First Pollute 'em, Then Sell 'em the Clean-Up

July 05, 1994|By JOSHUA KARLINER

San Francisco. -- As the environment industry's rapid growth in the North begins to level off, it is expanding elsewhere. The industry's entrance into Third World countries is the culmination of a three-stage proces of exporting toxic industrial development from North to South:

* First, economic ''development'' is exported through free-trade policies and financing by multilateral and bilateral agencies.

* Second, environmental regulations to control the excesses of this development are introduced.

* Finally, ''environmental'' technology and services are exported to service these regulations.

As free-trade policies have prised open Third World markets, transnational companies have moved into countries pursuing export-oriented industrialization. This has resulted in the rapid emergence of environmental problems which, until recently, existed largely in Northern industrialized countries.

For example, the highly toxic chlorine industry, which is at the root of much of the industrialized North's hazardous-waste crisis, is stagnating in the U.S. and Western Europe. But leading manufacturers of chlorine -- Dow Chemical, Solvay and ICI -- are expanding into the Third World, investing in chlorine production in countries such as Brazil, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Thailand, India and China.

Many of the factories, technologies and products that transnational corporations have moved to the South are either banned or under pressure for environmental and health reasons in their country of origin. For example, DuPont sells leaded gasoline throughout Latin America, although it is banned in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere.

Similarly, Mitsubishi set up a ''rare earth'' processing factory in Malaysia to make chemicals for color television screens, a process which had been judged too dangerous to site in Japan. Mitsubishi then dumped plastic bags of radioactive wastes behind the factory.

The most blatant example of these double standards is the cluster of maquiladoras on the Mexico-U.S. border -- free-trade zones where U.S. transnationals, including General Motors, Union Carbide and Motorola, have set up thousands of plants to take advantage of low wages, encouraged by lax laws concerning labor unions, workers' health and safety and environmental compliance.

Until recently, little was done in newly- industrializing countries to control, regulate or manage any of the waste produced as a result of this form of development. In the last five years, however, the pollution has become increasingly difficult to ignore. Spurred on by local and international environmental protests, and by inter- national agreements on environmental issues, a number of Southern governments are beginning to draw up legislation.

They are importing regulatory models from the U.S., Europe and Japan, which strive to export their regulatory models, because as industry representative Levi Richardson points out, ''regulatory transfer leads to technology transfer.'' With this in mind, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Environmental Protection Agency are training and building relations with policy makers and bureaucrats from various Asian countries, who will develop their nations' regulatory regimes. The Japanese government is carrying out similar programs.

The Asian Development Bank estimates that the Asia Pacific region will need to spend between $12 billion and $70 billion a year to mitigate the environmental damage due to the region's economic development. The governments of Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea are planning to spend a total of $5 billion over the next five years to develop municipal and industrial waste-management systems. In Malaysia and Thailand, the environmental industry's current annual private-sector market of $210 million in each country, is expected to grow by 15 to 25 percent annually. The private sector Thai market alone is expected to reach $1.5 billion by the year 2000.

The 1992 environmental market in the six largest Latin American countries was estimated to be $2.5 billion, 40 percent of which was supplied by imports. In Mexico alone, 1992 expenditures of $614 million are projected to jump to $10 billion in less than 20 years.

''Environmental'' technology is therefore being exported to Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe, much of it financed by multilateral and bilateral aid agencies. Part of this ''aid'' for ''development'' will be given out in contracts to transnational corporations. Urging U.S. taxpayers' support for the Global Environmental Facility, a joint project of the World Bank, the U.N. Development Program and the U.N. Environment Program fund, a Treasury official recently told a congressional committee:

''The environmental-services industry . . . stands to derive significant benefits from the [multilateral development banks'] greatly increased emphasis on environmental work. That is one of the benefits we expect to get from our participation in the Global Environment Facility.''

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