Environmental Power to the People in Asia

Jun 1, 2004 | Ruth Greenspan Bell

The following feature also appears in the Summer 2004 issue of Resources.

Most Asian countries have seemingly adequate environmental laws, government ministries with official responsibility for reducing pollution, and often plans to adopt extremely complex environmental instruments like emissions trading. But lasting change seems rare. How can this logjam be broken? Perhaps the most encouraging news is to be found in increasing environmental activism. Citizens and NGOs are using tools at hand to bring these problems into public view and seek workable solutions. What is particularly interesting is that this activism is taking place in countries that historically haven’t encouraged citizens to speak out.

With the support of the U.S. Agency for International Development, I was able, in partnership with Barbara Finamore of the Natural Resources Defense Council, to study the growing trend toward environmental public participation in Asia. Against all odds, especially traditional attitudes of deference to governments and authority, activists are taking cues from the U.S. experience of the 1960s and 1970s and finding ways to draw public attention to festering environmental problems.

How they do this depends very much on the circumstances in their own countries. At times, citizens and NGOs use lawsuits to achieve their goals, with varying results. Chinese lawyer Wang Canfa sues polluters, seeking damages for the impacts of their pollution. He does this in a country that has never been under a rule of law and where even today judges have great difficulty acting independently of the state.

One successful example of this method was the court case brought by M.C. Mehta in Delhi, India, that ultimately resulted in the switch from heavily polluting fuels to compressed natural gas in commercial vehicles.

This case involved all levels of society from NGOs to the Supreme Court, which mandated the change after years of wrangling from the different sides.

(For more information, see As a result, NGOs have brought lawsuits in numerous Southeast Asian countries that mimic M.C. Mehta’s groundbreaking Indian litigation.

Not every result has been as happy as the one in Delhi. In some countries, the litigants are learning that even a court order is not sufficient to change longstanding practices of polluters. The Lahore, Pakistan, High Court, for example, has gone back to the drawing board, as it were, to develop multistakeholder processes that all involved hope will find solutions that can work.

We also learned about other approaches beside legal proceedings. In Indonesia, an independent research organization, Pelangi, undertook a study to determine why the country’s more than 75 air pollution control regulations were not more effective in improving air quality. They used interviews, panels, and focus groups to both collect and spread information and a public dialogue and radio campaign to disseminate their findings. The next phase of their work will try to broker legal and practical solutions.

We were able to invite a number of these Asian practitioners to Manila in December 2003, as part of an annual, 600-expert, region-wide gathering, the Better Air Quality meeting. In addition to a rare opportunity to share experiences, the purpose of the meeting was to start a discussion about whether it was possible to transfer lessons from those efforts between these countries and these experts, each of whom come from very different political and legal cultures.

The workshops featured six case examples, which we grouped into three categories from the 80 examples that we had collected from 17 countries.

I hope that future such regional meetings will continue to pay more attention to environmental public participation and spotlight efforts to model good public involvement processes and techniques. The audience for these important discussions should not be confined to NGOs, but should also include government, industry, and academics. Each of these stakeholders needs to learn to work together toward more effective environmental regulation.

Asian environmental advocates would also benefit greatly from a continuing process that would allow them to share experiences and better understand the techniques and skills that are being used by their neighbors. Sharing can improve environmental public participation in each of their countries and perhaps deliver the lasting results everyone is seeking.