Ecological debt in Africa

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Temps de lecture : 5 minutes  

The conquest of the earth… is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.’ Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

The elephant is still standing. And, still dead. Around its feet glisten hundreds of coins thrown by museum visitors. They could be wishes made on the soul of the departed animal. Or, small gestures of recompense in lieu of the fate of the land that was once its home. Room after room is full of animals stuffed and perched rigidly against crudely realised backdrops of African forest and grassland. Another long room surveys Africa’s global economic contribution, maps on the wall dissect and label each country, tagging them like the worn, stuffed big cats and apes, and fish pickled in jars.

This is Africa as a cornucopia of natural wealth to be mined, harvested, picked, squeezed and taken. The maps reduce the continent in general, and the Congo in particular, to a series of carefully plotted locations for the extraction of: oil, cotton, coffee, sugar, rice, maize, jute, palm oil, diamonds, cobalt, tin, copper, and gold. One term for it, is the ‘resource curse.’ It was personified in King Leopold II’s brutal Central African reign at the height the first ‘scramble for Africa’ in the 19th century. He sits proudly still in the museum’s central courtyard, with an imperially up-turned chin, a statue in honour of international relations built on murder, theft and deception, carried out on a massive scale.

Is his presence shocking because things are so different today, or because there remain dark continuities? Driven by European-style consumption patterns, a new report from nef (the new economics foundation) reveals humanity in 2009 going into ‘ecological debt’ on September 25th. It’s based on the ‘ecological footprint’ measure. This adds up all the natural resources we consume and the waste we generate, and compares them with what ecosystems can produce and absorb. Like with financial planning, spend more than you earn and before the year’s out you go into debt. The earlier it happens, the worse things are. This year ‘ecological debt day’ falls a day later than last year, but still two weeks earlier than the year before. It’s been shifting ever earlier in the year since first going into the environmental red in the mid 1980s. Strikingly, it suggests that global over-consumption has been barely affected by the recession.

No rich country can support its lifestyle without huge imports of resources. Now we are racking up these ecological debts in a way that looks a lot like a new scramble for Africa.

Since 2006, for example, large scale transnational land acquisitions and leases – so-called ‘land grabs’ – have targeted up to 20 million hectares of farmland in developing countries, to grow food and biofuels for consumers in wealthy nations – an area equivalent in size to all the farmland in France. Countries caught up in the current wave include Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Mali, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Zambia, and Cameroon – all poor and troubled in various ways. Many of the acquisitions were triggered by the food and fuel price spikes of 2008 when the wealthy suddenly became aware of how vulnerable had become the global markets upon which their material security depended. As a result, direct ownership of resources looked more attractive than depending on the casino of the commodity markets.

There is a walk you can take that leaves opposite the museum in Brussels. It goes into the woods ‘in the footsteps of Stanley.’ He once boasted of throwing himself down the Congo, ‘shooting down terrified natives left and right,’ so it should be lively. Yet, today, there appears to be no shortage of volunteers willing to take up the offer.

With China now in more obvious competition with Europe and America, there is talk of a new ‘scramble for Africa.’ Where China is concerned, of course, many of Africa’s raw materials end up as Chinese manufactured goods for sale in Europe. India, too, chasing the European development model is using ‘resource diplomacy’ in the new scramble.

Over half of the money flowing into Africa as foreign investment alone goes straight to the oil sector according to the UN’s World Investment Report. The UK’s recent charm offensive toward Libya shows how quickly the promise of oil can burst the most pompous denunciations of dictators. By 2015 the US is expected to get one quarter of its crude oil imports from West Africa, and established a continent wide military command in 2007. The fossil fuels oil and gas are implicated in bloodshed from Angola, to Nigeria and Sudan, and potentially on the borders of Somalia and Ethiopia. Chad, Algeria, Egypt, Libya and Equatorial Guinea are also key producers.

Parts of Europe like France, Germany and even, falteringly, the UK, are patting themselves on the back for the first, flickering signs of recovery from recession. Small glimmers of economic growth may hearten old-style finance ministries, but they also mean going back to the days of debt-fuelled over-consumption that got us into the problem in the first place.

It’s easy to see how it all adds-up through a combination of direct consumption and the crazy way the world does business. The UK’s relative dependence on imported energy has risen fivefold since we lost our self-sufficiency in 2004. We are less self-sufficient in feeding ourselves now than we were 40 years ago and engage in some very bizarre forms of ‘boomerang trade.’ Not having to pay the full environmental cost of fuel we end up exporting 5,000 tonnes of toilet paper from the UK to Germany, then importing over 4,000 tonnes back again, and exporting 4,400 tonnes of ice cream to Italy, and importing 4,200 tonnes back. There are many more similar examples.

Today, of course, all respectable European powers must profess commitment to global poverty reduction and sustainable development. They boast of leadership on climate change.

But Europe is still hungry for Africa’s resources and, for all its sophistication, less energy efficient today at delivering a given level of ‘life satisfaction’ than it was four decades ago. We’ve grown vastly more materialistic, with barely any improvement to our well-being. And, others are paying the price.

Projections for the impact of consumption-driven climate change show potentially catastrophic impacts on Africa over coming decades – a continent that has made only a negligible contribution to the problem. And, they coincide with the on-going rapacious international exploitation of the Congo’s tropical forests, the world’s second largest after those of the Amazon.

Expected deforestation – to feed the demand for garden furniture, wood floors and ministerial front doors – up to the year 2050 is set to release over 34 billion tonnes of CO2 – somewhere close to the UK’s entire emissions over the course of sixty years. Overall, up to a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions are thought to come from the clearance of tropical forests. Things went badly after the World Bank began lending, post-conflict, to the DRC in 2001. In four years from 2002, 107 new contracts to log a total of 15 million hectares of forest were signed. But, promised benefits to local people from the trade failed to materialise, and tax avoidance and timber smuggling are reportedly rife.

In late 2008, the Democratic Republic of Congo again stood on the edge of full-scale conflict and calamity. Even before then, in just a decade from 1998, 5.4 million people were estimated to have died from war-related causes in the Congo. Whether, oil, wood, diamonds or minerals the continent is still seen as a lucky dip of natural resources with little concern for consequence.

I’d gone to the museum in Brussels to understand better an ‘official’ version of the events that have seen Europe and Africa emerge with such different fortunes after two and a half centuries of rapid global economic expansion and massive divergence between rich and poor. Such unequal development has been paid-for in large part by the creation of a huge ecological, or carbon debt, in the form of global climatic upheaval. We’re left in a world divided, volatile and living beyond its environmental means.

In 1972, Sicco Mansholt, then President of the European Commission, asked if Europe will, “continue to produce, ‘bigger, faster and more’ for ‘some’ to the detriment of the global environment and the welfare of the “rest”?” As long as Leopold’s statue stands in the capital of the heart of Europe, the answer is probably, yes.

Ecological Debt: in the footsteps of Stanley…

By Andrew Simms

Text courtesy of the author

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