This article originally apeared in Toward Freedom, May 1997.

Environmental awareness in the industrialized world is still often seen as a product of affluence and economic security. Despite the very real and immediate consequences of air and water pollution, habitat destruction, and the disproportionate siting of toxic industrial facilities in the most impoverished communities, environmental problems continue to be disparaged as an elite concern. Wider international acceptance of an environmental agenda, we are often told, will first require the elevation of the world’s poor to First World levels of consumption. Mainstream environmental groups often unwittingly perpetuate this view by divorcing environmental concerns from their broader social and political context.

The emergence of articulate and sometimes militant Third World voices in the ecology movement during the past decade offers a necessary and urgent counterpoint to such myths. In societies where people still live close to the land, the ecological integrity of that land is far from a luxury. Indeed, for people struggling to sustain traditional ways of life amidst sometimes overwhelming development pressures, maintaining their home region’s forests, soils, water and wildlife is clearly a matter of day-to-day survival. The ideas and actions of ecological movements in the Third World thus complement the efforts of grassroots eco-activists in the United States, and also offer an important challenge to the largely deficient international campaigns of the leading mainstream environmental groups. Further, they offer support for the growing understanding that neoliberalism’s social and economic dislocations, rather than population growth or “underdevelopment,” are the main cause of poverty, malnutrition, social decay and environmental destruction.

Since the late 1980s, activists in the North have become increasingly aware of movements of Third World peoples struggling to protect their traditional lands from the ravages of the global market economy. The struggles of indigenous peoples in the tropical rainforests, from Brazil to Malaysia, first began to arouse many northern environmentalists to the importance of an internationalist perspective. The dramatic actions of rainforest peoples such as the Yanomami and the Penan, who regularly put their lives on the line to resist the incursions of multinational timber interests, are sometimes reported even in the mainstream media.

Another movement that has gained widespread attention is the Chipko, or tree-hugging movement, which was initiated by indigenous women northern India’s Himalayan highlands of in the 1970s. Merging a traditional Hindu devotion to the integrity of the forests with the more recent tradition of Gandhian nonviolence, the women and men of Chipko have intervened against the exploitation of native forests and the displacement of indigenous ecosystems by plantations of commercially valued trees. Fasting, embracing ancient trees, lying down in front of logging trucks, and removing planted eucalyptus seedlings that strain precious groundwater supplies, the people of Chipko have asserted that the forests’ role in replenishing the soil, water and air must take precedence over their exploitation as a source of exotic timber for export.

Larry Lohmann of The Ecologist magazine, who spent many years living and working in Thailand, has highlighted the uniqueness and diversity of such movements. Movements such as Chipko are rarely simply “environmental” in the terms seen by most Westerners. They emerge from a complex interplay of social, political, cultural, historical and ecological factors and, more often than not, defy Western dualisms of public vs. private ownership, morality vs. self interest, biocentrism vs. anthropocentrism, militancy vs. pragmatism. More often than not, they emerge from people’s determination to sustain traditional communal systems of livelihood, production and allocation, rooted in distinct cultural and social patterns, from the intolerably destabilizing pressures of Western development. These movements emerge, in Lohmann’s words, from “the democratically evolving practices of ordinary people.”

The North’s “free trade” policies, often viewed in remote, statistical terms by northern activists, are also a matter of daily urgency to many Third World peoples. For example, farmers in India have developed a militant movement against the corporate control of agriculture. Under the guise of fighting hunger, corporate agribusiness has heightened social inequality in many of the world’s agricultural regions and made people increasingly dependent on the corporate-dominated global economy. At the same time, industrial farming methods lower groundwater levels, poison the land with chemicals and undermine the species diversity that has long sustained indigenous agricultures.

