Environmental Security


Homes effected by the flooding that began last month in North East Brazil. Photo courtesy ofhttp://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_pictures/8046955.stm

Homes affected by the flooding that began last month in North East Brazil. Photo courtesy ofhttp://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_pictures/8046955.stm

 

Earlier this month North East Brazil experienced a series of extreme flooding events which have displaced thousands of people. In the last few decades remote cities like Salvador, in Northern Brazil, have felt the effects of climate change with increased intensity and frequency of flooding. This latest episode has taken a heavy toll. Thousands of people have been made homeless by days of heavy rainfall and there has been a heavy death toll due to collapsed houses, fallen trees and landslides. During this flooding event new media platforms, such as Twitter and the blogosphere, took centre stage as information disseminators for flood victims as well as keeping the rest of the world up to date. This example feeds into current theories that have stipulated the importance of new media during environmental hazards and other tragedies. New media, due to its immediacy and user generated contact, is quickly taking over from many mainstream media platforms in times of crisis.

Climate change in Brazil…

Firstly, lets put climate change in Brazil into context. Some critics argue that Brazil is just not properly prepared to deal with the impacts of climate change and does not have an efficient national climate change policy. In many areas of rural Brazil climate change is taking its toll. For some, whom it has rendered landless and homeless, the impacts are even worse than the current economic crisis. Whilst in urban areas shoddy buildings and inadequate planning regulations mean that flooding effects penetrate infrastructure and can destroy whole towns in one go.

This comes after new research has revealed that fiercer storm surges and extreme weather conditions brought on by climate change will claim the most land in Latin America than in any other continent. See here for the full report. Economists at the World Bank’s, who carried out the research say worsening weather threatens 52 million people and more than 29,000 square kilometers of agricultural land, across the globe. Mexico and Brazil, with larger coastal zones than other countries in the region, are predicted to suffer from the most severe coastal inundation.

Despite these ongoing threats from nature and repeated warnings, the media affords climate change little coverage.

Widespread flooding began in North East Brazil in April and has displaced thousands of people. It is thought this due to the increased impact of climate change in Brazil. Photo courtesy of http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_pictures/8046955.stm

Widespread flooding began in North East Brazil in April and has displaced thousands of people. It is thought this due to the increased impact of climate change in Brazil. Photo courtesy of http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_pictures/8046955.stm

Brazilian bloggers…

Brazilian blogs have played an integral role in covering of the flooding and getting information out to the wider population where it would other wise by impossible. Facebook, Twitter, You tube and the blogosphere have played a key role in disseminating information on the number of victims and how to assist those who needed help. Liberdade Digital (Digital Freedom) called for more help from social network users to spread information about the situation and ask them to help flood victims: “If you have a blog, a website, a mailing list or if you are a member of a social network, do pass this information on.” Whilst one local journalist took interactivity to a new level. Sarita Bastos published a map on Google Maps showing the most badly effected areas. Others internet users then updated the map with their own local information. The end product has been a community resource that has aided the local population with recovery from flooding.

The power of the Twitteratti…

In Salvador, Twitter took centre stage by giving detailed accounts of what was happening in the city day by day and at a mush faster rate than other media platforms. This contrasts greatly with the role played by mainstream media and especially commercial television who gave only brief and superficial news reports and whose news agenda was dictated by scheduling and advertising. Cottle and Nolan (2007) argue that this is the very nature of mainstream media; ‘the media spotlight is apt to roam from one disaster to another and does so in a competitive environment informed by the pursuit of readers, ratings and revenue.’

Mainstream media are only interested as long as it makes exciting news. This emphasises the importance of the role played social networking sites in news dissemination and cyber-activism. They are bottom up and participatory platform allowing everyday people, affected by these issues, to control the news agenda.

One blogger comments that: “there’s no doubt that the coverage via Twitter was the best about the tragedy in the city of Salvador.”

