Single poppy in wheat field

The environment as political football

In Business and Environment, Environment, Ethical and Eco Agriculture by David ScheelLeave a Comment

In the canon of celebrated environmentalists, the names of people such as David Suzuki, Tim Flannery, David Bellamy and Gerald Durrell will easily come to mind. Not so Joaquin Balaguer, yet here was a person who perhaps did more to preserve his country’s wilderness areas than anyone else in a similar position of power.

So, who was Joaquin Balaguer? History will remember him as one of the longest-serving presidents of the Dominican Republic, which occupies the eastern two-thirds of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola (the western section is Haiti). History will also recognise him as yet another tin-pot dictator, who ruled his country by manipulation and fear, in keeping with the caudillo tradition, which has dominated Latin American politics for over a century.

Balaguer came to power in 1965, shortly after the death of his mentor, the unspeakably brutal Rafael Trujillo (who was fittingly assassinated on his way to an assignation with his mistress!), and he controlled the Dominican Republic with an iron fist for 36 years, until he was well into his nineties. The president himself was not corrupt, although he tolerated corruption amongst his ministers and their wealthy hangers-on. But he drew the line at anything that might damage his country’s forests.

The reason for Balaguer’s passion for woodlands seems to have stemmed from his childhood, when he used to take long walks through the forest and acquired a genuine love of and respect for trees. However, it is likely that there was an equally strong, and parallel, political motivation. During his rise to power he had witnessed the complete mishandling of neighbouring Haiti under the murderous Duvaliers, pére et fils. Neither Papa nor Baby Doc had any interest in, or knowledge of, the environment. It was simply there to be exploited, and as a result Haiti’s forests were completely destroyed, mostly by peasant farmers who used the wood to make slow-burning charcoal for fuel. Balaguer wanted to show the world that his country was superior to, and more responsible than, Haiti.

Consequently, although Dominicans also converted native wood into charcoal, Balaguer put an end to the practice by importing timber from Honduras and the USA, and natural gas from Venezuela, which his government subsidised. Even more spectacularly, any projects that encroached on natural forests were destroyed, if necessary by military intervention, and even his rich property-developer friends were not spared. He also created marine reserves for humpback whales, protected coastlines and river banks, and even went so far as to insist that all fences should be made from live-rooted trees (although this scheme proved impossible to enforce).

The Dominican Republic today is still a desperately poor country, with very inefficient infrastructures. But thanks to Joaquin Balaguer it can boast the largest area (expressed as a percentage of total) of natural forest in Central America, and its zoo and natural history museum – both presidential projects – are major tourist attractions which bring in much needed foreign currency.

If we were to scroll down the list of presidents, prime ministers and premiers of all the world’s sovereign states, it is doubtful if we would find any whose environmental achievements matched those of Balaguer.

The question now is: why? And the answer is that, in general, politicians show little interest in the environment, and they have only demonstrated a fledgling awareness of it in very recent times, since such issues as climate change and fossil fuel shortages have been forced onto the agenda.

Yet environmental management, or more commonly, mismanagement, can wreak disastrous political consequences. As Jared Diamond points out in his brilliant new book, Collapse, entire civilisations have crumbled as a result of over-exploiting natural resources. Rampant deforestation on Easter Island brought about political anarchy, and water shortages caused the abandonment of the city of Mohenjo Daro in what is now Pakistan, and fragmented the powerful Mayan empire in the New World. To that list we can add the city state of Fatephur Sikri in India, not to mention the dozens of abandoned homesteads in South Australia. In some cases families ran these estates on an almost feudal basis, only to see their power – and wealth – eroded within a matter of a handful of years, when the rains, which they thought were predictable, turned out to be fickle in the extreme. The Flinders Ranges are littered with the eroded ruins to this day.

When it comes to what we might call mainstream, western-style politics, the environment only seems to play a role in times of plenty. This is well illustrated by the rise of the Green Party in Germany. Germany, or to put it more accurately, West Germany, was an economic miracle during the 1970s. Under the chancellorship of Willy Brandt, the country was the envy of Europe. Half the continent was struggling to cope with communist overlords, Spain was ruled by dictator Francisco Franco, France was treading water both politically and economically, and Britain was a complete basket case, riddled with strikes, cumbersome nationalised industries and a three-day working week.

But West Germany simply went from strength to strength, so much so that in the political arena, there were really no ‘issues’. With everyone living in a comfort zone, West Germans began thinking about wider questions, such as pollution, logging of forests, and loss of native animal and plant species. A green party was born, and within a very short space of time some of its members were elected to the Bundestag, even holding the balance of power for a while.

But all good things come to an end, and when the reunited Germany faced a major financial and infrastructural reconstruction after the collapse of communism, the population at large refocussed its attention on the hip pocket, and thus the greens lost considerable political ground. The movement is still strong in Germany, but it is not the force for change that it once was.

