Terrorism's Roots Poverty, Environmental Degradation Often Feed Violence

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President Clinton's plea for global action against terrorism and his effort to gear up US counterterrorism forces is a step in the right direction. But heightened preparedness and rapid response after an incident may do little to lessen the violence in the absence of policies that also address the root causes - growing poverty, desperation, and resentment. At the very least, such conditions provide a fertile recruiting ground to supply troops for the Osama bin Ladens of the world.

Might the tens of millions of Indonesians who suddenly find themselves plunged from growing prosperity back into poverty direct their resentment not just inward at the Chinese ethnic minority, but also outward at world capitalism? Antiterrorism programs will not redress their concerns nor help alleviate their suffering. Although Indonesia is a dramatic instance of such suffering, it isn't an isolated case.

The number of countries in distress is likely to grow, if several current trends continue: Rising inequity. Not only is the gap between incomes in the industrial world and those in developing countries growing steadily wider, but so is awareness of the vast difference in lifestyle, thanks to the pervasiveness of television and growing international tourism. No wonder attempts at illegal immigration are rising, as is resentment among those who have abandoned hope of ever having the wealth, comfort, and opportunities they associate with the rich world. Increasing environmental degradation and resource scarcity. Fisheries are in trouble virtually everywhere, as huge industrial trawlers overexploit a declining resource and coastal development destroys the wetlands, coral reefs, and other habitats critical to maintenance of breeding stocks. Yet it is the local fishermen in poor countries who are most likely to lose their livelihoods as a result, and the nearly 1 billion people for whom fish are the primary source of protein who are at risk of malnutrition. Rising demand for forest products, especially paper, threatens to devastate many of the world's remaining forests in coming decades - along with the way of life of the hundreds of thousands who depend on forests. Rapidly growing populations in many parts of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East mean that supplies of fertile land, pasture, firewood, and water are increasingly inadequate to meet the demand - driving some deeper into poverty and raising ethnic tensions. Such conditions in themselves do not necessarily lead to conflict and violence, but they provide ready tinder to catch a spark: It is not surprising that ethnic violence flared in Rwanda, since it has the highest population density and the most severe land scarcity in sub- Saharan Africa. And in the aftermath of that violence, resentment of the West, whether rational or not, is at an all-time high. …