THE EDITOR, Sir:
Whenever the Government is at odds with journalists and environmentalists, I become worried. Whenever the Government prevails, I panic.
The problem surrounds the fact that there are whispers here and there that the Chinese are going to carry out a project on the Goat Islands that could radically transform what presently exists there. Concerned groups can't seem to get the Government to say definitely what is going on. What is even more worrying is that these islands are a part of the Portland Bight Protected Area declared under the Natural Resources Conservation Authority Act of 1990 and is a wetland of international importance declared under the Ramsar Convention of 2006.
All around the world people and the environment have suffered because potentially dangerous projects have been undertaken with disastrous results. In most of these cases, governments have collaborated with multinational corporations ostensibly providing jobs and prosperity. But when problems occur, these corporations manufacture a variety of excuses to distance themselves from the outcomes. Here are examples:
LESSON FROM AROUND THE WORLD
"In Turkmenistan, a drilling made by Soviet geologists in 1971 gave way to a large hole 70 metres in diameter exposing a large methane gas reservoir. They decided to burn of the gas. Today, 42 years later, the gas is still burning.
"Vermiculite mines in Montana gave local residents jobs and helped the local economy. But due to the mines' high use of asbestos, the residents suffered related disorders like mesothelioma. So because of mine activities that started 94 years ago, residents are still suffering today."
In 1964, Texaco started drilling for oil in the Ecuadorian rainforest. The Cofan, indigenous people who drink, fish and bathe in the Amazon began noticing a stench coming from the water. It turned out that Texaco's run-off system for its pollutants was entering that section of the river from which the Cofans take their water. Some 18 billion gallons of run-off were found in the river. That is 30 times the Exxon-Valdez spill. In response to the extraordinarily high levels of cancer the people are experiencing since this problem started, Texaco says their system is "within industry standards". It is the Amazon Defense Front - not their government - that is fighting for these victims.
In 1984, a Union Carbide pesticide accident in Bhopal, India resulted in the release of poisonous gasses that killed more than 5,000 (activists claim it was closer to 25,000). About 500,000 residents continue to suffer from birth defects, blindness, early menopause and many other debilitating conditions. Twenty-six years later, seven men were found to be accountable and sentenced to two years. They were immediately released on bail under circumstances in which no one expects them to spend a day in prison. Incredibly, the Indian government continues to deny that any chemicals are at the site despite the fact that it has been proven scientifically, repeatedly, that chemicals are poisoning Bhopal's water supply. Last time I checked, they were still trying to find the CEO of Union Carbide.
Amazingly, none of the countries in which these tragedies occur seem to have leaders that see the need to act on behalf of their people against these corporate giants. At the same time, the off shore bank accounts of some of these officials are swelling at an alarming rate.
The lessons to be learnt from those genuine mistakes we have made with our resources in the past can be limited to regulation and enforcement. These are critical. If nothing else, the worldwide examples shown above reveal that business without regulation is scarcely distinguishable from organised crime. And regulation without strict enforcement borders narrowly on the criminal.
So the Goat Islands are to be made available to the Chinese. How important will our environmental concerns be to them? Their president claimed recently that he was going to be tough on persons who abused the environment. He said in part, they would be promoting a "... green, sustainable low carbon development pattern". Good. But it's just that I have a difficulty exorcising some reports and images from my mind.
Poor countries are not poor because they have no resources. Poor countries are poor because of the corrupt and cavalier way in which their resources are managed.
The ability of wetlands to recycle nutrients makes them critical to the overall functioning of the earth. No other ecosystem is as productive, nor as unique in this conversion process. We dispose of them for all sorts of reasons. Houses can be built almost anywhere. You can't do that with wetlands. It is my opinion that our economic future lies in the ocean. It should be left in its pristine state until there is an accurate current baseline of the number and kinds of flora and fauna, when we can determine if and how the ecosystem is changing and develop appropriate technologies to monitor marine systems autonomously.
In none of the tragedies above did the leadership of the countries involved consult the people. That's the main reason why I find the official opacity in this case deeply troubling.