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North and South, Ecology and Justice

By Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero

The movements for ecology and justice face a particular set of opportunities and perils at the
start of the second decade of the 21st century. Those who seek to transform North-South
relations to advance sustainability and the eradication of poverty and hunger would do good
to re-examine and take a fresh new look at the ideas and concepts espoused by what we
could call Third World militancy during the 1950's, 60's and 70's. The goal of this "third world
movement", so to speak, was to engage rich and poor countries in a North-South dialogue
that would lead to a new order based on multilateralism and genuine international
cooperation. This endeavor must be not only resumed but also modernized and updated to
take account of new global realities, like climate change, peak oil, the food crisis, the global
economic debacle, and human disasters of untold proportions like the 2010 BP oil spill in the
Gulf of Mexico, and the 2011 Fukushima nuclear emergency.

It is difficult to come up with one single name for this project, since it originated from a
constellation of ideas and concepts formulated not by one single person or organization, but
by a number of progressive intellectuals from all over the Third World during the post-war

In the years following the end of World War Two and the founding of the United Nations,
new independent states were carved out of the remains of the European colonial empires in
Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the non-Hispanic Caribbean. These were joined by already
independent former colonies to form what is known as the Third World, the global South, or
underdeveloped or developing countries. These terms require clarification.

Leaders like Indonesia's president Sukarno popularized the idea that their countries were part
of neither the capitalist Western world, led by the United States, nor the socialist Eastern
block, under the leadership of the USSR, but rather constituted a Third World, with concerns,
aspirations and an identity all of its own. The term Third World was therefore used with
pride. In the geopolitical vision of this Third World-ism, or "tercermundismo", the main
political and economic divide in the world was not East-West but North-South, thus
distinguishing the poor South from the rich, industrialized North- the former colonial subject
from the former colonizer.

On the other hand, the terms underdeveloped and developing country originated in the
United States foreign policy elite, and can be traced as far back as US president Harry
Truman's 1949 inaugural speech. He called attention to conditions in poor countries, referring
to them as "underdeveloped". Truman thus presented a new world view, in which all the
nations of the world were moving along the same track, in the same direction. The Northern
countries, in particular the United States, were way ahead, while he saw the rest of the world
lagging behind. According to German eco-philosopher Wolfgang Sachs, "Development meant
nothing less than projecting the American model of society unto the rest of the world... The
leaders of the newly founded nations- from Nehru to Nkrumah, Nasser to Sukarno- accepted
the image that the North had of the South, and internalized it as their self-image."

In spite of having obtained political independence, the countries of the South remained mired
in poverty and economic backwardness. In response to this challenge, progressive
intellectuals from the South, mostly economists, like Argentina's Raúl Prebisch and Brazil's
Celso Furtado, began to develop a number of theories to explain this situation and to devise
strategies to change it. According to their findings, the North employed a variety of economic
and trade mechanisms to keep the South in a permanent state of political and economic
subordination, among these: external debt, protectionism and deterioration in the terms of
trade. These thinkers formulated novel concepts like structuralist economics,
developmentalist thinking and dependence theory; they rejected free market doctrines like

comparative advantage and the international division of labor, and in their stead presented
proposals such as import substitution and an increase in South-South trade and cooperation.

But most importantly, they proposed compelling the countries of the North to engage in a
North-South dialogue that would lead to debt reduction, an end to protectionist measures,
stabilization of commodity prices, improved terms of trade, and an increase in economic
assistance for development, among other goals. Such a dialogue would beget a mutually
beneficial New International Economic Order.

These ideas were welcomed and taken up by leading Third World heads of state such as
Sukarno, India's Nehru, Egypt's Nasser, Tanzania's Nyerere, Cuba's Castro and Chile's
Allende, and would form part of the work program of new international institutions like the
Group of 77, the Non-Aligned Movement, the UN Conference on Trade and Development, and
the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. This vision of solidarity and
cooperation reached its highest point in 1974 when the UN General Assembly endorsed the
call for a New International Economic Order.

