Environment & the World

Friday, February 23, 2007

Mining Tibet

Filed under: China, Development, Environmental Justice — Cathy @ 1:11 pm

Last weekend I had a conversation with a Chinese friend of mine in which we wondered what long-term impact of the new Tibetan railway (completed in 2006) would have on Tibetan lifestyle and culture. We were both concerned that the closer link between Lhasa (the capital of Tibet) and the central government would lead to increased pressure for Tibet to develop along Western lines, possibly at the expense of their environment and cultural traditions.

An article in yesterday’s Time Magazine suggests that our fears are not unfounded. The article reports on a recent announcement by the Chinese government of the discovery of large mineral deposits, including 1 billion tons of iron ore, 40 million tons of copper, and 40 million tons of lead. The findings represent a doubling of China’s copper, zinc, and lead reserves. Unfortunately, “the potential reserves, with an estimated value of $128 billion, are spread over more than 600 sites on the Tibetan plateau.” The article goes on to say that, without the Tibetan Railway, it would not be affordable to transport the minerals back east.

The Tibetan government-in-exile and environmental groups are opposed to mining, which would be very damaging to the fragile alpine environment. The Tibetan government further fears that the profits from mining would all go east with the minerals, leaving little benefit to the Tibetan people.

It appears that the Chinese government is now facing its first major test of its professed commitment to sustainable development in Tibet. In previous posts I have touched on the increasing friendship and trade between China and Africa, which sometimes comes at the expense of human rights and true development assistance. Let’s see if the Chinese government can do any better within its own country.


Friday, January 19, 2007

“Cancer Villages” in China

Filed under: China, Development, Economics, Environmental Justice — Cathy @ 10:01 am

The BBC recently ran an article about the so-called “cancer villages” in south China, the victims of China’s rapid industrialization and poor pollution controls.  The drinking and irrigation water for these villages in Guangdong Province are being polluted by mining waste upstream.  In the village of Shangba, scientists have found high levels of poisonous heavy metals in the water.  According to the article, “250 people from the village’s population of 3,000 have died of cancer since 1987, although statistics in China are often unreliable.”  In the broader picture, “some 320 million people drink polluted water every day” in China.

This is but one manifestation of the incredible gap between rich and poor in China (and in most other developing nations).  The gap in per capita income between urban and rural residents in China increased by more than a factor of 6 between 1990 and 2003, according to the UNDP (http://www.undp.org.cn/downloads/nhdr2005/06chapter2.pdf).  Living in Beijing, I might as well be in a completely different country.  Of course Beijing has its own share of serious environmental and public health problems, notably its air pollution, but these problems are much more similar (albeit more extreme) to those that would be faced in urban areas in developed nations.  With most of the external costs of China’s mining and heavy industries borne by the rural areas, it is no wonder that urbanization is occurring so rapidly in China. 

China has a long way to go to solve such problems.  Despite the Chinese government’s goal of a “harmonious society” it is failing at implementing regulations regarding mine safety and environmental controls, and it is also failing at improving energy efficiency of heavy industries.  Corruption is a serious problem in improving mine safety and pollution controls; because many local officials own stock in the coal mines, they tend to look the other way when mines try to cut costs.  The government is aware of this problem and is working to punish corrupt local officials; as of the end of 2005, it was estimated that “some 3200 of the estimated 4578 officials who had shares in coal mines(totaling some … US$80.5 million) had retracted these stakes” (http://www.worldwatch.org/node/58).  Despite this, China still faces the larger problem of having a rapidly growing economy based in large part on the inefficient use of coal.  This month it was revealed that China failed to meet its stated goal in the 11th Five Year Plan to reduce energy intensity by 4% in 2006; instead, energy intensity continued to increase.  (http://www.spiegel.de/international/0,1518,459155,00.html)    Without a more concerted effort to control pollution and regulate industry (perhaps even at the expense of economic growth!) I don’t see any possibility for the rural and urban areas to form a “harmonious society.”

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Major Dam Project Completed in India

Filed under: Development, Energy, Environmental Justice, Water — Cathy @ 12:51 pm

2007 is shaping up to be an interesting year for the tens of thousands of people who will be displaced by the recent completion of the highly controversial Sardar Sarovar dam in India.  The Sardar Sarovar is the largest of a series of 30 large dams proposed for the Narmada River, India’s fifth largest river.  The project was started in 1987 but was delayed for many years by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (“Save the Narmada”) movement and its supporters, as well as by conflicts between various Indian states over how to divide the benefits of the dam.  The NBA is a grassroots movement to defend the rights of the 320,000 people who have been or will be displaced by the project.  According to the Friends of the River Narmada (http://www.narmada.org/sardarsarovar.html), the NBA managed to convince the World Bank, which was at one time funding $450 million for dam construction, to commission an independent review of the project; the review report supported the NBA’s main concerns ultimately caused the bank to withdraw its support. 

