Dams, cars, refrigerators, and population control

While first world luxuries are the driving force behind global environmental degradation, the Third World is the main victim

By John Bacher | 1995-05-01 12:00:00

In "Misspent Billions," Pat Adams is refreshing in blasting the lunacy of dam projects in the Third World. These dams are indeed silent killers. Apart from the auto and weapons industries, dam mania may be the greatest force on the planet for deepening poverty, death rates, inequality, and environmental degradation.

The recent "Team Canada" trip was outrageous. Every Canadian political leader except Michael Harcourt and Jacques Parizeau bowed low to bless China's ecocidal Three Gorges Dam. A political debate is overdue for these absurd projects, yet instead, business, labor, and government are united in favoring them. Adams has addressed obvious, but usually unspoken, truths.

However, there are many other ways in which the Third World gets a raw deal from the developed nations besides these wretched dam schemes. One is the luxurious lifestyle of the wealthiest one-quarter of the Western elites, with our automobiles and refrigerators. If the affluent societies were simply to give up their cars and fridges for old-fashioned bicycles and ice boxes, the biggest threats to the world's environment--global warming and ozone depletion--would come to an astonishing halt.

While First World luxuries are the driving force behind global environmental degradation, the Third World is the main victim. The ozone layer is thinnest in Chile and Argentina, where it has already become a significant factor in cancer deaths. The first signs of global warming will be inundated Pacific islands and the spreading sands of the Sahara.

Besides First World luxury, the spread of automobiles and tractors to the Third World is equally outrageous. These mechanizing trends, combined with the use of pesticides, hybrid seeds, and chemical fertilizers are uprooting still predominately green economies with a destructive power similar to the force of a World Bank-funded dam.

What Eduardo Galleno has termed the "ferocious volleys of lead that get into your blood and attack your nerves, liver, and bones," are most devastating in the southern realms of the world where catalytic converters or unleaded gas are not obligatory. He says that travel by bicycle on the streets of a Latin American city, "is a most practical way of committing suicide," on a continent that lacks bike lanes. Although there are fewer cars in the Third World, they account for most of the world's 250,000 traffic fatalities each year.

Rather than being labelled negatively as a diversion, population planning in the Third World should be part of an ecological program. This would incorporate bans on megadams, cars, and ozone depleting technology with an agenda promoting education, family planning, and human rights.

A green program for the healing of the planet must have at the core of its analysis something stronger than the machinations of the World Bank and the dam builders. One such perspective is provided by eco-feminism, which attributes the assault on our planet to patriarchy.

Male domination of nature is as much a part of dam construction as are militarism and overpopulation. Such ecofeminists as the Gandhian philospher Vandana Shiva have pointed out that the "war on nature" was part of the Western male-dominated scientific revolution, ushered in by the 17th century witch craze of Europe, when a million women perished. The "warrior spirit" of western technology is now here more evident than in the crazes of industrial agriculture, which have been made possible by such inventions as poison gas and nitrate explosives, developed in World War I.

To curb dam construction, automobiles, and pesticides, it is necessary to counter patriarchal domination. Such steps would go hand in hand with an effective family planning program since it would encourage female literacy, promote public health, and safeguard human rights.

One of the best examples of how women's rights, family planning, social justice, and the protection of the environment are closely linked is the Indian state of Kerala--typical by way of its high population density but untypical for breaking out of the poverty trap through land reform, education, public health, and family planning.

Kerala has by far the highest rate of female literacy--over 95%, compared to other parts of India, where the rate averages only 45%. This means that Indian women outside Kerala have less access to family planning programs. Consequently, birth rates in the rest of India are twice as high as Kerala's. Its education and public health programs have also combined to give Kerala the highest life expectancy and lowest infant mortality rates of both India and the Third World. Violence against women, such as suttee burning, is rare in Kerala.

Kerala's success even helps environmentalists there in fighting dams. The Silent Valley dam scheme, which would have destroyed an important area of tropical rainforest, was killed by the grassroots, village-based protests of Indian environmentalists. This was championed by the Science for People organization, which advocates adult education and racial tolerance, as well as fighting dams. Science for People and varied leftish political parties and social movements have combined to give Kerala the strongest democratic political culture of any area of India. Its success shows that family planning is an integral part of movements for human rights, protection of the environment, and social justice. Third World feminists and ecologists, moreover, are quite aware of it as a challenge to the patriarchal order assaulting the planet.

The important role assigned to family planning by Third World eco-feminists can be seen from the role of the Women's Caucus at the Cairo forum of the U.N.'s Conference on Population and Development. It won a commitment from the post-Cairo Task Force for an international conference on consumption and lifestyle. At the Cairo Conference more than 150 representatives of Arab NGOs urged that a gender approach be taken to development. This would highlight the need for rural women to have easy access to basic health and reproductive health information, and services adapted to their environment. Maha Ayoub from Tunis told the conference that, "The position of Arab men is conservative and they don't want to hear anything about the empowerment of women or about sexual education for youth. They are outspoken and are supported by a patriarchal society."

Many Third World eco-feminists make such statements at considerable risk to their personal safety. In Bangladesh, the critic of Islamic fundamentalism, Taslima Nasrim, was forced into exile after thousands of fundamentalists took to the streets to demand her death. The fatwa against her offered a bounty on her life that amounted to 20-times the per-capita gross national product of Bangladesh.

Empowering women with education and access to public health programs is the basic key to meeting Third World population problems. It is inappropriate to take a hands-off position, as Adams recommends. In her view, Third World families must make their own reproductive decisions, but if these decisions are made in the absence of female literacy or access to health programs could they realistically expect their children to survive?

While acknowledging that birth rates have fallen in South India, Adams needs to contrast this to the North Indian states such as Bihar, dominated by oppressive landlords and antifeminist religious fanatics. Another oppressive Indian state, Gujarat, arrogantly continues with a monstrous dam project, even after the World Bank cancelled funding for it. Support has apparently been picked up largely by Gujarat's wealthy expatriates, whose prime focus is industrial development, no matter what the consequences to others.

Empowering women, redistributing land to peasants, developing effective NGOs and political parties that represent the downtrodden, are the key to stopping dams and controlling population growth. Religious fundamentalism fights such agendas. It also leads the Third World poor to a political dead-end, where they struggle to destroy mosques or temples, while the bulldozer is about to flood their homes for dam construction. While it is important to stop every dam on Pat Adams's cancellation list, this should be seen as part of a strategy that promotes human rights, social justice, and the environment, in the best traditions of eco-feminism.

John Bacher is an historian and environmentalist based in St.Catharines, ON.

Peace Magazine May-Jun 1995

Peace Magazine May-Jun 1995, page 9. Some rights reserved.

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