Radix - Sustainable Development and Politics

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bluesquiggle.gif (968 bytes)  Sustainable Suffering? Reflections on Development and Disaster Vulnerability in the Post-Johannesburg World by Ben Wisner (Appearing in Regional Development Dialogue, 24, 1 (Spring), pp. 135-148 (Originally submitted 16 January 2003)) (download Word file)

bluesquiggle.gif (968 bytes) AlertNet: People power needed to counter globalisation by Ben Wisner

bluesquiggle.gif (968 bytes) Tips on How to Oppose Corporate Rule By Dr. Jane Kelsey

bluesquiggle.gif (968 bytes) STATE OF THE ENVIRONMENT AND POLICY RETROSPECTIVE: 1972-2002. UNEP Disasters. Download pdf (428kb)

See also: RADIX: Toward a National Dialogue on Sustainable Development in El Salvador

bluesquiggle.gif (968 bytes) Ben Wisner

bluesquiggle.gif (968 bytes) Mel Luna

bluesquiggle.gif (968 bytes) CCER

Ben Wisner

"SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador, Jan 15 (Reuters) - Desperate friends and relatives of
the hundreds of people missing after an earthquake killed more than 400 worked against the
clock on Monday in hopes of finding survivors in a devastated middle-class neighborhood.

Most of the dead were pulled from the rubble in the suburb of Santa Tecla in the capital
San Salvador, where a massive mudslide engulfed as many as 500 middle-class homes."

This isn't the pattern seen in San Salvador 1986, Mameyes, Puerto Rico 1986, or Guatemala 1976: the marginalized low income population in these situations was forced by economic conditions to live on or below dangerous slopes because they could not afford to live elsewhere, or because there did not exist affordable, efficient mass transit to provide them with access to employment from safer locations.

In this case the worst landslide, burying 500 homes, seems to have affected a middle-income area outside San Salvador. I recall a very bad landslide on the outskirts of Manila I visited last year, where middle class people had been bamboozled by a developer who was subsequently investigated, together with geological survey officials, for having known that the area was unstable.

This is part of a more complex story about what is happening in large cities world wide: where those who have the means try to find ways of escaping the growing congestion, contamination, crime, multi cultural/ multi ethnic/ multi caste nature of the center city and near suburbs. Hence white middle class move into the San Fernando Valley; hence probably these "middle class" (lower middle class, from the look of the photos of housing I've seen) move out of central San Salvador, hence the middle-class salaried workers move into the development outside Manila. It is only the super-rich who can maintain walled, guarded compounds closer into the center of such cities.

"Environmental groups blamed unchecked housing construction for stripping hillsides of soil-retaining vegetation that would have prevented the killed landslide in Las Colinas.

"'We just don't want to learn our lesson," Ricardo Navarro, director of the private environmental group Salvadoran Center of Appropriate Technology (CESTA), told AFP in an interview.

"'For over a year we've been warning them not to play around with nature. There should have been no construction or deforestation on the Balsamo range' where Las Colinas was built, he said.

"Even worse, Navarro added, the construction companies opened trenches on top of the hill up to 12 meters (yards) long, which 'contributed' to the landslide.

"'At the very least, the relatives of the people who died there should be compensated for their loss,' Navarro added.

"Santa Tecla Mayor Oscar Ortiz, whose district included Las Colinas, said that in mid-2000 a court rejected a petition to halt all construction on the Balsamo range.

"Environment Minister Ana Maria Majano, on her part, Thursday ruled out any blame for the construction companies in the disaster, which she attributed to 'other causes' that she did not describe.

"Some 3,000 homeowners in the Pinares de Suiza neighborhood, one kilometer (0.6 miles) from Las colinas, are ready to sue the Avance Ingenieros construction company for shoddy workmanship since their homes have been rendered uninhabitable by the earthquake, local residents told reporters." [AFP, 19 January 2001]

"I'm depressed but not astonished, and found this morning's revelation about legal protests to deforestation by local residents very telling. Even the substantial resources of the middle class (e.g. taking developers to court) were insufficient to support successful 'mitigation' altering the balance of power between residents and developers. We learn again (who learns?) that our efforts miss the mark if we do not speak the language of empowerment, social justice, social change, political organizing - and insist in all our research, teaching, training, writing, consulting (and movie making!) that the central issues in disaster work are profoundly political."
[Elaine Enarson, responding to Ben's messages]

Amen! Get more information on logging dispute. How important was as factor in landslide? Get more technical information about landslide hazard identification: deterministic vs. probabilistic approaches.