But this vision had its adversaries, and they would eventually gain the upper hand. In her
book "The Shock Doctrine", author Naomi Klein traces a global economic counterrevolution of
sorts to the bloody coups that took place in South America's southern cone in the first half of
the 1970's. The government of Salvador Allende in Chile was very progressive not just in its
domestic policies but also internationally, for example spearheading the creation of a UN
Center on Transnational Corporations, which investigated the activities of major corporations,
especially with regard to corruption. The bloody 1973 coup that overthrew Allende and led to
the Pinochet military dictatorship was followed by similar coups in nearby Argentina and

Their repression helped eliminate any potential opposition to the harsh economic measures
championed by professor Milton Friedman and his University of Chicago pupils (a feat which
earned Mr. Friedman his economics Nobel Prize). The following decade saw the belligerent
domestic and foreign policies of Reagan and Thatcher, both leaders being decidedly
unfriendly toward concepts of economic justice and international cooperation. The Bretton
Woods institutions (World Bank, International Monetary Fund) used their power to put Third
World economies in receivership through debt and what was euphemistically called structural
adjustment. The 1990's were the heyday of the ideology of neoliberalism, which espoused
values diametrically opposed to those of sustainability and solidarity. Free trade agreements
and new global institutions like the World Trade Organization made the tenets of
neoliberalism into law, both domestically and internationally.

But at the turn of the century the pendulum began swinging in the opposite direction. Latin
Americans rid themselves of neoliberal governments either by elections (Venezuela, Brasil
and Uruguay) or revolutions (Bolivia and Ecuador). The clearest indication that neoliberalism
was no longer supreme was when activists and social movements from all over the Western
hemisphere, together with the governments of Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina, defeated US
president George W. Bush's plans for a Free Trade Area of the Americas.

Since then, the new Latin American "progresismo" has made electoral gains in almost all
Latin American countries (For example in Chile, Nicaragua, and El Salvador), and the
Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA) beckons as an alternative to trade blocks
dominated by the US or the European Union. At the global level, the BRIC- Brazil-Russia-
India-China-, recently expanded to include South Africa- can potentially tip the balance of
power away from its traditional centers in the US and Europe.

With neoliberalism on a down slope and a new era of South-South cooperation dawning, this
is the most favorable historical moment in decades to retake the endeavor of Third World
militance and solidarity. As said at the beginning of this article, it needs to be upgraded in
light of current global realities, especially environmental ones. The world view espoused by
the original developmentalist thinkers and Third World leaders was totally devoid of any
ecological sensibility.

In fact, their vision of development and prosperity was a total disaster from the
environmental standpoint. They wanted- and for the most part got- for their countries mega-
hydro dams, nuclear power stations, super highways, petrochemical complexes, oil refineries,
pesticide-intensive monoculture-based industrialized "Green Revolution" agriculture, and
resource extraction on an unprecedented scale. There was no questioning as to whether this
type of development, which held the United States as the unquestionable model to follow,
was the right path.

But throughout the closing decades of the twentieth century, a series of unnatural disasters
made it clear that environmental destruction was a serious matter that should be taken into
account by all those concerned with issues of development and economic justice, to name
only a few: Love Canal, Bhopal, Chernobyl, Exxon Valdez, and the increasingly evident harms
from "Green Revolution" agriculture.

A key event in the gradually growing awareness of the concept of sustainability was the
publication in 1987 of the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development.
Also known as the Brundtland Commission, this group was created by the United Nations to
assess global environmental problems and formulate a working definition of sustainable
development. The Commission's report, titled "Our Common Future", called for a United
Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) which would bring heads of
state together to develop an action plan to implement sustainable development worldwide.

UNCED, known also as the Earth Summit or Rio 92, took place in Brazil in 1992. It was the
largest meeting of heads of state in history, and quite possibly the most important event in
the history of the UN. In spite of the important international treaties that were signed there
to address issues like climate change and biodiversity loss, a number of observers question
whether anything at all was achieved at the conference. According to Pratap Chatterjee and
Matthias Finger: "Neither Northern consumption, nor global economic reform, nor the role of
transnational corporations, nor nuclear energy, nor the dangers of biotechnology were
addressed in Rio, not to mention the fact that the military was totally left off the agenda.
Instead, free trade and its promoters came to be seen as the solution to the global ecological

If the Earth Summit achieved only one thing it was the ending of innocence. After the
conference, no head of state, political figure or public personality in the world would ever be
able to allege ignorance about the environment or sustainable development.

Beyond sustainable development

Sustainable development as defined by the Brundtland Commission and the documents that
came out of the Earth Summit did not question the basic assumptions of Western-style
development, it merely offered some policy safeguards and technological fixes. According to
Chatterjee and Finger, "none of the (Earth Summit) documents displays any new or original
way of looking at environmental and developmental issues". One of the strongest critiques in
this respect was "Whose Common Future?", a 1993 document written by the staff of the UK-
based The Ecologist magazine.

