Saving the Planet: Imperialism in a Green Garb?

By Sidhva, Shiraz | UNESCO Courier, April 2001 | Go to article overview

Saving the Planet: Imperialism in a Green Garb?


Sidhva, Shiraz, UNESCO Courier


Developing countries feel that protecting the world's resources is just another way for rich nations to retain the upper hand in the international trade game

For nearly a decade, international efforts to address global environmental concerns have been frustrated by a deep rift in perceptions between rich and poor countries. Economists and environmentalists in developing nations argue that the agenda for environmental negotiations is almost exclusively driven by the North. Under the pretext of saving the planet, they say, the industrialized world is wielding a new brand of dominance, "ecoimperialism."

Developing countries like India and China continue to resist global environmental protocols, like the 1989 Montreal Accord to cut the production of CFC gases (used for example in refrigerators) by 50 percent, or the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), part of the climate change negotiations initiated under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. "These are viewed as instruments to make the Third World pay for damages caused primarily by the North," says Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva. India and China account for two percent of CFC consumption, while the United States consumes 29 percent. "This 'eco-imperialism' undermines national sovereignty, while generating new costs for those once marginalized by colonialism," claims Shiva.

The spectre of imperialism is likely to vitiate the next round of climate change talks in Bonn (Germany) this July, when policymakers finalize the terms on which the CDM will be implemented. Negotiated by industrialized countries to gain some flexibility in meeting the emission reduction targets pledged in Kyoto, few issues in recent environmental diplomacy are proving as contentious.

Critics say the mechanism is the latest in a string of attempts to dominate poor countries, which are being virtually "bribed" so that rich nations can continue business as usual. By financing forestry schemes and other energy-efficient projects, industrialized countries could exploit the mechanism to avoid reducing their own greenhouse gases. Environmentalists fear this could turn the Amazon and other primeval forests into "carbon sinks" to absorb pollution, but with side effects which disregard the developmental needs of southern countries.

Lopsided negotiations

"The Northern bias continues to dominate discussion of the global climatic crisis," explains Shiva. "The threat to the atmospheric commons has been building over centuries, mainly because of industrial activity in the North. Yet discussions seem to focus more on developing countries: the North refuses to assume extra responsibility for cleaning up the atmosphere. No wonder the Third World cries foul when it is asked to share the costs."

"The whole effort to bring about ecological change is very one-sided," says Chow Kee, who represents Malaysia at the climate negotiations. "The developed countries don't want to give up their extravagant lifestyles, but plan to curtail our development."

Beyond negotiations on climate, efforts to link environmental concerns to trade are sparking more allegations of imperialism. "There is an attempt by rich countries to stunt the growth of developing nations like India, and we are fighting it tooth and nail," says Pramod Mahajan, India's minister for information technology. "They are practising protectionism under the garb of environmental protection." Economists argue that sanctions could spell further economic marginalization for developing countries, which often lack the means to set up expensive quality-control systems.

The 1989 Basel Convention, for instance, imposed restrictions on trade in scrap metals and recyclable materials, claiming they were hazardous to the environment. Economists say it prohibits poor countries from competing in the lucrative world market for computer parts, scrap metals, and recyclable products.

Other examples of trade restrictions are cited. …

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