"While the massive temblor has brought the nation together in rescue efforts marked by acts of solidarity and dedication, some Salvadorans are saying it wasn't the quake but a landslide that caused the most deaths. And they're angry with the government's failure to take preventive measures. Environmentalists here say deforestation on the slopes of the Balsamo Mountains may have contributed to the landslide that buried Katia's home and others in Las Colinas.

"Indeed, experts say that Salvador's earthquake demonstrates once again what people learned in Venezuela's devastating landslides in 1999 and across Central America in 1998 with hurricane Mitch - that disregard for the environment exacerbates whatever destructive wallop natural phenomena like earthquakes and floods carry.

"Intense construction on Venezuela's Caribbean coast, and hundreds of cases of disregard for established land-use restrictions - often with official complicity - led to one of South America's worst disasters. More than 30,000 people perished in those mudslides.

"And with Mitch, loss of life and property damage in Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador were much worse than it would have been because of heavy deforestation and uncontrolled construction in known risk zones.

" In both cases, corruption was an important culprit of the human suffering, just as environmentalists and other watchdog groups may find was a factor in Saturday's landslides in El Salvador.

'For years and years, we have been saying we have to protect the Balsamo Mountains,' says Ricardo Navarro, director of The Center for Appropriate Technology, a local environmental group affiliated with Friends of the Earth International. 'We said there's going to be a tremor, and it's going to collapse, and that's what happened'."

"Mr. Navarro's group has filed cases before many different governmental entities to try to stop the deforestation and construction of homes there. But the desperate need for new housing and construction industry interests took precedence, he says.

"Saturday's quake has claimed at least 400 lives, and Red Cross officials estimate another 1,200 people are still missing. But it's not as devastating as the 1986 quake here that killed 1,500, injured 20,000, and left some 300,000 homeless.

"Currently, Las Colinas is the neighborhood where the rescue efforts are concentrated. Monday, a thousand rescue workers labored on the site where hundreds of homes lay buried beneath the rubble. Rescue workers labored all weekend, but mostly in vain." [Catherine Elton, Special to The Christian Science Monitor, 15 January 2001]

And also:

"Anger And Grief

" Santa Tecla residents, supported by ecologists, angrily blamed the government for allowing trees to be cleared - despite their protests - to make way for the construction of mansions on hilltops. Removing the trees left the area more vulnerable to mudslides due to the looser earth, they said." [Reuters, 17 Jan. 2001]

"Haven't seen anything in the NYTimes yet but the AP story in the Denver Post (1-16-01, p. 20A) included this (also heard on NPR): In Las Colinas, environmentalists and residents had sued landowners and construction companies to stop the deforestation of the hillside. A judge had ruled against them, and angry residents on Monday argued that the resulting development had caused hundreds of deaths."
[Elaine Enarson, email to Ben, 17 Jan. 2001]

This is very important information. How can we follow up? What's going on with, among other things, the judiciary? Of course, one of the things that the end of the long civil war in 1992 was supposed to bring with the UN peace accords was support for reform of the judiciary. Was this done? Possibly relevant example: So-called "Plan Colombia" is supposed to cost twice the $1.3 billion that the U.S. has pledged. The half is supposed to go to strengthening democratic institutions, including judicial reform. The U.S. half is for the military hardware. It is already on its way. The other half, supposedly "somebody else's business" (e.g. EU?) has not materialized! As Roger Jones (Australia) commented to me yesterday, disaster prevention and mitigation is a matter of thorough, systematic, comprehensive institutional change throughout ALL government institutions at ALL levels. Amen to Roger!

Also, as George Kent (Univ. of Hawaii) commented to me, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other accepted international instruments IMPLY that a nation state provide minimum accepted standards of public safety for its citizens. Those standards do not exist yet !

