Off to the next round

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THE WORLDWIDE consciousness about environment is now demanding action. And Rio was an important staging post in this global effort to set up a framework for future action. In many ways, the framework set up in Rio is extremely inimical to the long-term interests of the South and goes counter to the norms of equity and social justice.

If the South won or saved anything in Rio, it is only because the poor leadership of the US forced the country into an unprecedented state of isolation. With even its European allies in a fix to support it publicly, the South could easily occupy the high moral ground and carry it through the length of the conference. But if USA had seized any of that moral ground, by giving in to carbon dioxide emission stabilisation or signing the biodiversity treaty, the South would have had to give up much more.

And then western NGOs and the media would have ripped apart the internal contradictions of the South -- between its rapacious elite and its abysmal poverty -- to put the South on the mat. Whether these countries would then have been able to retain their sovereignty over their forests or anything else is doubtful. An example of how easily the South got off the hook in Rio is the fact that hardly anybody raised the subject of Amazonian destruction, even though the conference was being held in Brazil. The US President, in serving his own cause, unwillingly helped to serve the cause of the southern governments. But that need not be so in the next round. Even a slight commitment to the global cause by the next US administration, along the lines of the European governments, can expose the sovereignty argument of the South to well-orchestrated ridicule.

If Rio proved anything, it is that we now live in a global community. This has been so for some time now, especially with the growth of the world market system and the fact that the world's rich, including the elite of the South, have increasingly become global consumers. But since the market is a self-serving system built on values of competition and personal ambition and greed, this subject had no moral element in it which could be exploited to push the argument of a 'global community' to justify overt intervention. The southern elite could only be criticised for corruption and extreme inefficiency, which indeed it has been repeatedly.

But the environmental argument has now given the North precisely the morality it has been seeking to push its concerns. This globalisation process means that no country is now immune from the mistakes of others. If Malaysians and Brazilians mistreat their indigeneous people, a forest convention which seeks to globalise the management of forests, will be pushed through for all developing countries (See box: Different perspectives).
Caught in a bind It is interesting to note that there was no focus in Rio on the bushmen of Australia or on the victims of Bhopal, suffering at the hands of a US multinational. Numerous southern NGOs noted this hypocrisy of northern NGOs, especially the large NGOs like Greenpeace, Sierra Club, Environment Defence Fund, Natural Resources Defence Council and the Audobon Society, many of which today set the terms of the worldwide NGO debate on environment. The CNN coverage of Rio highlighted several ecodisaster stories from India, Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe, but few from USA or western Europe. But when the northern NGOs or media focus attention mainly on the Brazilian or Malaysian mistreatment of their forests or forest-dwelling peoples, southerners can only shout hypocrisy, they cannot deny the fact. And, given the way the world's media is structured, even their shouts of hypocrisy are not heard anywhere. The South is therefore caught in a bind.

Western economic interests can make use of this situation to their advantage. Western transnationals hardly got a mention during the entire proceedings in Rio for their role in environmental degradation in the South. There was no mention of the adverse environmental impact of debts or current trading patterns. The chief of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) got away with a speech that said nothing about debt and environment.

Northern economic interests are clearly playing out a pincer attack on the South. The indebtedness of the South, created by agencies like the IMF and the World Bank, is now being used as a lever through structural adjustment programmes to pry open the markets of the South to allow western investment and technology flows. And the morality of the environment argument is increasingly being used to impose western standards, which will reduce southern competitiveness, and change production and resource use patterns.

The southern governments are also playing into the hands of the North by accepting the framework for environmental action proposed by the North. The framework, as it stands today, consists of the following elements. First, the North will not discuss or negotiate the past, that is, the past is past. This is not an issue of just academic interest. It means that the North is not prepared to accept any responsibility for past damage in the sense of "liability".

Second, all of us are now being asked to get together to solve ecological problems one by one, as they emerge. Apart from the thorny issue this raises of unfair demands on the South for "burden sharing" -- that is, the sharing of the burden of change for a problem that the South has not created -- this approach raises questions about which problems we should try to solve first. Why ozone layer depletion or climate change or biodiversity conservation? Why not the international financial system, terms of trade or poverty, all of which have deep linkages with the environmental problems of the South? The North is thus choosing the problems it wants the world to work on.

Third, if the North has to pay anything, it is only so because of its "capability" -- a word accepted and used even in the climate treaty. In other words, the North has the money and technology, the two elements needed to make the change, and hence it is prepared to provide aid to the South for dealing with global environmental problems.

The sum total of all this is that the North cannot be fined for its disastrous behaviour, but the South must beg for its generosity in the future.

A moral reply
The South has supinely accepted this framework. And, not surprisingly, the moment it accepted this framework, it got ridiculed for its audacity. Its counterproposal to the Global Environment Facility, the Green Fund, has been described as the Greed Fund, and the entire Rio exercise has been repeatedly dubbed a cheque-book writing exercise. The western media and NGOs have repeatedly described the South as super-beggars with unreasonably high expectations. The figure of US $125 billion a year being needed for sustainable development in the form of external assistance was produced by the UNCED secretariat and not by the South. But this is what the South got pilloried for.

The South has only one option in this entire North-South debate. It has never had much economic or political power. It can only have moral power, if anything. This too it can get only if it does two things. One, set its own house in order. It must now be seen to be doing the good things, like taking care of its poor and its environment. It must be green and it must be good on its human rights record. This is crucial. Otherwise, the divided public opinion inside the South (as reflected in several contributions to the "Crosscurrents" section of this issue of this magazine) will be used by the North to spite the South.