André Lemos, Communications professor at the Federal University of Bahia, reported the experience as an “alternative media show” and as a “sample of how mass media is losing influence” in his blog:

 “I went to look for some news on local online newspapers but I didn’t find anything very… informative. I gave up on it and came back to Twitter, much more deep, fast and detailed.’

One last point…

There was a clear lack of interest in this event from the rest of the country. Here in the West, if it wasn’t for the internet, and blogs especially, we would never have heard about these problems. This is again due to the differing controls and agendas of mainstream and alternative media platforms. Cottle and Nolan (2007) effectively sum up the fact that geopolitical issues dictate news agendas. Disaster reporting is all about focusing on ‘home connections’ and regionalising stories. If there is no cultural connection with an event then it goes unreported. People are left to fend for themselves and often lack the support needed for recovery from natural disasters. This is what has happened here in North East Brazil .The rest of the country and continent just aren’t interested as it does not affect them and for many climate change is old news and dull. Beck (1999)  has argued that climate change reporting focuses upon dramatic impacts at the expense of useful information and such ignorance increases the environmental risks. This perhaps reiterates the importance of new media platforms and user generated content in the future for environmental and disaster reporting.

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Torres Del Paine, Chile, 2007

 

Purchasing your own ecosystem seems to be the latest trend to hit South America. From Chilean billionaires to Goldman Sachs…it would seem big businesses and entrepreneurs want a slice of South America’s environmental heritage. It’s all in the name of conservation (so they say).Millions of hectares worldwide are being bought by business leaders and placed in private charities, conservation trusts or handed over to governments as a bid to conserve and protect fragile environments. Has the corporate world suddenly woken up to the tired rhetoric of social and environmental responsibility? Or is this just another PR stunt to soothe their battered reputations during a worsening global financial crisis?

 

So here are some of the facts…

Sebastian Pinera is one of the richest men in Chile and is more attuned to managing real estate and aviation companies that the environment. Pinera bought Parque Tantauco on Chiloe Island, near Patagonia two years ago. He’s the proud owner of 120,000 hectares of inland virgin forests and a delicate ecosystem which supports offshore blue whales. He says his sole aim is to protect the area. Whilst Goldman Sachs acquired 270,000 hectares of alpine forest in Southern Chile and Argentina back in 2003. Laurence Linden, the then bank director, said: “Goldman Sachs is an investment bank, so we know what to do with shopping malls and apartment complexes. But an ecosystem down in Tierra del Fuego? We had to get out an atlas.” But even they recognized the environmental value of this land. The land is one of the last remaining pieces of a fragile alpine and coastal beech in South America and home to the guanaco, a llama-like animal and native lenga tree which takes 200 years to grow just 20 metres. Industrial forestry projects, overgrazing, oil spills and over-fishing have already taken their toll on this fragile eco-system. The bank have also vowed to protect the fragile eco-system.

First let me set the scene. Patagonia, is a region straddling Southern Chile and Argentina, and the most southern tip of the world before you hit Antartica. It has an abundance of rare flora and fauna, a population of endemic species from Magellenic Penguins to the elusive orca, and is framed by ‘crystal green lakes, volcanoes, untamed mountain ranges and magnificent glaciers that follow the Andes coastline’. Despite this obvious environmental value, only 5% of the area is protected as a national park and environmental threats are rising with increasing numbers of tourists and mineral miners flocking to the region. So basically it’s all about stewardship – should we (I) really be so cynical about who is in control of preserving this landscape? Surely the most important thing is that the West (American big business) is interested in conserving it and who really cares what their real motives might be.

