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))
AlertNet: People power needed to counter globalisation by Ben Wisner
Tips on How to
Oppose Corporate Rule By Dr. Jane Kelsey
STATE OF THE ENVIRONMENT AND POLICY RETROSPECTIVE: 1972-2002. UNEP
Disasters. Download pdf
See also: RADIX: Toward a National Dialogue on Sustainable Development in
"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
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
"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]
"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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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
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
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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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
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
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
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
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
'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
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
- 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
- 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
- Fundamentally the Government's vision of development of has not
changed, its focus remains the macro economy and macroeconomic indicators to measure
- 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
- Governability and transparency, decentralisation and citizen
participation remain central issues, in which to date few advances have been demonstrated
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