" The earthquake may carry a political cost, too, for Mr. Flores' conservative ARENA, which has governed since 1989. Environmentalists lost a battle two years ago to stop housing development on the dry, sandy hillsides above Santa Tecla. Planning laws had been tightened to restrict building in high-risk areas. But the planning office, says Clarisa Rodriguez, a former city official, does not always enforce its own rules. New houses that flouted them continued to be built above Santa Tecla.

"...[El Salvador's National Emergency Committee (COEN)] does not have much say in long-term planning to mitigate the effects of future disasters. This involves strengthening laws and enforcing them - hard in states cursed by corruption." ["Lessons from El Salvador's tragedy," The Economist, 20-26 January, 2001, p. 31, emphasis added]

Here below is a response from Dr. Paul Susman (Bucknell University) that describes an analogous situation in Puerto Rico. This also brings to mind how many small, non catastrophic, this invisible and silent disasters take place. La Red has focussed a lot of attention on the numerous, small disasters in Latin America that are, in their opinion, the result of failed/ distorted development.

Puerto Rico Example
by Paul Susman, Bucknell University
[with permission, from response to Ben's messages]

I support your call for a response to the idiocy of increasing vulnerability to satisfy the all-mighty market even when the most obvious hazard vulnerability is increased.

Part of the response, I think, ought to be, for the umpteenth time, a reminder that the "market" cannot address disaster prevention unless its operation is curtailed. Even when the rules are in place for environmental impact assessment, etc., market forces (even without corruption) overwhelm the regulators whose eyes aren't shut - they just don't see.

Just adding one more note about vulnerability and the real estate market - Not only do property values and development trump concerns about immediate hazards, but, middle class housing developments, for example, may generate new vulnerabilities for nearby older and less affluent neighborhoods whose complaints go ignored by authorities.

The August 1998 Tortugo flood in Puerto Rico is a case in point (25 families lost everything). To build an access road to the new upper middle class development outside San Juan, the Tortugo River was filled in and a drainage pipe installed. It was inadequate to the load and the situation exacerbated by garbage blocking it. Heavy rains led to floods that overwhelmed the older pre-existing community located close to the river. Permits were granted, etc. but, in the enthusiastic development frenzy, assessing impacts on the pre-existing nearby community were not part of the process.

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Examples from the Philippines
by Mel Luna, University of the Philippines

I can truly identify with your feelings and reflection with the way things went out that led to the El Salvador landslide. Although in smaller scale of casualty, the Phillippines has landslides almost annually. In August, 1999, there was the Cherry Hills subdivision where, due to heavy rain, the hills landslided into a middle-class subdivision in Antiplolo.

In June, 2000, the dump site in Payatas created an avalanche of garbage during the typhoon, causing more than 200 known deaths and still unknown number of unrecovered bodies.

Yes, the tendency to convert the environment into a money generating investment has to be rationalized and made sustainable. This is where the people's actions ( the communities concerned) are needed to prevent developments that can not ascertain the welfare of the stakeholders. Advocacy for policies, as well as outright confrontation at the sites are strategies which are commonly used here in the Philippines. The people face the project proponents squarely to prevent projects for development aggression such as dams that will submerge communities, toxic waste
processing in the middle of residential areas, etc.

Let me just share to you a related happening here. At this time, mobilization and people's power is now the remaining option of the Filipinos to oust a president whose graft and corruption practices are very much substantiated in the impeachment proceedings. But since the majority senator judges are pro-president (ally of political parties), they are simply protecting the latter and are working for acquittal.) Ultimately, the power coming from the people are the ones that can save one's destiny.

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CCER Civil Coordinator for the Emergency and Reconstruction.
Position Paper for the Consultative Group Meeting in Washington

The aim of this document is to summarise the more important developments since the Consultative Group Meeting in Stockholm and presents the position of the CCER in relation to the government stance and their recent policy statements.

The Work of the CCER
The work of the CCER over the last year since the Stockholm meeting has taken a number of key lines of action which have relevance for the present Washington meeting. The following are the key elements of work undertaken in relation to the original objectives of the CCER.

