The Struggle for Environmental Justice

By Sada Reddi

Leftist parties must pursue a radical policy with regard to the environment. They should broaden their policy to empower citizens to become the trustees of the environment

For a long time there has been consensus in the country that development must be sustainable and the protection of the environment should be the responsibility of one and all. The concept ‘Maurice Ile Durable’ inaugurated a new politics of the environment, and there were hopes that our lands and seas would get all the protection they needed so that our citizens could live harmoniously with the environment. These hopes have turned into despair as we learn every day that capitalist predators have set their eyes on every bit of our environment to make a profit out of it – and that too in complete disregard of the deleterious consequences that result from their action and of measures to protect out environment.

Property developers are building on sand dunes and wet lands; they are destroying the lagoons, appropriating beaches, nature reserves and Crown Lands to the detriment of citizens. This plundering of natural resources is always accompanied by promises that measures have been or would be taken to safeguard the environment. As everybody knows, these promises are hardly going to be respected once licences have been obtained. What usually happens is that the conditions applied for the obtention of these licences are violated in the long term; what is even worse is that there is no public agency to check violations and impose redress on the grounds that it is too late and the damage is irreversible.

The anxieties and concerns expressed regularly regarding the deterioration of the environment suggest that the protection of the environment is becoming an elusive goal. One can blame some of our citizens for failing in their duty as stewards of the environment and for being irresponsible or for contributing to the current state of things. But that the general public’s share of the blame should not make us lose sight that it is the decision makers, both in the public and private sectors, who despite their rhetoric, are the main culprits. More than anybody else they are to be blamed for the many failures in protecting the environment and putting the lives and livelihoods of the present and future generations in peril.

The relentless pursuit of profits together with the collusion of some public officers, who choose to feather their own nests rather than protect the environment, are two major factors destroying the environment. Even when money or material gain is not an issue for the bureaucrats, abstaining from taking important decisions or facing them is a means to avoid being blamed for anything. Nobody can deny that this enterprise of destruction would not have been possible if public officers had fulfilled their duties without fear and favour. How to explain those projects aimed at plundering the natural resources of the country in complete disregard of the environmental laws and regulations? The recent case of two major protagonists disputing the resources of the sea among themselves clearly shows that none of them can think beyond their narrow self-interest.

One would expect the state and its many institutions to be in the forefront of the protection of the environment, the resources of the country and the rights of its citizens. This does not appear to be the case anymore. Even when one or two institutions live up to their mission and objectives, the state may be seen joining the fray to undermine its own institutions. Even worse, the Economic development Board, which is expected to promote responsible and sustainable investment, seems to be on the side of the predators. It is seeking powers to bypass the Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) for major projects, when it is well known that big projects always carry the risks of major ecological disasters.

Not content with rolling the red carpet for the plunderers, the State instead of empowering such groups that are active in safeguarding the environment, is resorting to a policy of demonizing citizens, presenting their action as an obstacle to development, which in their view means simply filling the pockets of the capitalists. Unhesitatingly and unscrupulously, the state has found no better way to assist its acolytes than by sending the police after those who want to protect the integrity of our land and sea for our citizens. The police is being used to frighten citizens and repress protest and resistance. It is not surprising that environmentalists are being arrested and a myriad of ways are being employed to harass those seeking environmental justice.

When people lose trust in institutions that have been set up to defend their rights and the natural resources of the country, it is the citizens who have to be further empowered to take up the whole responsibility of preserving the island for the future generations. Some NGOs and leftist parties have been doing a laudable job in limiting the damage to the environment. They had been denouncing those in the corporate sector who with their money and their money-politics feel that they can trample on the rights of citizens with impunity.

In such a chaotic situation, leftist parties must pursue a radical policy with regard to the environment. They should broaden their policy to empower citizens to become the trustees of the environment, not only the natural environment but also the day-to-day environment in which citizens live and work. The corporate sector has already come up with an array of tactics to harass citizens and even going as far as recruiting and goading citizens to mount their own protests against fellow citizens protesting against threats to our environment. That’s reminiscent of the divide-and-rule policy of the colonial era.

Concerned citizens too have to mobilize and come up with new tactics as well. They should draw up a list of climate criminals and enemies of the environment. For example, we all know that plastics are doing a lot of harm to the country, yet plastic bottles are still used by several industries without any real effort being made to prevent the invasion of our island by plastics. Citizens should also be encouraged to develop alternative styles of living and consumption in harmony with our environment. We should encourage our young people to boycott the use of plastic products and look for alternatives.

Religious organizations have so far kept away from denouncing the environment criminals. They cannot remain silent if they care for the citizens. Promoting a safe environment for all forms part of the struggle for social justice.

There is a real sense of urgency for all citizens to take up the cause of the environment — to preserve the lagoons, beaches, forests and all the natural reserves of the country for our children and future generations. This forms part of our human rights for clean air, clean water, clean land and clean sea. At present pollution, toxic waste, destruction of nature and livelihoods are all features of environmental injustice as they weigh disproportionately on the poor. Striving for environmental justice must become the rallying call for all our citizens.

* Published in print edition on 31 May 2019

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