Sunday, June 26, 2016

I am concerned about the rainforest ... from the comforts of my home?

I have always been highly skeptical of economic growth and development that destroys the natural environment in the name of progress.  It was one of the many, many reasons that I could not understand what it was that I was going to contribute via engineering.  In those primitive days before the internet and television, The Hindu's reports on a guy named Sunderlal Bahuguna and the Chipko Movement fascinated me.  Yet, I was not completely sold on tree-hugging either.

Even early in graduate school, I met students who were committed to the environmental cause.  To many of them, it was not Bahuguna and the Chipko Movement, but it was Chico Mendes and his work to save the Amazon rainforest.  His assassination made a huge impact on many of my graduate-school-mates.  But, unlike this guy, for instance, I could not get myself to thinking and working only on the issue of natural environment, even though by then it was clear to me that professional advancement would not happen if I continued to spread my interests instead of focusing on one big thing.

It has always impressed me, however, that activists like Mendes completely dedicate themselves to the effort even when fully aware that their lives might get terminated by unscrupulous characters who take law into their own hands.  That level of commitment is phenomenal.

In India, Bahuguna has been honored for his work, with awards including India's second highest civilian honor.  The story of environmental activists in South America, of all the continents, continues to be violent.
2015 had the highest conservation-related mortality rates since 2010, with 185 confirmed cases (143 were reported for 2012 and 130 for 2011). In a previous study with data from 2014 Global Witness had counted 116 deaths, which implies a significant growth from one year to the next.
Latin America had the dubious honor of being the region with the highest number of conservationist murders—122; Brazil took the lion’s share with 50 killings. The investigation found that conflicts mostly involved mining (42 cases), agrobusiness (20), logging (15) and hydroelectric projects (15).
Killed, just like Mendes was, only because they were in the way of people who wanted to make money out of the natural environment.  How tragic!

Of course, the government and corporate agents are corrupt as hell and work closely with the killers!
The clash between the different viewpoints on how to achieve development is more often than not resolved with violence. Global Witness warns that just a few cases result in the filing of a formal complaint that leaves a documented record. Even less frequent are cases resulting in a conviction. According to the NGO, impunity ends up benefiting not only the perpetrator of the crime but also the mastermind behind it, who can have a relationship with the upper levels of the economic and political powers.
It is easy to point fingers at corrupt politicians and businesses.  What is more difficult is for individual consumers, like me, to understand that it is pressure from us that businesses are also responding to.  We consumers want the next best thing and at the lowest possible price.  The killings are the hidden costs.  The irreplaceable destruction is a hidden cost.  Or, even if they are in plain sight, we choose to look away, or be in complete denial.  Taking care of the natural environment requires us to practice what we preach--which is one of the reasons I knew I could not ever completely dedicate myself to the cause without being a hypocrite.  I would rather accept my flaws and try to understand the big picture and spread the word.

I also know I owe the Mendeses of the world a huge thanks.  I feel so small compared to them.


Ramesh said...

People who are killed for propagating a just cause need to be Sainted. Its absolutely criminal that commercial interests find it OK to simply kill somebody who is standing in the way with a moral argument. May they rot in hell.

The issue you make about consumers not caring is a real one. Not many people are willing to pay a bit more for a product or service delivered ethically. That's how it may always be. The challenge is to find a route to deliver the product and service safe and ethically. Possible if we tried really hard.

Sriram Khé said...

"The challenge is to find a route to deliver the product and service safe and ethically."
But then there is the reality--consumers don't want to pay a penny more :(

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