This will call for major greening and anti-poverty programmes, especially through mass mobilisation. And the faster the southern resources can get managed, owned and controlled by local communities, the better it will be for the environment. This will also provide greater strength to the South to ward off the globalisation process. It is legally questionable, for instance, whether the Indian state can negotiate a global forest convention with respect to the forests of the Northeast which are constitutionally owned by local tribal councils. The situation will be similar to that in industrialised countries which repeatedly argue that they cannot promise technology transfer as technology is owned by individuals and corporations under their legal system.

And, two, at the international level, the South must be prepared to take the moral high ground, where it must make it absolutely crystal clear that it is not looking out for any money whatsoever. It should ask for nothing less than systemic changes in the world's political and financial systems so that fair and equitable systems of environmental discipline can be enforced for all, including the South. The argument that the rich must pay their ecological bills must ring out loud and clear. And in this process, the South should make it clear that if it gets anything, well and good, but otherwise it does not want a penny more.

Devaluing southern resources
The South must expose how the international economic system today consistently devalues its resources and environment. Most developing countries are now being forced to restructure their economies under the dictates of the IMF. The one answer that the IMF has is that each country must open up its economy and increase its competitiveness by devaluing its currency. But devaluation of a currency is not the devaluation of pieces of paper. It is the devaluation of the entire natural resource base of a country. External dollars can buy more resources of a devalued country. Surely, when almost the entire environment of the South is being forced into devaluation, the North cannot ask the South within a forum like UNCED to start valuing its natural resources. This contradiction in the northern position is patently unjust and unfair and must be exposed. In addition, the South must demand a world market system that properly values its resources, including the ecological costs of its production. And negotiations must be forced to take place within these terms of reference.

Simultaneously, the summit must push the property rights argument to demand a fair share of the global commons. The property rights argument is an argument of the North and it must be held to consistency on this position. It is the South's environmental space that the North is using in the case of the atmosphere. Intellectually, this argument is extremely powerful and uses precisely the northern idiom. Using this argument, it is even fair to demand that every pound and guilder collected from carbon taxes in Europe belong by right to the South and not to the treasuries of European governments. This tax is simply the payment for using a resource that does not belong either to the Europeans or the Americans.

All this may look impossible. But the South now has no other choice after Rio but to go out and engage itself in the international dialogue. What was left over at Rio will not get taken up in the Commission on Sustainable Development. Isolation and disengagement in a globalised political process can only be self-defeating.

Southern NGOs and intellectuals must play a key role in setting the terms of debate to the maximum extent possible. This will call for new modes of work and analysis. Numerous southern NGOs and academics work mainly on so-called local issues, and appropriately so. But, as a result, there have been extremely few inputs by Third World social scientists into the global environment debate. Working from the local to the global -- as a continuum -- is not going to be an easy task. But if the challenge is not seized, it will be left to the North to interpret the South and set the action framework.

The divided South
Unfortunately, the South is extremely weak and divided. It has had no consistent position with respect to the environment issues at Rio. India did try to raise the issue of sharing the sinks within the context of the climate treaty. Except for France, which has its own interests because of its large nuclear power sector, nobody responded positively. But the Indian effort, too, was weak.

OPEC, technically a part of the South, acted more like a long arm of the US, and was totally against any restrictions on oil use. Central American countries openly said that they could not accept the equity principle -- that is, each human being has an equal right to the atmosphere. They feared this would give more money to India and China. One Central American country spokesperson even talked loosely of India and China then indulging in a black market in emissions rights. This is, typically, the talk that the North indulges in to deride the South. The Central Americans were quite happy to accept an aid framework and use their geopolitical leverage with USA to get more.

The Africans too, have not stood together with a consistent stand. German environment minister Klaus Topfer had a very strong argument in Rio when he pointed out to southern ministers there that their stand on the importance of non-legally-binding forest principles was inconsistent with the southern stand (largely an African stand) on desertification principles. The European Community had proposed that first a set of non-legally-binding principles to combat desertification be negotiated and only after their implementation has been reviewed should the world think of a desertification convention. But the Africans insisted they wanted a desertification convention right away, which finally the EC reluctantly agreed to. Therefore, Topfer could not understand why, in the case of forests, the South was insisting on forest principles first and a forest convention later, if at all.

The African position should have been to demand a review of the world's trading and financial systems, which leaves them with extremely adverse terms of trade and, in turn, forces them to scrape the soil and log the forests more and more. The result is mounting debt, on one hand, and increasingly bad land use practices, on the other; destabilisation of traditional agroforestry and land use systems; and, a whole continent in utter ecological and economic chaos. It is quite certain that the desertification convention will get negotiated within an aid (that is, begging bowl) framework unless the African governments make up their minds that what they want is nothing less than a fair world market.

The challenge to the elite leadership of the South has become clear after the Rio summit. If it does not get its house in order, its own internal divisions will be used to clamp greater international restrictions on it. And unless it is able to get greater honesty, efficiency and self-reliance into its own economic systems, it will be consistently portrayed as beggars and its morality snatched away. It will then be left in a very weak negotiating position.

Never before has the South needed a leadership which can strongly denounce the immorality of the West and at the same time work hard enough to ensure that every aspect of morality can get incorporated into domestic policies. The rise of global environmentalism has left the South with very few choices. Howsoever bad the northern leadership may be, it is the hypocrisy of the southern elites that will get exposed.