World Social Forum - Porto Alegre, Brazil, 25-30 January, 2001

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Patricia Made


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ENVIRONMENT-FINANCE: South Calls on North to Pay 'Ecological Debt'

By Brian Kenety

PRAGUE, Sep 25 (IPS) - The alliance is so new that even its founders have trouble remembering the exact name, but on the concept they are crystal clear: the developing world is owed an incalculable ecological, social and economic debt by the industrialised nations.
Originally to be called the Ecological Debt Creditors Club of Third World Communities, a sarcastic reference to the Paris Club of creditor nations, the newly formed ''Southern People's Ecological Debt Creditors Alliance'' has taken the now familiar demand for the cancellation of unsustainable debt a step further.

The Alliance argues that what they call the ''illegitimate financial debt'' of the south pales in comparison to what developing countries have paid out during European colonisation, in decades of unfair trading practices, and now in the era of globalisation.

Each year the developing world gives Western countries nine times more in debt repayments than it receives in aid, according to Jubilee 2000, a collection of environmental, faith-based, human rights, and development organisations campaigning for the cancellation of unpayable debt by year end 2000.

The international environmental group Friends of the Earth (FoE), which is part of the Jubilee 2000, defines ecological debt as ''the cumulative responsibility of industrialised countries for the destruction caused by their production and consumption patterns''.

Natural wealth extracted by the north at the expense of southern people has contaminated their natural heritage and sources of sustenance, argues FoE, which is also part of the new informal alliance.

''The ecological debt also includes the illegitimate appropriation of the atmosphere and the planet's absorption capacity by the industrialised world. This debt is the result of a development model that is being spread throughout the world and which threatens more sustainable local economies,'' said FoE in a background report on the issue.

The idea of an ecological debt due the south is not new, said Aurora Donoso a member of the new alliance who came to Prague, where the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are holding their annual meetings Sep. 19 - 28, to represent the Ecuadorean pressure group Acción Ecólogia. But this week it has ''been reborn'' she told IPS, along with a commitment by NGOs assembled here to link economic, social and environmental issues relevant to development.

The idea for the new Alliance came about in Prague workshops this past weekend, organised as part of 'A Different View', a public forum organised by FoE, the Eastern European environmental and financial watchdog group CEE Bankwatch, and Jubilee 2000, and which was sponsored by Czech non-governmental organisations.

Donoso, who sat on 'A Different View' panel discussing the issue along with activists from Columbia, India, and Nigeria, said that it was important to change the whole nature of the debate over debt cancellation, both in the streets of Prague, and in the minds of peoples from the developing countries.

''The external debt has been paid twice over in this absurd economic game (of borrowing from the IMF and World Bank to service that debt) which only serves to impoverish us more,'' she said.

''It has been paid in human lives, in cheap labour and even in slavery; in the exploitation of our lands and people,'' she said.

In a pamphlet titled 'External Debt p Ecological Debt: Who Owes Whom', Acción Ecólogia demands that the industrialised societies and international financial institutions ''recognise that the external debt of the Third World countries has already been paid, as it is minimal in comparison with the ecological debt of the industrialised countries, which is measured in terms of its devastating social, cultural and environmental impacts''.

The group also demands that value be placed on the preservation of peoples, cultures and natural resources.

Protesters here argue that heavily indebted poor countries are caught in a downward spiral of debt service, which diverts resources away from economic development and further dooms them to poverty.

Forced to meet debt payments, countries sacrifice health, education and environment programmes. Africa, for example, spends four times as much on debt payments than it does on healthcare.

José Padua, a member of a Brazilian NGO calling for greater democracy and sustainability in economic issues, told an audience here that from 1989 to 1999, his government had earned 130 billion dollars by privatising state firms p following on IMF loan conditions and recommendations p and had paid out 230 billion dollars in servicing its debt.

Statistics like these lead Donoso to say that ''the number one export of Latin America is dollars''. The pressure to service the debt only leads to greater exploitation of the land and destruction of the environment, she said.

After 20 years of campaigning for debt cancellation, the debate about this issue has finally entered international forums in both the north and the south.

Public awareness about the north's ecological debt to the south, however, is not as widespread, said the forums organisers, who hope that the new Alliance can help bring about ''greater public awareness about this imbalance''. (END/IPS/IP/EF/bk/da/00)


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