Ecological debt and our center’s survival

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

And they are right, particularly when we consider how much the North has looted from the South in ecological terms.

In early August, the Africa chapters of Jubilee South converged in Nairobi to debunk limited "debt relief" by Northern powers and to plan the next stage of financial campaigning. This week in Johannesburg, the revival of Jubilee South Africa in a major conference is partly based upon members’ attention to the reverse debt owed by big capital for environmental damage.

Ecological debt is now an especially important concept for our collective future, as a new official simulation of the disastrous coming impact of rising sea levels on Cape Town creates similar concerns for us here 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 roughly two trillion dollars 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, ecological debt takes many forms:

"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 harms 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 (‘biopiracy’), 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 criticizes "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 ecofeminism, Vandana Shiva, and the South Center’s Yash Tandon estimate that seed biopiracy "contributes some $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 Center 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 Northwest and Limpopo provinces, especially by AngloPlats, which exports profits from nonrenewable resource extraction to London shareholders in spite of intense community protest.

Another Jubilee campaign supports the Wild Coast’s Amadiba Crisis Committee against the upcoming titanium grab by Australia’s Mineral Resource Commodities. In now familiar African National Congress crony-capitalist style, the firm has full support from SA minerals and energy minister Buyelwa Sonjica, who last Friday launched a bizarre attack in the town of Xolobeni upon South Africa’s most 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-coordinator Njoki Njehu concluded, "Africa and the rest of the Global South are owed a huge historical and ecological debt for slavery, colonialism, and centuries of exploitation."

Njehu says Jubilee’s challenge as it rebuilds is to link issues as diverse as food sovereignty, climate change, trade and EU Economic Partnership Agreements and continuing debt bondage. "From the initial 13 countries that participated in the Jubilee South founding conference in Johannesburg in 1999, the Africa Jubilee South network has grown to organizations and movements from 29 countries."

As an interim step to winning moral and legal liability for ecological debt, as well as all the historical injustices Njehu refers to, one of the clearest cases remains apartheid profiteering. Jubilee South Africa promotes the strategy discussed in the last ZCommentary (8 July), suing a half-dozen multinational corporations for reparations using the Alien Tort Claims Act.

Following a postponement of that lawsuit from July, the New York Southern District court takes it up again late next month. Brutus will again be in New York for the Khulumani/Jubilee case. These firms need a strong legal signal so they desist from investing in repressive regimes like Burma, Zimbabwe and the Sudan.

We raised the matter with SA deputy foreign minister Aziz Pahad at a parliamentary seminar hosted by our University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) last month. Pahad, a long-time ally of outgoing president Thabo Mbeki, sounded concerned, but made no commitment to dislodge his own government’s anti-reparations alliance with George W. Bush, Gordon Brown, Angela Merkel and the corporations.


Will our own base for this sort of work, the UKZN Center for Civil Society (CCS), continue to exist? We think so, in spite of a closure announcement made by university authorities on July 30. In response, the Faculty Board responsible for humanities, development studies and social sciences voted overwhelmingly (33-1) on August 13 to save the Center.

The reason given for the proposed closure is that our staff (aside from the director, Patrick, who has a tenured chair) do not have "permanent"

funding. But neither do most of the university’s research units, and there is money in CCS reserves for at least a couple of years plus ongoing donor support for many of our projects.

UKZN has some major challenges; an internal report recorded an environment of "intimidation and bullying", in which management "deploys power rather than intellect", as Rhodes University professor Jimi Adesina put it.

A five-month University Research Review finalized in February advocated strengthening CCS and giving it more autonomy: "Closing down or removing CCS from UKZN does not appear to be an option as it was rejected by all interviewees and panel members. Through its international recognition and standing, CCS has put UKZN on a world map in social science, a position the University dare not risk to lose."

As for the local map, CCS has offered nearly 100 free events a year, including seminars, conferences, micro film festivals, literary celebrations and the Harold Wolpe Lecture, Durban’s main lecture series.

Several hundred community residents join academics on the last Thursday of each month to debate newsmakers and intellectuals global and local.

Amongst those known to Z readers would be Soweto activist Trevor Ngwane, filmmaker John Pilger, Mugabe torture victim Grace Kwinjeh, Kenyan novelist Ng?g? wa Thiong’o, British MP George Galloway, Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane and authors Tariq Ali, Giovanni Arrighi, Walden Bello, Naomi Klein, Mahmood Mamdani and Arundhati Roy.

