- A tsunami of infrastructure development is putting global ecosystems, wildlife and indigenous people at risk; with 25 million kilometers of new roads planned by 2050, most in the developing world. Add pipelines, hundreds of dams on the Amazon, Mekong and other river systems, with their electricity used often by mega-mining projects.
- As in the past, this tidal wave of construction is being heavily backed by national governments, greatly benefiting industry and international investors, often at the cost of indigenous peoples, rural communities, wildlife and habitat. Government and industry typically have large public relations budgets to promote such projects.
- Many conservationists trying to mitigate the harm of ill-advised projects, or even see them canceled, are relying heavily on the media to achieve their aims. There is precedent for such a strategy: media coverage has historically played a key part in curbing some of the most ambitious of international mega-infrastructure projects.
- As infrastructure development rapidly accelerate, today’s environmentalists are utilizing all the media tools at their disposal — ranging from traditional newspapers and television, to Twitter, Facebook, blogs and YouTube — to shine a light on poorly designed infrastructure projects and inform and engage the public.
We live today in the most explosive era of infrastructure development in human history. By mid-century the unprecedented rate of highway, dam, mine and power plant construction; along with city growth, will girdle the globe in concrete. Arguably, that burst of activity will improve the lives of millions. But it is also coming at a terrible cost to the natural world, as we lose the rainforests, estuaries, wetlands, wildlife and indigenous people of our planet.
Over the past few decades the tremendous wave of infrastructure development — and environmental harm — that once primarily dominated the US and European landscapes, has swept across Africa, Asia and Latin America.
And along with it has come transnational environmental campaigns determined to minimize damage, protect habitat and support indigenous people. These environmental campaigners — typically outgunned and out-funded by corporate developers — have worked diligently to kill potentially risky projects, or mitigate their negative effects.
Central to the most successful environmental advocacy campaigns has been a close relationship with the media. But how important has that media role been?
“The media are essential for ‘getting the word out’ about ill-advised infrastructure — they are the key connection between the scientists studying these issues and decision-makers and the general public,” Bill Laurance, a distinguished research professor at Australia’s James Cook University, told Mongabay.
“Far too often, scientists are essentially ignored by project proponents and decision-makers, but it’s far harder for them to do so if the media can shine a light on a project and show why it’s a bad idea environmentally, socially or economically,” said Laurance.
The media megaphone at work
Laurance speaks from experience: he offered hundreds of interviews to media outlets in order to help publicize the potential environmental costs to the Brazilian Amazon of the Avanca Brasil project — a government proposed, $40 billion investment between 2000 and 2020 in an “avalanche” of new roads, dams, power and gas lines, and other infrastructure, that would have crisscrossed the Brazilian Amazon and opened it up to further exploitation and urbanization.
“This became a huge controversy in Brazil and internationally, and ultimately the government was forced to conduct a major inter-ministerial review that recommended cancellation of a number of the most dangerous projects,” Laurance said.
He pointed to other recently canceled projects, such as the Ladia Galaska road network in Sumatra and the Serengeti Highway in Tanzania — environmentally harmful projects in which he believes the media played a crucial role in educating the public.
John Reid, founder of the Conservation Strategy Fund, agrees that journalists are in a unique position that makes them “key” to successful campaigns against unsound infrastructure projects.
“Environmental advocates and independent scientists and analysts don’t have the millions of dollars that project developers can deploy on studies to make the case for projects. Getting the truth out to a broad cross-section of taxpayers, electricity consumers, legislators and potentially impacted people is something only the media can do,” he said.
“The media often alerts the public that these project are happening, period, and beyond that gets independent scientists, economists and activists heard,” Reid said.
The infrastructure juggernaut
The need for greater public awareness around environmentally risky large-scale infrastructure projects has never been so great.
Worldwide, more than 25 million kilometers (12.4 million miles) of new roads are projected by 2050, enough to encircle the planet more than 600 times. Nine in ten will be constructed in developing countries, and many in regions with exceptional biodiversity and protected ecosystems.
The proliferation of proposed dam projects in global biodiversity hotspots is equally staggering. Plans currently call for the damming of five of the six major Andean tributaries feeding the Amazon River, for example, with over 150 new hydroelectric projects slated for construction over the next 20 years. On the other side of the globe, at least 27 dams are planned for the Mekong River’s main-stem.
Many of these proposed dams are being built to produce electricity for gigantic mining projects. The developed world’s insatiable hunger for gold, rare earth elements, diamonds, zinc, iron and copper has resulted in a rush to mine the world’s last wild places. The proposed Orinoco Mining Arc in Venezuela, for example, would impact nearly 112,000 square kilometers (43,200 square miles) of wild country, much of it rainforest.
As in the past, this tidal wave of construction is being heavily backed by national governments, greatly benefiting industry and international investors, often at the cost of indigenous peoples, rural communities, wildlife and habitat.
But many conservationists hope they will be able to mitigate the harm of ill-advised projects, or even see them canceled — and the media will be important to those aims. Indeed, there is precedent for such hope: media coverage has historically played a key part in curbing some of the most ambitious of international mega-infrastructure projects.
