EJ Series, part 2: your place or mine? Environmental (in)justice in Myanmar and Australian activism

30 November 2017
Johanna Garnett highlights the transnational environmental justice issues and consequences which stemmed from activism against the development of a gas hub at James Price Point, Western Australia. This blog is based on a paper presented by Johanna Garnett at the Environmental Justice 2017 Conference, University of Sydney, 6-8 November 2017.

By Dr Johanna Garnett, Lecturer in Peace Studies, the University of New England (UNE), Armidale.

When considering issues of, and responses to, environmental injustice in the Anthropocene, we must consider how the environmental activism of Western industrialised nations could consequentially impact developing nations in the global south. This raises the following questions: Should activism consider ‘others?’ Should we be prepared to compromise? If our activism results in oppression elsewhere, are we responsible? If so, how should we respond? What relationships should we/could we be forming?

In the case study of the multi-national oil and gas company Woodside Petroleum’s attempts to establish a hub at James Price Point, situated about 60klm north of Broome on the remote Kimberley coast in northern Western Australia (see map below), such considerations are necessary.

In 2008, Woodside Petroleum, backed by the West Australian state government, chose James Price Point in northern Western Australia for a $35 billion liquefied natural gas project. Woodside’s proposal was to process the huge gas reserves that it had offshore access to in the ‘Browse Basin’.

Map of James Price Point.

Map of James Price Point, via The Wilderness Society.

However, the region is made up of an ancient (and beautiful) landscape, and home to Aboriginal people for over 40,000 years. The area contains valuable artefacts, including dinosaur footprints, which date back millions of years. The land and seas are home to a number of threatened species, and the surrounding seas host the world’s largest humpback whale nursery.

In early 2010, a small group of Indigenous people, local community members and environmental organisations who objected to this development began a campaign to stop it. They were determined to save this iconic site from desecration, preserve the lifestyles they cherish, and protect local flora and fauna for future generations.

In 2013, Woodside, abandoned the project citing economic reasons. Activists claimed victory, and The Wilderness Society tells us that “the world breathed a collective sigh of relief when Woodside Petroleum pulled the pin on their destructive gas hub project planned for James Price Point in the Kimberley”. But whose world?

As a result of Woodside coming into conflict with locals and environmentalists at James Price Point, the companies focus shifted from the Browse Basin, to an exploration ‘hotspot’ off the west coast of Myanmar, a fragile nation state in South-East Asia.

Myanmar is one of the largest countries in South-east Asia, and one of the world’s least developed countries, with an appalling human rights record due to 60 years of authoritarian, corrupt and inept rule. Myanmar is pursuing an industrialised development model as the country transitions to democracy. Its substantial oil and gas wealth is considered critical to its economic and social development.

Local people suffer a range of environmental injustices – in particular, deforestation and pollution, loss of land through land grabbing, and loss of traditional livelihoods – all with little or no compensation. Whilst this is slowly changing in some instances, the government overall is failing to adequately address environmental injustice.

Woodside was one of the earliest investors in this region and is now one of the largest offshore petroleum acreage holders – in possession of nine permits with a number of partners. Potential plans for gas resources are to supply the gas from the “Southern hub” to the local market, or pipe resources to Thailand. Similarly, the option to pipe “Northern hub” gas to China through existing Shwe gas pipeline infrastructure, has also been explored.

There are a number of concerns regarding Woodside’s (and oil and gas activities in general) in Myanmar. Pipelines have caused concern for locals since their inception, and villagers from Mon State in the south and Rakhine and the Chin States in the north expressed to me their concern over the loss of agricultural land and springs for water and deforestation.

The circumstance surrounding Woodside’s plans for Myanmar’s gas resources, and the underlying issues impacting the state, brings us back to the initial question – should our activism consider others?

Whilst Woodside’s presence in Myanmar may not be a direct result of the actions of environmentalists in Australia, there is a distinct correlation between the James Price Point campaign and Woodside’s movements. It has been said that environmentalism per se caters to the wants and needs of wealthy people and harms the poor and I believe that we become part of the broad structural oppression and silencing if we are aware of it and do not act.

We as academics and activists are in privileged positions, and one way to address environmental issues for the worlds’ most disempowered is to use this awareness and our position of privilege. One way we can use our privilege, wealth and resources is to stop firms from simply moving around the globe to locate in places with the weakest regulations we need to make cross-border links – the question, of course, is how?

We can, and must, explore further the political potential of unofficial realms of collective action. We can create ‘just’ partnerships – mentoring and enabling – building bridges across cultures and situations particularly between those of us who have shared enemies and issues. Partnerships are already forming in Myanmar – they are supported by transnational environmental justice groups such as Earthrights International, International Rivers, and Global Witness and environmental groups are joining communities of interest educating and informing locals.

In light of the case study presented I am arguing that we should be expanding the sphere of discourse even further and our activism must consider others for it is not your place or mine but OURS.

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  • The Wilderness Society. (2017). James Price Point: a sacred place saved from desecration.
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  • Woodside. (2017a). About Us. Woodside Energy.

Johanna Garnett works as a Lecturer in Peace Studies at the University of New England (UNE), Armidale. Her research focus is on environmental and everyday politics, youth, Myanmar and development. Her PhD discussed grassroots environmental peacebuilding initiatives in the nascent democracy of Myanmar with a focus on permaculture. She has presented papers at the Universitas Islam Indonesia (UII) in Jogyakarta, Sydney University, the University of Canberra and Murdoch University, Western Australia. She has published in the Peace and Conflict Review, Food Studies Journal and New Community Quarterly. She is a member of the Australian Political Studies Association, The Australian Sociological Association and Permaculture Foundation, UK. She is part of a growing, global community of critical educators, environmentalists, and activist scholars, working towards a more ecologically sound and just, global future.

Header image: U-bein bridge, Myanmar by Jacob Ruiz via Unsplash.