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The Veins Opened by the North Haven't Healed

Néfer Muñoz, IPS, 24 March 2000

SAN JOSE, Mar 24 (IPS) - The open veins of Latin America are still bleeding. But the region should tie on a tourniquet, step down from the dock, and loudly protest the destruction of its environment, said activists at a conference in Costa Rica.

Spanish economist Joan Martínez-Alier, who specialises in environmental issues, and Salvadoran engineer Ricardo Navarro argued that Latin America should charge the industrialised North compensation for the damages it has inflicted to the environment in the region.

Navarro - a co-founder of El Salvador's Human Rights Commission and director of the Salvadoran Centre for Appropriate Technology (Friends of the Earth) - and Martínez-Alier took part in a Mar 17 seminar on "Climate Change and Foreign and Environmental Debt" in Costa Rica.

"Latin America owes money to rich countries, but the countries of the North owe this region even more," Martínez-Alier, a professor of economy and history of economics at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, told IPS.

"Industrialised countries have exported enormous amounts of raw materials from Latin America for many years, without compensating for the environmental costs," he argued.

One of the originators of the idea of environmental debt was renowned Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, the author of the classic work "The Open Veins of Latin America".

Latin America's foreign debt currently amounts to 700 billion dollars. But Martínez-Alier wondered how much industrialised countries owed this region in reparations for environmental damages.

Navarro, meanwhile, told IPS that "the environmental debt is a right, and rights must be defended - which means Latin Americans should wake up and demand what is ours."

But he clarified that although the North, in geographic terms, had an environmental debt to the South, it must be taken into consideration that there are poor sectors in industrialised countries, and rich sectors that hold most of the wealth in developing nations.

"The debt is owed by those who have plenty to those who have nothing, those who consume to those who do not," said Navarro.

Martínez-Alier, who is currently pursuing a graduate degree at Yale in the United States while writing a book on environmental conflicts, said the damages caused to the environment in Latin America by countries in the North were difficult to measure.

But, he said, many examples could be cited, such as abuses in the mines in Potosí, Bolivia, the too-low prices at which Mexico sells its oil to the United States, and the destruction of jungle areas to plant large banana plantations in Costa Rica.

"It is impossible to quantify, in monetary terms, how much biodiversity is lost when trees are cut down to plant bananas, but it is an enormous loss," said Martínez-Alier.

The economist also maintained that Mexican oil purchased by the United States is undervalued because the price fails to take into consideration the massive environmental damages caused by oil drilling in the rainforests of the southeastern states of Tabasco and Campeche.

Both Martínez-Alier and Navarro maintained that climate change must also be taken into account, as another aspect of the environmental debt.

So far, the environmental agreements signed in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and the Japanese city of Kyoto in 1997 remain empty words, they said.

Climate change is still a pressing problem because greenhouse gases continue to be produced, despite the international treaties signed. Martínez-Alier said that in the past few years, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere had increased from 280 parts per million to 360 parts per million.

Industrialised countries are still the biggest polluters, and have failed to curb their emission of greenhouse gases that cause global warming, they pointed out.

"The average global production of carbon dioxide is one ton per person, while in the United States, for example, it is six tonnes per person," said Navarro.

"And things are only getting worse. One of the big problems in Latin America is that politicians are not taking the necessary measures to demand that rich countries cut their emissions," he added.

According to the two environmentalists, climate change is a problem of justice, because the countries in the North pollute the atmosphere, which belongs to everyone.

Latin America should demand that the industrialised North pay off its environmental debt to the South with funds and technology transfers, they argued.