Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

The Future of Asia's Nature and Culture

Buddhist temples in Laos at 4:49AM. (mrlob/Flickr)

Buddhist temples in Laos at 4:49AM. (mrlob/Flickr)

Kenny Bruno
At current rate we probably have substantial teak forests for only about a generation or maybe less before there is no substantial teak out there except for the plantations in Indonesia and a few other countries. So the need for the Burmese generals to raise cash for militarization of their country and the repression they engage in causing them not only to build a pipeline, to open as many apparel sweatshops as possible but also to cut down teak trees for both legal and illegal smuggled logs as quickly as they can.

What we believe that the US government and citizens should do is disengage from Burma economically. During the anti-apartheid campaign, there was a phrase "constructive engagement." And that’s a phrase that we hear now a lot from companies that justify their investments in countries such as Burma, Iran, Iraq, and Sudan. The argument is that if American companies go into these places, that by their very presence and sometimes by their programs for schools, clinics and so on that they are bringing jobs and their bringing some kind of democracy to the country. But what we see in this case of Burma is clearly that this is destructive engagement. This is economical engagement which causes more militarization, which causes more destruction of the environment. Just to give you an idea of the corporate view, Unocal, which obviously touts its own investment as a case of constructive engagement was also negotiating with the Taliban to build a gas pipeline through Afghanistan until a couple of years ago.

There is no regime that they will not countenance becoming a partner with. So they were on the verge of becoming business partners with the Taliban and had invited Taliban leaders in Texas to wine and dine them and so forth. I want to make clear that they are not business partners with the Taliban but they were strongly considering it. They have never renounced the idea on the basis of human rights violations or anything like that. They just said it wasn’t feasible. Again, we believe these are cases that not all US business engagements is constructive. And that sometimes, and Burma is certainly one of these cases, is quite destructive both to human rights and the environment. But we in the US can do a few things. First of all, we can pressure Unocal to leave Burma. We can support a bill on both the Senate and the House. In the senate, it’s called 926 and in the House, it’s called 2211. It’s basically a bill to end all imports from Burma as way of increasing the international pressure because international pressure on Burma is working. There are signs they are moving towards more negotiations with the National League for Democracy and Aung San Suu Kyi as well as the ethnic minorities of the country. The other form of pressure is coming from the International Labor Organization which for the first time has asked all its members to examine its policies and relationship with Burma. I just want to conclude, I know I haven’t touched a lot on culture and environment per se but in many countries around the world, Burma is being one of them as well as the US in my opinion, the campaigns for human rights and the environment are basically one and the same. I mean, you can’t, in a place like Burma, what Kasawa discovered and some of our students at the Earth Rights, there you can’t be an advocate for environmental protection without basic civil and political rights. You can’t go in and have protest. You can’t even raise your voice because you could be killed. So you can’t have environment without human rights. And at the same time, you can’t have it the other way around. If don’t have clear water, if you don’t have basic protection, environmental health, then you can’t have your cultural right especially for ethnic minorities who live very close to natural resources. They can’t exercise their human rights without a clean environment nor can they protect the environment without human rights. Those of us in the human rights community, in the environmental world, community level people, consumers, if we all get and stick together, we can’t make a big change in Burma and the rest of Asia for human rights, for the environment, and also for democracy. Thank you.

Kirk Talbott
That’s terrific Bruno and thank you also for keeping to the time. I know its frustrating because we’re dealing with such a broad umbrella of issues but you have, again, been able to pull it together. I think Kasawa would be very proud of the pinch hitting that you did. When Kasaw speaks, it’s very powerful because he’s from the Karen tribe and he’s had this personal suffering and he gets quite emotional, it starts to well up, and is very visceral. Anybody in this room would feel what he’s been through there in the front lines living this. It’s great Bruno that you and so many others with your organization and with the others working around or taking Burma as an issue.

Kenny Bruno
And as you guessed, I am not a Karen. I am not from Burma. I’m from NY.

Kirk Talbott
Ok, our last speaker is Joan Carling. Joan is from the Kankana-ey indigenous group in the Cordillera Mountains of Luzon. This is a place very dear to my heart because I was actually a struggling frustrated young lawyer in the mid 1980s and went to the Philippines to the region very close to where you’re from and got into the environment because of the whole nexus, that Bruno and Dai Qing have just talked about.

So my life drastically changed from a month trip walking through the Cordillera of the Philippines where Joan is to take us through. I’m just going to mention one thing about a case in law school the esteemed Oliver Wendell Holmes actually wrote the opinion on. It was the first decade of the last century. In this case, he set international precedent in law in which he recognized that if people had been living in certain areas with documented proof since time immemorial (indigenous people), that their rights, in US law in US courts, would be recognized preceding, overcoming the rights of the people who come after them including the ancestors of Magellan. Very, very powerful. And a lot of the Philippines is now standing at the forefront of the world with some of the most positive and constructive legislation on ancestral domain linking human rights society and the environment. So we’re really glad for you to round out the discussion tonight. You also can read about Joan’s quite extensive background. She has more than 10 years with the Cordillera Peoples Alliance. She is really on the frontlines. We’re very privileged to have here Joan. So, take it away. We’ll give you a couple of extra minutes since you brought the slides. 

Kirk Talbott
Couldn’t be better. We have just a little over twenty minutes so let’s really just make the most of it. I’m sure each of the panelists will be staying for a little bit for the reception. I’m the moderator and I find myself in a different position. We have some activists here who have really put themselves on the line. I actually work for Conservation International that works with businesses a lot and really is not on the spectrum over there with the Green Peaces of the world. We’re trying to engage the business community, governments, and others in an effective way. But we’re challenged everyday with how you deal with the nexus of issues. And it really comes down to the economics. Would you agree that economics drive a lot of the politics-the force we’ve heard about the power of the money here, put it into a NY context. And behind the Three Gorges, behind some of the big operations in Burma that Bruno talked about and the many companies coming in here. How do we address the environmental issues that relate to culture, the theme tonight--which are people on the ground for feeding themselves for education.

I just want to ask one question and to throw it out. Nobody needs to really respond to it. But there’s a little bit of a joke about the 3 types of dam. There are good dams, bad dams and there’s the cuss word dam. And the idea there is there in fact good dams? And it’s hard to argue as an adult, in a world with electricity that all dams are bad. We can’t really argue that, get in a car and leave here tonight. Maybe if a bicycle. The fact is, the world is changing and we need to work with the forces of development. We have to be effective. And I would like to encourage people to ask questions now of the panel and let’s talk about what we do and connect it to your own lives, to your own cultures.

Question and Answer Session

Question
I have three questions concerning China.

Kirk Talbott
Can you introduce yourself?

Question
Robert Ladely The first question concerns the Three Gorges dam and I’m wondering after 9/11 if this is considered to be perhaps a hostage to the terrorists. I wonder if the Egyptians are thinking the same way about the Aswan dam. The second question is, I have read that a much better approach to dams in China might not be the Three Gorges Dam but a number of smaller dams on the tributaries which would mean much less than the way of displacement of people yet give the same end result. The third question concerns pollution in China and economic growth. The pollution in many parts of China and many parts of Asia is totally appalling. Let’s face it, people pollute. The more people, the more pollution. And the more people, the you must have economic growth if you are going to have a stable society. With regards to China, you have to have electricity. The power plants and pollution is appalling. Now, in terms of unhappy alternatives, is a dam a better way to generate electricity or more polluting stations. So I have three questions, if you could be kind enough to address them.

Kirk Talbott
Why don’t we start with the third one first.