Farmers in the southwestern Indian state of Karnataka have focused on the increasing dominance of Cargill and other transnational corporations, and the threat they pose to land, water and regional food security. In 1992, activists entered Cargill’s regional office in Bangalore, removed records and supplies of seeds and tossed them into a bonfire, reminiscent of the bonfires of British textiles during India’s independence movement. The following summer, 200 members of the state’s peasant organization dismantled Cargill’s regional seed storage unit and razed it to the ground. In October of 1993, half a million farmers joined a day-long procession and rally in Bangalore to protest corporate control of agriculture, the patenting of seeds and other life forms, and the new trade and patent rules required by the then-proposed GATT agreement. Their demands included a strong affirmation of the tradition of free cultivation and exchange of seeds by India’s farmers, a tradition that is threatened by the emerging global regime of “intellectual property rights.”

Such movements stand in sharp contrast to the images of helpless Third World peoples that we usually see in the mainstream press, images which are reinforced by many mainstream environmentalists’ singular focus on population growth. The population issue is readily exploited by those who would sever the fundamental link between ecology and social justice, for example the World Wildlife Fund which, in the late 1980s, described the world’s poor as the “most direct threat to wildlife and wildlands.” Concerns about population growth have largely become a smokescreen to obscure the patterns of colonialism and exploitation that are primarily responsible for the destruction of the South’s ecological integrity. Discussions of over-population invariably focus on countries in Africa and southern Asia, rather than Holland, for example, which probably has the world’s highest population density, or Japan, which has long imported much of its food, timber and other necessities. Population growth in the Third World cannot be dismissed as a matter of ecological concern, but it is clearly a symptom, rather than a cause, of environmental and social degradation.

Even those institutions most responsible for the present state of affairs are being pressed to acknowledge the reality of who is really overconsuming the earth’s resources. The World Bank, for example, has helped drive countless countries into debilitating cycles of poverty and dependency, in the name of “structural adjustment”: the reorientation of the world’s economies toward debt repayment, privatization of public services and the promotion of foreign investment. However, even the Bank is compelled to acknowledge that industrialized countries, with barely 20 percent of the world’s population, consume well over 80 percent of the goods. Between 1900 and 1990, the world’s human population tripled, but fossil fuel use increased thirty times and industrial output increased fifty-fold. A more graphic example is cited by the Malaysian activist Martin Khor, who decries the “gross inequalities in the use of natural resources epitomized by the fact that New Yorkers use more energy commuting in a week than the energy used by all Africans for all uses in a year . . .” There is clearly nothing inevitable about the relationship between population and consumption, especially when considered in regionally-specific terms.

Still, many mainstream environmentalists endorse the view that development is the answer to inequality, even if it is carried out with only a veneer of environmental sustainability. For many Third World activists, this is merely the latest incarnation of the five-hundred-year legacy of European colonialism. As Muto Ichiyo, of the Tokyo-based Pacific-Asia Resource Center describes it, “Economic development, which was supposed to raise the world out of poverty, has so far only transformed undeveloped poverty into developed poverty, traditional poverty into modernized poverty designed to function smoothly in the world economic system.” It brings toxic hazards, such as Bhopal—where families of the victims of the 1984 chemical explosion are still pursuing legal charges against the executives of Union Carbide—and sweatshop industries that assault people’s health and well being.

One particularly insidious expression of the current development paradigm has been the active participation of some U.S.-based environmental groups in government-funded international development efforts. International development assistance ostensibly designed to encourage the use of environmental technologies is often used as a wedge to satisfy the needs of transnational capital. A recent report by the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), for example, advocated “the forging of environmental policies to favor private sector, market-based solutions . . . and supporting market-based approaches to biodiversity preservation and enhancement.” Technical assistance to address environmental problems is often tied to the enactment of measures to limit the liability of foreign investors for environmental damages. In 1993, $132 million in such assistance was funded by AID and channeled through the international activities of environmental organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund, Nature Conservancy, Conservation International and the World Resources Institute, according to Tom Barry of the Interhemispheric Resource Center .

As India’s Vandana Shiva often points out, development does much more than perpetuate poverty and sustain the institutions of northern domination. It systematically degrades the knowledge, skills and cultural practices that have made it possible for people to thrive completely outside of a commercial context for thousands of years. In India, development turns once self-reliant farmers into “credit addicts and chemical addicts,” in Africa, it turns indigenous pastoralists into beggars at elite safari camps, and even in the West, in the boreal forests of northern Quebec, for example, it has meant the relocation of many recently intact Cree villages into prefabricated neighborhoods entirely dependent on imported consumer goods. Once relocated into the global market—economy, physically, economically, and culturally as well—people invariably confront the same debilitating social ills that affect urbanized and suburban peoples throughout the world.