The Indian government claims that the dam will irrigate 1.8 million hectares of farmland, provide drinking water for 20 million people, and generate 1,450 MW of peak power (http://www.dailyindia.com/show/99695.php/Controversial-Sardar-Sarovar-Dam-against-tribal-interests:-Medha-Patkar).   Whether or not these benefits will actually be realized is also highly controversial, but there is certainly no denying that the states that would benefit from irrigation and drinking water from the dam are extremely dry and in need of additional water supplies.  Even so, it does not follow that a mega-dam is the best way to meet those needs.  Rainwater harvesting, including bringing back traditional rural methods of rainwater catchment, has proven to work well in these drought-prone areas, providing enough water to meet rural needs without drawing down the water table. (http://www.goodnewsindia.com/Pages/content/conservation/drought.htm).

As of the beginning of 2006, the dam had already been constructed to a height of 111 meters; Dec 31, 2006 marked the completion of the project, at a final height of 122 meters.  This additional 11 meter height increase is estimated to displace 35,000 families, according to the United Nations (http://www.narmada.org/misc/unhcr.html).   In 2000, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that further height increases would not be allowed until the government had proved that previously displaced people had been compensated.  However, according to the UN, this has not occurred; many of the people who were previously displaced, largely indigenous people and farmers, have yet to receive adequate rehabilitation and arable land.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Reading Group: Natural Capitalism, Ch. 1

In this first chapter, “The Next Industrial Revolution,” Hawken and the two Lovinses (H&L) give us a brief history and description of capitalism, point out its shortcomings, and from there sketch out their outline for a new industrial revolution to correct the situation.

Their description of capitalism and the problems that arise from it seem on the mark. In fact, much of it echoes the concerns we’ve already voiced in our threads about environmentalism and economics. Essentially, H&L argue that natural capital (meaning the resources and living systems that make life possible) is on the decline, and that the problem with the current capitalist paradigm is that it fails to value natural and human capital. Moreover, they outline several reasons why simply assigning a monetary value to natural and human capital is neither straightforward nor enough of a corrective measure. H&L hit a high note when they point out that the fallacy in contemporary and past economic theory assumes “that natural and human capital have little value compared to final output.” This assumption worked when labor was scarce and natural capital was abundant. They argue, however, that we now face the opposite scenario in which labor is abundant and natural capital is on the decline–we therefore need a new type of economic theory to effectively address these changing conditions.

H&L’s “natural capitalism” attempts to be just that. They propose a natural capitalism based on four main strategies: resource productivity, biomimicry, service and flow, and investing in natural capital. While these four categories bubble with exciting ideas, many of them come from the stock of ideas that have been floating around in the environmental movement for quite some time (or are they the originators of some?). Their main points are that the current industrial model is quite wasteful: according to H&L only 6% of material flows in the U.S. economy end up in final products (p. 14). Their solution, then? To increase our efficiency, to improve productivity, to waste fewer resources, to remove “vestigial subsidies” that promote inefficient processes, and to correct “deliberate distortions in the marketplace” that favor extracting virgin materials over recycling.

H&L also envision a new business model in which companies retain ownership of their products and instead of selling them, lease them to customers. Because companies would own their products, and therefore be responsible for repairs and disposal, H&L hope that this would inspire a new kind of corporate benevolence. They believe that it would then be in the company’s best interest to reduce the toxicity and improve the recyclability of their products. Furthermore, H&L argue that this would encourage companies to develop more efficient processes which also would create more jobs. (more…)

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Environmental Justice on Navajo Reservation

Filed under: Energy, Environmental Justice, Waste — Cathy @ 12:41 am

I wanted to give some publicity here to a struggle that some Navajo Indians are waging to protect their community from a coal power plant to be built on their reservation.  The Desert Rock power plant would be constructed in the sacred region of Dinetah (in New Mexico), a region which already has 2 power plants and where the air is so dirty that people with asthma and other respiratory illnesses have difficulty breathing.  Moreover, the electricity from power plants on Navajo land primarily supplies non-Indians, so that many Navajos in the region still live without electricity, according to http://www.unobserver.com/layout5.php?id=2951&blz=1.

