originally published as ‘Fatal Connections: Violence, Terror and Environmental Degradation’ in EQ Australia, March 2003
Terrorist attacks in New York, Kenya, Bali and the Philippines have unquestionably been horrific and require an urgent response. However at the same time, the responses of the world’s dominant leaders, particularly those in the First World, need to be considered and questioned on a number of levels. The brinkmanship and hegemony of these First World leaders ignores and conceals the root causes of the violence and also fails to acknowledge the devastation being caused to people and places, particularly in the developing world as a result of responding to violence with yet more violence.
Herein lies an essential role for education and for environmental education in particular, whose brief it is to respond to issues which threaten the welfare of the planet and all of its inhabitants. A critical approach to environmental education would reveal that the underlying causes of, and consequences of terrorism are environmental. Such an approach to environmental education would also lead to action to transform the world to one characterised by genuine justice and peace for all.
Global Conflicts and the environment
While global terrorism struck the First World on a large scale with the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York City on September 11 2001, terrorism is by no means a new phenomenon in the majority world. In Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and the Philippines, to name but a few, people and the environment have long been the victims of violence and terror carried out in the name of peace and democracy.
The forgotten victims of these conflicts have been the farmers and indigenous people, the poorest of the poor whose voices have never been heard, and the non-human inhabitants of the deserts and forests in which these conflicts have been fought. Fighting these wars in the name of development, peace and democracy has concealed the underlying motivation of the aggressors which has been to gain control of the world’s dwindling finite resources including water, forests, food and oil. A recent article by Sandy Tolan in the Los Angeles Times claims that the US war on Iraq has less to do with weapons of mass destruction than it has with gaining control of the world’s second largest reserves of oil. Australia too would benefit from access to cheaper oil and would then continue to be one of the world’s major producers of greenhouse gases per capita. As for “weapons of mass destruction”, let us not forget America’s use napalm and Agent Orange to destroy the rainforests of Vietnam, and the use of depleted uranium weaponry in Iraq during the Gulf War of the early 1990s.
Terrorism and the environment in the Philippines
Since its initial colonisation by Spain in the 16th century and subsequently by the US and Japan, the Philippines has been exploited for its abundant forest and ocean resources. This exploitation has been accompanied by an invasion of lands occupied by indigenous people throughout the country and the lands of Muslim populations in the southern Philippines. The colonisers have progressively attempted to replace the “primitive” agricultural practices of indigenous people with imported and unsustainable farming techniques. These invasions were, and are still being implemented with the use of terrorising force, forcing the indigenous people to retreat to less accessible and more fragile areas of the country, such as steep mountainsides where they continue their once sustainable farming methods.
Although the Americans formally granted the Philippines independence in 1946, the hegemonic influence of the Americans remains until this day with their military “exercises” and bases. Scientific reports in the Philippines suggest that toxic chemicals from US military bases in the Philippines are polluting groundwaters and various cancers, skin diseases and spontaneous abortions have been causally linked to the toxic legacy of the American bases.
Recently, the American military forces have returned to conduct “exercises” in the Muslim autonomous region of the southern Philippines to eliminate the threat of “terrorism”, reportedly emanating from this part of the country. It just so happens that the southern Philippines is resource rich and is strategically located in close proximity to the busy shipping lanes of the South China Sea and oil-rich Indonesia.
As in most developing countries, the Philippines has had development plans imposed upon it by global institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and by Multinational Corporations. In pursuit of industrialisation to compete in a global market which discriminates against developing countries, the Philippines has built large-scale hydro electric dams and has converted peasant farmlands into monoculture agri-businesses.
Large acreages of farmland have been forcibly taken from peasant and indigenous farmers and cleared to make way for export-oriented crops. Farmlands are guarded by the private armies of rich landowners and by the national military forces. Indigenous people, fisherfolk and farmers in the Philippines are being terrorised by these forces throughout the country, further pushing them to the periphery of society.
The agricultural policies of the Philippines are effectively taking food out of the mouths of women and children and have taken the country from being an exporter of rice to one that is now reliant upon imported rice. The government’s incapacity to feed the people is causing untold health, environmental and economic consequences for the country.
In the Philippines, and in other developing countries where a nation’s natural resources and cultural heritage have been appropriated and controlled by foreign interests, the protests of the people have often been met with state-sponsored violence and terrorism to silence them.
Sean McDonagh a long-term Catholic missionary and environmentalist in the Philippines, states that any solution to the debt crisis demands drastic changes in the current international economic, social and political order and he calls for a sustained attack on the root causes of poverty.
How we should respond to terrorism as educators
According to Paolo Freire, in our vocation as educators, teachers should join with their students to reflect upon the underlying causes of the oppression of people and together with our students we should join the struggle for liberation and act upon and transform our world. In order to do this, teachers should be teaching knowledge for transformative action rather than transmitting knowledge uncritically and telling stories that are detached from the reality of students. In this form of libertarian education, both students and teachers are simultaneously teachers and students. Freire stressed that we cannot wait for this type of education, we have to work at it in communion with each other as co-authors of action and with faith in our power to change the world out of a profound love for the world.
Taking Action: Environmental Education in the Philippines
During her work as a rural missionary in the Philippines, the late Sr Nanette Berentsen firmly believed that one needs to become active and search for the place to make a stand in community with others to empower them to realise the cause of their oppression and to change the structures that oppress.
According to the Centre for Environmental Concerns in the Philippines, grassroots education is liberatory, community-based and proactive to empower people to use their voices to challenge the status quo and to fight against the oppression that they have been subjected to for centuries. An important element of grassroots environmental education is the researching of indigenous knowledge systems to find alternative ways of looking at and dealing with the problem of resource depletion and environmental conflicts.
Environmental Education for Australia
For environmental education to be closer to John Fien’s concept of critical education for the environment which includes five essential elements including the development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills, understandings, attitudes and skills of political literacy and critical praxis, students must be empowered to become active responsible members of society. This necessitates the establishment of more democratic roles in the classroom as advocated by Freire and the establishment of a new curriculum that is negotiated with students to enable them to work on socially-useful projects which are relevant to them. The goals of environmental education are contained in UNESCO’s Tbilisi Declaration of 1977:
- to foster clear awareness of, and concern about, economic, social, political, and ecological interdependence in urban and rural areas;
- to provide every person with opportunities to acquire the knowledge, values, attitudes, commitment, and skills needed to protect and improve the environment;
- to create new patterns of behavior of individuals, groups, and society as a whole towards the environment.
Within such an environmental education program, Australian students need to be informed of the connections between environmental degradation, human welfare and terrorism. According to Freire, the more they are challenged in this way, the more students will feel obliged to respond because they will see the challenge as interrelated to other problems within a total context that is relevant to them and gradually they will become committed to be in solidarity with the world to transform it – a world characterised by genuine peace and justice for all.
Fien, J, 1993, Education for the Environment: Critical Curriculum Theorising and Environmental Education, Deakin University, Geelong
Freire, P., 1970, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Continuum, New York
McDonagh, S., 1990, The Greening of the Church, Claretian Publications, Quezon City, Philippines
Rural Missionaries in the Philippines, 1991, ‘Whatever May Happen to Me’, Claretian Publications, Quezon City, Philippines