Magazine article New Internationalist

Asia's Eco-Guerrillas

Magazine article New Internationalist

Asia's Eco-Guerrillas

Article excerpt

Choosing your battle is important for activists in Asia. Mike Levin sums up the state of the region's environmental movement.

It's been six years since the canal beside Paiboon Chusakul's house in southern Bangkok burst into flames, five years since his mother and sister started getting strange headaches and four years since Pai, under the cover of darkness, committed his first act of civil disobedience by scrawling `Clean Up The Water' on the brick wall of an unlicensed chemical plant at the end of his road.

Without the luxury of anti-pollution laws, Pai's neighborhood has few options other than individual activism. It's a story that has played out almost weekly for much of the past decade. Not only in Thailand but across Southeast Asia and China as growth-crazed governments encourage industrial sprawl with nary a thought about who cleans up the mess.

In cultures based on social harmony and responsibility, no-one relishes challenging the status quo. But the cost of environmental degradation is mounting. The best piece of evidence is the toxic cloud that emerged over Asia last summer - a haze of burned fossil fuels and chemicals more than a kilometre thick hanging over the entire region.

There is little doubt that the pace of environmental awareness is quickening. When companies like AIG, Willis and Mitsui Sumitomo add environmental insurance coverage to their East Asian portfolios, something bigger than product diversification is going on. Even Phillips Petroleum and Dow Chemical have environmental-impact officers on their payrolls in Asia. `Such nice people,' quips Chinese activist Chu An. `But what about $20 million to clean up their chemical pollution?'

Yet foreign transnationals are only part of the problem. The cult of resource exploitation has many more domestic groupies - local entrepreneurs who believe that rapid industrial growth, government decentralization and unbridled consumerism make the true path to economic enlightenment. Trouble is, they're a generation of first-time polluters who really don't know what damage they're capable of inflicting on the earth.

Not surprisingly, the past decade has seen the first official recognition of environmental activist groups in most countries and the first statutes regulating government lobbying by environmentalists. It's taken 30 years to achieve this status and no-one is going to jeopardize it by calling politicians and business leaders `Evil Polluting Pig Dogs' (a sign at the WTO protests in Seattle). International organizations like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth survive through choreographed and non-confrontational strategies.

Some countries in the region welcome them more than others. Vibrant democracies in Taiwan, the Philippines and Thailand allow their media to report environmental protests. The political eggshells are more fragile in China, Malaysia and Indonesia where eco-activists have gone to great lengths to convince governments that their role is to raise awareness not barricades.

Home-grown organizations like Taiwan's Environmental Protection Union, Thailand's Project for Ecological Recovery and China's South-North Institute for Sustainable Development often appear more concerned with their own legitimacy than with taking a stand. It's a balancing act but Asia has always held a long-term view of the unfolding world.

Success usually comes on a micro-level rather than the systemic shifts sought by Western movements. The process is tedious and frustrating but nonetheless grassroots activism has become the most viable option for people faced with the hazards of oil pipelines, petro-chemical plants and forced migration. Chu An believes it is exactly these local, community-based struggles that precipitated the changes he sees beginning at home. Without guerrilla-style tactics by environmentalists China's great, glorious march to industrialization would leave the already battered country in far worse shape. …

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