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The Right to Ecological Development

Jeff Conant
Date Published: 
June 01, 2008

In the face of ecological collapse, governments both North and South lag, demur, and negotiate to protect business-interests-as-usual while the Kyoto Protocol proposes emissions restrictions wholly insufficient to slow global warming, let alone to reverse it.

In the North we find our policy makers bound to incremental carbon reduction strategies such as carbon trading, a revival of nuclear energy, investments in agrofuels, and other technocratic solutions which essentially rob from Peter to pay Paul. In the Global South, however, social movements are shaping a new vision of large-scale social and ecological change.

As witnesses to the impacts of extreme weather events from Hurricane Mitch in 1999 to the South Asian tsunami in 2005, and more “subtle” changes such as continued crop failure, loss of traditional sources of livelihood like fisheries and medicinal plants, water scarcity, and rising seas in coastal areas where a majority of the world’s poor live, people in the Global South experience climate chaos firsthand. The large-scale social mobilizations in these countries are driven by an understanding that the havoc wrought by climate change is not a wholly new phenomenon, but an exacerbation of conditions in which they’ve been living for centuries under the ravages of resource colonization.

In order to stave off further degradation of traditional ecological and living systems, vast changes are necessary. But to shift the burden of responsibility for these changes from the South (whose resources have been unapologetically plundered for centuries to build wealth in the North) the ecological debt accrued by the Northern countries must be paid. We’ve seen this demand in action for a number of years in Southern-led mobilizations against the World Bank, IMF, and WTO. These mobilizations have had significant successes, both in derailing WTO negotiations and in building South-to-South solidarity through the emergence of such networks as the People’s Health Movement, Focus on the Global South, Third World Network and Via Campesina.

It is out of these same networks that the demand has arisen to address climate change through “common but differentiated commitments” to reduce carbon emissions. This means that rather than submit to strict caps on growth and emissions for all nations, developing countries have the right to development even as the Northern countries power down. But even with a more level playing field, leapfrogging past petroleum-based development is a necessity, as much due to skyrocketing oil prices as to skyrocketing heat waves. And beyond the changes in the industrial sector—the way goods are produced and distributed—required to address the manifold threat of climate change, social movements in the Global South are raising an increasingly unified voice to demand that the very ways society is organized be re-envisioned. Rather than seeking to divide resources to serve an atomized multitude, social movements in the South envision multiplying resources to serve the common good.What the social movements demand

With huge numbers of members throughout Latin America, Asia, and Africa, Via Campesina is the largest international peasant movement the world has ever seen. It draws the link clearly between climate change and crop failure, and between food sovereignty and climate justice. A 2007 declaration demanded:1  The complete dismantling of agribusiness companies: they are stealing the land of small producers, producing junk food, and creating environmental disasters.

2 The replacement of industrialized agriculture and animal production by small-scale sustainable agriculture supported by genuine agrarian reform programs.

3 The promotion of sane and sustainable energy policies. That includes consuming less energy and producing solar and biogas energy on the farms instead of heavily promoting agro-fuel production as is currently the case.

4  The implementation of agricultural and trade policies at local, national, and international levels supporting sustainable agriculture and local food consumption. This includes the ban on the kinds of subsidies that lead to the dumping of cheap food on markets.As a peasant movement, Via Campesina understands that power lies in control over land. For activists in the North seeking a common thread, it may be helpful to recognize that our struggles against urban blight, displacement, and gentrification are, similarly, struggles for control over land and land-use planning.

Just as Via Campesina demands “food sovereignty,” popular movements in nations impacted by oil development demand “energy sovereignty.” This is best articulated by OilWatch, an international network based in Ecuador, Nigeria, Thailand, and Costa Rica. A recent report demands that we “keep crude oil underground” by developing models of energy self-sufficiency that are based on renewables like wind and solar. It also suggests that benefits be paid out of a global fund to nations which limit their extraction and use of fossil fuels in favor of local, sustainable solutions.

Burning fossil fuels is the leading cause of climate change through the release of massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Mature forests, the hallmark of many tropical ecosystems, capture carbon dioxide, creating a buffer against global warming. Especially in areas rich in biodiversity, oil extraction is accompanied by deforestation. If Oilwatch’s call for a moratorium on oil drilling in the tropics were heeded, it would immediately eliminate both the primary and secondary causes of global warming.

