Fri, 25 Feb 2000

Biodiplomacy in the new millennium

By Irawan Abidin

This is the first of two articles based on a paper presented at the Biopolitics International Organization conference in Athens on Feb. 7.

ATHENS: The role of the environment in the evolution of international relations is crucial. The nonprofit Biopolitics International Organization has introduced a very appropriate term for the pursuit of relations among nations that consider the environment an essential factor: biodiplomacy.

Biodiplomacy may be regarded simply as biopolitics, so that one is a large and important part of the other. Human survival in the next millennium hinges on the ability of everyone engaged in public affairs to make a paradigm shift, from regarding life as just another available resource, to regarding life as something so precious that its shrewd, realistic and sustainable perpetuation is the goal of all political, economic and social activities.

Human life cannot be perpetuated for long unless the system that sustains it is also perpetuated. If the earth suffers too much abuse, it could lose its miraculous power to resurrect parts of itself that have been destroyed by human recklessness.

All cultures and societies have a proper reverence for the earth and the environment. In Southeast Asia, the culture revolves around the cultivation of the life-giving grain -- rice -- and the monsoon winds that bring rain and guide trading ships.

It would do humankind a lot of good if all nations looked for inspiration in their ancient cultures for a redefinition of relations with their environment. The state of the environment is also determined by the desperate need of the poor, and the greed of the rich -- tycoons, national conglomerates, and, especially, multinational corporations.

There are a considerable number of multinational corporations operating today that have a social conscience. They routinely see to it that their operations do not damage the environment and if they do, they undertake commensurate repairs and restoration. But still, an indefinite number of corporations are irresponsible and are good at covering their tracks, while developing countries are either too helpless or too corrupt to stop them.

It is essential for developing, populous nations, including Indonesia, to earnestly carry out population management programs to ease the pressure on the environment. Social safety net programs would help prevent the poor from damaging their environment in their efforts to eke a living. This entails the practice of biopolitics on the part of governments.

It is essential that corporations and industries be properly regulated; laws on the environment must be strictly enforced. Governments must invest to regulate the environmental impact of industries. This is also a form of biopolitics.

Environmental degradation in the poorer countries is often the direct result of efforts to accelerate economic development. But sacrificing the environment is like killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

It is the responsibility of developing nations to save their forests, to protect their marine coastal resources from over- harvesting and pollution and so on. But their technology and resources would be too insufficient to be effective.

Both developing and developed countries must therefore negotiate toward equitably sharing responsibility and resources. Such negotiations are an exercise in biodiplomacy.

Biodiplomacy is growing rapidly today despite the lack of familiarity with the term, and is expected to continue in the first several decades of the new millennium. For example, stalled negotiations between Syria and Israel are not only about borders and military security. A very important aspect is access and use of water resources. Both sides are unlikely to reach a comprehensive settlement unless they are able to arrive at a common view on access and use of these water resources.

In Southeast Asia, it is to the credit of neighboring Malaysia and Singapore, that even when there has been tension, Singapore's water supply, much of which is piped in from Malaysia, has never been the object of any threat.

The fact that Singapore depends on Malaysia for much of its water supply is a vital and sensitive aspect of their ties. This is an example of the sharing of resources that has been successfully negotiated between neighbors in the cooperative spirit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

In northern China, the water supply has dwindled to such an extent that it has become an international security concern, as much as the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula. Massive social unrest stemming from a struggle for control of water supply in China, or a famine brought about by crop failures, could have severe repercussions on security in East Asia.

Similar dangers can be seen in India, where, according to reports, the problem stems not from a lack of water but from poor management of existing and still-abundant water resources. These are two of the most dramatic cases of the global problem of water today.

The writer is Indonesian ambassador to the Holy See.