August 20, 2017

An open letter to Mr Clausen, President of the World Bank

Dear Mr Clausen,

This double issue of The Ecologist has been prepared in order to expose to world leaders the role played by your bank and the other international agencies with which you work, in particular the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), in creating the present escalation of human misery, malnutrition and famine in the Third World.

The coming population crash

It has been clear for at least ten years that a massive population crash in Africa and South Asia was inevitable. When I worked for Environment Canada in 1975, documents were already being circulated which suggested that half a billion people would starve to death before the end of the century. Professor Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University was pointing out at that time that population projections to the end of the century, established by governments and international agencies, were simply absurd. Indeed the world will never support a population of 6½ or 7 billion, let alone 30 billion which the FAO still has the gall to tell us it can support—so long of course as that iniquitous organisation is provided with sufficient funds to carry out its programme.

At the Second International Conference on the Environmental Future held in Reykjavik in 1977, 120 participants—many of whom were men of the greatest possible eminence in their respective fields-declared that the death by starvation of a thousand million people could well be the final tragedy of this century. (See The Ecologist, Vol 7, No 6.)

Since then events have given ever greater credence to this dismal prospect. Today the people of more than twenty African countries are threatened with famine, hundreds of thousands if not millions have already died and the prospects for the survivors are very grim. There is even terrible starvation today in the Sudan, which country the FAO was telling us only a few years ago, had the greatest agricultural potential in Africa and could be turned into the breadbasket of the Arab world.

Why is this happening? You and your colleagues tell us that people are hungry because they are poor—from which it must follow that the cure for famine must be to make them rich, hence the need for economic development.

In other words you interpret the incidence of hunger in such a way as to rationalise the solutions you wish to apply—those which the World Bank has been set up to finance and which most favour various short-term political and economic interests.

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Your faith in economic development

Your quasi-religious commitment to economic development is clearly reflected in your Fairfield Osborn Memorial Lecture (1982). In it, you not only insist that development is essential to combat poverty and malnutrition but you actually pretend that it also provides the only means of protecting our natural environment. Thus you tell us that “a better environment more often than not depends on continued economic growth”, and that if we are to have a sustainable world then it must “include economic growth”. You even go further and tell us that “all development can enhance the conditions in which we live”, and further on in your talk that “all economic development should, on balance, improve people’s environment . . .”

These are shocking statements to make. Do you really believe that the vast areas devastated by opencast mining have been improved by these ventures? Do you really believe that the 100 million or so hectares of water logged and salinised land created by perennial irrigation schemes, many of which were financed by the World Bank, have enhanced the conditions in which the local people live? Do you really believe that the vast development schemes that have forced tens of millions of villagers and tribesmen from their homes to eke out a miserable existence in the ever growing and ever more squalid slums of the large Third World conurbations have actually “enhanced the conditions in which those people live?” If you do, then you can believe anything.

Worse still you are guilty of a most callous confidence trick in pretending to the inhabitants of the Third World that the economic development you finance can really enable them to achieve the material prosperity that we know, temporarily at least, in the West today.

You know yourself that in order to develop, Third World countries have eventually to achieve an economic surplus—for they cannot go on borrowing from you indefinitely. But how are they to do this? In most cases their present foreign earnings are insufficient to pay even their oil bills let alone the interest on the loans they have already contracted—in some cases by a very wide margin. If you continue to lend them more money, such interest payments must still further increase.

What is more, their foreign earnings are, in nearly every case, almost entirely derived from the land, and this land, under the impact of the intensive methods of production required to make its produce economic on the world market, is being rapidly degraded. Under such conditions, those foreign earnings can only fall from year to year until they are eventually non-existent.

Basil Rossi, who manages large agricultural estates in the Philippines, recently sent me a letter which I circulated among the banking community of the UK. In it, he pointed out, that bankers were lending sugar-cane plantations large sums of money for which their land, valued at several thousand dollars an acre, served as security. But once this land has been used for intensive sugar-cane production every year for a decade or so, it must become so degraded as to be worth little more than the land which borders the Sahara desert.

Under such conditions, how can Third World countries, whose costs can only go up and whose earnings can only fall, conceivably develop? You know, and everybody in the development business knows too (though he may not admit it) that it is impossible, and that the Third World is being made to destroy its environment and sacrifice its cultural patterns and social structures for nothing.

In any case, what reason have you for supposing that development can make the poor rich and enable them to eat? Has development eliminated poverty and malnutrition in America, the most highly developed country in the world? The answer is most surely no. The inhabitants of the black ghettos of America are very poor indeed if this term is to be used in a sensible manner. Among these people, the family and community have largely disintegrated, households are run by single women who have no men to help them. Crime, delinquency, alcoholism, drug addiction are rife and there is a general distrust, if not hatred, for any form of authority. This is what Oscar Lewis calls the ‘Culture of Poverty’. What is more, it can co-exist with great material affluence. Its victims may possess colour television sets, video-tape recorders and expensive automobiles.

