Notes from the Field

Steal This Idea: Environmentalists Urge Theft at International Forum

November 5, 2008

Participants at a forum held last week in Seoul want you to steal their ideas. Organized by The Asia Foundation, and supported by KDI School of Public Policy and Management and the Korea Business Council for Sustainable Development, the group gathered from countries across Asia to discuss how to address local and regional environmental threats while enhancing development and economic growth.

In the keynote address that opened the day-long event, Terry Foecke, managing partner of Materials Productivity LLC and senior environmental consultant at The Asia Foundation, set the tone for the day. “A sustainable project incorporates ideas that are packaged for theft,” he said. “These are concepts that are so good and so obvious that people will want to replicate them.” Through his experiences throughout the United States, Asia, and Latin America, he said that the most common barrier to creating projects that stimulate economic growth without harming the environment is blocking the flow of ideas and dialogue. “When no one feels conformable telling the truth about what goes wrong and what goes right, it is a waste of time,” said Foecke.

The forum, attended by government, NGO and business representatives, is part of a multi-year program of The Asia Foundation’s Korea office aimed at enhancing cooperation between Korea and developing Asian countries. Other program activities include study tours, exchanges, and fellowships allowing Koreans and other Asians to learn from one another.

In order to accurately and effectively plot future steps to address major transnational environment issues, all parties ” governments, environmentalists, the private sector, NGOs, and citizens ” must take an honest approach to information sharing. One conference participant cited the case study presented by The Asia Foundation’s representative in Mongolia, Mr. William S. Foerderer Infante, as being one she could model and adapt at home in India.

A few years ago in Mongolia, disagreements between the mining industry and environmentalists had become so poisonous that neither side was talking to the other creating rampant misinformation. While Mongolians valued the mining sector for creating jobs, all agreed that past practices were irresponsible and threatened the health of the environment. In order to bring stakeholders to the table and establish a mutual understanding of the issues, rigorous and independent studies were conducted on Mongolia’s rivers. This empirical data was used to dispel entrenched misconceptions about mining’s impact on the environment, giving both sides a fresh starting point for talks. From there, all parties developed the Responsible Mining Initiative that institutes environmentally safe standards for the mining industry while securing the future of Mongolia’s rivers.

In an ever growing sign that concern for the environment is rising dramatically in Asia, governments are joining corporations and citizens in taking steps to minimize pollution and raise environmental awareness. Asian countries have developed national environmental protection laws and policies, and are devoting greater resources to protecting natural resources. In China, where as many as 700 million people are unable to access safe drinking water, the government has set aside $1.75 billion to reduce pollution of the country’s air, land and water resources.

As China’s economic might has increased, so has its industrial waste and pollution. Mr. Zhao Lijian, Environment Program Manager for The Asia Foundation in Beijing and a LEAD Fellow, presented a case study from the Pearl River Delta, where 95% of the estuary is excessively contaminated and, in 2006, was declared a “dead zone” by the United Nations Environment Programme. Here, where the demand on factories and manufactures grows by the day, Asia Foundation programs focus on collaboration and prevention.

In Vietnam, rapid growth is impacting the environment in similarly negative ways. For a country whose population has increased more than three times since 1950, there is considerable pressure on natural resources. Environmental degradation is also harming the country’s work force through a rise in health problems affecting productivity and Vietnamese livelihoods. Recent generations are leaving a “legacy of environmental neglect in the pursuit of economic growth and generating tension.”

South Korea’s government is committed to increasing assistance for addressing environmental issues in the Asia-Pacific region through aid as well as non-governmental efforts. Already spending approximately 13% of its international aid budget on environment projects, Korea’s KOICA plans to up that figure, according to a representative at the forum.

Clearly, the task of tackling transnational environmental problems is daunting, and specialists often feel overwhelmed and discouraged. Dean Chin-Seung Chung, a professor at the Korea Development Institute School of Public Policy and Management and former Deputy and Vice Minister at the Korean Ministry of Environment, pointed to over 100 initiatives jointly identified by Japan, China, and Korea all of which were deemed unsuccessful and a waste of resources.

Chris Plante, The Asia Foundation’s Environment Programs Director, and Dong-il Seo, a professor of Environmental Engineering at Chungnam National University in Korea, emphasized the need for sound measurement and performance indicators. Without consistent, quality monitoring systems, incorrect prescriptions are made. In water quality management, measurement inaccuracies can be as simple as sampling water on a rainy day, or not considering the varying temperature of water or how water movement alters the composition of the sample.

In his address to the conference, Representative Moon Kook-Hyun, the leader of the Creative Korea Party and former CEO of Yuhan-Kimberly Limited, said, “Not only should we think about multi-sector and interdisciplinary approaches to the environment within our country, but also internationally.” Mr. Moon spoke about experiences gained from over 20 years as an environmental leader, where, in 1984, he initiated the first company-sponsored environmental campaign in Korea and was later recognized by the United Nations Environmental Program with its prestigious award, the “Global 500 Roll of Honor” in 1997.

Forum participants pointed to the current global economic downturn as potentially having a negative effect on budget considerations worldwide. “Often, environment projects are viewed as a luxury and that is a mistake,” said Dr. Edward Reed, The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Korea.

Perhaps not if they are based on ideas ready to steal.

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