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Did Wangari Maathai deserve the Nobel Peace Prize?

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-10-16

THE Nobel Peace Prize that was awarded last week to Mrs Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan activist and a deputy minister for the environment in her East African country's government, has been widely hailed, not the least because Mrs Maathai was the first African woman to be honoured with the US$1.3 million award.

The Nobel certainly gives a fillip to grassroots environmental activists everywhere, many of whom felt that the cause of environmental protection was steadily losing ground in the global agenda at a time of a lingering world economic recession.

Mrs Maathai was cited, among other things, for helping plant 20 million saplings in a country where locals traditionally cut down trees for fuel wood. What the Nobel committee - the Peace Prize is decided by the Norwegian Parliament, and not by Sweden, which chooses the other categories - failed to note was Mrs Maathai's consistent, often outrageous anti-business, anti-capitalism positions.

In the ongoing global conflict between environmental crusaders and representatives of big business, the Kenyan is a living deity for those who subscribe to the misguided Leftist notion that the roots of all contemporary environmental evils lie in capitalism or industrialisation. Mrs Maathai has long been an advocate of the politics of protest, and I'm not so sure that leading demonstrations - some of them violent, or featuring naked women, as the Nobel laureate once did - is the most sensible way to foster social and economic change.

It's unkind, of course, to spit on someone else's parade. Mrs Maathai is a dedicated activist who may sincerely believe that phenomena such as global warming are caused by a handful of industrialised countries whose leaders, influenced by business lobbies, do not implement stricter pollution-control laws. There's some truth to that. Certainly, the administration of President George W. Bush of the United States has been less than vigilant about enforcing such laws; indeed, it has trimmed some of them. But the pollution generated during the heyday of socialism in East Europe also transformed vast tracts of fertile territory into wasteland.

There's a larger battle going on here than simply that of environmentalism versus business. It concerns the very nature of what sort of sustainable economic growth rich and poor countries alike need to promote to ensure not only the protection of unrenewable natural resources but also the expediting of social justice and decent employment in constituencies that have been traditionally marginalized - such as migrant women, tribal communities, and people of colour in the West.

We've had all the tree hugging that we need. We need to look after dispossessed people better, helping them create for themselves a more equitable world. And there need not be a conflict between concepts such as economic growth and environmental protection; one has only to look at places such as Singapore, Sydney and, yes, New York, to realise that sound environmental policies accompanied by tough implementation can create highly liveable urban habitats. That's what the environmental movement has seldom emphasized.

I've been following the global environmental movement since my college days at Brandeis University in the US, when it was made fashionable by Professor Barry Commoner, long regarded as the "founder" of modern-day environmentalism. Along with the late Rachel Carson, author of "Silent Spring," the devastating indictment of how man-made chemicals hurt nature, Professor Commoner's concerns about environmental deterioration flowed from thorough scientific study.

But such study is time consuming. Anti-capitalist oratory at global conferences is far easier. She belongs to a tribe that I call "conferencecrats."
And that's what Mrs Maathai has been very good at. I don't know how many talk-a-thons she attended last year, but the povertycrats at the United Nations, the World Bank, and various bilateral aid agencies and Western foundations altogether sponsored more than 500 - that's correct - meetings in 2003 on environment-related matters. Many of them were held in the Third World's favoured cities such as Geneva, Rome and London. And let's not forget New York, of course.

The conferencecrats are well funded, mostly by international agencies and left-leaning foundations in the United States and Europe. When the World Trade Organisation held its biennial ministerial meeting in Seattle in November 1999, the New York-based Ford Foundation gave tens of thousands of dollars to activists to organise protests. Those demonstrations quickly turned violent, leading to an adjournment for two years of the WTO talks, which were intended to start a new round of negotiations aimed at liberalising the global trade regime. Such liberalisation, in fact, would have helped reduce poverty in Third World nations by getting industrialised countries to open their markets further to exports from developing nations.

Seattle remains a milestone for environmental and social activists, much in the way that Mahatma Gandhi's famous "salt march" protesting against British colonial rule - on 12 March 1931 - is considered a landmark in India's independence struggle. Some 78 men and women, whose numbers swelled into the thousands, joined Gandhi initially. Many protestors were arrested, but there was no violence. The Mahatma showed that if protest could be organised in a peaceful, objective-focused manner, it could result in worthwhile accomplishment: By 1947, the British left India.

Dismayingly, the politics and conferences of the global enviro-poverty movement of the last three decades haven't translated into significant accomplishments. Take, for example, the much publicized 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Some US$65 million was spent on the three-week parley, bringing together more than 50,000 participants, including 110 world leaders. The leaders signed a blueprint for global action o the environment called Agenda 21.

What happened to Agenda 21? Nothing, other than a continuing series of follow-up meetings over the last 12 years about how to construct an "Earth Charter" - a kind of global Constitution - to force the UN's 191 member states into compliance with anti-pollution regulations.

Billions of dollars of conference expenditure later, about the only environmentally meaningful achievement has been the Kyoto Treaty of 1997, negotiated by official representatives of countries. It commits industrialised nations to reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, principally carbon dioxide, by 5.2 percent below their 1990 levels over the next decade. President Bush said in 2001 that the US would never sign it, so the Kyoto Treaty was watered down next year.

Now that Russia has ratified it, the revised treaty will come into effect in 2008. This means that all 39 industrialised nations - who are responsible for generating 55 percent of carbon dioxide emissions - that signed it will be required to reach different emission-control targets. The Kyoto Treaty will also allow some countries to buy emission credits from others.

But the treaty has a major flaw. It imposes no pollution-control requirements, nor any penalties, on developing countries such as Brazil, China, India and Nigeria, that eject vast amounts of pollutants into the atmosphere because of their expanding industrialization. These countries argue that without continued - indeed accelerated - industrialization, their growing populations will remain mired in squalor and poverty.

What do the conferencecrats say about this? They agree with the Third World.

I don't want to make a case for continued recalcitrance on the environment by many industrialised countries, of course. But surely more environmentally friendly technologies that are already available could be used in the developing nations?

In my view, far more urgent attention needs to be paid to opening up the global trading system. This would generate jobs in the numbers needed desperately in developing nations. It would also hold corporate feet to the fire because if economic liberalisation opens up previously closed economies, then there's much less of an excuse not to invest more in the developing world.

Foreign direct investment by rich countries in poor ones currently is an abysmally low US$150 billion annually. But the markets in the Third World are growing rapidly. That's where the opportunities lie for making more money - and not incidentally for promoting indigenous social and economic development as well. Contemporary corporations are far more environmentally conscious than the conferencecrats would have us believe.

But if they acknowledge that, then no more trips to Geneva, Rome, Paris and New York, isn't it, much less another Nobel Peace Prize for a sandalista.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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