"We are living in a phase in which we have to renew our thinking daily to be able to renew life on earth. First and foremost, we need to keep nature's economy alive. Only on that basis can the planet be sustained." Those were the words of Vandana Shiva, executive director of the Research Foundation for Science and Ecology in Dehra Dun, India, as she gave one of the opening presentations at the Fourth Biennial Congress on The Fate and Hope of the Earth held in Managua June 5-9.
The Olof Palme convention center in Managua was transformed into an international crossroads as first and third worlds met and indigenous delegates from around the world took part. Over 1,000 delegates from more than 60 countries, including Malaysia, the Soviet Union, the Philippines, New Zealand, Brazil, Norway, Angola, the United States, Colombia and the Palau islands of Micronesia flooded into Nicaragua for the Congress. Congress organizers had been expecting just over 600. One of the goals of the Congress was to strengthen South-South ties, as well as work towards a better balance in North-South relations. And, at least for the week, the goal was easily met.
Many delegates, particularly those from the Third World, were pleased that the congress was held in the South for the first time, and the final plenary voted to hold the Fifth Biennial in Zimbabwe. The first Fate of the Earth meeting was called by US ecologists from the Earth Island Institute and held in the United States, with the two subsequent meetings taking place in the US and Canada.
It was thus something of a novelty when the Nicaraguan Association of Biologists and Ecologists (ABEN) and the Nicaraguan Natural Resource Institute (DIRENA) offered to host the fourth meeting in Nicaragua. David Brower, a prime mover behind the first three meetings and a member of the organizing committee for the Managua meeting, said there was some initial doubt as to whether Nicaragua could pull it off. But in a closing address to the Congress, he thanked Nicaragua, calling the meeting "a tremendous success."
Many of the delegates noted some very Nicaraguan characteristics. In one of the closing day's plenary sessions, a Sandinista army official who was a delegate to the Congress asked for the floor, moving moderator Martín Khor of Malaysia to comment that only in Nicaragua would one be likely to "find soldiers at a conference on the environment."
From green capitalists to guinea pigsPlenary and working sessions dealt with subjects ranging from toxic waste dumping to the environmental impact of regional conflicts. Most of the delegates stressed that one of the key environmental problems facing the planet is the development model current in nearly every society either as a reality or a goal. Orlando Núñez, director of the Managua-based Center for Agrarian Reform Research, said, "we are all living testimony to the contradiction between high-paced technological development and humanity's ability to control that technology." He warned against overconfidence in technology's ability to solve human problems and spoke of moral and psychic destruction that accompanies environmental deterioration in many societies and cultures.
The final statement of the Congress, known as the Declaration of Managua, denounced "policies inspired by essentially economistic and consumption-oriented criteria, which, in promoting short-sighted technologies, enrich and benefit a few to the disadvantage of the great majority of the world's people."
Vandana Shiva and others cautioned that people must be aware of the seemingly infinite capacity of the large corporations to co-opt and manipulate the environmental movement. "The problem is how to be truly green in an age of green capitalism—a view of the world that sees both people and nature merely as raw materials.” The essence of ecological recovery, according to Shiva, is recognizing natural limits. She attacked many corporations and first world governments that lay the blame for environmental devastation in the Third World on the people in those countries and see the solution as putting increasing restrictions and limits on the Third World so the developed world can continue its wasteful lifestyle.
In one working session, Mariya Villarriba from the Philippines, told of the destruction of her native lands, how once vast forests have been reduced to scrubland. She said she was committed to fighting to save what she could. "The fire in our hearts is very strong, and we have a name for it—empowering the people." John O'Connor from the US-based Toxic Wastes Campaign spoke of poor neighborhoods being used as dumping sites and underscored the change in consciousness that people undergo when the environmental issue becomes primarily one of public health. He criticized most environmental legislation in the US as being oriented primarily towards controlling pollution. "We need pollution prevention laws," he said, but added that people must "demand changes in what things are produced and how they are produced."
A delegate from the Soviet Union described the Volga River as near environmental death, and told his working group of a small, but growing, environmental movement in the Soviet Union. Tony González from the Lakota Sioux Nation opened one session by singing a centuries-old prayer and talked of the long-ago time when the Creator made "the pitiful two-legged creatures."
Brazilian delegates spoke of the urgency of the Amazon situation, and the Congress as a whole attacked the World Bank's 1985 "Rain Forest Council," ostensibly organized to combat the dizzying speed with which the world's forests are being destroyed, but in fact, they said, an attempt to maintain control over precious lumber reserves. An Indian woman who served on the legal team for the Bhopal victims addressed herself to the problems created by a disaster of such magnitude.
In a session dedicated to women's issues, Gena Corea of the United States described the rapid advances in reproductive technology and charged that women, particularly third world women, are increasingly being used as little more than guinea pigs in a process that will ultimately lead to women having less and less control over their bodies. Another delegate said that "the blame the victim" concept often used against women who are victims of violence is also used in laying blame for environmental damage. "Third world women are used as scapegoats," she said and stressed that environmentally damaging practices (heavy reliance on firewood for cooking, for example) are usually the only option available to poor women. The question, she said, is who—what system—pushed women into this corner in the first place?
Nicaragua has the will to change, but few economic resourcesDelegates from all of Nicaragua's regions attended the Congress and spoke in the different working groups about the range of environmental problems in the country. Nicaragua has few resources to dedicate to environmental issues, but also has to confront a population that often doesn't make the connection between chemical or pesticide use, for example, and resulting health problems. María Luisa Robleto, a biologist and founding member (in 1988) of the Nicaraguan Environmental Movement (MAN) stressed the importance of education in building a strong environmental consciousness.
A working group on pesticide heard about the heavy use of many pesticides in the cotton-growing region of León and Chinandega. Cases of both acute and chronic intoxication are frequent and precautionary measures for users or agricultural workers in the most affected areas are virtually nonexistent.
Norman Pérez of Santo Domingo, Chontales, said that many rivers in his area are seriously contaminated by mercury and other byproducts of small-scale gold mining in the area. Environmental problems in and around Chontales were greatly exacerbated in 1985, he said, when contra forces began operating in the zone.
Many of the foreign delegates praised the Nicaraguan government for its commitment to environmental issues. Even so, said the Nicaraguan delegates, the country needs stronger environmental legislation to stop plants like Penwalt from dumping waste into Lake Managua and to protect the health of industrial and agricultural workers who are currently at great risk on the job.
The future: Willing disaster for our children? The Declaration of Managua called for the transformation of the Río San Juan area into an environmental preserve and also urged that an environmental training school be set up in Region V (Boaco-Chontales.) It praised Nicaragua's reforestation efforts in the midst of war, and emphasized the tremendous environmental destruction resulting from military conflicts around the world, including El Salvador, Afghanistan and Angola.
The Congress was an important chance for environmentalists and activists from all over the world to share information, set up communication and strengthen existing networks. It was also a sobering experience, as the litany of disasters from all corners of the world seemed almost endless.
Urging the delegates to unite their efforts and go forward in their work, David Brower reminded the Congress of the enormity of its task. "We are not inheriting the earth from our ancestors, we are borrowing it from our children."