1.    The second phase of the Social Audit has now been completed (see document Principales Resultados de la Auditoria Social para la Emergencia y Reconstruccion) and the third phase is in the planning stage. The second phase sought to represent the views of the population living in the areas most affected by Hurricane Mitch on the process of reconstruction and transformation. The study is important given that it is the only national level survey of the situation post-Mitch.

2.    The CCER has organised a number of national level meetings of civil society. The latest meeting was held at the time of the cancelled meeting with the Consultative Group in February of this year. It sought to evaluate from the perspective of civil society the extent to which there has been advancement with regard to the Stockholm Agreements. The results of this meeting represent the views of the CCER participant organisations with regard to advances, issues still pending, and future policy recommendations (see document Memoria: Foro de la Sociedad Civil).

3.    In addition the themed commissions of the CCER have analysed the national situation from their specialist knowledge and have elaborated a state of the nation document which considers the impact and potential impacts of the governments recent legislative program (see document Balance).

4.    The CCER, in line with its objectives laid out in the proposal document presented at Stockholm (see Propuesta para la Reconstruccion y Transformacion de Nicaragua) have campaigned over the year on the key issues of governability, transparency and corruption. Most importantly the CCER worked to raise public awareness and encourage national debate on the issues of recent constitutional reform.

5.    Finally, the CCER has participated fully and openly in all spaces for dialogue with the government. This dialogue may be considered to be one of the achievements post-Stockholm resulting as it has in a government document which begins to more adequately incorporate the views of civil society (see document Una nacion, muchas voces)

A number of important issues remain outstanding that are of particular concern for the CCER and organised civil society in Nicaragua which will be briefly discussed here.

The socio-political context post-Stockholm
The results of the second phase of the social audit undertaken by the CCER show that for a quarter of those in affected communities Mitch continues to have a very real impact in financial terms (of those interviewed 24% who live of the land were not able to sow this year), in physical terms (36% have still not repaired or reconstructed damaged housing), and in emotional terms (24% reported that someone in their household was emotionally affected by Mitch). While the majority report feeling insecure in their communities (71% of the people interviewed reported feeling insecure), only the minority (17%) could identify some action undertaken in their community to prepare for a future disaster.

More generally, the people interviewed do perceive they have benefited from the actions for reconstruction undertaken by NGOs (nearly 60% of those interviewed felt they had benefited from reconstruction activities of NGOs) although not those of central or local government (over 80% do not feel they benefited from Government initiatives for reconstruction). When questioned what is the most important thing that the central government is doing in response to Mitch, 60% of the men and women interviewed responded 'nothing'.

The results suggest the perception of the population to be of an inactive government. Moreover the Government itself observes that the majority perceive the presidency to be corrupt. However, while the Government highlight achievements that have been made since the meeting in Stockholm in the area of good governance, the overall context in which these few initiatives have been enacted seems not to be open for discussion. Key to understanding the real situation are the recent reforms to the constitution which, we would suggest, affect negatively both governability and institutional democracy, and the possibilities for real citizen participation in the decisions that effect their lives. More specifically the changes result in:

A weakening of the mechanisms of representative democracy
While Article 147 allows a party to gain power with the support of only a minority of electors, Article 173, coupled with the elimination of the Associations of Popular Subscription, reduces access to power for smaller political parties and freedom of choice of electorates. Meanwhile, Article 133 allows presidents to retain a voice in parliament in the future without re-election.

A weakening of the mechanisms for ensuring accountability of elected representatives
Article 130 is of particular importance in this context as it allows elected representatives to more easily claim immunity, while Article 154 reduces the independence of the Contraloria and links this role to party politics.

The recent constitutional reforms and changes in the office of the Contraloria suggest that rather than working to improve governability and transparency the present administration, via the political pact with the major opposition party (the FSLN), may be seen to be further damaging what is already a weak democracy. Those who have questioned the actions (and inaction) of the Government have found themselves under attack, in a form which suggests the need to question both the willingness of the Government to tackle the issue of corruption and the extent to which individuals and organisations are really free to express alternative points of view.

For many participants in the meeting of civil society hosted by the CCER in February the central issue is the extent to which real political will for change exists on the part of the Government.

