Civil society in Asia is turning green — not with envy, but in its increasing interest to promote environmentally sound and sustainable growth on the continent. The trigger is the evident risk of climate change. The hope is to define and take measures that mitigate such risks. The focus of the measures are governments and businesses.
A three-day, seven-country Asian Commonwealth Conference on strengthening the role of civil society and media in climate adaptation and disaster risk reduction was held in Chennai from 23-25 April. Participants — 53 organizations from across Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and the Maldives — proposed a pan-commonwealth network of civil society to encourage and ensure that Asia realigns economic growth on a “green and clean” basis. They reported a desperate need in Asian communities for clean air through the use of low-emission vehicles, solar energy for street lighting, cooling and other energy needs, and cultivation of organic food to reduce the use of polluting pesticides and herbicides. They discussed practical action at the national, regional and international levels.
First, participants explored ways in which civil society at the regional level could engage international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, and encourage wealthy nations to direct resources in a manner that favours green growth in low-income countries. Asia offers a great opportunity to explore what can happen when international funds are used to stimulate ecologically sound economic growth. The idea of an Asian Monetary Fund was discussed.
Second, participants explored ways to work with national governments to levy corporations and businesses using non-green technologies — while they take the necessary measures to turn green — to build an Asian fund that compensates people most at risk due to climate change. Even after all-out efforts to assist communities in Asia’s coastal, desert and flood plain regions, a substantial number continues to be exposed to the negative impact of climate change and therefore requires provisions for food, shelter, livelihood, health care and education. Participants considered it important that civil society participate in deciding the role of the Asian Development Bank in shaping the fund mentioned above.
Third, the participants agreed that polluters should not be allowed to get away with simply paying for polluting, but, in fact, should be required to prevent pollution. The recklessness of paying to pollute is now simply intolerable. Civil society in Asia should relentlessly engage businesses in finding ways to prevent water, land, air and vegetation pollution. Further, civil society should educate citizens to demand such preventive measures. An annual Asia-wide citizen’s list of top polluters and top pollution preventers could be a part of this effort.
Fourth, those who claim a right to property, such as agricultural land or irrigation water, must take up the responsibility of sustaining land and water supply. A corporate farmer who takes more than 1,000 acres of wetland for palm oil plantation in coastal South-East Asia should be encouraged to maintain priceless ecological diversity on the farm. Buying and selling land should not be seen as a mere economic transaction but also an ecological transaction that must be accounted for.
Fifth, participants explored the idea that higher wages should be offered for green jobs and a severe tax placed on those jobs in polluting factories and industries. For example, workers at solar-powered tool plants would earn higher wages, while workers earning wages from fossil fuel factories would pay higher taxes. Similarly, backwater fisherwomen would be paid higher wages than deep-sea trawler workers.
As various Asian countries experience growth, it is necessary for communities across the continent to explore ways of addressing the risks of climate change. Neither silence nor protest alone will work.
Mihir R. Bhatt is director, All India Disaster Mitigation Institute, Ahmedabad. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org