 

The Moreno Glacier, Patagonia, Argentina - The world's last advancing glacier

The Moreno Glacier, Patagonia, Argentina - The world's last advancing glacier

Pinera, now an eco baron and a billionaire businessmen, has apparently been won over by the deep ecology movement. A philosophy that calls for a radical re-evaluation of man’s relationship with the planet. This theory stipulates that ‘we cannot go on with industrialism’s “business as usual.” Without changes in basic values and practices, we will destroy the diversity and beauty of the world, and its ability to support diverse human cultures. This radical environmental movement advocates redesigning our whole way of life to focus on values and methods that preserve the ecological and cultural diversity of natural systems. Basically putting nature first. The movement has focused much of its work in Patagonia, picking it out as an area at risk from the monoculture of the industrial and modernist development model. I find it ironic and a little bit ridiculous that this billionaire has treated himself to an ecosystem in the name of deep ecology. Has he actually read any of their literature? When he eventually gets round to it…he might finally realise that his whole ‘corporate’ way of life conflicts with the basic environmentalist discourse that emerged after the publication of Rachel Carson’s highly influential book Silent Spring.

I am not saying that it is a bad thing that the corporate world and America’s business men are taking an interest in environmentalism. It should be celebrated that these kind of issues are being put on the international agenda. What I am saying is that it should be for the right reasons. My worry is that some may be buying land to improve their public image and as a kind of status symbol, whilst others may have considerably darker motives. Patagonia is resource rich as highlighted by recent mineral mining ventures and proposed hydro-electric dams. Chile and Argentina are newly emerging economies on the global stage. The West want their slice of all these things, not just a pretty little ecosystem.

One last fact…

Prices are soaring in Patagonia. When American conservationists bought 70,000 hectares several years ago, they paid about $10 million. Today 9000 hectares will set you back $12 million.

 Is this all about making money and exerting control?

As well as great human suffering in Potosi, and Bolivia as a whole, the environment has paid a heavy price for centuries of mining. Potosi is now one of the most polluted places on earth! The water, the air, the landscape…things that we in the West take for granted as a fundamental human right…are toxic here.

The water is choked with lead, cadmium and arsenic that have leaked out of the mines. Running water is tinted grey. The pollutants have inevitably entered the watershed causing health problems for the wider community and the presence of heavy metals in crops downstream. This resulted in considerable damage to the region’s agriculture. This is because there is no effective mine-drainage treatment system and environmental-law enforcement has been cavalierly disregarded for decades. All eyes are on the profits.

Silica dust in the air causes blackened lungs and silicosis. Few miners live longer than 20 years after starting work in the mountain. Health care, just like environmental law, is nonexistent here.

The mountain looks devastated like its people. The surrounding landscape is still dominated by the imposing shape of Cerro Rico as well as a strange yellow and orange tint. That is the colour of toxicity. There are heaps of slag and shavings dumped all over the hillsides have created toxic mounds of contaminants hundreds of feet high. The holes of dozens of air shafts and the entrances to the mines pockmark the mountain face whilst the scars of deforestation and the resulting landslides are everywhere.

Money and economics are the only things that seem to matter here.

Until investment is put into the local community and the environment both will inevitably deteriorate further. The government has vowed to implement remedial action to combat these  problems. These are empty promises. Nations throughout Latin America have been left with ravaged landscapes, polluted crops and extensive health problems because of a long history of irresponsible mining practices.

This brings me back to our basic rights as human beings. Surely clean water and clean air for these impoverished miners is the least we can do? Basic rights not commodities!

Since Cochabamba’s water war, the issue of water and access to it has gained attention on the international stage. Bolivia forced water privatisation as well as water scarcity onto the international agenda. Fortune magazine declared that water is the oil of the 21st century whilst Barnett (2001) anaylses the implications of these environmental securty threats. For many authors water scarcity is the proverbial spark that starts the metaphorical Middle East bonfire. In a region which is extremely arid, with existing ideological, religious and geographical disputes, combined with water scarcity, the result is one of the most volatile situations in the world. This begs the question – Is water a basic human right to be provided by governments through the public sector or is it a commodity to be sold by big business?

