The Shared Roots Of Environmentalism And Democracy


ALONGSIDE new catch words such as bio-diversity, ozone depletion, and global warming, there's a well-worn word that is frequently heard during the Earth Summit, and likely to play a growing role in world environmental issues: democracy.

In the last decade environmental action has been a strong contributing factor in the spread of democracy, according to activists and government officials at the Earth Summit. The growing role of environmentalists in politics was clearly seen here, when hundreds of non-governmental organizations held meetings parallel to the United Nations conference, and then funneled their conclusions and treaties into the UN framework.

"One of the real marks of the growing democratization in Latin America - in fact, one of the groups that has been a leadership element behind that - is the growth of environmental organizations," says William Reilly, administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and former president of the World Wildlife Fund.

"That was true in Brazil, under the previous government. That was true in Chile. It's something that I think is a mark of societal maturity and growth," he says. "And it's a very important wedding of democratic principles with environmental protection. They almost always go together. If the people have influence, they want health and protection for their environment."

Environmental action has also been an important result of the adoption and deepening of democratic government, in the former Soviet bloc, Latin America, and Africa. Activists here say their groups often push for greater participation in policymaking, and rights to free speech and a free press, as part of their efforts to improve environmental conditions. The result is renewed vigor, for both natural resources and political development.

In Tunisia, for example, environmentalists say much has changed under the multiparty reforms of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who became president in 1987 after 31 years of autocratic rule.

Ameur Jeridi is chairman of the Association for the Protection of Nature and Environment of Kairouan, Tunisia. In that city of 140,000, Mr. Jeridi says his group used to stick to environmental education and tree planting. Now it also tries to influence policy.

"After 1987, we felt more freedom, we became able to give our points of view to the government," he explains. "We represent the people and we help the government, and this is a very difficult balance to maintain."

Alexander Zagribelney also found new freedom to speak out, in Djambul, Kazakhstan, in the former Soviet Union. Three years ago, he began to speak out against the pollution emitted from a local fertilizer plant after his daughter became ill.

"We got interested in environmental problems, and we have a good group of journalists, scientists, and teachers from the univeristy, and we organized our green movement," he says. "We saw that our meetings had no effect, so [last year] we decided to publish our newspaper, Oasis.... We produced an ecological map of the town, with figures and descriptions by important scientists."

In January, local officials forced Oasis's printer to discontinue the paper, which had a circulation of 6,000. But Mr. Zagribelney has ties with the state-run Moscow environmental newspaper, Salvation, and says environmental news will still reach Djambul.

Americans attending the Earth Summit were also thinking about the dynamics of democracy and environmental concerns. Demonstrators outside the UN conference pavilion complained that delegates were not listening to the people they represent.

Says Doug Hunt, a minister and educator from Maryland: "The meek are getting ready, that's what this [summit] has been about for me: finding the connection with the people around the world and feeling a sense of willingness ... to shape our own lives and to make democracy work at that level. We are the ones that have to change the world, not the folks in this building."

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