“Although initially the Green Belt Movement’s tree planting activities did not address issues of democracy and peace, it soon became clear that responsible governance of the environment was impossible without democratic space. Therefore, the tree became a symbol for the democratic struggle in Kenya. Citizens were mobilized to challenge widespread abuses of power, corruption, and environmental mismanagement … .”
– Wangari Muta Maathai, Kenyan Environmental Activist and
2004 Nobel Peace Prize Winner, from her Nobel Laureate Lecture
The environment provides a powerful tool to promote democratic reform. Particularly among the poor, it offers a unique opening for localizing and building demand for democratic practices because of its connection with livelihoods. In turn, good environmental governance is essential to developing, strengthening, and consolidating democracy in the world’s poorest nations because it is a prerequisite for the poor to realize greater income from the environment.
Counteracting the bias against the poor that is embedded in government policies, institutions, and laws will require significant political change. That in turn demands greater access by the poor to true participation, accurate information, and fair representation. The environment itself provides one effective route for this needed transition to democratic decision-making. In countless communities in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, control over and use of natural resources are matters of everyday survival. These are governance issues with immediate bearing. The prospect of more equitable decisions about land and resources gives the ideals of democracy personal relevance to the poor. And it provides a motive for the kind of public activism that brings political change.
There are many examples of poor people organizing around environmental issues to prompt government action, gain rights, or call attention to gross inequities. The 1980s saw poor fishermen in the Indian state of Kerala organize to demand a seasonal ban on industrial trawlers that directly competed with local fishers and reduced their catch. Using tactics such as public fasts, road blocks, and marches against the government, the fishers became a political force that eventually coaxed fisheries managers to adopt a three-month seasonal ban on trawlers (Kurien 1992:238, 242-243). In Brazil’s Amazon region, rubber tappers joined forces with the Indigenous People’s Union to form the Alliance of Forest Peoples in the mid-1980s, demanding greater recognition of their resource rights. By 1995, their efforts had gained widespread support and the government designated some 900,000 ha of rainforest as Extractive Reserves (Brown and Rosendo 2000: 216).
Civil society in general has used the environment to great effect to push the process of democratization in regimes where civil liberties had been restricted. During the turn towards democracy in Chile and East Asia in the 1980s, and Eastern Europe in the 1990s, protests led by environment-focused civil society groups played an important role (McNeill 2000:347-348, WRI et al. 2003:67). For example, WAHLI, a prominent Indonesian environmental group, was one of the few NGOs tolerated by the Suharto government in the 1980s (Steele 2005). The power of the environment as a stage for social action arose for two reasons. First, environmental problems were serious and were widely known, and second, environmental protests were seen – at least initially – as less overtly “political” and hence were more tolerated by government authorities. This ability for the environmental movement to maneuver where other civil society groups have not been given as much latitude is now manifesting in China, where activity by environmental NGOs is increasing (Economy 2005:1).