Africa forced to clean up after a party it didn't go to

August 23, 2008

"We are the creditors!" insist a new layer of African social activists, victimised by the ongoing Third World debt crisis but now gathered to fight back.

And they are right, particularly when we consider how much the global north has looted from the south in ecological terms.

Last week, the Africa chapters of the social movement Jubilee South converged in Nairobi to debunk limited "debt relief" by northern powers and to plan the next stage of campaigning.

In Johannesburg, the revival of Jubilee South Africa is partly based upon members' attention to the "reverse debt" owed by big capital for environmental damage.


Ecological debt is an important concept for our collective future, as a new official simulation of the disastrous impact of rising sea levels on Cape Town creates similar concerns for us in Durban.

Who should pay for mitigating global warming and adaptation?

After all, hedonistic northern hemisphere financial agencies (especially the World Bank), corporations, governments and consumers made most of the greenhouse gas mess.

Yet Africans will clean up after the party they didn't go to, and pay mightily in the process: increased droughts and floods will leave potentially 90% of the continent's food producers at risk by 2100, according to the main UN climate body.

That bill should now be reckoned and invoiced, to recover trillions of rands' worth of ecological credits given unwillingly to industrial countries each year for their illegitimate occupation of too much global "environmental space".

According to the leading scientist in the field, Autonomous University of Barcelona's Joan Martinez-Alier, "The notion of ecological debt is not particularly radical".

"Think of the environmental liabilities incurred by firms under the United States Superfund legislation, or of the engineering field called restoration ecology, or the proposals by the Swedish government to calculate the country's environmental debt."

His examples are diverse: "Nutrients in exports including virtual water, the oil and minerals no longer available, the biodiversity destroyed, sulphur dioxide emitted by copper smelters, the mine tailings, the harm to health from flower exports, the pollution of water by mining, the commercial use of information and knowledge on genetic resources, when they have been appropriated gratis ('bio-piracy'), and agricultural
genetic resources."

As for the north's "lack of payment for environmental services or for the disproportionate use of environmental space", Martinez-Alier criticises "imports of solid or liquid toxic waste, and free disposal of gas residues (carbon dioxide, CFCs, etc)".

The sums involved are potentially vast.

The founder of eco-feminism, Vandana Shiva, and the South Centre's Yash Tandon estimate that seed bio-piracy "contributes some [US]$66 billion annually to the US economy".

Another $75 billion is effectively donated by the south to the north each year through mopping up carbon emissions in tropical forests, according to the UN.

A 2005 study commissioned by the Edmonds Institute and African Centre for Biosafety identified nearly three dozen cases of biopiracy, such as a diabetes drug produced by a Kenyan microbe; antibiotics from a Gambian termite hill; an antifungal from a Namibian giraffe; the South African and Namibian indigenous appetite suppressant Hoodia; and drug addiction treatments in kombo butter from Central and West Africa.

Jubilee South Africa is focusing on the damage done by platinum mining in the North West and Limpopo, especially by AngloPlats, which exports profits from non-renewable resource extraction to London shareholders in spite of intense community protest.

Another Jubilee campaign supports the Wild Coast's Amadiba Crisis Committee against the coming titanium grab by Australia's Mineral Resource Commodities firm.

In now familiar ANC crony-capitalist style, the firm has full support from South African minister Buyelwa Sonjica, who on August 15 launched a bizarre attack in Xolobeni upon heroic eco-lawyer Richard Spoor.


In all these ways, ecological debt is now being tabulated.

Promising a wave of formal debt audits across the continent, Nairobi-based Africa Jubilee South co-ordinator Njoki Njehu concluded that: "Africa and the rest of the Global South are owed a huge historical and ecological debt for slavery, colonialism, and centuries of exploitation."

Brutus again goes to the New York Southern District courts in late September, as his and the Khulumani/Jubilee case continues against three dozen multinational corporations that supported apartheid.

Our column in the July 8 Durban Mercury argued that these firms need a strong legal signal so they desist from investing in repressive regimes such as Burma, Zimbabwe and the Sudan.

We raised this with deputy foreign minister Aziz Pahad at a recent parliamentary seminar hosted by the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and he sounded concerned, but unable to dislodge Pretoria's anti-reparations alliance with Bush, Brown, Merkel and the corporations.

[Professors Patrick Bond and Dennis Brutus update the eco-debt campaign at More information can be found at Reprinted from the Durban Mercury.]

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