In the mid-1980’s, the World Bank for the first time halted payments on a loan because of environmental issues and threats to local indigenous populations. The $1.5 billion Polonoroeste project was set to pave 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) of road through the heart of the Amazon basin, with investors funding a major pro-highway advertising campaign to get people on board.
But that campaign met with a wall of intensive, international and local criticism from environmental and indigenous groups, with media exposés adding power to the protests and highlighting the risks posed by the project. In March, 1985 the bank suspended its funding.
“In most cases, the media attention is what amplifies citizen concern about a project,” Susan Park told Mongabay.
Park, an associate professor of International Relations at Sydney University who authored a book about the World Bank’s and environmentalists’ interactions, points particularly to investigative reporting in the New York Times and on 60 Minutes that showed how the bank was funding the destruction of the Amazon. She singles out bad publicity as a major contributing factor to the withdrawal of funding.
The 60 Minutes program “was the defining event in the US. This led directly to the creation of the Environment Department in the World Bank. In Europe, it was the documentary films by [the late British filmmaker] Adrian Cowell that were critical, rather than press coverage,” said Philip Fearnside, a research professor at Brazil’s National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA).
Fearnside noted that despite halts to the loan, the Polonoreste project continued until “the end of its expected life,” with many miles of paving completed. That project was then followed by the Planaflora project, which was designed to reduce some of the socio-environmental impacts caused by past highway construction. The World Bank’s desire to finance Planaflora as a more acceptable replacement project “owed much to the press” for its exposure of the negative impacts of Polonoreste, Fearnside said.
The World Bank, however, tells a different story. It plays down the media’s role in the halting of bank payments for the Polonoreste project, and says that other reasons govern decisions it makes regarding infrastructure project funding generally.
“The World Bank has cancelled projects when we see that they might in some way be negatively affecting a country’s development. It is development impact, not media coverage, that is our overarching concern,” a World Bank spokesperson told Mongabay
Following a four-year review process, the World Bank in August approved a new Environmental and Social Framework.
“This framework will boost protections for the environment and for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people; drive sustainable development through capacity- and institution-building and country ownership; and enhance efficiency for both the Borrower and the Bank.”
The role of local media and the internet
It isn’t only the international media that plays a role in curbing infrastructure environmental abuses. Annina Aeberli of the Bruno Manser Fund, relates how online social media outrage and local newspaper reporting combined last year to result in the shelving of the Baram mega-dam project in Malaysia’s Sarawak state.
The dam, one of around a dozen the Bornean state government has proposed, was set to be constructed along the Baram River — the second longest in Malaysia — and was to produce some 1,200 megawatts of power.
While government officials declared that the hydroelectric project would boost investment opportunities in Sarawak, they played down the fact that it would also displace thousands of native Dayak people, and degrade biodiversity along the 400-kilometer (249-mile) river.
In Malaysia, where much of the mainstream media is government-controlled, online and social media are often a “very important tool” for voicing and disseminating critical opinions about potentially dangerous projects, according to Aeberli.
In the case of the Baram dam, a wave of Internet and social media coverage critical of the Malaysian government’s development policies was then amplified by more traditional media. The country’s Borneo Post newspaper, for example, which is usually not critical of the government, picked up on the story. Their reporting likely had the biggest influence on the project being killed earlier this year.
“Through the Borneo Post, a new audience, that was not yet critical of [the] Sarawak government’s policies and large infrastructure projects, could be reached. Suddenly, the greater public heard critical statements for the first time through mainstream media,” Aeberli explained.
Informing and influencing
Cynthia Ong, executive director of environmental NGO Forever Sabah, told of another “strategic engagement” with the media that proved highly effective in Malaysia.
In the ecologically rich state of Sabah, northern Borneo, plans for a controversial coal-fired power plant were scrapped in 2011 as the result of opposition from a local environmental coalition whose message was amplified locally and beyond the country’s borders by journalistic reporting.
A coalition of NGOs, including Forever Sabah (whose focus is sustainable development), began by crafting a winning public relations argument: the organizations contended that authorities should shift their funding and focus from fossil fuel projects to renewable energy projects in order to better meet the state’s electricity needs, while also protecting the environment. The coalition then garnered regional, national and international media coverage to get that message across to the public.
“The media was integral in the campaign against the coal-fired power plant. It was the primary means for [our] movement to inform, educate, build awareness, mobilize, politicize, build support and eventually win the fight,” Ong recalled.
“The various forms of media provided a multi-layered platform that made our campaign message and stories accessible to a wide range of the public, government and policy makers,” she said. Media, in other words, generated invaluable free publicity, garnering local and global reach for a non-profit coalition that lacked access to the costly public relations firms employed by industry and government.
In this “historic campaign”, the local movement utilized major international news outlets to attract the attention of regional government-aligned media. In 2010, Time magazine ran an article about the proposed coal plant that was widely picked up by Malaysian communication outlets.
