and other substances (such as asbestos) from developed countries and their export and phasing into developing countries with much less stringent laws.

Moreover, in the new field of new technologies, there has been little control till now. Surveys have discovered the transfer of dozens of projects and products involving genetic engineering to developing countries without the knowledge or consent of their governments. A biosafety protocol is being developed under the Biodiversity Convention, but the speed of negotiations is unable to keep up with the current rapid commercialisation of genetic engineering.

Moreover there is hardly any international control in the trade in hazardous products. Many pharmaceutical drugs that are deemed toxic enough to be banned or restricted to only certain uses are sold in developing countries with little restriction. The same is the case for contraceptives. With tobacco products coming under more severe control in developed countries, the industry is promoting cigarettes in developing countries (including getting the US government to make use of unilateral trade measures to pry open their markets). There is not yet any control of the trade in these hazardous products.

A major problem is the lack of financial resources to carry out activities at international or national levels to control the movement of toxic substances, products and industries. Instead, the budgets for managing toxics have fallen in some cases.

Tourism

Tourism is one sector where the globalisation process has had a major direct impact, for it is the globalisation of transport and communications that facilitated tourism. In turn tourism has contributed to the globalisation of consumer culture and affected the ways of life and environment of people even in the most remote areas. Mass tourism had been subject to increasing criticism for causing environmental degradation and social disruption during the period of the UNCED process. Since UNCED, the tourist trade, and related industries such as airlines and hotels, have grown further at phenomenal rates. Whilst the environmental and cultural effects of tourism have been well studied, there has been a new trend since UNCED. When sustainable development became the official rhetoric, concerted efforts were undertaken by the tourism industry and the World Tourism Organisation to promote a new image. The results include eco-tourism, nature interpretation workshops, sustainable tourism and the like. These are projected as environmentally friendly, conserving biodiversity and involving local communities. A series of conferences and seminars were organised in Europe and Asia for this purpose.

In that scenario, golf courses and theme parks featured heavily as 'green' projects. The reality is the involvement and concentration of more TNCs in the tourism industry: construction companies and developers, airline companies, hotel chains, the food and beverage industry, commercial banks, advertising and mass media. Also related to tourism is the development of infrastructure such as airports and highways.

One after another, countries in the South have latched on to tourism as the big revenue earner. The most rapid developments are in Asia where golf tourism exploded in the late 1980s into the mid-1990s. Coastal areas, coral reefs, islands, forested hills have all been targeted for by tourism development, often with devastating ecological effects such as soil erosion and damage to watersheds caused by hill cutting, and pollution of seas and beaches. Massive amounts of freshwater are siphoned to tourist resorts, depriving rural people of irrigation water in a number of cases. Tourism projects also take up large areas of land (including for golf courses, large resorts and roads) whilst also often displacing farming, fishing and poor urban communities.

The General Agreement on Services concluded in the Uruguay Round has tourism as a key sector to be liberalised. This will further enable the big international corporations to gain a larger share in the lucrative tourism market, and the adverse effects can be expected to also increase. (TWR No. 81/82, May/June 1997)

 

 

 

 


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