Last week, local residents started a blockade after learning that water drilling had been started without notifying the local residents. They are refusing to move until they get documents that would prove that the company has complied with Clean Water Act requirements.  In what appears to be an attempt to intimidate the protestors, the sheepdog of an 80-year-old elder protestor was brutally killed, according to http://www.gallupindependent.com/2006/dec/121606lw_dogskinnedalive.html.

It’s too easy to think that the historical injustices that European settlers perpetrated against native populations in the United States were just that – historical.  This incident is a good reminder that we still have a long way to go to make amends for past and current wrongs.  Moreover, this is not an isolated incident.  In Arizona, Native Americans are trying to halt expansion of a hazardous waste site on their land; the Navajo Nation is fighting in federal
court to protect a sacred mountain from a proposed ski resort; etc. More info and suggested opportunities for action on this issue can be found at the Indigenous Environmental Network’s website:

Saturday, December 2, 2006

China’s “development aid” to Africa

Filed under: China, Development, Environmental Justice — Cathy @ 5:26 pm

I want to follow up on my earlier post discussing China’s increasing involvement in Africa’s extractive industries.  At November’s China-Africa summit, Chinese Prime Minister Hu Jinbao made a number of promises for increasing aid to Africa, including doubling China’s aid money to Africa by 2009, giving debt relief to impoverished nations with diplomatic relations with China, and setting up a US$5 billion fund to encourage Chinese companies to invest in Africa (http://english.people.com.cn/200611/04/eng20061104_318372.html).

However, this does not guarantee that any of the problems I discussed in my previous post regarding the environmental and human rights violations from extractive industries will be resolved.  Many African newspapers are less than enthusiastic about China’s increasing role in their continent, citing concerns over human rights abuses and a lack of commitment on the part of Chinese companies to sustainable development.  A recent article discussing China’s business dealings in Zambia is a case in point.  As part of the new aid package for China, Zambia would receive debt relief and would be the site of a new economic zone for China.  However,

“locals have become less enthusiastic about China’s embrace, largely because of poor labor practices … Ministry of Labour and Social Security permanent secretary, Ngosa Chisupa, said ‘about 80 percent of foreign investors in Zambia do not remit anything to the pensions board for employees, they don’t give employees any benefits upon termination, and the employees are made to work without any signed contracts on the conditions of service.’” 

Last year, 51 Zambian miners were killed in an explosion at China’s biggest mine in Zambia.  Foreign investors can get away with ignoring Zambia’s labor laws thanks to corruption on the part of Zambian government officials. 

So, despite the promises of increased aid money to Africa, there is no guarantee that Chinese corporations will start acting more responsibly.  And, given China’s own lax labor standards, it seems unlikely that the Chinese government will exert any serious influence on its companies’ business dealings in Africa.  It seems clear that the only way around this impasse is the development of international laws government multinational corporations; a report by the UK charity Christian Aid (http://www.christian-aid.org.uk/indepth/0401csr/index.htm) argues quite powerfully for such international laws requiring corporate social and environmental responsibility.  As the report says “when a company’s primary legal obligation is to make profit for its shareholders, its human rights and environmental responsibilities must also be legally binding.”  Because so many multinational corporations have separate branches operating in different countries to limit their liabilities, it is difficult for national laws to be applied.  The report argues that the EU and international financial institutions like the World Bank should play a large role in developing and implementing such regulations; certainly, a commitment by the World Bank to only finance projects run by companies satisfying social responsibility criteria would go a long way towards solving this problem.  Of course, given the Bank’s historical lack of interest in environmental concerns, this would basically be a revolution in the Bank’s lending practices.  It seems to me that the pressure to develop and enforce such international laws would have to come from outside.   In short, it is likely going to be up to concerned citizens and NGOs in the developed world to make sure that the investments that China and other countries make in African development will truly contribute to improved living conditions in the region.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Indonesian Mud Volcano Update

Filed under: Environmental Justice, Geology, Natural Disasters — Cathy @ 9:11 pm

In a previous post, I discussed the mud volcano in Indonesia that has been spewing hot mud in East Java since May.  About 12,000 people have been forced to flee their homes as the mud has flowed over the landscape, destroying villages and croplands.  As if that weren’t enough, just this week another tragedy unfolded as a result of the mud volcano.  Because of the outpouring of mud from underground, land surrounding the volcano has sunk by about 5 meters; this week, the pressure from this land subsidence cracked a natural gas pipeline, causing a serious explosion, according to an article in the Hong Kong Standard.  “The blast shot flames 500 meters into the night sky and burst a dyke built to contain hot mud that has inundated East Java’s Sidoarjo district, sweeping away vehicles and forcing the closure of a nearby highway”  The explosion killed at least 8 people and dozens more are missing or injured.  According to an Australian radio program, other companies with pipelines in the region have shut down their production to avoid similar disasters (http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2006/s1796100.htm).