By the 1990's it was becoming increasingly evident that the economic systems of so-called
developed nations are inherently unsustainable, given that they are based on never-ending
cycles of growth in supply and demand, which in turn require a correspondingly ever-
increasing use of natural resources. Inevitably this leads to a quest to secure unlimited and
unrestricted access to such resources abroad, not only causing environmental destruction but
also infringing on those other countries' right to development. In other words, sustainable
development is not enough, the whole development endeavor must be put into question if a
global catastrophe is to be averted.

Wolfgang Sachs sums it up thus: "The Western development model is fundamentally at odds
with both the quest for justice among the world's people and the aspiration to reconcile
humanity and nature", and sustainable development is no more than "the assimilation of
environmental concerns into the rhetoric, dynamics and power structures of

These insights are especially relevant and timely in light of the rise of the emerging
economies. Leading these are the BRICS countries, which have 40% of the world's
population, and according to Goldman Sachs reports they will surpass the G-7 to become the
global economy's leading powers by 2050. Goldman Sachs has similar forecasts for the so-
called Next Eleven emerging markets, which include South Korea, Bangladesh, Pakistan and

The ecological implications of the emerging countries' growth ambitions should be cause of
great concern. The industrialization of Europe and the United States in the 19th and 20th
centuries was achieved in a planet whose natural resources and ecosystems were practically
virgin and unexploited. But we are in a very different world now. To demostrate this point,
three references will do. First of all, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the collective
work of over 1,300 experts who appraised the state of the world's ecosystems. Second, the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fourth Assessment Report, released in 2007. It
is the largest report on climate change ever undertaken, written by thousands of experts
from dozens of countries. And third, the State of the World reports of the non-governmental

Worldwatch Institute, one of the world's leading environmental think tanks. These documents
show that the natural systems and resource stocks which make human life as we know it
possible are under threat of collapse. If nature were a bank account, it can be said that we
are not living off dividends but rather eating into the principal.

The reality is inescapable: this planet cannot endure a second industrial take-off. The natural
resources and ecological spaces are now too scarce. This warning is not new. A number of
outstanding thinkers and visionaries in both the North and the South had already seen this

"It is obvious that the world cannot afford the USA. Nor can it afford Western Europe or
Japan. In fact, we might come to the conclusion that the Earth cannot afford the 'modern
world'... The Earth cannot afford, say, 15 per cent of its inhabitants- the rich who are using
all the marvellous achievements of science and technology- to indulge in a crude,
materialistic way of life that ravages the Earth. The poor don't do much damage... Virtually all
the damage is done by, say 15 per cent... The problem passengers on spaceship Earth are
the first class passengers and no one else."

These words were uttered by environmentalist E.F. Schumacher in 1973. There is also the
famous Indian eco-feminist, author, environmental educator and activist Vandana Shiva, who
has dedicated the last couple of decades to warning that if the South insists on imitating the
industrialized North's development model the result would be catastrophic. And before her,
her compatriot Mahatma Gandhi had made warnings to the same effect. He once stated that
"Should India ever resolve to imitate England, it will be the ruin of the nation". Gandhi was
not only a champion of non-violence, his observations on economic development and
proposals for local self-reliance made of him an important pre-ecologist thinker ahead of his

He had differences with his modernist counterpart, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, precisely
around this issue. According to Wolfgang Sachs:

"Gandhi wanted to drive the British out of the country in order to allow India to become more
Indian; Nehru, on the other hand, saw independence as the opportunity to make India more
Western. An assassin's bullet prevented the controversy between two heroes of the nation
from coming into the open, but the decade-long correspondence between them clearly
demonstrates the issues."

Years after Gandhi's death, his thinking exterted a decisive influence on Schumacher, one of
the most important predecessors of modern environmental thought and the politics of Green
parties. His book "Small is Beautiful", a frontal attack against the premises of modernity and
the rule of productivist economism, is a classic of environmental literature.

