Bernard Duterme: “The environmental movement must be urgently decolonised”

“Large-scale polluters who refuse to make commitments to match their obligations are exacerbating the environmental crisis,” explains Bernard Duterme, sociologist and director of the Tricontinental Centre (CETRI), based in Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium. (Margot Duterme)

We may all be in the same boat, but not all of us have access to the lifeboats. This expression, borrowed from the Cameroonian economist Thierry Amougou in his contribution to the collective publication l’Urgence Écologique Vue du Sud (The Ecological Emergency Seen from the South), perfectly sums up the difference in perspectives between the Global North and the Global South in the face of environmental crisis: the burden of ‘global climate’ disaster will be born most heavily by those least responsible for it.

The productivism and consumerism at the heart of the capitalist economic model of the countries of the Global North are regularly identified as the primary causes of climate and ecosystem disruption. Yet it is the countries of the Global South that are hardest hit by the effects of this behaviour. Their populations are forced to cope with droughts, floods and storms without the technical means developed by the countries of the North, and suffer a disproportionate human, social and economic impact. According to the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters at the University of Louvain-la-Neuve in Belgium, people in the poorest countries are six times more likely to be injured, lose their homes, be displaced or evacuated, or require emergency assistance than those in rich countries.

Despite the urgent situation in these territories, avenues open to local populations for action are limited and daily concerns revolve mainly around access to essential goods, while altruistic action on behalf of the planet often remains a European and North American privilege. Developed countries must therefore assume the bulk of ecological debt according to the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR). These countries have a moral obligation – articulated in the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention, the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement – to provide the countries of the Global South with the financial resources they require to fight climate change while simultaneously pursuing human development.

Today, however, this funding is neither just nor sufficient. According to the research institute IBON International, the architecture of this funding, aimed at social movements and civil society in the Global South, remains largely controlled by donors and focused on the interests of big business, often reproducing the injustices of existing North-South dynamics. Despite a commitment by developed countries of US$100 billion per year to finance adaptation and mitigation measures in developing countries, notably through the Green Climate Fund (GCF) initiated at COP15 in Copenhagen, this objective is already proving difficult to meet, even if, as expected, the United States returns to the Paris Accord following Donald Trump’s withdrawal. According to three researchers at the Centre for Climate Justice at the University of Glasgow, the world’s poorest countries are also the most neglected. Only 18 per cent of GCF funds were allocated to them, while 65 per cent went to middle-income countries such as Mexico and India.

Bernard Duterme is a sociologist and director of the Tricontinental Centre, which promotes study, publications and training in issues of development, North-South relations and the challenges of globalisation in Africa, Asia and Latin America. He was coordinator of the publication The Ecological Emergency Seen from the South (éditions Syllepse, 2020), a collection of scientific articles by authors from the Global South and specialists in these areas. In an interview with Equal Times, Duterme urges us to break free of the constraints of Western-centric thinking and adopt the perspective of Southern countries when it comes to climate change.

North-South relations have long been characterised by colonisation and a persistent dynamic of dependence. The contributions in the book you have coordinated focus on the need to “decolonise ecology”. What does this mean?

These writers from Asia, Africa and Latin America, experts and environmental activists, define “decolonising ecology” as the promotion of a political ecology that breaks with colonial or neo-colonial relations of domination. It means putting an end to the mechanisms by which poor countries are subordinated to rich countries, to the dynamics of subjugation and dependence of peripheral economies in the name of promoting superior civilisation, even when it comes in a green package or is certified ‘eco-friendly.’

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It must be recognised that mainstream environmentalism, which has been mobilised over the last 30 years by major public and private players in the international community, has not broken with the fundamentals of an economic model of accumulation responsible for the aggravation of social and environmental imbalances. Three decades of ‘sustainable development,’ ‘green economy’ and today’s ‘Green Deal’ have not led to a reversal of this logic and these trends.

On the contrary, indicators are in the red and the situation is rapidly deteriorating. It is thus a matter of urgency that we decolonise the supposedly universal environmental movement which, true to the spirit of its transnational promoters, seeks to reconcile the possibility of reaping profits with that of preserving the environment. This environmentalism, which is liberal, technocratic and neo-colonial, widens the North-South gap by putting natural capital on the market, valuing ecosystem services, privatising or conserving resources, patenting life, and promoting free trade in soil, water, air, biodiversity, etc.

On 1 November 2019, Brazilian activist Paulo Paulino Guajajara was murdered by traffickers in the Amazon, like so many other environmental activists around the world. He was part of a movement of Indigenous peoples combatting deforestation. What role can Indigenous populations play in this fight against those who destroy the environment and how do they view this fight?

