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Environmentalism of the poor

by Sunita Narain
A participant in an Adivasi demonstration against rural land  deals in Mumbai in July

A participant in an Adivasi demonstration against rural land deals in Mumbai in July

For many disadvantaged communities in developing countries, ecological issues are not a matter of luxury, but a matter of survival. In India, protests and social movements are expressing these worries. By Sunita Narain

All over India today, protests are staged against infrastructure projects and what is generally considered “development”. I’ll give you a few examples:
– In the past four years, there have been repeated clashes between farmers and the police on the outskirts of Noida, a suburb of Delhi. The farmers oppose plans for a highway and for urban development because they will not be adequately compensated for their losses. Landless farmhands, for instance, do not get any compensation even though their livelihoods are destroyed.
– At the site of a coal power plant in the Indian State of Andhra Pradesh last year, the police fired at some 10,000 protesters, killing two. The people there oppose the power plant because it will take over the water bodies they depend on.
– It would be a bit far fetched to call the Naxalite insurgency in central Indian forest regions an environmental conflict. But it does have a strong environmental dimension since the Maoist militias mostly rely on taking advantage of rural people and forest dwellers whose traditional livelihoods are under threat by what state governments and the national government plan and allow in the name of development: mining and other changes of land use.

Today, protests are happening in many places. In fact, it would be correct to say that practically all infrastructure projects and new industrial schemes are under attack from communities who fear loss of livelihoods. These communities are at the forefront of India’s environmental movement. They are its most determined activists.

For them, the environment is not a matter of luxury; it is a matter of survival. The issue is not fixing the problems of growth, but fixing growth itself. They know that when the land is mined and trees are cut, their water sources dry up or they lose grazing and farm land. They know they are poor. And they are saying, loudly and as clearly as they can, that what ­others call development will only make them poorer. It is an open challenge to the development paradigm that we know today.

This is what I call environmentalism of the poor. The truth is that development projects are using local resources – minerals, water, land. But they do not provide employment to compensate for the losses suffered by the people displaced. Misconceived “progress” is destroying more livelihoods than it creates. Therefore, India is resonating with cries of people who are fighting development itself.

Where do we go from here? I believe we must listen to the protesting voices, not dismiss or stifle them in the name of anti-growth dissent or Naxalism. This can be done by strengthening the processes of democracy that ensure people have a say in development.

For instance, the Forest Rights Act demands that the village assemblies in tribal areas must give their written consent to a project before it is cleared. Public hearings held during the environmental impact assessment are meant to provide the platform for people to voice their concerns. In most cases, however, the authorities rig and undermine these processes. Public hearings and even video recordings of the events are faked. In most cases one will find that the concerns people raise are brushed aside as projects are rammed through in the name of industrial development. This must stop.

A million green mutinies

In other words, the million green mutinies India is witnessing today are testing our democracy. It is evident that the need for new and vital industrial and infrastructure projects will have to be balanced with the growing dissent against it. I believe we will learn that we cannot build against the will of our people.

In the rich nations, some – not all – people practice a different environmental ethic. They find solutions within the current economic growth model – buy organic food and fair-trade clothes, drive hybrid cars and install solar panels on their roofs. The Indian middle-class is following this model. No doubt, all mean well. But what they are doing is but a drop in the ocean.

The challenges humankind faces are much more daunting than just choosing less destructive modes of consumption. In fact, the environmental movements of the poor teach us that techno-fix solutions, of cleaning up pollution even as we continue to emit more, are not good enough.

The rich world has failed to reduce its greenhouse emissions in spite of all its investments in efficiency. Yes, cars have become more fuel efficient, but people just drive longer and have more cars. Emissions continue to grow.
Growth within limits

The rich world needs to find ways to reinvent growth without fossil fuels and to grow within limits. The rich nations have stuck to their destructive economic model for decades even though it has long been evident that neither can they go on like this forever, nor can the whole world follow their example. And because the rich nations did not change their way of life sufficiently, multilateral policymaking has utterly failed to stop climate change. For practical purposes, the UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol remain worthless, and the impact of climate change is most painful for the poor in developing nations.

It is obvious that our planet cannot sustain the current energy-intensive growth models. Earth’s resources are limited, and the risks that go along with energy production are enormous. It is imperative that humanity find new ways to use less energy, different energy and to produce more energy, all at the same time. Drastic reductions are urgently needed, but no government is prepared even to talk about limiting consumption.

We know that efficiency is part of the answer, but it is meaningless without sufficiency. The priority cannot be to fulfil the greed of the most powerful, it must be to fulfil the basic needs of the most needy. The rich nations are still not prepared to accept the writing on the wall: there are limits to growth, unless we can grow differently.

In India, it will be the sweetest fruit of democracy if it can provide us the opportunity to reinvent the way we develop. The fact is that growth, from now on, requires doing much more with much less. Frugality and innovation will have to be our way to growth. Our challenge is to provide the gains of development to vast numbers of people. This requires inventing growth that is both affordable and sustainable.

The only driver for change is democracy and more democracy. It is only when the most powerful nations in the world will accept the limits on their growth that the world will choose that new pathway to progress. It can be done. It must be done.

The question is if the vast numbers of urban and middle-class people in India and the world will learn this lesson quickly. We cannot afford this environmentalism of costly solutions that wants to put band-aids on what is so badly broken. We must understand that our future lies in being part of the environmentalism of the poor, as this movement will force us to seek new answers to old problems.