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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

International Environmental Issues

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood talks with Living on Earth’s political observer Mark Hertsgaard about global environmental developments.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Although at times it may be hard to remember, there is more to current events than the election wrangling in Florida. Joining me now to talk about recent developments on the environmental front is Mark Hertsgaard, Living on Earth's political observer. Hi, Mark.


CURWOOD: Mark, tell me about what's going on in India. I understand that workers there have taken to the streets in New Delhi to protest a Supreme Court ruling about pollution. What's the story?

HERTSGAARD: Tens of thousands of workers, Steve. And owners of the factories involved. The Supreme Court of India has ordered that thousands of small factories in New Delhi be shut down because they are polluting the air and the water. New Delhi, of course, is among the most smoggy cities in the world, and the Supreme Court has been trying to deal with this for years, trying to get these factories shut down. The local government has been resisting. It's a classic kind of dilemma, poverty versus the environment in the Third World. On the one hand, you've got terrible pollution coming from these factories. On the other, a lot of these workers say "hey, the $55 a month that I earn here is what keeps me and my two children alive. How dare you shut these factories?"

CURWOOD: What's the answer here?

HERTSGAARD: You've got to have a different approach to development. It's not necessary to put people to work with dirty industries, but you've got to get new capital in there to start investing in things like solar power and energy efficiency. And go in a new direction. And so far, that is not at all what we're seeing in India.

CURWOOD: Now, the Supreme Court in India has been busy with another environmental ruling as well. I understand that they decided that construction can continue on the controversial Narmada River Dam project. What's going on with that?

HERTSGAARD: Well, that, too, has brought thousands of people into the street. There's been a six-year hiatus on the construction of that dam because of legal challenges. The Supreme Court finally said you can go ahead, this is a matter for the local and state government. That government has been highly supportive of the project, and in fact, they declared a half a day holiday to celebrate the findings. But there's 320,000 people who live in that valley who will be flooded out when that dam goes through, and they're going to continue to fight this, without question.

CURWOOD: Now, Mark, the World Commission on Dams issued a major report about them. It's something that I guess came from the World Bank in fact. What does it have to say about big projects like the one on the Narmada?

HERTSGAARD: It's highly critical, surprisingly critical, I must say, Steve. This is a major report, the World Commission on Dams, that was initiated by The World Bank under pressure from activists around the world saying, "Why are you funding these big dams? You have to at least do an independent review of whether they're working." That review took two years. It drew on people from the industry, from activists, including the local activists fighting Narmada. And they came out and said it's true that big dams have given us benefits like electricity and irrigation. However, most of these benefits have been overstated. Most of them have gone to the already privileged parts of the society. And above all, these benefits have come with far too many damages, depriving people of their livelihoods, depriving them of their homes, and enormous damage to the natural environment in terms of loss of species, loss of forest and agricultural land. That's a rather extraordinary finding from a group that was, as you say, impaneled by The World Bank, which has funded so many of these big dams around the world.

CURWOOD: What are some of the specific recommendations that they're making here?

HERTSGAARD: The World Commission on Dams is recommending that, in the future, you have to secure public acceptance of a dam before you build it. That means you have to go to the people who are going to be affected and get them to agree. You have to also assess the real needs and explore alternatives to big dams, in particular increasing the efficiency of existing projects. One of the groups who's been very much out front on this, the International Rivers Network, said that if these criteria had been in place through the last 50 years, we wouldn't have any of the big dams that are out there now. And the U.S. Export-Import Bank has informally said that they will be adopting the Commission's guidelines and pushing the European development banks to do the same. If that happens, it's inconceivable that you will continue to see international capital flowing into all of these controversial projects. So I think that if that happens, this is going to be the end of big dam projects throughout the world.

CURWOOD: And speaking of The World Bank and the other international financial agencies, it was a year ago that all the demonstrations were against the World Trade Organization in Seattle. How has that movement aged?

HERTSGAARD: I think that movement is now trying to find its feet. After making a very big splash a year ago in Seattle, it has not been able to really get people out into the streets. Nor has it been able to articulate a coherent critique of what they want to do instead. Seattle was very successful in putting WTO on the agenda. But what you've got to do now if you're that movement is to say, here's what we want to do instead. And that, I think, will be the test of their progress in the future, whether they can come up with a compelling alternative to the current dynamic of globalization.

CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political observer. Always a pleasure, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.



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