'One nation, many voices': Coherence and Contradictions
It is within this socio-political context outlined above that dialogue between the CCER and the government with regard to the completion of the Stockholm agreements occurred. It is accepted that this process and the resultant document represent a step forward. However, it is important to note the following:

The Government state that the document has gone through a broad consultative process and that they have tried to incorporate contributions from civil society, the international community and different ministries and sectors of the State. In this sense it is suggested that the document does not reflect just one voice but multiple actors and voices. That the inclusion of these multiple voices reduces the coherence of the document is noted.

- While it is true that the document does indeed incorporate, on a selective basis, the suggestions of civil society, including those from the themed commissions of the CCER itself, attention has not been paid to how these fit within the policies already established by the Government. Inclusion without attention to overall coherence results in contradictions - most specifically with regards to the real ability to operationalise the ideas now presented.

One thing that is clear from the document is that the Government's priority is the Poverty Reduction Strategy, which encompasses a set of proposals that, as they state in a number of places, continue unchanged.

- While there is no doubt that the reduction of poverty is vital and urgent it is also important to bear in mind that poverty is only one element of vulnerability: it is social vulnerability that was agreed as key at Stockholm and its reduction should be the priority.

- Taking the ideas presented in the government document in their entirety would result in a focus on the reduction of vulnerability. The statement of the Government suggests that these other policies are not a priority and given the limitations may then not be implemented.

- The idea that the proposals have not changed from Stockholm in terms of poverty reduction, and that this is the priority, suggests the need to question the purpose of the consultation process if consultation is on peripheral issues and changes on paper only.

The fundamental differences between the vision of development of the CCER and that of the Government, as presented in their respective proposals for reconstruction discussed at the Stockholm meeting, remain. Moreover recent events have served to highlight once again these differences.

- For the CCER the issues of governability, accountability and corruption remain key and problems in this area are far from being resolved.

- Equity, which implies more than merely reducing financial inequality between people and groups of people, also remains central to our vision of development. Recent Government initiatives, most specifically those which limit the rights of women, impact negatively on attempts to achieve equality and thus real development.

Dialogue and Diversity
While once again it is important to recognise achievements to date, a number of issues need also to be discussed and clarified.

The Poverty Reduction Strategy
The government analysis of post-Stockholm achievements places the Poverty Reduction Strategy as central. It is imperative that civil society be involved in the formulation, evaluation and monitoring of all the policies and programs this strategy implies. For this to occur suggests not only a process of dialogue with the Government but a truly participatory dialogue. More specifically we would suggest the following elements as key:

- That the Government bases its strategy on a real understanding of the situation and needs of the population. This requires a process of information gathering, since government information at present is pre-Mitch. Moreover it suggests the need to seek mechanisms by which the population can be included in discussion of their own future.

- Discussion of the Poverty Reduction Strategy should be participatory not merely consultative. Any discussion should have clearly laid out aims and, more importantly, state clearly the mechanisms by which suggestions of civil society will be incorporated into policies. This should include clear statements of what was suggested, included and excluded and why.

- The Government needs to demonstrate its true commit to implementing the suggestions of civil society by paying attention to how these fit with present policy, how contradictions will be resolved and how new elements will be implemented.

The real political will of the government to include civil society in the decisions that effect their lives via the formulation and implementation of policy is yet to be demonstrated. This is dependent on willingness to discuss fundamental underlying problems, an openness to tackle not merely the symptoms but the causes.

- Visions of development
Once again it is important to return to the original proposals presented at Stockholm by both civil society and the Government. Most particularly we would highlight the following as central:

- Fundamentally the Government's vision of development of has not changed, its focus remains the macro economy and macroeconomic indicators to measure progress.

- The priority should be reducing social vulnerability, which encompasses ecological vulnerability, and implies more than a strategy to reduce poverty

- Equality should be seen as a central issue. Recent actions may be seen as reducing the possibilities for equity in terms of both gender and ethnicity and need to be addressed

- Governability and transparency, decentralisation and citizen participation remain central issues, in which to date few advances have been demonstrated

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Radix: the source or origin; the root
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