A Call for Research
Robin Broad and John Cavanagh
This piece is a slighted revised excerpt from Robin Broad and John Cavanagh, “Poorer Countries and the Environment: Friends or Foes?” World Development, August 2015, 72, pp 419-431.
Poorer countries and the environment—friends or foes?
In a recent article in World Development, we built on our research in El Salvador and Costa Rica to try to delineate the conditions that led these two countries to implement environmentally inspired mining bans, bans that have been stringent enough to provoke mining company lawsuits. We shared our conclusions on conditions related to civil society, to the private sector, and to the government in a previous Triple Crisis post on this topic. In brief, we found that strong community and civil society groups opposed to mining, combined with few business elites profiting from mining, combined with government officials who responded to democratic demands from society, all came together to lead to governmental action to halt mining in these two countries.
Our analysis of El Salvador and Costa Rica, thus, presents two case-studies to add to the political economy literature. In addition, our case studies provided evidence refuting the so-called Environmental Kuznets Curve, the theory that countries need to be relatively richer to take decisive action to protect the environment.
Beyond that, we also hope our research—with its focus on El Salvador and Costa Rica—might motivate others with the relevant expertise to analyze the extent to which our conclusions concerning the three conditions do or do not hold in other countries. So we want to take the opportunity to issue a call for further research to add to our collective understanding of when governments in poorer countries take decisive action to protect the environment and when they do not.
Thus far, in the limited literature that exists on mining bans, El Salvador and Costa Rica have been viewed as “outliers”—the exceptions to the rule—on mining policy in an era where many governments have embraced global mining corporations and walked down the path of extractive-based economic growth. Witness Honduras and Guatemala, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where governments have responded to the promise of plentiful foreign-exchange to open their doors even further to environmentally destructive mining.
In countries where governments continue to favor large-scale mining, what are the particularities found in the three societal groupings—civil society, the private sector, and the government—that influence government action? In Guatemala, for example, there is strong civil-society opposition to gold mining, but domestic business elites are heavily invested in mining and the national government has been closely intertwined with those elites. Which of the conditions held or did not hold in Honduras in 2009 under President Manuel Zelaya, whose government was poised to implement a new mining law even tougher than Costa Rica’s? Does such analysis help us understand Zelaya’s ouster and the subsequent government’s significant increase in mining concessions? And, what of mineral-rich countries, such as Mongolia, where civil society organizations do not exist to the extent we found them in El Salvador and Costa Rica, or reach only some parts of a country, or do not scale up from local concerns to national-level advocacy?
Likewise, our conclusions suggest further probing of another set of countries, particularly in Latin America, where governments have placed some more limited restrictions on mining for environmental reasons: a ban on mining under glaciers in Argentina, a ban on mining in rivers in Guyana, and a ban on mining in indigenous areas in Panama, for example. Here too we hope that our research will provoke others to analyze more deeply the extent to which any of our three conditions hold in these countries. So too would it be illuminating to analyze the three conditions in other countries where some provincial governments, as in the Philippines and Argentina, have taken steps on mining for environmental reasons.
Indeed, the Philippines (where we have also conducted field research) would be a useful case for comparison and contrast. The Philippines has strong civil-society organizations and a government that includes individuals in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches whom one might expect to be concerned about the environmental impacts of mining. This raises the question of whether it is the domestic elite links to mining—and the underlying political economy of mining—that explain why the national government’s policy debate about mining has thus far focused on marginal reform (e.g., increasing revenue from mining) rather than significant action to resolve environmental issues. Related to this, in the Philippines, as well as in other countries like Indonesia, Nigeria, and the DRC, does mining and other extractive activity continue at least in part because the global mining elite has long established connections with local mining and extractives elites? And to what extent, in such cases as the Philippines, where provincial mining bans have been overruled at the national level, does the reality of far-flung islands, with multiple ecosystems and watersheds (versus El Salvador, where a single, large watershed has linked local to national self-interests), explain why environmental concerns that galvanize civil society and the government at the local level have not successfully scaled up to the national level?
Finally, it would be instructive to probe the extent to which the three conditions apply to governments of poorer countries taking action on other environmental issues beyond extractives and mining. There are recent initiatives in certain countries on the “right to water,” on climate change, and on sustainable agriculture, to name but a few. Would researchers find that countries where there are positive initiatives on the environment in any of these areas also have strong evidence of our three conditions being present?
It is critical that we—concerned scholars, researchers, and activists—build a deeper understanding of the conditions under which governments of poorer countries act assertively to protect their environment.
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