Ecological debt highlighted by churches at WSF

By staff writers
26 Jan 2007

Mozambique is "owed an ecological debt by those who constructed and have made profits from the dams of the Zambezi River, that is to say, the Portuguese government and the South African company Eskom," Malawian economist Francis Ng’ambi told participants at a World Council of Churches (WCC) workshop on ecological debt at World Social Forum in Nairobi, Kenya, which ended yesterday.

Ng’ambi was presenting a case study to illustrate the relatively new concept of "ecological debt". The idea is that industrialized Northern countries - their institutions and corporations – have a debt towards Southern countries because of the manner in which they have used these countries' natural resources, often devastating and contaminating natural environments.

The Zambezi River, with more than 30 large dams is "the most damned river in Africa," according to Ng’ambi. Its use has led to displacement of people — over 57,000 by the Cahora Bassa dam alone — damage to agriculture systems, increases in water-borne diseases, and accumulation of toxic waste, among other problems.

"The presence of the dams on the river greatly contributed to the floods that ravaged the Zambezi basin in 2000," says Ng’ambi, who works with the Economic Justice Network of the Fellowship of the Christian Councils in Southern Africa . "The people of Mozambique have every right to demand compensation for the ecological debt from those responsible for the damage along the Zambezi River," he adds.

Ecological debt can be considered a "revolutionary concept" in that it "reverses countries' traditional debtor and creditor positions," says Athena Peralta from the Philippines, who coordinates the WCC work on ecological debt.

In attempting to repay their financial debts to Northern creditors, Southern countries have also caused environmental destruction in their efforts to secure the necessary surplus funds. That is why "recognizing ecological debt entails, first of all, the cancellation of the illegitimate financial debt 'owed' by Southern countries," Peralta adds.

But it will actually take more than that. Since ecological debt has accumulated in the name of development – still primarily defined as the continuous growth of production, income and consumption – what is needed, says Peralta, "is nothing less than a paradigm shift in development thinking and values". For this to happen, "civil society needs to resist the status quo and challenge the current balance of power in the political and economic order".

Other case studies discussed at the workshop were the Jaime Rold??s Aguilera multipurpose project in Ecuador (by Yvonne Ya?±ez, from the environmental justice network Acci??n Ecol??gica); the plight of indigenous peoples in Orissa, India (by William Stanley, director of the Lutheran Church in India's social action work); and the Rio Madeira Project in the Brazilian Amazon (by Luis Novoa and Jairo Moreira, representatives of the people affected by the dams of the Madeira basin).

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