E stands for environment: ICT tools to empower activists struggling to protect environment around the world
By Pavel Antonov for APCNews
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY, 22 June 2006
A working group of APC members aims to bring environment higher on the ICT policy priorities of global civil society. Information and communication technologies are a powerful tool for civil society protecting environment. But more is needed to streamline ICT work of different groups and communities, and offer them access to the ICTs they need to secure environmental sustainability, a BlueLink/APC survey shows.
On the morning of March 10, 2005 I received a stunning photo among my incoming e-mail. The picture showed the inside of a police vehicle guarded by uniformed police. There, I saw the face of Dimitur Vassilev – a committed environmental activist, co-founder of Bulgaria’s civil society electronic network BlueLink, and a good friend of mine. The police had detained him in front of the gates of Bulgaria’s ministry of environment, in a desperate attempt to silence his environmental criticism against two gold mining projects funded by Canadian interests, in Bulgaria.
Needless to say, within a minute I had forwarded the image with an accompanying message that explained the reasons for Vassilev’s detention to tens of journalist colleagues through Bulgaria, all over Europe and the world. And I was not the only one to do so. The arrest of an environmental activist became a turning point in one of the most recent non-governmental organisation (NGO) quests in Bulgaria – the Cyanide-Free campaign. By various means on offer on the internet, the concerns and arguments of Vassilev & co. reached the general public, mass media, and even the institutions of the European Union -to which Bulgaria aspires membership. Putting the man behind bars could not shut his voice down. It was all online – an example of the power of the internet and electronic communication for environmental protection.
The Cyanide-Free Bulgaria campaign is just one of thousands of occasions in the past decade where civil society has used information and communication technologies (ICTs) as a powerful tool for keeping the public alert and informed on the pressing issues of environment and nature protection.
Where is the environment & ICT momentum?
Many of the networks that founded and joined the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) had their roots in the green movement – like EcoNet/PeaceNet (USA), GreenNet (UK), and a whole bunch of Central and Eastern European networks like the Czech Econnect and the Romanian StrawberryNet..With all the spectacular web work done by groups like Greenpeace, WWF, and their likes, environment seemed a major beneficiary of online civil activism.
It was not until the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), between 2003 and 2005, that it became surprisingly clear that global civil society activism dealing with ICTs and the future of internet had somewhat dropped environment out of scope.
Indeed, in Tunis, during the second phase of WSIS, human rights groups like Amnesty International were there pushing for keeping oppressive regimes’ hands off the net. Women rights activists lobbied for equal access to female ICT users. The development community was pressing for connectivity and wireless in the global South. At WSIS of course there were many exhibition stands – like those of UNDP or the Swiss government -who were proudly announcing their achievements in using ICTs for environmental improvements. But there was no notable presence of Greenpeace, WWF, or any major environmental pressure group in the policy discussion which was determining the future of the internet.
Were there no vital priorities related to environment that civil society would want to place on the ICT policy agenda? A survey among APC member organisations around the globe proved that this was not the case. The survey was conducted following last October’s meeting of APC cyber activists in Varna, Bulgaria, which re-affirmed that civil society has very good reasons to use ICTs for environmental sustainability.
Access to environmental information
A big knowledge and information gap exists between South and North, East and West, in the field of environment and health protection, claimed John Dada from Nigeria’s APC member Fatsuam Foundation. He said that due to the insufficient flow or lack of information, communities and entire societies in the South are prevented from learning about the state, availability, exhaustion and safety of environmental resources, available solutions and good practices. This puts at risk the existence, the well-being and the health of people. “Nigeria would greatly benefit from information on global treaties, especially those to which governments have signed”, insisted Dada.
Using their role as a host in Varna, BlueLink presented the global community a pioneer international treaty that obliges governments to share environmental information with the public using, among all, electronic communication – the Aarhus convention. Named after a city in Denmark where it was launched in 1998, the convention on access to information, public participation and justice on environmental matters covering the broad region on which the United Nations Economic Cooperation for Europe (UNECE) has oversight.
Signed and ratified by most European countries and the European Union (EU) as a whole, the Aarhus convention maintains an international consultation body where NGOs play an active role in monitoring governments’ performance under the convention. Although specifically designed as a European instrument, the convention could be an inspiring model for governments in other parts of the world, said Michael Stanley-Jones from the Aarhus convention’s secretariat in Geneva.
