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Dispatches from AAN
Citizens groups provide hope for environment

Arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh
A doctor examines a woman suffering from arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh.

The Japan-China Workshop on Environmental Dispute Resolution held in Beijing last September produced a number of surprises.

First, a farmer who had traveled from Inner Mongolia protested: ‘‘Sulphur dioxide from a nearby copper refinery killed my orchard. I appealed to the government, but to no avail. I went to court and spent all my money on legal fees, but nothing has been resolved.’’

Japanese participants could not believe their ears. None of them had ever heard a Chinese pollution victim speak so openly in front of both foreign nationals and Chinese officials.

The joint workshop was the brainchild of a Japanese research group, the Japan Environmental Council, and China University of Political Science and Law’s Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims. While the Chinese body sounds like an academic institution, it is in fact a nongovernmental organization founded in 1998 to help pollution victims in China, and it provides free legal advice by phone and mail.

Another surprise at the workshop came when a judge said: ‘‘Judges lack sufficient basic knowledge of pollution lawsuits. Without an independent judiciary, it is difficult for judges to pass appropriate judgments.’’

There was also a report from a doctor, who said: ‘‘The reckless plundering of mines is causing cadmium poisoning. Victims are showing symptoms similar to Japan’s itai itai sickness.’’

Among the Japanese participants in the workshop were plaintiffs and lawyers involved in air pollution lawsuits in Nishi-Yodogawa, Osaka Prefecture, and Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, who shared their experiences with Chinese victims and lawyers.

What took place at the workshop was reported in Chinese newspapers and even on television. The event proved that pollution victims in China had started to speak out.

All over Asia, citizens are helping one another across national borders. Transnational civic cooperation is becoming a regional movement that no longer relies on governments and corporations to solve environmental problems. Citizens are finding their own answers to such problems, and are actually solving them.

In Asia, when development was in the hands of dictators, there was little room for civil society to grow and cross-border cooperation among citizens was extremely difficult. But as countries became more democratic and China proceeded on its course of reform and liberalization, civic activities became inseparable from environment issues.

Citizens’ groups often begin collaboration when pollution victims start sharing their experiences. The Japan-China workshop is a typical example.

Another example is in Bangladesh, where an NGO called Asia Arsenic Network is collaborating with the Japan International Cooperation Agency in Sharsha, Jessore, to run the Mobile Arsenic Center Project.

Asia Arsenic Network was formed in 1994 by a group of people who supported the victims of the Toroku mine pollution in Takachiho, Miyazaki Prefecture. Having supported miners suffering from arsenic poisoning, they knew from experience the importance of going into villages and looking for a solution from the victims’ viewpoint. They apply the same hands-on approach in Bangladesh.

In Bangladesh, many children used to get sick or die from drinking dirty surface water. The government and international aid groups drilled wells all over the country, and there are now more than 5 million in Bangladesh.

But in the 1990s, dangerous levels of arsenic were detected in many of the wells. Millions of people were found to be suffering from arsenic poisoning. The well water had been contaminated by dissolved arsenic from the surrounding soil.

Arsenic seeped into the water when agricultural production increased the need for water and led to excessive use of the wells. Some say more than 30 million people in Bangladesh still drink contaminated water.

The Mobile Arsenic Center Project is conducting a survey of 20,000 wells in 172 villages. If the well water is not fit for drinking, they look for an alternative water source.

As dictatorships have collapsed across Southeast Asia, and increasingly democratic societies are seeing the growth of domestic citizens’ groups, more NGOs now organize cross-border cooperation projects to tackle the cross-border problems of the region.

In June 2000, Satoru Matsumoto of the NGO Mekong Watch, Japan, received this urgent e-mail from a colleague in Thailand’s Mekong River area: ‘‘The police are going to remove the citizens.’’

Citizens were staging sit-ins to protest the Pak Mun Dam in northeastern Thailand, and police were trying to forcibly remove them.

The Pak Mun Dam was completed in 1994 with World Bank loans, but the project was highly controversial and resulted in serious damage to the fisheries of the Mun River, a major tributary of the Mekong. Citizens are demanding the dam be opened and eventually demolished.

The warning that people were being removed spread instantly from the Mekong to Bangkok, to Asian NGOs and to the rest of the world. Mekong Watch appealed to the World Bank and the Thai government to stop the use of force, and bloodshed was avoided.

In Asia, citizens’ groups monitor not only the Mekong, but also other waterways and forests. There is a mailing list relating to every issue, creating a loose yet multilayered network of active citizens.

Asia’s plethora of environmental issues makes it crucial that governments, private companies and citizens collaborate to tackle problems. Otherwise, there is no hope for sustainable development. For this three-pronged collaboration to work, members of the public need to empower themselves by linking with citizens’ groups and establishing themselves as equal players with the more powerful governments and companies.

The empowerment of citizens’ groups will force governments and companies to heed their concerns and seek closer ties and collaboration with transnational, crossborder civil societies. * * *

Editor’s note: These articles originally appeared in Japanese in the Feb. 3 edition of The Asahi Shimbun.

(IHT/Asahi: April 5,2002)

           Environmental governance

In most Asian countries, governments have long been the sole keepers of forests and rivers. But government control has often proved inadequate in protecting these resources, producing victims with no say in how the environment should be managed.

Environmental governance is a framework in which the environment is regarded as a common resource to be protected and managed not only by governments, but by governments, private companies and citizens’ groups working together.

It is a management system in which all interested parties are tasked with protecting a sustainable natural environment.

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