Closer to home, it is worth looking at the political role played by the environment in this country, and it comes as no great surprise that – almost until this year – that role has been very minor. Of course, we have had, and still have, green politicians in the senate, notably Bob Brown, but we should remember that the green flag is really only being flown by Tasmania, a state where projects such as the damming of Lake Pedder, and the ongoing logging of old growth forests have galvanised a significant proportion of the population into taking positive action. Greens, whether formally linked to a political party or not, are woefully under-represented throughout the country as a whole.

However, of late things appear to be changing, and interestingly, in an election year. New South Wales has already had its state election, and the Iemma government was returned with ease, as predicted. The campaign seemed to be without issues, although, given the fact that most voters live in the greater Sydney area, the opposition probably could have made more capital out of excessive tolls on the M7 motorway, and the Cross City tunnel debacle. Nevertheless, the government itself decided to make an issue out of the environment, and spent large sums of money on television advertising campaigns, aimed at bolstering its ‘clean and green’ credentials, by informing us that some 15 per cent of the state’s energy needs will come from non-fossil fuel sources by the year 2020.

At the risk of sounding cynical, plans already in place would achieve that target anyway, and it would have been more impressive to have upped the ante and set a figure of, say, 25 per cent, which would represent a genuine challenge to legislators.

With a Federal election looming, the environment again appears to be an issue, and its sudden elevation to political prominence has come from an unexpected source, namely the Prime Minister himself.

Historically, although it is not a hard and fast rule, the left wing of politics has tended to be more environmentally aware than the right. Therefore, in a sense, the PM has stolen Labor’s thunder by not only addressing issues such as climate change and control of water supply, but even going so far as to admit that views long-cherished on these topics were in fact wrong. There are plusses and minuses to consider here. The very fact that environmental questions are now in the limelight is a welcome, and overdue, initiative. However, if the proposed solutions include an increase in the number of nuclear power plants, wrongly situated windfarms, and an expansion of the system of carbon credits (which, as I have pointed out in previous articles, is open to abuse) then we are faced with nothing more than a set of grandiose, but ultimately empty gestures.

Labor’s response to the government’s proposals will be crucial, but thus far it seems to be in some sort of limbo, perhaps because the shadow Environment minister, so long an ardent campaigner outside political circles, is now firmly entrenched within them, and is having to learn the delicate art of compromise when it comes to the demands of other, more senior politicians, with more heavyweight portfolios, such as Treasury and Trade and Industry.

There is a solution to this sort of impasse, and it is a quick fix which I believe should be adopted not only by Australia, but by all other countries, especially in the First World. This is to elevate the Environment portfolio to cabinet rank. As far as I know, only a thimbleful of countries, such as Sweden, do this. If the Environment minister were more senior in the pecking order, he or she would then have the clout to negotiate with the more purely economically orientated departments on a more or less equal footing, and would be in a position to force a compromise in favour of the environment.

As things stand, it is almost always the environmental sector which has to give ground, and an excellent example of this can be seen in the American states of Arizona and Nevada, where the political guardians of those states’ natural resources are so powerless that mining companies routinely reap their profits, then declare bankruptcy when the mines are exhausted, leaving all the polluted waste from the operation in situ, and walking away from their responsibilities to clean up the used mine site. These are typically handed down to the taxpayer.

Returning to the domestic scene, it seems (to me at least) that both the major parties are finally taking on board such issues as global warming, energy shortages and pollution. This is welcome. However, the practical solutions to these problems, as currently on offer, appear to be falling short of the mark. And the minor parties are not demonstrating much in the way of credibility, either. For example, the Greens’ suggestion that all coal-related industries, including power stations, should be closed down within two years, may be laudable in its sentiment, but practically it is utterly unworkable. The economy is probably robust enough to take the strain, but the social impact would be too much, too soon, with all the country’s miners suddenly out of a job, having to be retrained, and most likely in occupations that offered a much smaller pay cheque. I totally agree that the mines should close over time, indeed so should all exploitation of fossil fuels, but that timeframe should take into account the gradual process of social readjustment. Ten years seems feasible, six perhaps, but two is ridiculous, and it is for this reason – and others like it – that the major parties can round upon the greens and accuse them of irresponsibility, by being too tunnel-visioned when it comes to saving the environment, and not thinking through the consequences of some of their actions.

That, perhaps, is the irony of the whole scenario in this election year. If only the newly invented, or re-invented ‘pro-environment pollies’ on both sides of the house could match the sentiments of the political minnows, and marry those to their expertise in legislation, we may – just may – end up with an environmentally responsible government. I wish I could believe that that will happen…


David Scheel is a concert pianist, composer and humourist. Away from live performance he is also a respected writer and broadcaster on environmental issues. He lives in the Blue Mountains, N.S.W.

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