Whatever your view it is clear that water is set to be a major source of conflict across the globe. The environmental literature is replete with dire predictions of water wars. The water wars thesis is simple; water is distributed unevenly and, as population grows and the climate changes, it is increasingly in demand and will cause violent conflict. The potential for violence is extremely high as like most things, whoever control water wields the power. Bolivia has faced a series of crises over water and it is somewhat depressing to acknowledge that in the aftermath of the 2000 Cochabamba water wars, thousands still do not have access to clean water. The debate rages on…is water a commodity or basic human right? I think morally we all know the answer to that one.

So is conflict inevitable and perhaps exacerbated by the effects of climate change?

Barnett (2001) argues that the environment-conflict thesis is a product of the Northern security agenda premised upon geo-political issues. It is often only concerned with resources of economic value rather than the reality of environmental degradation and the welfare of those in the developing world. In other words the north constructs an eco-centric outlook of two worlds to suit its own agenda. The south plays the psrt of the primeval Other who needs the north to maintain order. Bascially the West just simply aren’t interested in the plight of Bolivia because it has no resources that they need.

However there is no escaping from the fact that in many area resource wars are a reality whether their seriousness is exaggerated by the West or not. Homer-Dixon (1991) contends that the geopolitics of environmental problems, their transboundary nature and the geographical misfit between resources and national boundaries,  means that sometime soon the North need to sit up and take notice. Many countries throughout Latin America are teetering on the edge of environmental conflict.

Water activists in Cochabamba 2000 - photo courtesy of http://www.xs4all.nl/~arenaria/water/Cochabamba%20pictures.html

Water activists in Cochabamba 2000 - photo courtesy of http://www.xs4all.nl/~arenaria/water/Cochabamba%20pictures.html

Resource wars and environmental conflict continue to ravage Latin America and Bolivia in particular. New social movements have emerged in Bolivia over access to basic elements of survival like water, gas, land and coca.  (See Olivera 2006) There have been numerous classes between corporate enterprises and indigenous communities for decades over resources. Benjamin Dangl (2007) in “The Price of Fire” examines Bolivia’s long on-going struggle against neo-liberal policies in more great detail.

The most famous ‘resource war’ is perhaps the Cochambamba Water Wars in 2000. This brought international attention to the country from anti-globalisation groups. The people of Cochabamba rose up when the multinational water company Betchel bought their communal and public water systems and hiked up prices far above peoples’ means. These increases forced some of the poorest families in South America to literally choose between food or water.

 Activists lead what was supposed to be a peaceful protest to remind the government that the people were still watching. The consequence was that Cochabamba turned into a war zone for two days as the government deployed the armed to silence it’s critics.  Images from illustrate the sheer power of the people. After a bloody stand off Betchel was eventually forced out, repealed the privatization contract and water was taken back under public control. See here for an interesting blog on the uprising.
It is an example of the failure of the nationalisation of a basic resource at its worst. The defeat of the America corporate giant is widely celebrated as the first victory against globalization in Latin America.
These water wars, like the Zapatista uprising, are a powerful example of a wave of grassroots mobilisation which sprung from the regions move towards democratisation in the 1980s and 1990s. See Murphyand Rodriguez 2006 for more background. Other social movements and groups against water privatisation emerged in the wake of the water war as new media spread the images and words of hope across the globe. A contract with the French company Vivendi was termininated in Argentina because the businesses performance wasn’t up to scratch. In Ecuador CONAIE set up its own water reform proposal focusing on community ownership. It’s an example of what’s possible through popular protest and media coverage. These kind of indigenous struggles are rarely covered by English based media. The water wars were perhaps an exception as they were pitted against an American construction giant. This water war inspired activists globally to resist corporate exploitation.
The privatization of water is a trend and a concern all over the world. Why was Cochabamba different? Why did Cochabambinos resist? Why did they win? The answer is simple. This wasn’t just a revolt against water it was a rising up against decades of dictatorship and corruption. The water wars were a clear rejection of neo-liberal economic policies and showed that the western market model did not belong in Bolivia.  People knew that if they lost control of their water they lost control of their lives. And they used the internet to get their message out to the world.
The official outlet from Bolivia to the world was reporting from the Associated Press (AP). Stories were written from La Paz and regurgitated the government line. The only international reporting directly from the scene was from Jim Shultz, executive director of The Democracy Center who calls Cochabamba home. He sent out 2,000 daily emails to press outlets and activist organizations recounting the revolt as he witnessed it with his own eyes. News spread rapidly across the globe and activists across the globe rallied in support. Activists as far a field of New Zealand took part in anti-Bechtel and anti-Banzer signs.
These under-represented and marginalised communities used new social and cultural spaces, opened up by globalisation, to get their issues heard. The democratic flow of information has been revolutionalised by new technologies likes the internet. (See Baraldi 2006) The water revolt drew broad international media attention as images from the uprising were beamed into screens and television sets across the planet. It went from being a local struggle to an international symbol of hope because of one man’s emails.
It’s eight years since the Bolivian water wars. Now water justice activists contend that poverty and political powerlessness are the main barriers blocking the access of the poor to water services. These problems are likely to persist whether the water company is publicly or privately owned. See here for an for an analysis on the lasting impact of the water wars.

