On the Brink: A Film in the 2002 Environmental Film Festival in the Nation's Capital
By Robert Lalasz and Naomi Greengrass
March 19, 2002—The linkages among environmental degradation, population growth and migration, and violent conflict are complex and difficult to communicate effectively. But Screenscope, Inc. filmmakers Hal and Marilyn Weiner have taken up the task in their new film On the Brink, which explores these linkages through visits to Bangladesh, India, South Africa, Peru, and the United States-Mexico border. A rough-cut of the film was screened at the Wilson Center as part of the 2002 Environmental Film Festival in the Nation's Capital.
A Vicious Cycle in Bangladesh
On the Brink, which will be shown as part of PBS's new season of the series Journey to Planet Earth, begins in the slums of Calcutta, a city of 14 million with high unemployment and a large unskilled and cheap labor force. According to the film, one Calcutta slum contains in its one square mile 750,000 squatters, most of whom are Bangladeshis fleeing from environmental degradation, overcrowding, economic deprivation, and violence in their native country.
Indeed, Bangladesh itself is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with nearly 132 million people (half the United States population) occupying land the size of New York state. Its per capita annual income of $225 is among the world's poorest. Severe population pressures and the subdivision of agricultural land to subsequent generations are also provoking mass migration in Bangladesh from rural to domestic urban areas as well to foreign cities such as Calcutta.
Better News in South Africa
On the Brink then examines South Africa, which, despite its 1994 transition to democracy, is still defined by the legacy of apartheid. Many villages there, the products of apartheid's resettlement of South African blacks to environmentally marginal lands, are still without opportunity. The film shows an open-pit magnesium ore mine, where people earn 30 cents an hour collecting large chunks of ore for 12 hours a day. As in Bangladesh, large numbers of rural South Africans are migrating to urban areas—an influx that overwhelms a typical city's infrastructure.
Alexandra, South Africa is one such city. According to On the Brink, it has 500,000 people—yet its sewage and waterworks are designed to service 40,000. Tens of thousands of people have poured in from the countryside each year, ending up in squatter settlements that promote not only crime but also disease because of inadequate sanitation. Yet Alexandra has become a success story. Spurred by overcrowding and a dangerously declining water table, the city relocated its shantytown residents to new homes, funded by a central government grant. On the Brink emphasizes that the difference between Alexandra and similar cities in Bangladesh is that South Africa has the resources available to deal with environmental problems.
Peru's Ongoing Scarcity
Half of the population of Peru's capital city Lima consists of migrant laborers, many of whom now live in shantytowns after leaving lands that have become unsuitable for agriculture. On the Brink outlines the link between the decline of Peruvian agriculture and the rise of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), a Maoist rebel movement born in the Andean highlands and supported by Peruvian peasants radicalized by environmental scarcity.
Sendero Luminoso, whose profile reached its heights after it terrorized Lima in a week-long 1992 spree of bombings, largely disbanded after the September 1992 arrest of its charismatic leader, Abimael Guzman. Yet tens of thousands of rural Peruvians continue to migrate to Lima annually. On the Brink argues that the land scarcity, environmental degradation, and poverty of Peru's rural areas have still not been resolved, and that violence remains a possibility despite the decline of Sendero Luminoso
Across the Rio Grande
On the Brink also maintains that environmental scarcity has caused substantial migration from Mexico into the United States. The majority of these migrants are from drought-stricken central Mexico, but many also come from environmentally-degraded areas in Central and South America.
The film depicts the migration economy in Agua Prieta, the Mexican city across the border from Douglas, AZ. Agua Prieta's economy is based on smuggling people: on any one night, 5,000 people are in "stashhouses" there, waiting for the signal to cross. Four hundred die in the Sonoran Desert each year trying to enter illegally into the United States. But many more make it—up to 1.5 million annually.
On the Brink concludes that developed countries must address environmental security as a major foreign policy issue. Bangladesh, Peru, and other areas are just examples of how water scarcity, land degradation, and forest depletion can help destabilize societies and even contribute to revolution.
The Challenge of Multicausality
ECSP Director Geoffrey Dabelko began the after-screening discussion by lauding Screenscope for "taking on a monumental challenge to express the complexities of environmental security-complexities on the ground, complexities of research, and complexities of communications." Dabelko said that, while researchers are always looking for a "silver bullet" to explain the occurrence of conflict, multicausality is a more accurate analysis. "Environment and population growth work with other political and social factors in this regard," he said.
In addition, while compelling case studies exist for the links between environmental scarcity and conflict, Dabelko said that extrapolation into a universal model is difficult. Even the State Failure Task Force, he noted, has had a hard time saying anything definitive about environment's contribution to violence and state failure. But USAID is adopting a conflict-prevention framework to incorporate environmental security considerations, a move that Dabelko argued will enrich the agency's efforts and make them more effective.
Hope for Peru
Cynthia McClintock, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, said that On the Brink would bring problems rarely seen in the United States to the attention of a wide public. She said the great strength of the film was to highlight the material problems—environmental and economic-underlying violence.
McClintock, who has written extensively about Peruvian peasants and Sendero Luminoso, said problems in Colombia and Peru are very much rooted in environmental scarcity. "These movements often begin in rural areas with the support of dispossessed peasants," she said. With an annual three- to four-percent population growth rate in Latin America, rural populations continue to expand, subdividing already marginal agricultural land. McClintock added that these population pressures are accelerating the soil depletion, soil salination, and lack of water for irrigation. "More people and less land means more poverty," she said.
However, McClintock cited a number of reasons for hope in Peru—from recent democratization and development of civil society in Latin America to the experience of the ancient Incas, which sustained a very large population on arid lands through careful irrigation control. She also noted that family planning has cut into the massive population growth rates of Latin America in the last 20-30 years. And McClintock praised international financial organizations (particularly the World Bank) for adopting "much savvier policies" that are less neglectful of environmental problems. But problems obviously remain, she said—including coca growing and cocaine processing, which generate serious environmental hazards and are a major polluter of some South American rivers.
On the Brink's editor Robert Zakin told the audience during open discussion that the Journey to Planet Earth series is much more driven by issues such as environmental security than it is by situation or geography. He also said that the filmmakers were originally in Bangladesh to film for an episode on global disease when a bomb went off 30 feet from their camera—heightening their interest in how environmental pressures can contribute to conflict. "The cameras don't lie," said Zakin. "When people live without privacy, sanitation, or water, it can't help but exacerbate conflict."