There is still no end in site from the mud volcano.  According to Nur Hidayati from Greenpeace Indonesia, “The area that has been covered by the mud is around 400 hectares … it is predicted that already six million cubic meters of mud has already gone out … the volume of the mud is now reaching 150,000 cubic meters per day, with a temperature of 100 degrees Celsius.”  In my previous post last month, I reported a rate of 125,000 cubic meters a day.  Recent articles contain little speculation about the original cause of the mud volcano, although the likely culprit (as I said in previous post) is an oil and gas exploration company, Lapindo Brantas, that may have engaged in unsafe practices that triggered the mud eruption.  Workers are trying hard to build dykes to contain the mud, to pump some of it into the ocean, and to try to cap the flow of mud, but it is by no means clear whether such efforts will be successful.

Lapindo Brantas agreed to pay for all damages resulting from the mud volcano, which now include the costs of human life.  However, according to an article in Al-Jazeera, it appears that the company is so far not living up to its promises.  People who have been forced to resettle as a result of the mud volcano claim that the money paid to them by the company has been insufficient to compensate for their loss of home and livelihood.   Ironically, according to the Al-Jazeera article, “Lapindo Brantas [is] a subsidiary of PT Energi Mega Persada (EMP), Indonesia’s second largest publicly listed energy company. EMP is controlled by the family of a senior cabinet minister, Aburizal Bakrie. He is minister of people’s welfare.”

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

China’s Takeover of Africa

Filed under: China, Development, Environmental Justice — Cathy @ 2:17 pm

One thing that is sometimes overlooked when people (like Bono) talk about ending poverty in Africa is the huge role that multinational corporations play in extractive industries in Africa.  And more and more of those raw materials are now going straight to China.  According to a recent article, Angola is now China’s largest single oil provider.  China also gets ore and platinum from South Africa, copper and cobalt from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia, and timber from Cameroon and Congo Brazzaville.  The article states, “from a US$3 billion mark in 1995, trade between China and Africa last year stood at US$32 billion. Projections are that the figures will hit US$50 billion by the end of this year and will triple by 2015, the UN’s target year to halve poverty worldwide.”

The key question is: how will this rapidly growing trade impact the UN’s poverty alleviation goals? Certainly extractive industries in Africa do not have a good track record.  One need only look at the Niger Delta as a case in point. After about 40 years and more than $350 billion dollars worth of oil development, the people of the Delta are poorer than they were before.  The money has chiefly gone to the multinational corporations and to prop up a corrupt government, perpetuating a host of human rights abuses, including the murder of human rights and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995. (see, eg, http://www.remembersarowiwa.com/delta.htm)

Is there any way to improve this situation?  Certainly it appears that the extractive industries are not going to leave Africa any time soon, if the above projections regarding China are even remotely accurate.  But large infrastructure or resource extraction projects are inherently not conducive to poverty alleviation.  For starters, the scale of the solutions to poverty issues are often orders of magnitude smaller than the scale of investment and profits from resource extraction.  Successful micro-credit poverty alleviation programs like the Grameen Bank (winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize) are based on the idea of distributing small amounts of money to large numbers of people and allowing them to develop their own small businesses; large resource extraction projects, which typically give a large amount of money to a very few people, are almost diametrically opposite to this idea. 

There is no easy solution to this problem.  Multi-national corporations in principle could insist on fair compensation for people displaced by their projects and make a sustained commitment to micro-credit and other small-scale projects.  But they have no incentive to do so.  I think it will ultimately depend on the activists in developed nations demanding that multi-national corporations make a serious commitment to appropriate technology development in Africa – instead of the usual model of throwing money at large dams and road projects, all the while propping up corrupt governments, and calling it development.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Indonesian Mud Volcano

Filed under: Environmental Justice, Geology, Natural Disasters — Cathy @ 12:16 pm

I’m taking a break from my China updates today because I ran across a really fascinating article in Der Spiegel this weekend: “Eruptions Displace Thousands in Indonesia”.  This is not, as I had initially expected from the headline, about a volcanic eruption.  Rather the article describes a mud volcano which formed back in May of this year and has been spewing hot mud ever since at an unbelievable rate – it started at 5,000 cubic meters a day and is now up to 125,000 cubic meters a day (“enough to transform a soccer field into a pool of mud 17 meters deep”).  The volcano has already grown to be almost 50 feet tall.