New beacons

Fortunately, there's a fair number of beacons in the quest to form and inform a reconcilliation
of "progresismo" with ecology and thus carry out the unfulfilled mandates of 20th century
"tercermundismo"- these include eco-socialism, social ecology, the global climate justice
movement, and "décroissance", which translates roughly to English as post-growth
economics. Of particular importance is the concept of food sovereignty, whose standard
bearer, the global Via Campesina movement which unites small farmers from both North and
South, is quite possibly the most important and influential civil society organization in the
world. Organizations and movements that advance sustainability and justice while
transcending the narrow confines of sustainable development and Third World
developmentalism regularly converge in the Social Fora, which have been taking place in
diverse locations around the world since the first World Social Forum in the Brazilian city of
Porto Alegre in 2001.

Latin America is the place of origin of a particularly promising proposal known as post-
extractivism, which calls on Southern contries to abandon the dependent capitalist model of
resource extraction and export, and give first priority to the local use of these resources in
order to add value and bring about locally-based "endogenous" development. This concept is
not confined to small groups of intellectuals- it is gaining strength and popularity among
progressive and alternative movements, and non-governmental organizations all over Latin
America, and is even gaining mainstream acceptance. The new progressive constitutions of
Ecuador and Bolivia are explicitly post-extractivist.

It is not possible to talk about Third World militancy with an ecologically conscious and post-
extractivist bent without referring to the influential figure of Bolivian president Evo Morales.
He has put ecology in the center of his political discourse, and is a pioneer among heads of
state in combining an explicitly anti-capitalist posture with advanced concepts of ecology.

At the failed 2009 UN Climate Change Summit in Denmark, Morales led the charge in defense
of the interests of poor countries, which are simultaneously the least guilty of climate change
and the ones that will be most directly harmed by it, against what environmentalists and
progressives of both North and South saw as the hipocrisy and inaction of major polluting
countries, in particular the United States. In response to the summit's failure, he convened a
World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth to face the
climate crisis and formulate an action plan. The conference, which took place in the Bolivian
city of Cochabamba on April 2010 and had the attendance of thousands of civil society
activists from all over the world, established Morales as an undisputed world leader in
environmental policymaking and in the construction of a progressive environmentalism. On
April 2011 the Group of 77 Countries and China announced they will support Bolivia's
negotiating positions in future international climate negotiations.

Bolivia is currently set to pass the world's first laws granting to nature rights equal to
humans'. "The Law of Mother Earth, now agreed by politicians and grassroots social groups,
redefines the country's rich mineral deposits as 'blessings' and is expected to lead to radical
new conservation and social measures to reduce pollution and control industry", according to
the UK Guardian. Eleven new rights for nature will be established, among these: the right to
life and to exist; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration;
the right to pure water and clean air; the right to balance; the right not to be polluted; and
the right to not have cellular structure modified or genetically altered. It will also recognize as
well the right of nature "to not be affected by mega-infrastructure and development projects
that affect the balance of ecosystems and the local inhabitant communities".

Ecuador is not to be outdone. The country's 2008 constitution is one of the world's most
progressive. It establishes water as a human right, a public good and a national patrimony; it
acknowledges nature has rights; and elevates food sovereignty to the level of official
government policy. In August 2010 Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa signed on to the
Yasuni Initiative, an innovative undertaking- the first of its kind- in which the government will
leave 850 million barrels of oil under the biodiverse Yasuni National Park untouched and
unexploited for perpetuity in exchange for donations from the international community, which
will be administered by a trust fund set up by the UN Development Program. This deal will
prevent over 400 million tons of carbon from being emitted to the atmosphere. It is hoped
that this initiative will inspire similar deals in other countries.

We should not be naive, however. The progressive governments of South America have a
long way to go before putting post-extractivism into practice. Under Evo Morales Bolivia's
economy is more dependent on exports of oil and natural gas than under his neoliberal
predecessor, and Morales is bent on going ahead with large scale development projects that
contradict his environmental rhetoric, including highways and mega-hydro dams. And in
Ecuador, president Correa's support for the Yasuni initiative has been erratic at best, and he
supports strip mining and further oil exploration outside Yasuni.

In spite of the shortcomings and contradictions of Latin American progressive governments,
novel proposals such as post-extractivism represent the best hope for the advancement of
ecology and justice and for upgrading advocacy for the global South in light of new global

Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is an author, journalist and environmental educator based in Puerto

Rico. His articles have been published by, among others, Corporate Watch, Grist,
Counterpunch, Alternet, Earth Island Journal, CIP Americas Policy Program, and the Organic
Consumers Association. He directs the Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety
( and runs a bilingual blog devoted to global environment
and development issues (