A Fierce Green Fire: The Battle for a Living Planet, a documentary chronicling the rise of US environmental movements, was released in 2012. The film tells inspiring stories of citizens rallying against dams at the Grand Canyon and battling against toxic waste dumped in their backyard.
Another 2011 feature film, Waking the Green Tiger, documents Chinese activists and journalists’ triumphant campaign to stop a dam at the Tiger Leaping Gorge. The government-backed mega project at the upper Yangtze River would have displaced some 100,000 people.
After watching the two films recently, and given the on-going campaigns in Malaysia against environmentally-destructive projects, I think there are lessons that local environmental groups, and our state and federal governments, can draw from the US and China.
Love Canal: The signature fight against pollution
The Love Canal tragedy is now a well-known environmental disaster in the US. An elementary school and homes were built atop a dumpsite of 20,000 tonnes of hazardous chemical waste in upstate New York. Women living there recorded an unusually high level of miscarriages and birth defects among their children.
But in the 1970s, the working class neighbourhood organised several protests, and even took two federal officials from the Environmental Protection Agency hostage, to pressure the government to investigate the extent of the disaster.
Lois Gibbs, one of the leaders, recounted the residents’ disappointment in the film when they submitted their health survey results to the government: “The Health Department literally threw the health study on the floor…and said it’s useless housewife data, collected by people who have a vested interest in the outcome.”
Back here, Barisan Nasional politicians have also intially rubbished claims of health problems by villagers living near a gold mine in Raub, Pahang. The Raub Australian Gold Mining Sdn Bhd began operations in early 2009. Residents have protested over the use of cyanide in the extraction process.
However in July 2012, the Health Ministry finally formed a health study team to find out the source of ailments. The ministry accepted two out of five experts nominated by the citizen-led Ban Cyanide Action Committee. It rejected the nomination of toxicologist cum PAS lawmaker Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad as well as cardiologist and PSM parliamentarian Dr Michael Jeyakumar on the basis of their political affiliations. Most puzzling though, is the ministry’s rejection of renowned US mining expert Dr Glenn Miller on the grounds of lengthy bureaucratic approvals needed to secure his work permit.
Regardless, the Bukit Koman residents have at last made some headway in their struggle. Meanwhile, indigenous villagers next to an aluminium smelting plant in Balingian, Sarawak are still living with air pollution in silence.
The convergence of environmental, class and political struggle
In the US, African Americans often bear the brunt of environmental pollution. Dr Robert Bullard, a leading campaigner against environmental racism, notes in the documentary that most dumpsites and incinerators are located next to predominantly Black neighbourhoods. These are usually working class communities that do not have a voice in mainstream politics. It took two decades but their struggle gave rise to the environmental justice movement.
Environmental issues are inevitably linked to politics and economic distribution. Some local conservationists tend to shun politics but if we do not elect environmentally-conscious politicians into power, who will speak out for communities affected by pollution and deforestation in state assemblies and the Parliament? Who will we lobby to enact and enforce laws that ensure companies and industries adhere to the highest environmental standards?
In China, the enactment of an environmental law that mandates public consultation was instrumental in the anti-dam campaign’s success. It created unprecedented democratic space for citizens to speak out against the project at the Tiger Leaping Gorge. The Chinese government listened and scrapped the project.
These stories give us pause to re-think the assertion that environmental causes should not be ‘hijacked’ by politicians. As unpalatable as it may be to some, such occassions give citizens the opportunity to hold elected representatives accountable long after ballots have been cast and the business of ruling and governing begins.
Democratic reforms, though hard and slow to push through, will eventually lead to better environmental governance. Successful environmentalists must be able to see the big picture and work together with others, be it political or indigenous activists, to achieve common goals.
Environmentalist and author Pawl Hawken mentioned in the US documentary that some of us tend to look for leadership in the wrong places. Most of us look to our political leaders for the initiative to change. We have forgotten that in democracies, people are the bosses. It is the citizens who are leading and must continue to lead the struggle for a healthier, cleaner, happier planet.
Dr Robert Bullard said in the film that if you breathe air, drink water and eat food, you are an environmentalist even if you don’t know it! For one needs a clean environment to have access to clean air, water and wholesome food. Gan Pei Ling can’t agree more.