In the late 1980s and early nineties, the concept of “sustainable development” became widely accepted as an agenda for reconciling environmental protection with economic development. The term emerged from a series of United Nations studies and commissions, culminating in the widely quoted 1988 Brundtland Commission report, Our Common Future, and the 1992 U.N. “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro. While the Rio conference made sustainable development a household term among mainstream environmentalists, and helped enshrine it as the official policy of government agencies throughout the world, many activists in both the North and South see it as a fundamental contradiction in terms.

For most of these governments, and many international agencies as well, the project of making development environmentally sustainable has been transformed into one of sustaining development and economic growth. Clearly, the earth’s ecosystems cannot possibly survive the five-to ten-fold increase in economic activity predicted by sustainable develoment advocates beginning with the Brundtland Commission. Two hundred years of industrial development in the North occurred largely at the expense of the lands, resources and people of the South. Where will the emerging middle classes of the developing world’s cities find the equivalent resources to appropriate in the name of development? What promise does this development offer to the tens of millions of people who have been forced off the land and into the maelstrom of the global cash economy?

Realizing the long-range impossibility—and the immediate social and ecological consequences—of the Western model of development, ecologists and traditional peoples throughout the Third World are seeking a different kind of vision for the future, which embraces indigenous traditions and rejects the mythical benefits of replacing subsistence-based economies with ones that rely on buying and selling commodified goods. Campaigns to resist intrusions of the market economy against traditional lands and economic practices are rarely reported in the official international press, but such efforts have spread throughout the world, and are becoming more organized and more politically conscious.

Farmers from Ecuador to West Africa to the Philippines are returning to traditional farming methods and banning the use of chemicals and modern machinery in their traditional territories. Fishing communities in India and the Philippines have established coastal zones from which mechanized commercial fishing boats are banned. Activists in Malaysia forced the cancellation of a $5 billion mega-dam project that would have displaced 9000 people and become the second largest such project in the world.

A landless people’s movement in Brazil has occupied traditional lands, rejecting the control of absentee landowners committed to raising cash crops, and people throughout southern Mexico, inspired by the example of the Zapatista rebels of the state of Chiapas, are defying the corrupt political oligarchy that has dominated that country for nearly seventy years. The Zapatista rebellion of January 1994 coincided with the enactment of NAFTA and pledged to reverse the Mexican government’s abolition of constitutionally guaranteed communal land rights. One town in central Mexico expelled officials who supported the construction of luxury hotels, condominiums and a golf course on indigenous lands, and declared a “free municipality” independent of the state government. These are only a few examples of the resistance to Northern-imposed models of development that is spreading throughout the world.

With inequalities in wealth and power within the industrialized societies beginning to parallel the huge disparities between North and South, it is clear that the ecological crisis cannot be addressed without seriously confronting the underlying causes of poverty and inequality. It is vital that we understand how the world looks when one steps outside the boundaries of a Northern industrial, consumerist world-view. The traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples and the social and economic analysis of Third World activists are helping to unmask the green facade of neocolonialism, and challenge the political complacency of many Northern environmentalists, as well. This challenge has become especially urgent as mainstream environmental groups help legitimate the use of environmental rhetoric by the U.S. government, the World Bank and other global institutions.

“Given the key role they are fated to play in the politics of an ever-shrinking world,” Tom Athanasiou writes in his pioneering book, Divided Planet, “it is past time for environmentalists to face their own history . . .” Environmentalists have become advocates, sometimes unwittingly, “merely for the comforts and aesthetics of affluent nature lovers,” Athanasiou continues. Today this is no longer tolerable. “They have no choice. History will judge greens by whether they stand with the world’s poor.” To adopt such a stance, and heed the messages of Third World ecologists, may ultimately help us discover what is most sustainable in our own diverse cultures as well.