Some critical environmental issues of the 21st century

In a panel discussion organised by Third World Network and Tebtebba Foundation at WSSD PrepCom 2, NGOs discussed some of the critical environmental issues of the 21st century - oil exploitation and land rights, mining in Africa, food security, climate vulnerability and ecotourism.

‘ADVOCATES’ and ‘early warning systems’ are two ways to describe the function of non-governmental organisations. Championing action and alternatives or drawing attention to present or impending crises, environmental NGOs have for the last 40 years strived to steer societies away from increasing environmental disaster. The dramatic global expansion of productive forces has not been matched by environmentally sustainable practices.

Ten years ago the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), popularly known as the Rio Earth Summit after its Brazilian host city, attempted such a reconciliation between development and environment. The policy concept championed was ‘sustainable development’.

A decade later sustainable development has become a policy mainstay but one largely marginalised by globalisation. This has led to an intensification of the destructive forces that gave rise to the environmental movement. The plethora of environmental challenges has grown, in no small part due to a reflexive synergy with development crises, and several critical areas are coming sharply into focus for the coming century.

In a panel discussion organised by Third World Network (TWN) and Tebtebba Foundation, NGOs gathered to discuss precisely this issue during the second preparatory meeting for the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in January in New York.

The ‘Critical Environmental Issues of the 21st Century’ forum discussed oil exploitation and land rights, indigenous peoples’ rights, mining in Africa, food security, climate vulnerability and ecotourism.

Oil exploitation

Elizabeth Bravo of Ecuador-based Accion Ecologica shared the experiences collected through an international network of community activists and NGOs called Oilwatch. She described how the aggressive profit-seeking oil industry inevitably leads to a head-on clash with sustainable development through both the immediate impacts of exploration and production and the long-term consequences of oil’s contribution to global warming through the massive release of greenhouse gases.

The companies believe that in order to sustain net earnings they need to recover 1.3 barrels of crude oil for every single one produced. Consequently they are driven to expand their reserves. This primarily takes the form of prospecting in new regions with consequences including oligopoly concentration, and the proliferation of environmental, social and political risks as a result of the oil industry’s risk management strategies.

‘Oiligarchy’: The trend of mergers and acquisitions in the oil industry has provided access to markets as well as resources in addition to cutting costs through layoffs of thousands of redundant workers. BP/Amoco/Arco, Elf/Total/Fina, Chevron/Texaco and Exxon-Mobil are some recent formations. Such oligopolistic concentration is also extending to state-owned firms, many of which are being swept up in the growing wave of privatisation. The former state oil company of Argentina, YPF is now owned by Spanish Repsol. Amerada Hess (USA) and state-owned Petronas (Malaysia) are co-owners of 50% of Premier Oil (UK), which is involved in controversial Burmese projects.

Technology: The drive for new reserves has also led to new technology developments which are capable of exploiting caches of heavy crude and extra heavy crude. This also means that areas previously not amenable to exploitation have become technologically viable, such as the protected Yasuni National Park in Ecuador which contains heavy crude reserves. The technology used for heavy crude tends to be more dangerous and produces more contamination.

Natural gas, although marketed as a ‘clean’ alternative to oil, is equally as hazardous and polluting in its extraction and production process. Transportation of gas is even more dangerous. Massive transnational pipelines spanning entire regions of Latin America and Asia have also increased, which means considerable local environmental and labour impacts.

Ocean-drilling technology has continued to open up new reserves to access. Strife-torn Angola has recently emerged as a vast source of oceanic oil reserves.

Risk management and transmission: Concern over the stability and viability of reserves in the Middle East, Russia and the US (there are concerns of declining production in the latter two) has led to a stronger push into Asia, Africa and Latin America. This has influenced the degree of US interference in the politics and economy of those countries.

The oil companies’ risk management strategies usually lead to a massive increase in risk for others. The propensity to invest in reserves in areas of civil conflict or fragile areas of great ecological importance (both are often combined such as in Irian Jaya, Aceh, Putumayo, the Andean-Amazon region) often means that oil comes at the expense of political freedom and the environment.

Latin America is one of the closest sources of oil for the US, thus the strategic demand that regimes be favourably disposed towards the US. Multilateral agencies such as the World Bank have also facilitated pipeline and infrastructure projects that cut across huge swathes of Latin American wilderness inhabited by indigenous people and rich in biodiversity.

The Camisea gas exploration conducted by Shell in Peru allowed disease-bearing workers to come into contact with previously isolated indigenous communities who had no resistance to tosferina. The local population declined by as much as 50%.

