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May 2004
The Dead End of the Ocean
By Mia MacDonald

 

August 2000
August 2000

The ocean is dying. Abbie—a Chilean with a Louisiana address who has lived in Israel and now works as a fisherman in the Pacific—said this to me one night last month on a Costa Rican beach front. Large fish, like sailfish, he explained, are normally found miles off shore. Now they are coming in closer, searching for the food that has vanished from the deep ocean, lost to pollution or the undiscriminating jaws of huge factory trawlers. The tides, too, Abbie said, have become erratic on that slice of the Pacific Coast, rising much higher than before and apparently unmoored from their normal lunar cycle.

Like millions, perhaps billions of us, Abbie has experienced and catalogued, if only in his mind, the fallout of global climate change. He lives it every day, and doesn’t need more studies or conferences to convince him of the change and its consequences. His experiences have radicalized him: he supports Greenpeace’s direct action tactics and calls for restraints on the massive power of corporations, which in his world are the huge Japanese ships that ply the waters off Costa Rica’s coast with impunity. But what, Abbie wonders, can a poor country like Costa Rica do? Its coast guard is small, underfunded and ill-equipped; politicians, both nationally and internationally, are pushing their idea of development, which often translates to bigger and better machines and methodologies to mine and transform nature. Into this mix of policy and markets a whole set of questions never gets added: What are the consequences and costs of this development? And who is benefiting and how? People like Abbie ask these questions and live the answers every day. But how and where can they, and we, effect change?

I returned from Costa Rica in a funk about the intersection of environment, development and justice and how this planet can be saved. Abbie is key to this crisis. In addition to being a fisherman, he is also a developer, building condominiums up the coast from where we ate dinner under a thatched roof. The owners or renters will likely be Europeans and Americans seeking the sun, surf and natural beauty of the Pacific Ocean in a pacific place (Costa Rica has no army, no civil war, and a good track record of investing in the health and education of its people). Abbie’s condos will make him money, provide jobs for local people, and help Costa Rican industry. But how many condos can be built before the howler monkeys, komodo dragons and birds decamp or are displaced? Already, the by-ways of this part of Costa Rica were sprouting homes for American and European sun-seekers. Howler monkey roars already compete with light trucks plying the gravel roads.

When does a place simply stop being “wild”? I wondered that in the Monteverde Cloud Forest: if 150 people, not native to the region, tramp through a primary growth forest each day, is it still a primary growth forest, or has it become a cousin to the other provinces’ Disney Animal Kingdom? Our guide spoke of all the animals and birds he “used to” see and how tired he was of all the “used to’s,” for which he blames global climate change and the drift of chemicals, including DDT, from banana plantations (a key Costa Rican export). DDT, of course, is banned in the U.S. but makes its way, legally and not, to many countries in the developing world.

Can environment and development—with justice—co-exist? Providing a modicum of hope was Mario, a Costa Rican entrepreneur and environmentalist, who showed me on the Pan American Highway large swaths of forest that were re-growing after being cut in the 1970s to provide cattle to the U.S. market. It turned out U.S. consumers didn’t like Costa Rican beef—too much muscle due to the hilly terrain the cows had to negotiate. Mario himself runs a small hotel, but seeks to work with, not against, the nature that surrounds him. He has bought a tract of virgin cloud forest and will not develop it; he plans to open a restaurant which will be mainly vegetarian. “Something happens to people,” he tells me, “when they come to the cloud forest. Something changes inside of them, and they think more about things, including what they’ll eat.” I hope he is right. I think of the American family I saw at a small Costa Rican airport, just back from a beach vacation, ordering a round of cheeseburgers, and another group of Americans at Mario’s hotel in Monteverde making plans to eat at the vegetarian-friendly restaurant next door.

Raising consciousness in the developing world doesn’t seem that hard. People know their reality, whether it is the Uwa in Colombia facing the savagery of oil exploration in their ancestral lands or Abbie watching the ocean die. These people know what justice is and how to apportion and ensure it. The disconnect comes in the translation to policies and within the amoral juggernaut of markets. That’s why there is DDT on Costa Rican banana plantations and why an ill-advised beef export scheme was put in place by U.S. and European funders in the 1970s. That is why sailfish have nothing to eat and why the howler monkeys may end up in the ocean. That is why poor countries continue to be vassals of the rich, caught in the insidious trap of a concept of development that doesn’t make the environment central, disregards justice, defines value by the willingness to pay, and works to realize the dream of a cheeseburger on every plate.

Justice—for the environment and for human and nonhuman animals—means sharing both the burdens and the benefits of our actions. This is a concept that people all over the world understand and live each day, but one that doesn’t yet resound in the corridors of power. In some ways, that doesn’t matter. People will fight back in their myriad ways. But in another profound and chilling way, it does matter. And the challenge we all have before us is to make our lives, futures, and this planet matter in the lives of those around us and in the minds and words of our leaders.

Mia MacDonald is a Consulting Editor of Satya and a specialist on international development and the environment.

 

 


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