Southern governments are not well-prepared for the international environmental negotiations that are taking place, and the non-governmental organisations have not been of much help either.
The volume of environmental literature coming out these days is quite impressive. In bookstores all over, environmental publications—the mild, the strong and the provocative—from the countries of both North and South vie for the readers´ attention. Sustainable development quotes from Mahatma Gandhi to Maurice Strong, and from Chief Seattle to Gro Harlem Brundt land, pop out of every page. There seem reason enough to believe that the problems of the environment worldwide are being tackled adequately and to be optimistic that we are about make fundamental changes in our unsustainable patterns of natural resource consumption.
Outside the bookstores, however, the hope and confidence evaporates. Much of today´s environmental writing remains confined to abstract ideas and remote from real-life situations. The books, articles and newsletters are mostly part of reactive protests against problems, and carry little proactive prescriptions. The call for ´alternative development´, so strong in the aftermath of the Stockholm Conference in 1972, is today but a whimper. The enthusiasm rekindled in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 is also being wasted.
Yet, in no other period of human history has the future of the globe and all its living beings been so much in need of alternative lifestyles based on our environmental knowledge and wisdom. Action taken or postponed today will cast a long shadow into the next century. One may think that these changes are relatively easy to identify and prescribe, but that does not seem to be the case. Transformation is required at different levels, from changing of personal habits to changing the ´global habits´.
Data? What Data?
In a world which is becoming economically integrated and in which global negotiations have already become powerful instruments of decision-making, effective access to information is essential in order to support respective negotiating positions. Indeed, how do you bargain without information on what you want and knowledge of how to get it?
While a few countries of the North have access to this information base, the countries of the South are by and large ill-equipped for discussion. Neither governments nor NGOs have paid heed to the need for information and databases to support the Southern viewpoints. As a result, the job of defending southern interests tends to be taken up by interested Northern groups, which is not the same, and surely risky.
The scientific gap is serious. And it extends to many country delegations at the important decision-making inter-governmental forums in New York, Geneva and elsewhere where the environmental policies and programmes of the next century are being charted.
Representatives, particularly from small Southern countries, lack vital information on the scientific and policy dimensions. Unfamiliarity with the global and local issues extends across the board, from the law of the sea, to intellectual property rights, and biodiversity. Many do not even have basic data, say, on global climate change, or in-country genetic resources of flora, fauna or micro-organisms. Without an information base of their own, the delegates of many Southern countries are reduced to looking over the shoulders of other country representatives, whose interests need hardly coincide.
The South Asian sub-continent is a good example of a region which, due to lack of expertise as well as the constant need to respond to natural disasters, finds it impossible to focus on the global environmental issues that will have a direct bearing on the lives of its population in the next century. What little expertise does exist, and the lobbying clout that the region would enjoy if it were united, is frittered away due to geo-political suspicions and rivalries.
In a period of accelerating global and regional integration. South Asian governments have managed to keep the walls of mistrust and hostility intact. Himalayan rivers, one of the richest water resources of the world, are made the cause of political disunity while other regions which have seen major water conflicts, like Europe and West Asia, are moving fast towards economic integration. Under existing circumstances. South Asian governments can hardly be expected to collaborate to get the best out of global bargaining o n the environment. And if the situation is not corrected South Asia will become less and less capable of bargaining globally. The result is marginalisation in the negotiations of today and in the world of tomorrow.
South Asia´s challenges are also those of the southern hemisphere as a whole. Referring to the signing of the Uruguay Round of the GATT in Marrakesh last year, Julius Nyerere, former President of Tanzania and presently Chairman of the South Centre, conceded that many of the signatory countries of the South were not even aware of the implications of GATT for their economies.
Many of the environmental activist groups which have taken it upon themselves to speak up for the South have not prepared themselves for the arena of international negotiation and decision-making either. One basic weakness is that advocacy groups have progressively released themselves from the need to understand the science behind environmental problems. Many fundamentalist groups of the North prefer to approach the media with sensation rather than sense. Their Southern NGO counterparts, propped up with liberal international funding, are following suit. The voice of the independent Southern NGO can today barely be heard in international platforms.
Culture of Consumption
On the whole, the few NGOs which do take part in global meetings as representatives of the South present a sorry spectacle. There is little interest inbuilding competence on specialised issues. A few ´permanent representatives´ have emerged among these NGOs, who are seen in most global platforms, be it in the population conference in Cairo, GATT and the environment in Geneva, women and development in Beijing, biodiversity in Bahamas, etc. etc.
These groups are capable of producing reams of generalised polemic, but a topic-by-topic and point-against-point argumentation on behalf of the South against a well-prepared North is beyond them.
The problem is not, however, merely the inability of governments and groups to accessandusedatabase and information. The central issue is of altering the culture of the consumption society in both hemispheres. Can the governments of the South, unable to change the wasteful consumption patterns of their own elites, put any pressure on the North to do the same?
The communication revolution has suddenly exposed the low consumption societies of the world to the images, real or otherwise, of the high consumption Northern countries. Commercials and advertisements do not encourage austere lifestyles and reduced consumption. While Northern governments will find it very difficult to move towards policy changes and structural transformations in their own societies, governments in the South seem powerless against the social forces that are pushing their countries relentlessly towards the mechanical duplication of Northern lifestyles and consumption patterns.
The core of the global challenge lies in changing the existing paradigmatic lifestyles and searching for alternatives. In this search, a complex web of relationships have to be addressed, among them dichotomous issues such as national sovereignty and global respon-sibilities, and liability for damage to the global commons, the rights over intellectual properties and the question of biosafety, the transfer of technologies, and so on.
Without waiting for their governments to take the lead, environ¬mental movements of the South must wake up and begin to play a key and independent role in the search for the alternative para-digm. In a future that will increasingly be influenced by global conventions and agreements, there is an urgent need for proactive environtnentalism all over the South.
Environmentalism in a country like India has been very successful as a reactive mechanism, as much as it has been conspicuous by its inability to be proactive. This weakness has been most vividly exposed in the post-GATT anti-GATT debate in India. Notwithstanding some exceptional proactive steps in rural India, like the formation oipani-panchayats in Maha¬rashtra or forest protection committees all over, the more visible and more propagandised environmental mobilisations have been reactive.
Even the movement that arose from the industrial disaster in Bhopal has remained reactive for over a decade. The focus has been almost exclusively on the question of compensation, and there has been no proactive movement demanding an open assessment of all industrial technologies and free and prior availability of information on the hazardous technologies.
The consistently reactive nature of Indian envi ronmental ism indicates the hold of the middle class intellectuals who otherwise live a comfortable urban life but rush to take a stand against plans and proposals that threaten other peoples´ lives. This characteristic has dominated the intellectual movement in India on´alternative development´ over decades. The dynamism of the integrated global economy and its enormous reach today have made the erstwhile mode of ´alternative development´ concepts outdated. Time has come for less abstract environmental movements to move into the future as positive actors and not consistent reactors.
South Asian groups who would represent the population from the Himalaya to the southern-most point of Sri Lanka and from Baluchistan to Tripura must think for themselves and not be guidedb y reactive protests, on subject as varied as tourism and modern agriculture, GATT and climate change. This, of course, applies not only to South Asia, but to all the South.