Deregulated labour markets following from structural adjustment policies ensure ranks of cheap labour. By abandoning declining reserves in the US for larger ones in the more ‘unstable’ countries, industry analysts say, the companies are trading economic risk for political risk. But the incentive of low costs is proving highly attractive and host countries are eager for investment despite ambiguities over whether such investment yields a net positive effect.

An Andean initiative spearheaded by the US would grant it effective control of the oil production of five Andean-Amazon oil- and gas-producing countries. However, all five contain elements of political instability with respect to the US: the FARC insurrection in Colombia; General Chavez in Venezuela who has reactivated OPEC; the indigenous movement in Ecuador; the peasant movement in Bolivia; and the new climax in civil society in Peru, after the fall of Fujimori. (Note: Through Plan Colombia and other initiatives the US has been expanding its military bases in the region.)

Moratorium on oil exploitation: Citing the oil industry as the ‘principal cause of global warming, and its impacts on the local people are obvious, right from prospecting activities’, Bravo ended her presentation by stating that Oilwatch was calling for an international moratorium on oil exploration ‘in order to stop the problem at its roots’. Many other groups have already started a moratorium in order to impede the encroachment of oil companies into their territories and governments were called upon to do likewise.

Mining and FDI: an African perspective

Abdulai Darimani of Third World Network Africa presented a vivid overview of how mining not only irreversibly transforms an environment but also dramatically affects national policy, and rarely in a positive way.

Environmental and human impacts: As an extractive industry mining has an obvious impact on land areas which involves the displacement of vast amounts of earth and rock as well as the destruction of the local ecology. There is a further extensive impact on water due to the tailings and untreated discharges from the mining process. This affects rivers and ultimately marine and coastal ecosystems.

The human impacts are even more extensive, they play out in a vicious narrative. Communities are displaced through resettlement and relocation schemes. They are further denied access to potential farmland (associated downstream water impacts only exacerbate this). Social and political conflicts arise over the distribution and allocation of mined wealth in addition to land rights. Human rights violations often follow as private and state security harass communities for expressing dissenting views or making legitimate demands. The health of workers and communities often suffers, and HIV increases the risks associated with accidents. Employment generated is often unstable due to frequent layoffs and the policy of labour subcontracting. Considerable knock-on impacts affect women and children at the community level.

Policy orthodoxy affecting national development: Abdulai stressed how international financial policy orthodoxy was shaping the national development strategies in mineral-rich African countries. Advocates of the market-driven strategy for economic development tend to emphasise liberalisation in the extractive sector with the promise that compliant countries will stand to benefit if they open up to foreign direct investment (FDI).

Many developing countries undertook structural reforms targeted at the mining sector. Massive incentives were granted to encourage an inflow of FDI. This had two major effects.

On the one hand the policies pursued were not sensitive to local communities affected by mining. The reforms have elevated corporate power over environmental diversity and the ability of local communities to promote their interest and their developmental priorities.

On the other hand, the translation of the mineral wealth into building the productive capacity of the national economy in general and the local communities within which the mine projects are located has been either ambiguous or negative. Yet, the activities of the companies have been decidedly destructive to the environment and the livelihoods of local communities.

In spite of these problems the policies are set to continue.  Indeed, multilateral and bilateral donors are up-scaling their support for activities in this sector.  FDI in mining continues to increase.  In 1999 FDI in Africa rose from US$8 billion to US$10 billion.  Seventy per cent of this was concentrated in five countries (Angola, Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt and Morocco), three of which (Angola, Nigeria and South Africa) are mineral-rich countries.

Multi-layered pressure: Through the partnership agreement between the European Union and the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group of countries adopted in 2001 in Cotonou, Europe is set to fragment African economies by demanding negotiation of trade and investment agreements between it and individual countries.

The US Trade and Development Act of May 2000 also signals greater investment in Africa, specifically targeting support for the mining sector.

African governments themselves in collaboration with transnational corporations (TNCs) are adopting cross-national strategies for natural resource extraction, typically within sub-regional economic frameworks.  Examples include the West African Gas Pipeline Project and the Chad-Cameroon Gas Pipeline Project.

The mining industry itself is launching an initiative to justify the sustainability of mining and to guarantee more exploration and production.  The difficulty is how this initiative can respond to issues of over-production and consumption as the key drivers of corporate business.

Tasks for the WSSD: Abdulai suggested that the WSSD in Johannesburg should aim to address international trade and investment imbalances in such a way as to maximise domestic benefits of natural resource use. This could be achieved by:

·        A framework convention on corporate accountability (which would also impede externalisation of environmental costs).

·        A national timeframe for the reform of mining and mineral codes with an eye towards poverty eradication.

·        Integrating community input into decision-making to redress present imbalances.

·        Donor parties should strengthen public institutions to deal with the challenges of mining.