With CCS’s assistance, the Social Movements Indaba network and Diakonia Council of Churches hosted a local World Social Forum event in January, drawing 400 community and labor leaders. Among those present were activists who resisted dam displacement, Treatment Action Campaigners who won anti-retroviral medicines, Congolese inner-city traders who hang in against all odds, the Abasha Youth network, eThekwini Earthlife Africa, the indominable South Durban Community Environmental Alliance and the Maritzburg eco-NGO groundWork.

In addition to the threat to CCS public events and a generation of new critical scholars, a great deal of concrete research activity was put at risk. The message you hear if put on hold when phoning UKZN tells you that the university has South Africa’s "second best" research profile (after Univ. of Pretoria). A modest contribution comes from our CCS staff’s peer-reviewed articles, chapters and books – 58 in 2007 with an average 50/year since 2005 (and no, these fortnightly Mercury columns don’t count) – which rank us at the top of the university, measured per academic employee.

High productivity arises from documenting and interrogating the dynamic social laboratories of Durban, SA, the rest of Africa and the world, where contradictions generated by globalization and the flawed character of post-colonial politics create cauldrons of conflict.

We have sought sites and research areas – climate, energy, water/sanitation, global and national political economy, survival strategies and community philanthropy, the rise of social movements in Africa – where these contradictions tell us more about society, politics, economy, gender, race, environment and other social relations than we would normally get from our academic armchairs.

The danger of CCS’s approach to knowledge production, "praxis", is that the research generated sometimes threatens the privileges of power, as we discovered when the national government and Johannesburg municipality appealed to the High Court last December to throw out Bond’s detailed affidavits about water privatization. In his landmark decision in April, Judge Moroa Tsoka instead declared that government had failed its citizens and prohibited Joburg Water’s discriminatory prepayment systems, in the process doubling the free water Sowetans are granted.

So this is really all about politics, and whether a university can host a critical mass of professional academics and community scholars devoted to social justice.

Two years ago, UKZN banned the radical writer Dr Ashwin Desai from continuing employment at CCS, amidst a haze of confusion and weak excuses. We lost a major SA government Human Sciences Research Council "Race and Redress" grant as a result of this interference.

CCS founder Adam Habib spoke out against the Iraq War in 2003 and the US government retracted funding Habib had raised. Moreover, Habib was labeled a ‘terrorist’ and barred from entering the US during a 2006 trip to New York (more about the absurd case is here:

http://www8.georgetown.edu/centers/cdacs/DemocracyAndSocietyS08.pdf and http://www.aclu.org/safefree/exclusion/35313res20070925.html).

So if a couple of people in management stab this Center, as happened on July 30, it cannot be allowed to die. The university vice-chancellor has said that academics should decide the matter, hence the 33-1 vote for retaining CCS may be decisive.

But it might not be: byzantine layers of university bureaucracy may still suffocate our small place of non-conformism in coming weeks.

Pessimists predict death-by-a-thousand-cuts.

Supporters who have chimed in with testimonials about CCS -

http://www.ukzn.ac.za/ccs/default.asp?2,68,3,1584 – include South African trade unions, social movements and community groups, scholar-activists from the Global South, and also Northern hemisphere analysts who rely on our website for South Africa reporting, including Dean Baker, Beverly Bell, Robert Brenner, Alex Callinicos, Kevin Danaher, Doug Henwood, Deborah James, Joel Kovel, Anne-Maria Makhulu, Daria Roithmayr, Vicente Navarro, Immanuel Wallerstein and Rob Weissman.

For those who would offer a sentence or two about CCS – criticism is welcome too – we’ll take these at [email protected] and post them as soon as possible.

(Professors Dennis Brutus and Patrick Bond are at www.ukzn.ac.za/ccs)


Voices of the Assembly

In this arid terrain of struggle

in this desertland of planned oppression in this sahara of corporate exploitation where stubby outcrops, stunted scrubbrush offer apparent relief, offer delusive pledges in this nightmare of our half-lives let us reject all palliatives let us commit ourselves to resolute struggle we will cry "Enough, Enough, Enough!

until we have freedom for all

No more debt, no more slavery

No more debt-slavery

No more, no more, no more"

Dennis Brutus

10 August 2008

Nairobi, Africa Jubilee South Inaugural Assembly

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