Last week I enjoyed the sublime luxury of watching a sunrise from the middle of a lake in Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island, Maine.
At 5 a.m., while friends and family slept, I strapped a kayak to the roof of the car and drove several minutes to Eagle Lake. With mist rising off the water and the sky beginning to turn steel gray, I paddled the boat out to a point where I could watch the sun rise between two of the island’s low granite hills.
Then I waited.
Within minutes, distant wispy clouds began to change from blue to purple to red and orange. Then suddenly a blinding flash of yellow-white light shot across the horizon and the sun broke the dawn.
Rocking in a gentle breeze on the cold, clear water and surrounded by evergreen forests, it was easy to imagine a planet where humans live in a benign equilibrium with nature.
But the morning news told a very different story: More than 1,000 people had died in flooding and mudslides in Gansu Province, China.
The Chinese government attributed the deaths to a natural disaster caused by heavy rains. Others, however, blamed China’s overexploitation of natural resources, specifically the careless deforestation of valleys that feed the nation’s rivers.
The Wall Street Journal of Aug. 10 quoted Wen Bo, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Pacific Environment organization, as saying that the tragedy in Zhouqu County, Gansu Province, “is certainly resulting from decades of deforestation in the headwater region of the Bailong River.”
Overuse of dams has exacerbated the situation, explained WSJ reporters Shai Oster and Dinny McMahon.
“This all shows that the law of nature has to be respected and the government should realize if they do not take the ecosystem seriously, then it will eventually cost more in the end,” Bo is quoted as saying.
Despite China’s economy having grown dramatically in recent decades, the nation remains a developing country in which “people and government are struggling to deal with natural disasters that some environmentalists believe are the deadly, manmade consequences of favoring economic growth over environmental protection,” Calum MacLeod noted recently in the newspaper USA Today.
This year alone, “floods have affected 140 million people nationwide, destroyed more than 1 million homes and caused direct economic losses of almost $31 billion,” reported MacLeod, quoting Shu Qingpeng, deputy director of the Office of State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters.
Deforestation has long been a challenge for both developed and developing nations, but with recent headlines declaring that China has surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy, and other nations scrambling to imitate China’s skyrocketing growth, the Chinese model of “development at any cost” threatens to create a new “China syndrome” of ecosystem degradation in developing nations across the globe.
One example is the Central American country of Belize, home to vast expanses of tropical forest that harbor invaluable plant and animal biodiversity.
Those forests also contain extensive timber and oil resources that foreign governments and corporations covet and the Belizean government has sold at bargain prices — much to the detriment of unique ecosystems and indigenous peoples who inhabit the forests and depend on them for spiritual and cultural survival.
This spring, Breeze Alcorn, a student at Temple University Japan Campus’ School of Law, worked with me in the law faculty at Chuo University as a research intern and drafted the following report on the situation in Belize, noting a growing connection between Japan and Belize.
As it has for many years, the Belize government continues to grant land concessions to multinational corporations, resulting in the degradation of sacred indigenous Mayan territory. These land leases, primarily for timber and oil, are violations of both domestic and international law.
Though the Maya of southern Belize have received favorable decrees from the Supreme Court of Belize and the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, the Belize government has ignored the courts and continues to offer Mayan natural resources to foreign interests for exploitation.
“We are still attempting to speak with the (Belize) government to implement the judgment but haven’t gotten anywhere in over two years,” explained Antoinette Moore, the attorney who is acting for the Mayan communities.
Meanwhile, logging concessions have been granted for as little as $1.50 per hectare (60 cents per acre).
There are no recent estimates, but the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reported in 2000 that Belize lost an average of 2.3 percent of its forest cover each year during the 1990s. This forest loss takes with it irreplaceable biodiversity.
For more than 4,000 years the Maya have hunted, collected medicinal plants, gathered construction materials and other resources, and built a culture in these forests, and for the past 500 years they have also withstood territorial infringements from Spanish, Guatemalan, British and Belizean regimes. Today threats continue.
In 1998, Julian Cho, leader of the Maya Communities of Belize, wrote a letter to the board of directors of the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, D.C., explaining that the resource concessions of the Belize government were substantially damaging the drinking water, hunting and fishing of 22 Mopan and Ke’kchi Maya villages. Shortly afterward he was slashed to death with machetes, a crime not yet solved.
Across the Pacific, Japan imports more timber than any other nation in the world and there has been considerable speculation that a large quantity of illegally felled timber ends up in Japan. While Japan has been criticized for lacking ecologically responsible standards in the past, recent initiatives may soon change this reputation. Several years ago Japan launched an intensive campaign to prevent the use of illegally cut timber by Japanese companies. Now the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is implementing initiatives that will help the Mayan communities of Belize recover from Belize government resource concessions.
As Mayan communities suffer from low income, low literacy rates, high infant mortality and limited access to social services, JICA’s primary objectives are to improve living standards, increase income levels and create employment opportunities.
The Japanese government is also attempting to encourage environmental policies that are more proactive. In December 2009, Japan pledged a grant of ¥510 million (around $5 million) to Belize to support the introduction of solar electricity-generation systems.
The goal of the program is to encourage Belize to address climate change with a special emphasis on adaptation and mitigation, as well as to improve access to clean energy.
Still, the larger challenge for Japan and other countries is to convince Belize and nations worldwide to respect and protect the land and resource rights of indigenous peoples while finding a balance between preserving national territorial integrity and guaranteeing that indigenous communities retain sufficient land and resources to ensure survival and wellbeing as distinct peoples and cultures.
Ultimately, the international community must establish incentives and disincentives that make compliance with international law the only reasonable option for all nations.
In the meantime, the Maya of southern Belize, and other indigenous communities, must continue to draw media scrutiny and support, petition government and international bodies, and form alliances to promote greater awareness and progress on protecting and expanding human rights.
The Japanese government’s efforts to assist the Mayan peoples and to encourage the government of Belize to undertake more proactive environmental practices are steps in the right direction.
Nevertheless, it will take greater international cooperation and diligence to ensure that governments worldwide end the cycle of hegemony that continues to threaten the rich diversity of plant, animal and human life that makes our world unique.
With thanks to Breeze Alcorn for his solid research and commitment to sound human rights and environmental practices. Stephen Hesse teaches in the law faculty of Chuo University and is Director of the Chuo International Center. He can be reached at email@example.com