False Idols

While I was browsing through the papers recently my attention was caught by a photograph taken at the WTO summit in Hong Kong. A small group of South Korean farmers, wearing fluorescent orange lifejackets, plunge into the grey waters of the bay. It concludes their protest—punctuated by baton charges and tear gas—against the policies of the World Trade Organization which they feel threatens them.

The image powerfully expresses the distress of the rural world within the global village and at the same time shows the determination of these people to defend their land, work and cultural heritage.

This same determination was shown a few days ago by Chinese peasant farmers from the village of Dongzhou, when they demonstrated to defend their environment from a polluting power plant. The outcome was sadly much more upsetting—over 20 dead.

The residents from this village in South China had begun their protest several months earlier as a result of a decision taken by local authorities to expropriate farmers’ land in order to allow construction of the power plant.

For the local population this would not only have meant the end of all farming activity but also fishing, a basic source of income and sustenance, since the project will occupy areas used by the fish resources. When local opposition became more resolute the police fired on the crowd.

The incident prompts some reflection. It is deplorable that peaceful protest should be countered with crude violence. Nowhere in the world should it be acceptable for a legitimate demonstration to be answered with irresponsible brute force.

Unfortunately, what happened at the Chinese village of Dongzhou is only the latest example of abuse committed at the expense of the environment, without any consideration for the people who have lived in an area for centuries, nurturing it and farming it with a respectful attitude. Looking back at the past year we first witnessed the plight of the peasant farmers in India and then the fishermen in Pakistan, whose basic rights were illegally abused so a few people could benefit under the deceitful cover of the word “development”.

In this connection I recall an insufficiently known incident which encapsulates the type of contradictions we are facing. For centuries the Ogoni, ancient inhabitants of the Niger delta, had farmed and fished the area until they were forced into poverty, exile and death due to pollution by the arrival of oil exploration and drilling. The leader of the people’s protest, Ken Saro Wiwa, a very high profile African intellectual, was hanged exactly ten years ago at the end of a farcical trial prosecuted by those in the pay of oil interests.

The same story is being repeated today. Local authorities give the go-ahead for destructive despoliation of land, irrevocably compromising any traditional activity. Rebellions are put down and peasant farmers, deprived of their livelihood, dignity and any future, either do not receive even a meager compensation or at best it is directly managed by the central government.

There is common thread linking these examples of rural revolt. People are rejected by the system—it reduces the concept of development to purely quantitative and financial criteria, accepting without any qualms that the natural environment is subject to systematic destruction.

I am not the only one to have serious doubts whether all this can be called development. In an advanced industrial country such as ours, we know well that factories, the icons of progress, do not stay for long and are then gone for ever. This knowledge should make us reflect more deeply when we decide to sacrifice ecosystems and human health in the name of a false conception of development.

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

First printed in La Stampa on December 19, 2005

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