Environmental Rule of Law a Necessity, not a Luxury

By Gilbert M Swe 7 June 2012

The new political reforms underway in Burma have prompted a review of US and EU policy toward the country, creating euphoria among both the local business community and overseas multinational companies.

With speculation growing that the West will eventually lift all sanctions on Burma, many are hoping to position themselves to get a piece of the action. Before the investment frenzy begins, however, Burma had better prepare itself by having a proper Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) program in place.

Due to competing social, economic and political challenges, Burma has neglected EHS issues over the past half-century, during which it has been largely cut off from the outside world. This needs to change.

Although multinational companies have their own corporate requirements and other regulations to which they are bound by various regulatory agencies, Burma must begin to instill in the minds of the public and decision-making bodies the importance of environmental rule of law. One step in this direction would be to make having an EHS program a basic requirement for doing business in Burma.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent rush to invest in the Eastern European countries illustrates the dangers of not having a viable EHS program. The host countries required companies to comply with local laws and regulations, but in the absence of firmly established rules relating to EHS standards, they were a serious disadvantage when it came time to address these issues.

Since then, several UN agencies have established guidelines for EHS programs. This is not a bad place to start, even if such guidelines do not perfectly match the needs of all countries. But there can be no substitute for a national policy to address these issues when dealing with multinational companies.

One should recognize the social and political context of EHS issues, especially the fact that the majority of developing countries lack the political mechanisms to translate scientific findings into effective policies. In Burma, for instance, the ruling authorities have yet to understand the value of good EHS practices and improved productivity, which some in the hierarchy of the decision-making authorities still perceive as a luxury.

The paradigm that Burma needs should make the most efficient use of existing assets and minimize conflict with practical realities. Like any other country, Burma struggles with multiple challenges. It has a growing and largely impoverished population, and a long history of ethnic conflict. In one way or another, all of these factors are having an impact on the environment.

In Burma today, pollution is almost unchecked. Citizens must often choose between poverty and poison: to meet their basic needs for food, clothing and shelter, many engage in economic activities that are damaging to the environment and their own health. Proper EHS programs would eliminate the need to make this choice. Such programs would not only protect the environment and those who live in it, but also break the cycle of poverty by improving productivity, salaries and, consequently, living conditions.

Luckily, Burma has not only a need for an EHS program, but also the means to make one work. In addition to its abundant natural resources, it also has many educated, innovative people. This is evident in the survival of the Burmese economy despite years of sanctions imposed on it by the West. To keep the country moving along, ordinary Burmese have had to learn the fine art of jerry-rigging machines from miscellaneous parts, making mechanical buggies with pump motors or transportation engines with generators. Such devices added to the country’s air pollution, but there’s no denying the ingenuity that it took to make them.

Besides its resourceful people, Burma also has many grassroots organizations dedicated to fighting for social justice. To implement an effective EHS program, these groups—which in many ways still face repression, despite moves to legally recognize their role in society—should be strongly supported.

Organized labor will be particularly instrumental in efforts to advance the EHS agenda. A casual walk through any type of workplace in Burma would easily uncover a wide range of unsafe practices and environmental hazards. This is not simply due to a lack of technical innovation, but also the absence of institutional and legal means of dealing with these issues. This, in turn, is because policymakers are still driven by the need to address “more pressing” social and health issues that are politically less complicated.

Environmental policy should include the “political economy” of the labor market at global, regional, national and state levels. EHS programs in Burma should, for instance, consider the potentially negative effect of global trade on the health and safety of poor and marginalized workers. Policies should include a call to hold multinational corporations doing business in Burma accountable for their environmental, health and safety practices.

As a country emerging from decades of conflict and unrest, Burma should not make the mistake of assuming that these issues can wait until it catches up economically with its neighbors. Equitable, sustainable development in both cities and rural regions can best be achieved through policies that ensure that all people have equal access to safe and healthy living and working environments. Therefore, an  investment in a sound EHS policy is also the best prevention against social strife, as government and citizens have a stake in the improvement of living standards, which is a necessary condition for the country’s unity and progress.

Dr Gilbert M Swe, PhD, has worked in the EHS field for 35 years, in both the private and public sectors. The views expressed here are his own.