·        Developing countries should use Johannesburg as an opportunity to review community concerns vis-a-vis corporate interest which would help relieve social conflict.

·        Cost-benefit analysis that takes into account social and environmental needs in addition to economic ones.

Beware global mining greenwash

The African situation is mirrored in many ways in the Philippines. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz of Tebtebba Foundation described how investment laws were liberalised a few years ago, and ecologically sensitive regions that are ancestral domain territories of the country’s indigenous peoples escalated into zones of conflict with mining corporations. In the Philippines, indigenous communities succeeded in evicting four companies - Rio Tinto Zinc, Western Mining Corporation (Australia), Toronto Ventures Incorporated (Canada) and Climax-Arimco (Australia). Four local governments have passed municipal resolutions banning the entry of mining corporations in their respective municipalities.

There are concerns, especially among indigenous peoples’ organisations, that the pro-industry Global Mining Initiative will be endorsed at the WSSD as a sustainable development option. There is also a ‘Mining, Minerals and Sustainable Development Programme’ (funded by industry) which involved some NGOs in their consultations, again raising concerns that this is another move to cloak the mining industry with legitimacy. (Note: At the third preparatory meeting in March in New York, the 500-page  report under this initiative was the subject of two side events, where many participants especially from developing countries raised concerns and criticisms.)

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz informed the forum that a number of networks and NGOs from the South are planning a series of national and regional meetings in Asia and Africa to raise awareness and debate on mining, and to ensure that the Johannesburg Summit does not promote or endorse mining as sustainable.

Climate change, vulnerability and adaptation

Yin Shao Loong of TWN explored climate change issues from a developing-country perspective. He highlighted the fact that issues of developing-country vulnerability to climate change and their adaptive capacity were seldom discussed compared to strategies for cutting back greenhouse gases responsible for global warming.

A typical discussion of climate change action usually revolves around cutting back on present emissions of greenhouse gases and switching to cleaner sources of energy. It is essentially a classic pollution issue: cut down or eliminate pollutants and switch to an alternative technological paradigm. This is generally envisioned as a shift away from fossil fuels (which produce greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, nitrous oxides and methane)  towards  renewable  energy.

Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) it is the developed countries that are committed to making the first cutbacks in greenhouse gases. This is based on their historical emissions and their present capacity to initiate change. The Kyoto Protocol to the FCCC is designed to initiate greenhouse gas reductions (i.e. climate change mitigation) in developed countries. Developing countries have as yet no targets due to low historical emissions and present financial constraints. (The division of action is consistent with the Rio principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’.)

Under the Kyoto Protocol developing countries will receive some assistance in the form of a least-developed country adaptation programme and the ability to participate in Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects. However, the level of funding of both schemes is presently poor and only the latter has received significant political attention. As the name suggests, the CDM only addresses pollution aspects of climate change rather than adaptation or vulnerability reduction. Even then, there are doubts that the CDM will perform its intended function: facilitate climate-friendly technology transfers.

However, scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  (IPCC) (convened by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organisation) believe that some climate change impacts will inevitably be felt no matter the success of mitigation. Furthermore the Third Assessment Report of the IPCC (2001) holds that the ‘impacts of climate change will fall disproportionately upon developing countries and the poor persons within all countries’.

Thus the issues of adaptation strategies and vulnerability reduction to a changed climate will be just as essential as, if not more so than, mitigation efforts for many developing countries.

Since the majority of families in developing countries are based in agriculture, food production is a key area of concern since this sector is highly dependent on predictable climate cycles. Therefore, established concerns on food security, hunger and the balance of the international trading system must also factor into the assessment of climate change risks. Textiles, for example, are also vulnerable since they are often directly or secondarily plant-based.

In present conditions it is possible that a developing country may have very poor food security due to: a) a dependency on imported staples (wheat, rice); b) its agricultural sector may be further eroded by imports of cheap agricultural surplus (dumping especially from developed countries); c) government policy determined by international agencies such that private corporate interests are favoured over domestic needs; d) political instability, lack of government capacity or governmental unaccountability; e) primary commodity production being highly climate-sensitive.

In this hypothetical case an extreme climate event such as a storm surge or hurricane can be quite damaging, as the examples of Honduras, Nicaragua, Mozambique and the Pacific Islands demonstrate. What may be worse is a severe El Nino (possible drought) or warming leading to a much-reduced output (the margin for positive agricultural impact due to global warming is very narrow for developing countries).

In the second scenario there may be either a prolonged drought leading to full-blown crop failure or a gradual decline in crop fertility. This may lead to a famine or a production crisis in key commodities (entire national economies may be dependent on one or two commodities, such as coffee or bananas).