Awareness, responsibility and action are one and a whole
The internet is the fastest way to talk across borders. Lack of awareness among developed societies of their own impacts on health and environment in the global South is another tough job that civil society could better employ ICTs for, according to APC’s working group on ICTs for environment.
Disposing of toxic and radioactive waste, including waste generated by the information technology (IT) industry itself, depleting natural resources, uprooting and impoverishing communities, are some of the side effects of the comfort and well-being enjoyed by societies in the developed countries, the APC working group observed.
Due to insufficient information supply, citizens in the developed world are unaware of the pressure of their higher standard and consumption-based lifestyles on the rest of the planet. This prevents them from taking responsibility and acting responsively to diminish this pressure. Generation of electronic waste and its disposal in developing countries is a primary reason of concern in regions like South Africa, a pilot APC study proved in November 2005.
Communities in the global South lack skills and technology to access even the available environmental information, APC’s working group found. A number of economic, political and social factors prevent citizens of developing countries from acquiring the knowledge and skills to access even the already available information resources.
Lack of access to proper equipment, technologies and infrastructure contributes to the problem. Greater use of ICTs could improve access to information, dissemination, networking and the exchange of ideas in the field of environment, a survey by APC and BlueLink in the aftermath of the Varna meeting pointed out. “ICTs [are] only important and needed for those who understand their importance and those who can access them,” commented Kong Sidaroth, from Cambodia’s APC member Open Forum.
The tools and tactics of sustainable development
A transitional economy itself, Bulgaria had often in the past decades witnessed examples of foreign investors contradicting environmental norms, even going as far as violating the country’s legislation.
Despite of police arrests, a weak justicial system and hostile state institutions, the Cyanide-Free NGO coalition celebrated a major victory as environment minister Djavdet Chakurov refused one, and postponed a second project of Canada’s Dundy Precious Metals corporation in Bulgaria.
Active use of online discussion groups, chat-rooms, a designated campaign website, online news coverage, and information support from BlueLink contributed largely to this success, commented Vassilev after being released from police custody. The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), a Canadian non profit, has sent a volunteer to BlueLink and APC to help them make even better ICT tools available to civil society across the world.
Among various actions that civil society could take for improved use of ICTs for environmental sustainability, the APC working group identified mapping as a priority. Maps of environmental policies that require proper use of ICTs and good practices of ICT uses for environmental sustainability are didactical and popular, they argued.
The APC-lead team is looking to construct a specialised portal o guide civil society users through the various resources. Among them – geographic information systems (GIS) and other existing applications for environmental sustainability. The portal will be discussed at APC’s ICT policy workshop in London, June 2006.
Mitra Ardon, a US-based cyber activist with a long-track record of ICT work in the developing world, pointed out that organisations willing to use ICT for environmental sustainability would need access to simple GIS tools for presenting professional looking maps by using their own data. It would be very valuable for these organisations to be aware of current legislation on ICTs for environmental sustainability for future policy developments. “The new portal on ICT for the environment could contribute for dynamic exchange of know-how and experience among civil society,” explained Mitra.
Future work of the BlueLink/APC efforts on environment & ICTs
Empowering civil society to use and access ICTs for environmental sustainability purposes by various means used in other thematic fields; providing it with information about available IT tools for access to information on environment; guidance and user support for the use of ITs for environmental sustainability, are other possible fields of work, identified by the APC/BlueLink working group.
In response to the ‘green gap’ in the international ICT policy arena, the APC working group recommended action at the national and global levels. That would involve the promotion and implementation of instruments like the UNECE Aarhus Convention.
In the months to come APC’s working group will encourage civil society to work for integration of environmental sustainability into other policy instruments regulating the use of ICTs, including the use of environmentally friendly materials and technologies in ICT industries. APC’s ICT/Environment team is planning special efforts to help the development and implementation of policies that regulate e-waste and prevent disposal in developing countries..
According to Al Alegre from the Foundation for Media Alternatives in the Philippines “civil society will require basic data and information on the uses of ICTs for environmental sustainability, such as orientation papers, a glossary, and awareness raising and capacity building modules”. Among possible actions, the APC/BlueLink research team has outlined collecting and streamlining the information of various organisations dealing with ICTs for environmental sustainability; preparation and dissemination of information materials. Bringing together the achievements of civil society in using ICTs for environmental sustainability alone could be a major step ahead for the new initiative.
PHOTO: FAIR TRADE. With the help of ICTs local communities like Bahar Dar in Ethiopia could secure better market for their crops. Courtesy: Pavel Antonov