A different tourism: Voyages to degradation, exploitation (Column: Bookends LIV)

By Vikas Datta (09:46) 

Tourism normally entails travel for relaxation or leisure, to some scenic spot or a place celebrated for its cultural heritage – and generates some splendid literature. But there are also contrarians who go to the other extreme – visiting the world’s most polluted areas, or where fruits of globalisation have conspicuously turned sour – and present vivid but disturbing accounts of what unbridled “development” and rapacious commercial interests seeking to serve the global consumer society’s insatiable demand are doing to the planet and luckless communities.

These unlikely tourists cover a wide spectrum – from journalists to a stand-up comic/political satirist.

Mark Thomas, who teamed up his ability to make people laugh with making them aware of things sought to be hidden such as loopholes in Western laws which enable rogue states obtain arms in “As Used on the Famous Nelson Mandela: Underground Adventures in the Arms and Torture Trade” (2006), seeks to investigate stories the world’s most well-known drink doesn’t mention in its iconic advertising campaigns in “Belching Out the Devil: Global Adventures with Coca-Cola” (2008).

This venture takes him to eight countries across four continents – beginning from its corporate headquarters in Atlanta to Colombia, Turkey and Ireland to meet trade union leaders alleging victimisation, El Salvador, to investigate issues of child labour on sugar plantations which supply the company, India, where the cola faced various charges including rampant ground water depletion in Rajasthan, exposing workers (and communities around) to toxic chemicals in Kerala and of harmful residues in the product and Mexico to probe claims of unfair trade practices and pollution. And also the nearly surrealistic experiences in seeking responses from company officials.

Sweatshops in developing countries producing iconic brands and other products for affluent – mainly western – societies had evoked quite an outcry and led to “ethical consumerism”. Named after Britain’ Ethical Consumer cooperative, this venture, which includes such agencies as Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance, seeks to enable buyers with a social conscience choose products meeting standards concerning treatment and earnings of the workers/raw material producers, environmental impact and so on.

Does this make any difference on the ground is what Conor Woodman seeks to find out. In “Unfair Trade: The Shocking Truth Behind ‘Ethical’ Business” (2011), the former financial analyst travels to a number of developing countries and his seven case studies uncompromisingly reveal the inequity of the global market regardless of certification.

In Nicaragua’s Miskito coast, Woodman meets lobster hunters who supply to the American market and make hazardous deep dives to catch lobsters, instead of trapping them as the US companies want – and claim – because of lack of resources. And these people cannot afford to eat lobsters themselves.

Among other places he visits are China’s Pearl River Delta – the hub for assembling electronic gadgets coveted by people worldwide – to see what effect the mind-numbing, repetitive work has on young workers and their desire for education, and over the border to Laos, where a large province has been effectively handed over to the Chinese for sprawling rubber plantations and the people moved out.

Then it’s to war-torn Congo, which produces minerals needed for mobile phones and computers, to see the primitive way they are mined and the dodgy way they are exported. The next is Afghanistan and its opium and Woodman lucidly explains why the crop is chosen for farmers as well as a viable solution.

Ethical certification is revealed to be mostly a marketing tool for most big corporations costing them quite less as commodity prices set are below global prices. There are also exceptions where companies can be competitive and profitable and yet be fair to the third world.

American journalist and film-maker Andrew Blackwell’s “Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World’s Most Polluted Place” (2013) is self-obvious.

Apart from the radioactive zone around the Soviet-era reactor in Ukraine, these include Canada’s Alberta province where oil extraction from tar sands has left the terrain like a lunar landscape, the oil refineries of Port Arthur in Texas, a permanently smog-shrouded Chinese town and one where old computers and mobiles are broken down for components (including by eight-year-olds), the former forests of Amazon basin where soya farming is under way (and a Greenpeace deal with a MNC did not leave local environmentalists satisfied), a garbage patch in the North Pacific and finally, the Yamuna river in and around Delhi.

What makes Blackwell’s lighthearted account effective is compassionate, nuanced portrayal of local residents while not treating their story as a mere human vs nature battle but something more complex.

All these writers make a credible case against the needless consumerism characterising most modern societies, though most products are not necessary for any extra quality of life. But it doesn’t seem to have bothered many people!

(22.02.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

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