On the macro level the factors are climate, market policy and inequitable international relations. On a micro level the factors are household poverty, ecological poverty and state decapitation. If such factors are net negative, an adverse environmental change (such as climate change) can provoke a full-blown economic and social crisis.

Besides such ‘slow’ climate changes the ‘fast’ changes of extreme events require extensive disaster preparation. Relief agencies, evacuation measures, meteorological services, and civic/military emergency units are amongst the factors that require advance planning and policy implementation by governments. Developing countries have shown skill in this area - Cuba, South Korea and China are recent examples of countries that have coordinated successful domestic  evacuation  and  relief  efforts.

In short, priorities will differ for various developing countries depending on their respective economic and environmental factors. Economically, countries will fall broadly into two categories - manufacturers or primary commodity producers - although they will often be a mix of the two. Environmental factors will be hybridised but countries with large coastlines, small island countries, and drought- or flood-prone countries would be the most vulnerable. Countries not presently subject to the latter factors may find themselves in those categories with climate change.

Wealthier manufacturing countries may be better insulated from climate change since wealth affords a greater range of adaptation options. However, they may still be hard hit by domestic water crises, coastal erosion and crisis in whatever agricultural sector they still possess. They furthermore have a responsibility to curb their own greenhouse gas emissions. Nonetheless developed countries must cut their emissions the most and the Kyoto Protocol is presently the best international framework for that.

Yin concluded by suggesting that linkages need to be built between international agencies such as the UNFCCC, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), disaster-relief agencies, and financial policy institutions to tackle impending adaptation strategies and vulnerability reduction for developing countries. This should form a parallel track to efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.

Food security

Linda Elswick of the International Partnership for Sustainable Agriculture, based in the US, shared personal experiences on how her rural community was devastated by mining, and the scale of such destruction across the developing world has indeed reached a major crisis situation. All the more today, she strongly emphasised, food security has to be given top priority. For that to happen, sustainable agriculture rooted in a rights-based approach is necessary. The rights of communities to land, seeds, water, forest resources and credit - the very right to the diverse systems of sustainable and ecological models of farming - have to be reaffirmed in Johannesburg.

At the 8th session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), sustainable agriculture and rural development (SARD) was the theme for a multistakeholder dialogue followed by an inter-governmental formulation of implementation programmes. Critical issues included community rights, sound technologies (with genetically engineered crops and food emerging as one major issue of contention) and protection of traditional and indigenous knowledge. As a follow-up, reported Elswick, an SARD Working Group involving the major groups and FAO has started working on furthering the sustainable agriculture agenda. Links are also being made with the work on the Food Summit and its related programmes.

Panelist Elizabeth Bravo of Ecuador stressed that for the 21st century it is crucial to also ensure food sovereignty, in addition to food security. Ultimately, it is community control over resources and production within the right national framework that can bring about equity, ecological and social sustainability to a society.


A small side event was held during the second preparatory meeting by UNEP and the World Tourism Organisation to announce the 2002 International Year of Ecotourism (IYE). This was launched by the UN two years ago, and a conference is scheduled for later in the year in Canada. Since then this has been subject to widespread criticisms and an international campaign calling instead for 2002 to be the ‘International Year of Reviewing Ecotourism’ spearheaded by TWN, the Tourism Investigation and Monitoring Team (Thailand), Friends of the Earth Malaysia and the Consumers’ Association of Penang (Malaysia).

Chee Yoke Ling of TWN pointed out that since Rio, there have been concerted efforts to repackage tourism as ‘sustainable’, ‘community-based’ and eco-friendly. Agenda 21 did not have a chapter on tourism as this was clearly acknowledged as a sector ridden with social, cultural and environmental problems through the 1980s. The high economic leakages from tourism for most developing countries were also documented.

However, tourism as a sustainable development option took centre stage at the 7th session of the CSD, and under the Convention on Biodiversity, moves to formulate ‘sustainable tourism guidelines’ also started. NGO and community concerns include opening up of ecologically sensitive areas to commercialisation and, inevitably, destruction; biopiracy by ‘ecotourists’; conflicts over community resources; and conflicts created within a community when only a minority benefits from tourism. Most important, while there are cases of successful initiatives, the conditions are strict - from small scale to real community choices and control, and even accommodating visitors as only part of a larger cluster of development activities.

A warning was also made of the rapid liberalisation of the tourism sector under the WTO agreements on trade in services, with little or no public discussion. By putting ecotourism as a global agenda, and from the trend of the industry (from tour operators to international hotels and airlines) to regard tourism as ultimately another multi-billion-dollar industry, the UN could risk giving yet another boost of ‘greenwash’ to an unsustainable development option.