The Global Environmental Justice Atlas identifies and documents most of the socio-environmental conflicts currently playing out around the world, particularly in Asia, Africa and Latin America. There are hundreds of them! They generally pit local communities – often Indigenous or Native – against transnational capitalism and its national, state or corporate representatives.

On one side, you have populations whose territories are affected; on the other, you have the ‘mega-projects’ (sometimes sold as ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’) of outside investors (mining, agro-industrial, energy, roads, ports, tourism, etc.). Most of them are part of a neo-extractivist push which, starting at the beginning of the century, has upgraded the status of a number of countries formerly considered peripheral to ‘resource providers’ without added value. Accumulation through dispossession, through the private appropriation of common goods, contributes to the plundering of wealth and environmental degradation.

Of course the main victims of these projects oppose them with the means at hand, but the balance of power is often unfavourable to them. The criminalisation and repression of dissent by national authorities makes the situation worse. Nevertheless, some victories have been achieved, such as El Salvador’s ban on mining, passed by the country’s parliament in 2017. The key is the existence of a broad social movement, supported by national and international actors in solidarity, which can influence decisions through politics and media.

According to World Bank projections, if no action is taken, there will be more than 140 million internal climate migrants in Africa south of the Sahara, South Asia and Latin America by 2050. Are these populations aware of the coming crisis and what are they doing to prepare for it?

Sensitivity to the climate and ecological disaster currently taking place is also unequally distributed. Those most concerned are often not those who are directly affected. The populations most exposed to the effects of environmental imbalances are not necessarily the most worried about the future of the planet or the ‘fate of a few little birds,’ to put it bluntly. This assessment refers to both to the old Marxist debate on whether or not the lower social classes are aware of their objective interests, as well as to the secondary nature of (seemingly) post-materialist considerations when the ‘material’ is not ensured. How can you be moved by the end of the world when the end of the month, week or day requires all of your mental and physical energy?

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Concern for the climate is the privilege of groups freed from the immediate task of survival. It implies being freed from the grip of daily deprivation. First comes a full stomach, then comes environmental concerns. Of course, in places where the scale of droughts, floods, landslides, etc., which force people to move, is understood as the direct effect of a predatory development model, reactions can provide alternatives. Efforts to adapt to or mitigate climate change are then carried out locally, for example through agroecology, land use planning, reforestation and waste management. But they remain in the minority and have little impact on the course of events.

In order to meet the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C, developing countries will need around US$3.5 to 4 trillion to implement their climate commitments. Will they be able to mobilise funds without the help of the Global North?

According to the principles of ‘polluter pays’ and Common But Differentiated Responsibilities, adopted by the international community almost 30 years ago now, the financing of climate policies must meet North-South equity criteria and be modulated according to the respective capacities of its member countries and their historical contributions – from the early days of the First Industrial Revolution – to greenhouse gas emissions. In this respect, the obligations of the United States and Western Europe, for example, those of major emerging powers such as China, India or Brazil, and those of small poor countries such as Burundi, Burkina Faso or Nicaragua are incomparable.

The problem gets worse when big polluters are unwilling to make commitments in line with their obligations, or when they are reluctant to finance them (Trump’s United States, for example, withdrew from the Paris Agreement), much more so than when developing countries, whose responsibility for climate change is negligible, do not finance their own commitments. Several co-authors of our book The Ecological Emergency Seen from the South explain how current climate financing remains both insufficient and unfair, and how its donor-controlled, corporate-centric architecture tends to reproduce the injustice of North-South relations.

The Covid-19 pandemic has awakened a certain environmental awareness, at least on the individual level, in the countries of the Global North. What about the countries of the Global South?

First of all, it must be said that in addition to the health crisis, the negative economic and social collateral effects of repeated confinement and a dizzying drop in trade have had a greater impact on poor countries, where the majority of the working population is employed by the the informal sector, which by definition lacks any form of social protection. Rampant food insecurity has certainly not led working people in these countries to be more concerned about the environment than they were previously. On the other hand, social organisations and critical intellectuals already familiar with the issue have been energised as they have been in Europe. As the pandemic leads us to reflect on what the ‘world after’ should look like in order to overcome the crises of the ‘world before’ – particularly the ecological crisis, undoubtedly the mother of all of them – many individual and collective actors, academics and activists are submitting or resubmitting alternative proposals.

These begin with questioning the close links that our ways of living on this Earth establish between health and the environment, both upstream and downstream of the spread of the virus, and move towards outlining the stages of a planned economic revival based on decommodification, deglobalisation and democratisation, which prioritises respect and sharing of the ‘commons’ over private accumulation, and social and environmental justice over deregulated productivism. This is the case, for example, of activist intellectuals Ashish Kothari in India and Maristella Svampa in Latin America, who both reflect in our book on the conditions of a post-pandemic social and ecological transition.