Drowing in dung in Holland

AN Indian environmentalist recently offered me a five-word analysis of pollution in the Netherlands, which made up in crispness what it lacked in elegance. "Holland," he said, "is drowning in prgshit." The same point is made, less pungently and much expanded, in this 126-page report on the humanmade horrors of one of the most industrialised and affluent countries in the world.

The central fascinating feature of the report is that it was produced by four consultants from southern countries: Mercio Games of Brazil, Chandra Kirana of Indonesia, Sami Songanbele of Tanzania and Rajiv Vora of Delhi's own Gandhi Peace Foundation. Based on just six weeks of intensive research and observation, the book is impressive in its sweep and depth. But it succeeds rather too well, I think, in balancing the more usual sanctimonious, condescending view of the South from the North, with a sanctimonious, self-righteous view of the North from the South.

Few could argue with the central theme that the Dutch have achieved their sleek prosperity by systematically exploiting poorer countries, After all, the astonishing success of this tiny, overcrowded land in becoming the world's second largest agricultural exporter was and remains possible only by importing cheap inputs, notably animal fodder.

That leads to the reasonable conclusion by the authors: "Dutch people should understand that the wealth they are enjoying is much greater than what the majority of the world can enjoy. They are able to do so because they are using more than their share of world resources, and they can continue to be so if most of the world remains poor."

Fair enough. But a couple of pages later there is an even balder statement: "Dutch people should abandon their affluence and live simply so that others may simply live." That's a fine slogan, but it seems to me, like most slogans, to be a shallow substitute for realism. Sure, the Dutch will be compelled to give up their greedy, short-sighted ways. So will other western countries. However, they will do so not out of altruism, but because their people will demand action to restore their blighted, poisoned landscapes.

To suggest in so many words that industriallsed nations will hang their heads in shame, hand over great chunks of wealth, and adapt to.a more organic lifestyle, is bunkum. It's the mirror image of those pious, patronising westerners who lecture the South on opulation control and corruption.

Having said that, it is altir to say that the report is a truly shecking indictment of what one western country has done to itself, and more indirectly to the wider world. Some facts: the Netherlands is the sixth most densely populated country in the world, In South Asia, only Bangladesh is more overcrowded.

In spite of its jam-packed humanity, or perhaps because of that, the Netherlands has become 8 an astonishing food factory, but at 9 an horrendous cost. It scatters 20 1 kg of pesticides on every hectare of its land every year. It has eight farm animals per person, producing 110 million tonnes of dung a year.

An excellent irony highlighted by this book is the Dutch people's reluctance to change their lifestyle, or their approach to the environment.

It's ironical because perhaps, of all European people, only the Dutch would have cooperated so wholeheartedly with this project. I remember well from my frequent forays to Holland in the middle of 1980, when I was based in Brussels, the insatiable Dutch appetite for earnest debate, But the Netherlands, for all its reputation for free thinking and tolerance, is a deeply conservative country. As the authors wryly point out, environmental issues are at the top of the national political agenda, but concern is still largely roncentrated upon nuclear power generation and saving rare animals.

A Vision from the South may occasionally be tunnel Vision, but it richly merits close study by anyone concerned with the dangerously deepening gulrbetween rich and poor nations. On that note, one final, terrible fact. Those pampered, productive Dutch cows may not be revered as their poor cousins are in India. But each cow's upkeep costs US $ 2,000 a year.

That's six times the current rate of Indian per capita income.

--- Derek Brown is the South Asia correspondent, The Guardian Drowning in dung in Holland .