G8: Sailing Against Ecological Debt

HELSINKI - As leaders of the world's eight richest countries prepare to meet in Germany's Baltic resort of Heiligendamm next week, a Fair Trade ship has left the shores of Finland and is on the high seas heading towards the summit venue.

Estelle's crew of 17 activists say their central demand is for the Group of Eight (G8) leaders to address the issue of ecological debt owed to the developing South by the industrialized countries -- and they have set sail to Germany for the Jun. 6-8 summit to call attention to that goal.

Driven mainly by wind power, the sea voyage will take up to a week, depending on the weather conditions.

"The problem of developing countries' debt has featured prominently in every G8 summit since the 1990s, but we do not want to speak of Third World debt exclusively in monetary terms," said Teppo Eskelinen, of Friends of the Earth Finland.

"All the debts of the developing countries have already been paid because the northern models of consumption and production are built on the exploitation of cheap resources from the global South. Our lifestyle causes destruction of local livelihoods in developing countries due to waste, pollution, degradation of ecosystems and climate change" said Elina Toivonen, the tour coordinator sailing with Estelle.

"The debt question is more meaningful when we ask, how much we, the industrialized countries, owe to the global South for the environmental destruction we have caused," she added.

When the issue of debt is examined in monetary terms alone, it glosses over the fact that large portions of these loans were meant to promote efficiency in the use of natural resources to be transferred to the North, according to Eskelinen.

"And when they became indebted, these countries were forced by the G8-controlled World Bank to export more of their natural resources in order to pay off the debt, which further causes severe ecological burden on them since they have to overexploit their natural resources," Eskelinen told IPS.

At the last G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland two years ago, the issue of the developing world's debt was the focus of a massive international campaign, contributing to a write-off of about 40 billion U.S. dollars owed by 18 countries, mostly in Africa. It saved them about 1.5 billion dollars of debt repayments each year.

But, said Eskelinen, "the logic behind third world debt should be turned on its head. It is the North who should pay back the developing countries and not the other way round as has been the practice", he said.

The G8 -- Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, and the United States -- together represent about 65 percent of the world economy.

However, Estelle is not a creation of the G8 Summit. The idea of using a sailing ship as a campaign vessel for development activities was conceived in 1985 by Jyrki PAfAPlkki, a musical instrument designer who wanted to demonstrate a fairer way of trading between the North and South.

The ship would convey goods to the South and in return bring back processed, value-added commodities from the developing countries instead of raw materials. It will be powered by wind instead of fossil fuel.

Estelle is a steel-hulled 53-meter ship originally built for North Sea trawl fishing. The 70-year-old trawler was almost a wreck before acquired by the activists, but was transformed into a sailing ship using recycled material, with the work done entirely by volunteers, most of whom had little knowledge of shipbuilding.

In 2002, Estelle sailed to Angola with a full cargo of humanitarian aid and returned to Finland with handicrafts and various assortments of local goods produced by Angolan micro-entrepreneurs, Jyri Jaakkola, organizer of the G8 activities here, told IPS.

Promoting fair trade and environmental protection remain core driving principles of Estelle's, activists, he said.

During the northern hemisphere summer, Estelle will undertake a tour of major European cities in Poland and the United Kingdom to spread the idea of fair trade to a wider audience, said Jaakkola.

"We would like to show the linkages between fair trade and environmental protection. We find that there is a close connection between social justice and environmental sustainability", he added.

"When producers get a better price for their products they can also protect the environment, because it is in their interests to do so. But if they need to produce as cheaply as possible they cannot think of these because their main concern would be to exploit large quantities of raw material," Jaakkola said.

While the G8 leaders are engaged in negotiations at the official summit, an estimated 100,000 activists are expected to gather in nearby Rostock for parallel sessions of their own. There will be over 120 seminars, and Estelle's 300-cubic meter hold will provide space to some of these workshops, Jaakkola told IPS.

One issue likely to feature prominently in the summit deliberations, he said, is the move towards renewable energy resources and "we would like be a practical demonstration of that".

"We have filled our tank with biodiesel procured from small-scale Finnish producers. We consider the use of biofuel as one possible solution to the problem of climate change".

However, according to Eskelinen biofuel per se is not an end-all solution because ultimately it is not sustainable. Instead of biofuel controlled by large transnationals who perhaps have driven people off their land and established monoculture plantations, it should come from smaller local producers whose needs are adequately met.

"So when talking about the use of biofuel it should be not the North once again buying indiscriminately large quantities from the South in order to have a clear conscience," said Eskelinen.

"Transporting large quantities of biofuel from the South is not an efficient way of fighting climate change," he said.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.