Green fascism

By Anil Agarwal
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

There has never been a dearth of people in human history indulging in massacres and injustice in the name of God. The latest of the world's moralisers is a group called environmentalists, especially western environmentalists. And they come in all shapes and sizes -- from conservationists in the Switzerland-based World Wildlife Fund, to lawyers based in the London-based Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development to officials in the us government.

The setting for this hegemony is the unilateral ban imposed by the us government on import of shrimp which is caught in a way that endangered turtles could get affected. The us government has taken the action under its own national Endangered Species Act. And India, Pakistan, Thailand and Malaysia have jointly protested the action in the World Trade Organisation. A dispute panel is expected to give its judgement by the year-end. Meanwhile, wwf , a member of the global civil society, has prepared a submission for the panel prepared for it by the lawyers of field . wwf argues that the us is legitimate in taking such unilateral action. It says that marine turtles are (1) migratory animals; (2) a global resource and subject to stewardship by the international society; and, (3) even though no multilateral body or resolution has authorised the us to take such action, the us has acted in a manner consistent with its obligations and has taken reasonable measures to reflect the will of the international community. These arguments essentially parrot the us position that sea turtles are a shared global resource.

For the wto panel, the technical issue will be how to interpret the Article xx (g) which says that certain trade restrictive measures can be taken if they are 'relating to the conservation of exhaustible natural resources and if such measures are made effective in conjunction with restrictions on domestic production or consumption.' To pass this test, the earlier approach was that a measure had to be primarily aimed at conservation but more recently it has been modified to adopt a broader approach which says that a measure can pass this test if it has a substantial relationship to conservation. While the narrower test held the us action on tuna imports to be illegitimate, the broader test applied more recently in the us action against gasoline held the latter to be legitimate.

Regardless of the technical issues on which the wto panel decides, western environmentalists must recognise that there are fundamental flaws in using trade as a tool for controlling environmental misbehaviour. The use of trade sanctions can be effective only if used by a powerful country against a less powerful country. Compared to what the us is doing to another global shared resource, the world' climate, what India and others are doing to the marine turtle is a contemptuously small problem. But can the nations likely to be most affected by global warming -- the Maldives and Bangladesh -- impose trade sanctions on the us and expect it to be effective ?

The us has usually acted in the international environmental arena only when the action has not threatened its own national economic interests. In 1993, when the cites standing committee recommended trade measures against Taiwan and China, the us imposed unilateral trade sanctions against Taiwan under the 1971 Pelly Amendment to the 1967 Fishermen's Protective Act of usa but it did not pick up the courage to 'pelly' China.

All this, of course, is not to say that an environmentally errant nation like India should not be taken to task. Both under the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Law of the Sea, India is obligated to protect marine life. If India does not do so, it should be forced to comply with the obligations it has itself accepted. But two wrongs -- one by India and one by usa -- does not make a right. What is needed is a complaint and penalty mechanism under the environmental treaties. Such a mechanism would be fair and just because then even the most powerful nations would have to submit themselves to complaints against them.

One issue in the shrimp-turtle case is that poor fisherfolk cannot afford the cost of turtle extruders. The funding of environmentally-harmonious production systems, particularly which impact on the lives of poor people, too must incorporate elements of justice in its structure. Every rich person in the world -- whether he/she is in New Delhi or New York -- must be forced to pay for the conservation of endangered species and a global fund be set up to help the poor to move into environmentally-responsible livelihoods.

Democracy works only when there are more rules and mechanisms to control the rich and powerful than the poor. Members of the civil society like wwf and field must learn to find other ways to bring nations to book.

The principle of cooperation would suggest that Western ngo s make a big effort to work with the civil society of the errant nations, convince them of the irresponsibility their leaders and then force them to change through the democratic processes available locally. Such an approach would strengthen the global society. And, of course, they have every right to shame a nation into compliance by launching an international campaign. But supporting a powerful state to intervene in the affairs of a less powerful one is indefensible.

Anil Agarwal

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