Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at


Environmentalism has finally become part of the dominant discourse. 'development' has given way to 'sustainable development', and 'growth' has given way to 'green growth'.

Yet the ruling paradigm about environmental issues continues to be biased in favour of the North, and the elites of the South. This bias creates a number of misconceptions about environmental issues in the Third World. The first misconception is that Third World countries need 'development' and cannot afford the luxury of protecting nature's ecological processes. The second misconception, closely related to the first, is that poor people cannot be a source of ecological solutions, they are merely a source of environmental problems.

However, as the case studies and analysis of this book show development is not universally benign. Development for some means underdevelopment and dispossession of many. Development interventions aimed at commercialization of natural resources involve a major shift in the manner in which rights to resources are perceived and exercised. It transforms commons into commodities and deprives the politically weak communities of access to resources, and robs resources from nature, to generate growth on the market for more privileged groups in society. This transformation in the Third World is often state mediated, though the final outcome is privatization. For example, dams are constructed using state funds to provide energy and water for private industry and cash crop cultivation. Most critical ecology movements are based on the need to protect nature and the need to strengthen people's collective rights to common resources. The emergence of social movements around ecological issues related to forests and water systems, indicates that it is the marginal communities in the Third World for whom the protection of nature is essential for survival. From their perspective, it is destructive development which is a luxury that the Third World cannot afford. Also, ecology and economics are not opposed, but converge in the survival economies of the Third World poor.

Only market driven economies are in conflict with people's survival and nature's regeneration. Nature and people are, however, never taken into account in development plans which emerge from the North, in terms of their intellectual and political genesis. Through international aid, control over resources has shifted from local communities to national and international financial institutions. Forestry projects, dam projects, and fisheries projects tie the resources of the remotest village to international investment and aid. Multilateral development agencies such as the World Bank give loans to environmentally sensitive areas like agriculture, forestry and irrigation and through those loans give primacy to the market economy, and render nature's economy and the survival economy as dispensable. Through internationally financed development projects, conflicts over natural resources pit tribal and peasant communities against international institutions, with the state acting as an agent of dispossession of local communities, to clear the way for global plans and ideologies of development. The case studies in the volume show how conflicts that emerged with colonialism have deepened and expanded through the development era.

As the western world celebrates the victory of market democracy over state socialism in Eastern Europe, the Third World experience takes on a new relevance. As Marc Nerfin has so aptly put it, the Third World embodies both metaphorically and symbolically a Third system, based neither on the supremacy of the 'prince' (state) nor the merchant (market). but on the supremacy of the citizen. Third World ecology movements which resist the destruction caused by state managed market development are challenging the concepts of politics and economics as defined within the narrow confines of the market. They reveal that there is a notion of democracy which is wider and deeper than market democracy. This is the ecological concept of democracy of all life based on the recognition of the right to life of non-human nature and all segments of human society, including those large numbers which do not, and cannot, produce and consume within the market, and who are treated as dispensable in the logic of the market. They also show that there is a wider concept of economy which is based on the maintenance of life and livelihood, not merely on the accumulation of profits.

In an era of rising 'green capitalism' where justice has become obsolete and has been separated from issues of sustainability, people's ecology movements in the Third World highlight the way in which issues of ecology and equity, sustainability and justice are intimately linked to one another. They provide an alternative perception of ecology as the politics of survival, based on the production and maintenance of life, not of profits. It is this alternative from a Third World perspective that this book attempts to articulate.

Contents - Previous - Next