The ecological debt

Print edition : February 13, 2004

Activists highlight the damage done to the ecology of the South by the policies of market fundamentalism of the countries of the North and suggest steps to correct the historical wrongs.

in Mumbai

THE World Social Forum (WSF) saw a renewed call for the payback of the ecological debt that the South believes it is owed by the North. In a range of issues, including the Bhopal gas tragedy, the Minamata poisoning, big dams, corporate-controlled biotechnology, patents of plants and dumping of toxic wastes, groups such as the Jubilee South believe that the North is enormously indebted to the South. The Jubilee South's mission is "to confront the historical roots and structural causes of the debt problem, and to promote lasting alternatives of economic, social and ecological justice. We locate our struggle in the context of the myriad forms of resistance through which the majority of the world's people now seek to achieve and defend their fundamental human and collective rights to a dignified world".

A loud and clear message, at the venue of the World Social Forum.-VIVEK BENDRE

The "enemies" in this "struggle" are obvious. They are not only the dominant models of trade and the Bretton Woods institutions, but also the entire gamut of free trade agreements that guarantee investments. The means used to fight them are primarily those of boycott action. The definition of ecological debt is lengthy, no doubt owing to the necessity to fit the scale of the crime. According to Accion Ecologica of Ecuador, ecological debt is "the debt accumulated by the Northern industrial countries towards Third World countries on account of resource plundering, environmental damage, and the free occupation of environmental space to deposit wastes such as greenhouse gases. Those who abuse the biosphere, transgress ecological limits and enforce unsustainable patterns of resource extraction of a range of natural resources must begin to discharge this ecological debt. The ecological debt accumulated through such processes as the extraction of a range of natural resources, ecologically unequal terms of trade externalising ecological costs, the appropriation of traditional knowledge - for example, of seeds and plants, on which the modern agri-business and biotechnology are based - contamination of the atmosphere through the emission of various greenhouse gases, producing and testing chemical and nuclear weapons in countries of the South, and the dumping of chemicals and toxic waste in the Third World. The current system of neoliberal globalised market economy maintains and augments the ecological debt through such mechanisms as the Structural Adjustment Programmes imposed by the international financial institutions, foreign investments, unequal terms of trade, forcing countries to produce export products in order to redress financial debts; and through the Trade-related Intellectual Property Rights within the World Trade Organisation which protect the patenting of genetic material for agriculture and pharmacology by transnational corporations without compensation for the original guardians of the biodiversity of the South".

The rhetorical question at the heart of the debates on ecological debt at the WSF was: "Can nature be made into a commodity that can be monopolised?" Vinod Raina of the Jubilee South said: "No. It has to be shared. Apart from the moral aspect, it is not economically correct to have a monopoly." Using the example of the food and agricultural sectors, Raina spoke about ecological imperialism of the North. He argued that many edible commodities have their origins in West Asia, India, China and Latin America, but the trade in these items was dominated by the North. Thus the profit from the trade in products grown in the South went almost entirely to the North.

The pattern has not really changed. Increasing production and trade means greater energy requirements and the use of more natural resources. Simultaneously, it means greater external debt since rapid progress can only be achieved through external financing, which is usually available through the agencies of rich countries of the North. Once this is availed of, the process of paying back the financial debt begins. It is usually a never-ending one for poorer countries of the South. The irony of the so-called poverty alleviation programmes of the North is that most of the world's resources (on which the North is dependant) are located in the South. However, the North believes that the South is indebted to it. For instance, most forests are in territories belonging to nations of the South. Yet the North insists that they should be seen as a global resource.

Raina argues: "The same principle should apply to `geological forests', the oil pools. The Texan oilfields, produced from forests of ages ago, should then also belong `globally' rather than to a particular country. We should therefore calculate the debt owed by the North for using the global commons, the forests of the world as sinks for their emissions, and for not sharing their oil resources equally. The same criterion should be used for all other natural resources, keeping in mind that 23 per cent of the world population consumes 80 per cent of its resources."

Coming in for special criticism was the United Nation's financing for development process. It was attacked as disastrous for development because of the "double standards" of U.N. member-states. On the one hand, they speak of development and poverty reduction, on the other, they seek financial and political favours from multinational corporations and financial institutions whose activities aggravate the problems of developing countries. It was argued that rich Northern creditors should cancel the financial debt they believe is owed to them by the South. The argument is that it has been paid for historically. Hence development financing should not be looked at as a loan to the South but rather as the North's way of repaying its debt to the South.

Suggested as a solution was the doctrine of Equitable Environmental Space, which said that the South's financial debt was already paid and that it was minimal in comparison with the ecological debt that the North continued to incur. Furthermore, the doctrine argues, the debt should be measured not only in financial terms but also in terms of its devastating social, cultural and human impacts. The destruction of the South that is being witnessed today is only an extension of a legacy going back at least five centuries in which nothing of value was left untouched - spices, plants, animals, labour, land, minerals, precious stones and oil.

Professor Joan Martinez-Alier of the University of Barcelona says: "Money is not the issue. There is a need to stop the ecological debt from growing. The South recognises that the past is important but the future is more important. The North needs to see it this way too. The South is actually a creditor and not a debtor." Martinez-Alier emphasised the need to look at the relationship between ecological debt and the exploitation of the poor. He said: "Resources that should be free to all - clean air and water - are being polluted. Take the cases of Coca-Cola and water use, NALCO [National Aluminum Corporation] and fluorosis, the mining of precious stones and minerals and the effects this has had on poor people. We all know about Ken Saro Wiwa and Chico Mendes, but you cannot forget the hundreds who have died because of the way they have been forced to labour."

One of the less discussed issues in the debate is the threat posed by the North to the ecology, culture and knowledge of the South. It would not be far off the mark to say that a large number of people in Asia still depend on natural resources for their livelihood in much the same way that their forefathers did. Centuries of working systems of knowledge have been evolved as a means to manage these resources. This, in turn, has shaped their cultures.

Exploitation by the North over the decades has eroded these diverse identities to the extent that the established socio-cultural and economic processes have broken down. Social and economic dislocation brought about by impositions like monoculture, corporate farming and corporate-controlled biotechnology and the dislocation of the entire market system have alienated rural communities without offering them any alternatives. Raina said: "The North owes so much to the South in financial debt that it can never pay it back. The ethical-moral debt is so high that we should force the North to change its policies and attitudes. That would be the beginning of a payback of the debt."

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