If wealthy nations only realized how much ''ecological debt'' they owe poor ones, they would drop their financial claims against the debtor countries of the developing world, say anti-debt and environmental campaigners.
Indeed, the campaigners argue, the concept of ecological debt provides a compelling new argument to cancel the financial debts of these countries: not only has the debt been paid in financial terms, as activists long have argued, but it also is more than offset in ecological terms.
If the North realized the scale and severity of its ecological debt to the South, ''no one would again have the audacity to demand that countries like Mozambique or Niger send a penny more debt service,'' says Andrew Simms, a veteran of the Jubilee 2000 debt relief campaign who works for the London-based New Economics Foundation.
Ecological debt is the notion that the industrialized countries should compensate the Third World for centuries of exploiting its natural resources and should pay damages for the unsustainable consumption patterns and polluting carbon emissions that have led to global warming.
Simms led a workshop on ecological debt in nearby Antwerp this week, part of a Nov 19-21 conference on sustainable development hosted by Vlaams Overleg Duurzame Ontwikkeling (VODO), a Flemish network of non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
He says he hopes to put the ecological debt concept, introduced by Latin American NGOs at the Rio de Janerio 'Earth Summit' of 1992, on the official agenda of next year's World Summit on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio +10, in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Proponents say the ecological debt argument's potential benefits might be clear enough for, but should not be limited to, debt-ridden poor countries.
Joan Martínez Alier, an economics professor from Barcelona, Spain, says "to place the claim to an ecological debt on the international political order of the day" would in itself be the best contribution that the South could make towards pushing the economies of the North towards ecological sustainability.
"The question is not so much collecting the ecological debt, but to prevent it from increasing any further," says Alier, acknowledging that no accounting system yet exists for repayment.
Friends of the Earth International, the Third World Studies Institute and the Southern Peoples Ecological Debt Creditors Alliance are scheduled to hold a conference in Benin Nov. 27-30 on "Globalization, Ecological Debt, Climate Change and Sustainability: A South-South Conference." A major aim of the talks will be to set the agenda for Rio+10.
The Benin conference, which comes on the heels of the climate change conference in Marrakech, Morocco, also is expected to result in the formal establishment of a new organization, the African Ecological Debt Creditors Alliance.
Simms, who began to put numbers to the argument in a 1999 report for the British charity Christian Aid, says the Third World is owed a ''carbon credit'' of up to three times the value of its official foreign debt.
"In terms of claiming compensation for ecological debt, these may well be fantasy figures. But they say something more important,'' says Simms. ''In light of global warming and its physical and economic consequences, they turn the moral authority in all relations between industrialized and non-industrialised countries upside down."
Yet, it is poor people living in poor countries who suffer "first and worst" from extreme weather conditions, to which global warming is contributing, he adds. Rising sea levels resulting from global warming will force the evacuation of the entire population the South Pacific island nation of Tuvalu - estimated in July 10,991 people. The first group of environmental refugees is due to leave for New Zealand next year, having been rebuffed by Australia.
In all, more than seven million people living in island states are believed at risk from rising sea levels.
The economic costs of global warming are rising dramatically, according to reinsurance giant Munich Re: flood losses have increased roughly eight-fold since the 1960s.
"If that trend continued we would arrive at the bizarre situation by about 2065 where the costs of natural disasters driven by global warming would overtake the value of gross world product," says Simms.
He adds that 96 percent of all deaths from natural disasters occur in developing countries and that by 2025, more than half of all people living in developing countries will be highly vulnerable to floods and storms. In Bangladesh alone, another 20 million people stand to become environmental refugees.
These also are the people likely to be most affected by the results of conventional foreign debt.
"Where the orthodox financial debt is concerned, the price, quite simply, is paid by taxpayers in developing countries - some of the poorest people on the planet," says Simms. "Now, who pays the price for the ecological debt crisis stemming from climate change? Well, yet again, it is the poorest people, living in the most environmentally vulnerable parts of the world."
Even after debt relief, Mozambique could still have to spend some 45 million dollars a year to service its debt - more than it spends on either primary health care or basic education.
In addition to having to pay to service foreign debts, says Simms, the world's least developed countries also are paying ''the interest'' on rich countries' ecological debts - in the form of losses from and costs of coping with the rising trend of natural disasters.
Copyright © 2001 IPS-Inter Press Service