“So far the mud has claimed 20 factories, 15 mosques, a cemetery and 18 schools. It has closed a section of the main road to Bali and is only a few meters away from flooding an important rail line. Authorities have already declared eight villages partly or completely uninhabitable. More than 12,000 people have been evacuated. But this is only the beginning.”

This is an unusually dramatic illustration of the environmental and human rights disasters that all-too-often occur when multinational companies are given rights to extract resources in developing countries.  Although it hasn’t been conclusively proven, many people are laying the blame for the mud volcano on Lapindo Brantas, an oil and gas exploration company.  The company constructed a drilling rig only 500 meters from a residential area and then proceeded to drill down to almost 9,500 feet.  It seems that this may have released the pressure in a huge underground pool of mud, forcing it up through the surface to form the world’s largest mud volcano.  Some experts accuse Lapindo of failing to use standard industry safety equipment.  Under pressure from the Indonesian government, Lapindo has accepted responsibility and agreed to pay all damages, estimated at more than $250 million.

 Once again, I am also surprised by the failure of U.S. media, even environmental media, to pick up on this. 

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Toxic Waste Shipment Pollutes Ivory Coast

Filed under: Environmental Justice, Politics, Waste — amirj @ 8:25 pm

Slate has a great article by Jeremy Kahn about the politics of international toxic waste transport in light of a recent shipment of toxic waste that was improperly dumped in the Ivory Coast and resulted in the hospitalization of tens of thousands of locals.

“On Aug. 19, a Panamanian-flagged ship owned by a Greek firm and chartered by a leading Dutch commodities broker docked in Abidjan, the country’s commercial capital. The ship unloaded between 400 tons and 600 tons of toxic petrochemical waste, which was summarily dumped in open-air sites around the city and poured into the sewer system.”

Kahn points out that this incident is merely one example of a broader scheme in which developed countries export their toxic waste to developing nations. While the export is often conducted under the condition that the developing nations will treat this waste, or properly recycle it, the waste often goes untreated. As a result, many citizens of developing nations literally become sick just by drinking water or breathing air that is polluted by trash from economically developed nations. Kahn discusses the Basel Convention–an international “treaty governing the shipment of hazardous waste,” and the role of the U.S.A. in this international waste trading regime. Kahn rightly laments the fact that despite the gravity of events like the one that just occured on the Ivory Coast, Western media mostly fails to report on these issues. Not that this blog is a significant media source, but here’s our little contribution to spreading the word.  

9/26/06 Update: This story is starting to gain some international attention. Eight people have died in the Ivory Coast as a likely result of exposure to the toxic waste, and things are starting to heat up. From the International Herald Tribune:

“Hospitals in Abidjan have provided free consultations to 80,000 people, many of them complaining of nausea, headaches and breathing difficulties caused by the fumes… [The Dutch Company that commissioned the shipment] Trafigura’s director Claude Dauphin and another executive were jailed in Ivory Coast last week and charged with poisoning and breaking toxic waste laws after they went to the country to distribute medicines and assist authorities with an investigation.”

Greenpeace has blockaded the ship, which is now docking in Estonia, that dumped the toxic chemicals in the Ivory Coast. From Greenpeace News:

“At 17.00 local time, the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise moved slowly towards the poison ship. Bearing a banner warning that “Toxic Trade Kills” the Arctic Sunrise dropped anchor at 18.00 local time, some 100 metres away, effectively barring the ship from leaving port. Our demands: Estonia should impound the ship. The European Commission, acting for the European Union, should ensure that the ship is held until a full criminal investigation is carried out and those responsible for the illegal waste export, and ensuing deaths, are brought to justice. … The fact that the toxic waste was dumped openly on the streets of a city is shocking enough. The fact that the waste was delivered by a ship chartered by Trafigura LTD (controlled by Dutch firm Trafigura Beheer BV), who claimed they thought the waste would be ‘properly treated’ in a poor African nation raises serious questions about why they sent it to Africa.”

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