One influential local newspaper — seen as being closely aligned to the government —carried a story that showcased Time’s interest in the coal-fired plant, asking: “How did such a high-profile international journal hear about this issue? If it’s got their attention, perhaps we should be paying attention [too],” Ong told Mongabay. She added that international media coverage can also provide some protection to local outlets, who may otherwise face government sanctions for reporting on sensitive issues.
International media coverage had another impact: a locally-based grassroots coalition of activists was now suddenly seen by the general public as possessing significant clout, and of being part of a “powerful environmental movement”.
Jennifer Pinkowski, the journalist behind Time’s story, believes international publications can play an important role in raising the profile of potentially damaging projects like the one in Sabah. “If local media have a voice, major international publications have a megaphone,” she said.
But, she noted, it can be difficult to get larger publications interested in covering projects posing local threats. “There have been many times I’ve learned about stories that needed to be told, but was unable to place them in major media because there was concern on the editor’s part that, frankly, no one would read or care about it. So that can be a disheartening struggle,” Pinkowski said.
In the case of the Sabah plant, she noted that it was the role of local activists that ultimately brought about the cancellation of the project. “All I did was shine a spotlight on the work being done by local activists. Their work canceled the plant, not mine.”
The drive to ban the coal plant in Sabah had another effect on local media. “In some ways, the campaign necessitated the awakening of [environmental] investigative journalism in Sabah,” Ong remembered.
The campaign also demanded media sophistication and savvy on the part of the activists: “Understanding the energy landscape, the political, government and business actors, the dynamics, the closed systems, the openings, to be able to position the right stories in the right moments, was critical to our success,” Ong said.
Despite the positive role that the media has played in holding infrastructure developers to account for their environmental deficits, Fearnside of INPA noted that this isn’t consistently the case. “Historically media coverage has, indeed, been crucial… [But] it should also be noted that media interest is fickle and temporary,” he explained, citing journalistic reporting of the United Nations’ 1992 Rio Earth Summit (ECO-92), as evidence of the media’s short-term interest in environmental issues.
“After massive media coverage before and during the event, the environment simply vanished from media coverage for a long time, beginning immediately at the end of the event,” Fearnside said.
Global Witness campaign leader Billy Kyte noted that while the media is uniquely capable of presenting the “human stories” at the heart of impending infrastructure projects, there are also “real costs” for environmental defenders who seek media coverage.
“On the one hand [the environmentalists’] cause may be taken more seriously by authorities, but on the other hand they may face a backlash by state or corporate interests aiming to silence them,” Kyte said. Again and again, environmental activism — amplified by major media coverage — has proven to be a dangerous game for citizens trying to block mega-infrastructure projects such as dams or highways.
Maxima Chaupe, a Peruvian indigenous anti-mining activist who won the Goldman Environmental Prize this year, had her house shot at in the days after she won the award. In Honduras, another Goldman prizewinner, indigenous Lenca anti-dam activist Berta Cáceres, was shot dead in March after being placed on a military hit list. Last year, Global Witness documented 185 killings of environmental defenders across 16 countries — the highest annual death toll of its kind on record.
“Defenders have to be aware of the potential risks of seeking international media coverage,” Kyte stated bluntly.
While traditional media in the developed world has long been declining in importance, newspaper circulation and advertising revenue continue to rise in the developing world, especially in countries with a growing middle class and low broadband penetration.
New models for funding developing world journalism that can hold the powerful to account, along with the widespread use of social media to disseminate information, has led to a profound shift in the communication power balance between infrastructure developers with moneyed access to mainstream media, and the locals impacted by infrastructure projects.
“In broad terms I think the media have become more specialized,” said Laurance of James Cook University. “This is quite necessary because few newspapers or media outlets have journalists devoted to environmental concerns anymore. It’s challenging for very busy, generalized journalists to spend much time trying to understand the technical details of environmental concerns and all the issues surrounding specific mega-projects.”
To meet this deficit, some non-governmental groups such as Greenpeace have launched their own investigative journalism units. But this can be problematic: the public often sees these NGO-sponsored communication outlets as being less impartial than those produced by the independent media, said BMF’s Aeberli.
“That is why investigative journalism is needed more than ever. The trend in journalism, unfortunately, goes more towards content provided or sponsored by companies instead of independent reporting,” she said.
The rise of new technological platforms for journalism, such as Twitter, Facebook, blogs and YouTube, however, means that there are more ways than ever for NGOs and environmentalists to disseminate information about infrastructure project shortcomings.
“The shift in the form of media can both weaken reporting on infrastructure project problems, as well as be strengthened by it,” said Park of Sydney University, citing social media’s erosion of traditional media’s funding model, and conversely its power to bring issues to the attention of journalists.
Despite the rapid and sometimes chaotic technological transformation now occurring across the media landscape, journalists will always likely play a key role in publicizing the pros and cons of new infrastructure projects, as well as reporting on the campaigns launched by environmentalists, local communities and indigenous groups determined to resist the worst impacts of those projects.
“The popular media love a controversy, and many infrastructure projects are inherently controversial,” concluded Laurance. Environmental campaigners “take advantage of that [media interest] to shine a light in dark places where poor decisions are being made, sometimes [revealing the] clear taint of corruption.”