Monday, January 21, 2008


Often when the location of a waste disposal facility, power plant, industry, dam, etc. is chosen the people living nearby the site often protest. This is often called the not in my backyard (NIMBY) syndrome. Those in industry (plus many government officials and some academics) complain about NIMBY, thinking the protests are based on hysteria and fear.

NIMBY is usually discussed in developed countries. But what about developing countries which either do not have the regulatory framework or which have lax standards? I will argue in this article that in fact the NIMBY syndrome is beneficial in such countries.

NIMBY syndrome occurs very commonly in Western countries, especially with local projects. Classic examples include siting of landfills, industrial parks, and power plants. It also occurs with bigger projects which have considerable local impact, such as construction of dams. Sometimes NIMBY will invoke physical protests (big or small), but more often it is fought in courtrooms, legislative committees, city councils, and executive agency offices.

Why do so many in industry and others complain? We might tell from their comments. Here are some of the comments I have heard during my many years in the environmental field.

"They do not understand us"
"This project will benefit us all"
"They are against progress"
"We have filed/received all the necessary permits"
"Our studies show this to be the best site"
"We need to put ___ somewhere"

I will let the reader to make any conclusions from these.

After the 2004 Asian tsunami, I was with a team which surveyed the damage in Southern Thailand. The tsunami caused a tremendous amount of debris. We were concerned with how the debris was being disposed. Much of this was dumped in old tin mines or simply on vacant land owned by the local authorities or the national government. No consideration was given to water tables, nearby streams, or other sources of potential contamination. Interestingly, there was no visible opposition, or NIMBY, to this.

This scenario is repeated with most disasters, including earthquakes and hurricanes. But it is not restricted to emergency situations. It also occurs in when companies or the government wishes to dispose of waste. Yes, there maybe environmental laws, but these are often weak or nonexistent. In addition due to corruption or simply the government ignoring the law, the waste may be dumped wherever the guilty party wants to dump it.

In much of Asia there has not been a tradition of protest against authority in the environment area. Even though in some countries that has been due to authoritarian governments, there is still an avoidance of conflict due to religious teaching, especially Buddhism. Governments often take advantage of this by invoking "the common good" idea.

Therefore, there has been very little NIMBY. There have been notable exceptions, mostly involving very large projects. However, it is possible to learn from these exceptions. In many of these cases after protests occur, the media then gets involved and the public becomes very aware of the project. That is when questions start to be asked and environmental issues are raised.

So, back to my point at the beginning. If a country has inadequate laws or regulations, NIMBY can do two things. First it can make people aware of environmental dangers. Second it can force through changes in the legal code - both through direct impact on the government and indirectly by influencing public opinion toward greater environmental protection.