Another global network called GAIA, the Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance, began as a campaign to reduce emissions of persistent organic pollutants such as dioxins.  In recent years, however, it has become a leading proponent of the concept of “Zero Waste.” Zero Waste strategies consider the entire life-cycle of products, processes, and systems with the understanding that waste—including both solid waste and toxic emissions—can be prevented through redesigning manufacturing processes to mimic natural systems and reusing by-products. While Zero Waste strategies are taking root in some European industries, there are entire communities devoted to Zero Waste in the Philippines, India, South Africa, and elsewhere.

To those who believe that “environmentalism” is a luxury for the rich countries or that “everyone wants to live the way we do,” it may be unexpected that Zero Waste should emerge strongly from the South. Yet it should come as no surprise at all. From an environmental justice perspective it is the poorer nations, and the poorest sectors of those nations, that have the most to gain from ecological concepts like Zero Waste. It is the poor who are forced to live in, on, and from the waste discarded by the wealthy, who have the privilege to think environmentally while leaving an ever-expanding trash pile in their wake.

Similarly, people in the innovative water movements in the Global South have the most at stake in the struggle over water. While drinking-water resources are under threat worldwide and the business sector declares that “the next wars will be for water,” it is easy for those of us in the North to forget the war for water that literally billions of people live daily. Over a billion people worldwide do not have safe drinking water, and as many as 2.6 billion lack access to safe sanitation—the leading cause of illness and death globally. For people throughout the South, from Nepal to Niger, the water crisis is, and has been, a present reality for some time. In a detailed report called Las Canillas Abiertas de America Latina (II), titled after Eduardo Galeano’s seminal history of the region, the Uruguayan water movements, in concert with La Red Vida (the Americas-wide coalition of anti-privatization campaigns), call for local, participatory, community-controlled water management as the only way to both stem privatization now and to steward and protect water resources for the future.

Moving from a position that opposes commodification of life (“Our world is not for sale!”) to a position that reinforces values of resource stewardship and restoration of ecological balance is a hallmark of the emergent Southern movements. But aside from the “ecological” question—the fact that natural resources and ecological space are under threat—what all these movements have in common is their understanding of the primacy of human health. Whether the threat is climate change, routine gas flaring and oil spills, release of toxic pollutants, hunger, or lack of access to safe water, Global South movements, like the environmental justice movement here in the US, recognize that any threat to the environment has a direct and immediate impact on the health of communities. With growing attention focused on the increased incidence of diseases tied to global warming—such as mosquito-borne illnesses like dengue and yellow fever and epidemic diseases associated with floods and extreme weather events, such as cholera and typhoid—health activists in countries already wracked by the diseases of poverty such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis have clear reason to act on climate change.

By keeping oil in the ground and leapfrogging to renewable technologies, redesigning industrial systems to eliminate waste, and promoting local self-sufficiency in agriculture, Global South movements are addressing the three main drivers of climate change. But social movements, based as they are in a vision of justice for all, recognize that a fourth condition must exist in order for all of us to climb out of the danger zone together. In light of the collapse of traditional living systems and the assault on local economies wrought by climate chaos, corporate globalization, and hostile Northern trade regimes, it is fair to say social movements in the Global South want the same thing they have always wanted: equity. Or, in the more colorful language of Mexico’s Zapatista movement, justice with dignity.

Neither equity nor dignity depend on massive fossil fuel consumption, industrial agriculture, waste, or the command-and-control infrastructure of large dams, nuclear power, and sprawling mega-cities. In fact, quite the opposite is true. In policy circles, “the right to development” may mean the right to pollute as the Northern countries have; but for peasants and indigenous peoples, by and large, the right to development means the right to merge age-old traditions and systems of ownership and authority with the modern practices that complement, foster, and enhance them. In other words, a just transition to a post-carbon world requires precisely the kinds of strategies that have sustained land-based peoples for millennia, accompanied by the best sustainable technologies current science has to offer: organic subsistence agriculture plus fair trade; seed sovereignty ensured by genetic testing of seed stocks; locally produced electricity via wind, solar, and biogas; collective (public) transportation powered by waste oil; and local water stewardship enhanced by low-cost water treatment.

The battles against the multilateral financial institutions and the WTO that raged from the late nineties into this century showed how activists in the US can join Southern-based movements in their struggle against unfair trade regimes and debt. By seeing the ways in which land-based social movements are leading the charge toward a new social ecology, we have an opportunity to topple the drivers of climate change as well.As co-author of Hesperian Foundation’s new book, A Community Guide to Environmental Health, Jeff Conant, (admittedly a Yanqui), has worked with movements in the Global South for over a decade to address economic and ecological inequity looking toward just and sustainable solutions. This article is not intended to represent a homogenous vision of “the Left” or “the South,” but merely to articulate some observations based on reading, discussion, and interaction with a handful of actors in these movements over a number of years.