Protesters against metal mining outside Quito - photo courtesy of google images
Protesters against metal mining outside Quito – photo courtesy of google images

Environmental concerns have become increasingly important within global security discourse in recent decades. (Spoor 2000 sums this up in an accessible way.) The 1970’s saw the emergence of the doomsday syndrome and controversial debates over the global crisis of environmental degradation. Rachel Carsen’s 1962 Silent Spring is a must read covering thje development of early environmentalism. The oil crises of 1970’s and the realisation that resource scarcity poses a serious conflict threat, coupled with the end of the cold war, raised environmental awareness on a global scale and initiated international concern about the political implications of environmental pressures.

There is a lively debate surrounding the environmental-conflict thesis as academic opinion varies across a wide spectrum with some alarmist predications of impending resource wars within and between nations, whilst others refute the idea that there is any significant connection between the environment and conflict.

Conflict over resources is not a novel concept, but focus is now directed towards renewable resources, such as water, cropland, forests and fisheries. Environmental processes do not necessarily respect any type of state borders. Homer-Dixon (2001) argues that water scarcity is seen by many as the great problem of the 21st century as 261 major river systems are shared by two or more countries. Gleick (1993)  suggests that conflict has and will again arise over renewable resources such as water.

In Latin America there is a whole host of conflicts over resources from mining to water. In Quito , Ecuador, there have been recent mass demonstrations against large scale metal mining as farmers and indigenous communities call for natural resources to be nationalised. These local farmers have been supported by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) which represents indigenous people in Ecuador. It is one of Latin America’s most powerful social movements and argues that access to nature and water is a fundamental human right. Natural resource exploitation has been an ongoing source of conflict in Ecuador from the oil boom of the 1970s to this proposed mining of copper, gold and silver reserves today. There’s a long legacy of pollution and disease caused by oil exploitation and mining. However, many of these communities remain powerless in the face of an Ecuadorian government desperate for foreign investment. They have attempted to utilise the media to get their message heard but firstly this a country where medis comes under state control and thus rarely challenges the status quo. Secondly, these indigenous groups cannot compete with the western news agenda which overlooks their struggle.

Peru and Guatemala face similar battles against mining as the devastation it has caused to both the environment and health of local communities is increasing evident. See this article for more on the struggle of anti-mining activists in Guatemala. In many developing countries like Ecuador it is the oppressed and impoverished communities who advocate sustainable development and protest for basic territorial rights. As depressing as it is to admit their struggle may be in vain if President Rafael Correa’s recent comments are anything to go by… “It is absurd that some want to force us to remain like beggars sitting atop a bag of gold.” Once again the basic needs of indigenous communities and environmental concerns come second to making money.