Who Is Really Leading the Fight Against Climate Change?

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Some socialists say that climate change is only an issue in rich countries. On the contrary — as Larry Lohman writes, the most intense front line fights against greenhouse gas emissions are being conducted in the Third World.Larry Lohman’s article originally appeared in Red Pepper. The summary of the fight in Chana (following Lohman’s article) is taken from the Introduction to The Struggle of Villagers in Chana District, Southern Thailand in Defence of Community, Land and Religion against the Trans Thai-Malaysia Pipeline and Industrial Project (TTM), 2002-2007, (PDF 2.1MB) a book-length report published this year by The Corner House

by Larry Lohmann

Forget, for a moment, the Kyoto Protocol and the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. Leave aside the burgeoning carbon “offset” business. If you’re looking for real progress on climate change, your time might be better spent paying a visit to a couple of coastal towns in southern Thailand.

For travellers on the road from Bangkok to Malaysia, the crossroads at Bo Nok-Baan Krut might seem only a collection of rice fields, fishing boats, tourist resorts, coconut trees, temples and shops. Yet this is a community that defeated corporate and state plans to build one of the biggest coal-fired power plants in Thailand on its beachfront.

The victory cost years of sweat and blood. Charoen Wat-Aksorn spoke up about corrupt land grabs connected with the project and was murdered in 2004. Other villagers spent countless hours exposing the fraudulence of its environmental impact assessment — in recognition of which Jintana Kaewkhao, a local woman who never finished high school, was awarded an honorary PhD. Today the community is consolidating its gains, exploring wind-powered electricity and lending a hand to communities battling fossil fuel projects elsewhere.

One such community lies several hundred kilometres south in Chana district. Chana’s local monster is a prestige Thai-Malaysian natural gas pipeline and refining venture backed by Thailand’s ousted tycoon Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Chana is less lucky than its sister community to the north. After years of fraudulent land deals, bribes, and intimidation and beatings by police, a huge gas separation plant now defiantly sits on community wakaf land, a supposedly inalienable Muslim commons entrusted to God, drawing gas from a pipeline illegally forced across a local beach. A gas-fired power plant is going up. Chemical works may not be far behind. But villagers are not giving up. They say that they are fighting not only for their lives and religion, but for a natural heritage that belongs to the whole country.

Some professional climate activists slight such local struggles as secondary to the task of negotiating global emissions reduction targets. They forget that dealing with climate change means, above all, finding practical means of keeping fossil fuels in the ground. As eminent climatologist Jim Hansen reiterated in June, burning the Earth’s remaining coal, oil and gas “would guarantee dramatic climate change, yielding a different planet from the one on which civilisation developed”.

No-one is better informed about what it will take to prevent that happening than communities like Bo Nok and Chana. Their experience reminds us that however brilliantly the world theorises ways of getting carbon out of energy, it is also going to have to get energy companies out of fossil fuel deposits. Any serious climate change movement will have to connect with such communities everywhere, whether they are battling Shell in the Niger delta or in Rossport in Ireland or contesting the huge new National Grid gas pipeline in South Wales. These are communities dialled into the politics of the future.

In the absence of a climate movement empowered and informed by such communities, every step governments and corporations take on climate change is likely — by contrast — to be a step into the past. Politicians and business will keep on presenting ambitious climate goals for public consumption without seeking the practical means necessary to achieve them.

British officials, for example, talk of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 60% by 2050. Yet they promote airport expansion, back World Bank efforts to ramp up fossil fuel use worldwide and are committed to large-scale carbon trading — a messy US invention that only slows the transition away from fossil fuels. As Oxford development studies professor Barbara Harriss-White remarks, it’s hard to see what British climate policy is doing “other than serving as a mass tranquilizer”.

In the private sector, meanwhile, banks such as Barclays parade plans to go “carbon neutral”, while at the same time expanding fossil fuel investment and their fossil fuel trading teams. Emblematically, Barclays has even pitted itself directly against the hydrocarbon protesters of Chana. With an investment of US$257 million, Barclays Capital leads the consortium of banks supporting the Trans Thai-Malaysia gas project. Despite repeated invitations, none of its 13,200 worldwide staff has ever even visited the Chana villagers. Contempt — not only for local livelihoods, but also for the aspiration for a livable climate — doesn’t come much clearer than that.

Chico Mendes, the Brazilian unionist who was murdered in 1988 while working to save the jobs of rubber tappers threatened by Amazon clearance, had a famous saying. “At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees”, Mendes said. “Then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realise I am fighting for humanity.”

Villagers in Bo Nok, Chana and elsewhere could say the same. Who are the real climate leaders? It may be time for a rethink.

The Trans-Thai-Malaysia Gas Pipeline Project in Brief

Under a 1999 US$2.42 billion contract between Thailand and Malaysia, a 255- km pipeline has been built to transport gas from offshore fields in the Gulf of Thailand to Chana in southern Thailand, where it will be converted into sales gas and other fractions at a new separation plant. Gas will then be pumped through an 86-km onshore pipeline to the Thai-Malaysian border and a further nine-km connection to northern Malaysia. The project also includes a smaller 50-km pipeline connecting two offshore gas fields. The gas will be both used in Thailand and Malaysia and exported further afield.

This Trans-Thai-Malaysia Project has been overwhelmingly opposed by local people, who, taking heed of the damage caused by gas-related industries in eastern Thailand across the Gulf, believe that the project will pollute the marine and local environments and rip apart affected local communities. They have also consistently called to public attention government obfuscation, unconstitutional withholding of information, lack of open public consultation and transparency and lack of properly-conducted environmental impact assessment, illegal seizure of public land and Muslim common land for the project, and heavily-documented cost-ineffectiveness and lack of need for the gas.

Nevertheless, since 2000, the government has resorted to violence, intimidation, harassment, arrests, legal fraud, illegal detentions and threats of force to try to push the project through, including a police charge on unarmed demonstrators in 2002 and the continuing threatening presence of battalions of police armed with war weapons. Courageously defying this violence, local opponents peacefully occupied land near the gas separation plant construction site for nearly two years and have filed numerous protests with local and national officials.

While local project opponents are supported by thousands of prominent public figures throughout the country, their status as members of a Muslim minority in a region racked by tensions with the central government makes them particularly subject to intimidation and violence. This is of increasing concern given the deteriorating human rights situation in the Muslim south of Thailand, evidenced by the killing by police of 85 protesters in Tak Bai (about 100 miles from the gas plant site) in late October 2004 and attempts by police to provoke violence among protesting villagers.

Trans-Thai-Malaysia Co. is a collaboration between Petroleum Authority of Thailand (PTT) and Petronas of Malaysia. Its operations are supported by US$524.3 million in project financing from a consortium of foreign banks led by the UK’s Barclays and including Dresdner Kleinwort Wassertein, HSBC, Standard Chartered and Fortis. Despite being the subject of a major protest at its Bangkok office and being presented with detailed evidence that it has violated the Equator Principles, Barclays arrogantly maintains that it has taken a “responsible approach” to “ensuring compliance with relevant policies and standards.”