home campaigns foe groups publications cyberaction media centre
Friends of the Earth International [photo]
home > publications > link > {issue} > {page} search  
view publications by issue
link magazine - foei's quarterly magazine
interlinkages - foei's monthly electronic bulletin
bulletin on international finance institutions
 issue92 link
january/march 2000  


Third World Owed an Ecological Debt

There is no doubt that the planet is deteriorating environmentally. The production and consumption patterns that drive and sustain northern economies have altered the world's natural cycles. Climate change, the product of excessive carbon dioxide emissions, has been scientifically corroborated. Its disastrous impacts - changing weather patterns, floods, hurricanes, increasing sea levels - are felt daily, and have wiped out entire peoples and their sources of livelihood.

The list continues: deforestation, environmental pollution, the intensive extraction of natural resources at an increasingly rapid rate. All of these result from a development model that benefits the few at the expense of the majority of human beings and the planet's natural capacity for regeneration. According to the United Nations, the richest 20 percent of the world's population, the vast majority of whom are to be found in northern countries, consume 80 percent of the planet's natural wealth.

What is the Ecological Debt?

The cumulative responsibility of industrialized countries for the destruction caused by their production and consumption patterns is called the 'ecological debt'. Natural wealth extracted by the North at the expense of southern people has contaminated their natural heritage and sources of sustenance. The ecological debt also includes the illegitimate appropriation of the atmosphere and the planet's absorption capacity by the industrialized world. This debt is the result of a development model that is being spread throughout the world and which threatens more sustainable local economies.

Concretely, some of the major reasons for the ecological debt are the following:

* The looting, destruction and devastation carried out by the rich countries during the colonial period.

* The extraction of natural resources (petroleum, minerals, and marine, forest and genetic resources) that continues to destroy the basis of survival for southern people.

* Ecologically inequitable terms of trade, whereby goods are exported without taking the social and environmental impacts of their extraction or production into account.

* The intellectual appropriation and use of traditional knowledge related to seeds and medicinal plants, upon which biotechnology and modern agro-industries are based, and for which Third World countries are expected to pay royalties.

* The use and degradation of the best lands, and of water, air, and human energy for the development of export crops, thus putting the food and cultural sovereignty of both local and national communities at risk.

* The contamination of the atmosphere by industrialized countries through their disproportionate emission of gases causing climate change and ozone depletion.

* The illegitimate appropriation of the atmosphere and of the carbon absorption capacity of oceans and vegetation.

* The production of chemical and nuclear weapons and substances, and the toxic wastes that are deposited in the Third World.

Indeed, the living standards enjoyed by the industrialized countries owe a great deal to the immense flows of natural and financial resources and labour (either slave or underpaid) from the Third World. These flows do not take into account the social and environmental damages caused by resource extraction. In other words, the impoverished countries of the South are subsidizing the rich countries of the North!

While during the colonial period the extraction of precious metals and other resources was an openly violent affair, today's looting uses methods that are more subtle. International organizations such as the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization seek to dictate world economic policy in order to maintain a system of dominance and control over the trade in financial and natural resources .

This is carried out through various mechanisms, including the following: the foreign debt promoted by the northern countries; the arrangement of the international market on terms favouring northern economies; foreign investment flows; the privatization of energy, communications, water, and the earth; the 'green' revolution in agriculture; the practice of 'free' trade; the reality of technological dependence; and intellectual property laws.

Presently, under the guise of complying with obligations related to their external debts, Third World countries are being pressured to increase exports. The consequent social and environmental impacts are well documented. And the more they export, the less these countries receive. For example, between 1980 and 1995, the volume of exports from Latin America increased by 245 percent. Between 1985 and 1996, 2,706 million tons of basic resources, most of them non-renewable, were extracted and exported. The amount of resources that were transformed, destroyed or moved in order to produce these exports has not been calculated, nor has the number of people affected or displaced.

Meanwhile, between 1982 and 1996, Latin America has repaid US$740 billion in debt, more than double the $300 billion that was owed in 1982. Yet the debt has not diminished, but has rather increased to $607 billion due to an arbitrary rise in interest rates.

The external debt has already been paid a number of times over, both in financial terms and in terms of the immense flow of natural goods and cheap labour leaving the Third World. And it has been paid despite the fact that it is illegitimate, due to the conditions under which the loans and credits were contracted, corruption in loan contracting, and speculation on financial markets. The ecological debt adds yet another vast layer of obligation from the industrialized countries to the Third World.

Aurora Donoso, FoE Ecuador

At its last Annual General Meeting, FoEI launched an advocacy programme for the recognition and payment of the ecological debt. This initiative has a number of objectives:

* To stop the increase of the ecological debt.

* To restore the areas in southern countries affected by the extraction of natural resources and export monocultures so that local and national communities are able to recover their capacity for self sufficiency.

* To repatriate cultural (plundered historical memory) and natural (genetic and biological material) heritage.

* To restore the areas affected by climate change, reduce CO2 emissions, and totally eliminate ozone-depleting products.

* To eliminate all weapons, products and toxic substances that threaten the life of the planet.

toptable of contents

friends of the earth international
secretariat  po box 19199, 1000 gd amsterdam, the netherlands
tel: 31 20 622 1369. fax: 31 20 639 2181. e-mail: foei@foei.org