Karl Marx was wrong when he said that religion was the opium of the people. It is materialism that is the opium of the people for when the alienated play with these toys they are temporarily transported into a surrogate world and forget the real one which we have made so intolerable to them. But this surrogate world cannot satisfy their basic spiritual, aesthetic and social needs. Indeed, as Ivan Illich puts it, “development has not eliminated poverty it has modernised it.”

Nor has uncontrolled development in the USA eliminated malnutrition. Perhaps as many as twenty million people in America suffer in one way or another from a lack of nutritious food. It is not that food is unavailable, only that they have become too psychologically disturbed and too socially alienated to spend their money on the food they need rather than on junk food, worthless consumer goods, alcohol and drugs. Development has in fact not eliminated malnutrition either. It has also modernised it.

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Are primitive people really poor?

If you wish to find a society where there is no poverty or malnutrition, you should not look towards the industrialised world. There are a few so called primitive peoples left today. Some live in what remains of that area of Amazonia where you plan to set up the Polonoroeste project, others in the Bastar area of Madhya Pradesh whose destruction you also plan to finance. Their societies and their environments are still intact and, as a result, their members do not suffer from the social alienation or the malnutrition so prevalent in the slums of the USA. In fact, they possess what one should regard as the most valuable possible forms of wealth: social and ecological capital which provide them with great security and all sorts of other important physical and psychological satisfactions. Once the members of such societies are dispersed, however, by some vast development scheme and are forced to seek refuge in the slums of some large conurbation, they are deprived of these sources of wealth which economic development can never replace.

There is no reason to suppose that Third World people actually have anything to gain by economic development. Indeed, contrary to what we are made to believe, while their societies and environment are still intact, they are not short of the technology required to grow ample food. Over the years, we have described in the pages of The Ecologist the traditional agricultural practices of ‘primitive’ people and shown just how well they satisfy nutritional, social and ecological requirements.

In our book The Social and Environmental Effects of Large Dams we devote a whole section to traditional methods of irrigation which we show to be the only ones that are sustainable and do not cause the terrible social and environmental problems associated with modern methods. Even, at the UNEP Conference on Desertification, it was concluded that the only method of preventing further degradation of the marginal lands of Sahelia was to return to some form of nomadic pastoralism similar to that which has been practised there for thousands of years.

Nor do primitive peoples suffer from malnutrition, let alone starvation, which as William Dando in his excellent book The Geography of Famine points out, is a largely-man-made phenomenon, whose incidence and severity have increased with the development of the market system.

Significantly, John Madeley, in his article on page 36 suggests that villagers in Tanzania may well be better fed when the formal economy is depressed than when it is flourishing.

What is particularly important is that these people create none of the problems which today are threatening the very survival of our species on this planet. They do not cut down their trees, desertify their soil nor contaminate the air they breathe and the water they drink. They do not, as we are doing, change the very chemical composition of the atmosphere nor threaten to destabilise world climate. Nor, for that matter, do they build atom bombs. Yet, as irony would have it, you are intent in financing the annihilation of their way of life—even more ironically, so as to rescue them from their ‘poverty’.

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Selling their food

Perhaps the most obvious reason why development cannot provide a cure for malnutrition and famine is that the Third World must earn vast amounts of foreign exchange in order to finance it, and to earn this they must first of all sell off their forests. This is how the Indonesian ‘economic miracle’ was financed. This is largely, too, how Malaysia financed its economic development and how Papua New Guinea now proposes to finance its development. We shall see later on what are the consequences of destroying forests in the Third World. What we must note here, is, that once their forests have gone, Third World governments must then turn to plantation crops and cattle-ranching as a source of foreign exchange. Indeed, in many countries of the Third World well over fifty per cent of the good agricultural land is used in this way to produce cash crops for export, and as these countries run ever shorter of foreign exchange, largely as a result of the high cost of their oil imports and ever growing interest payments, more and more land is being diverted from producing food for their already undernourished population—to producing food for export.

The Chilean economist Manfred A Max-Neef points this out very eloquently. “The developed countries” he writes “force the Third World to pay back their debts. The only way they can do that is producing cash crops. Cash cropping prevents subsistence farming, the alternative to paying unpayable debts is committing suicide. “What” he goes on to ask “is more important, our banking system or the human beings . . . ?” This is indeed the crux of the matter.

You will see in Marcus Linear’s article on page 27 how the FAO plans to annihilate the tsetse fly in a partly forested area of seven m sq km in Central Africa so as to turn it into rangelands for producing beef for export to the USA. Perhaps the EDF may be persuaded to turn down the FAOs request to finance this project, though a decision is still to be made.

In Bharat Dogra’s article on page 42 you will see that, though no more than fifteen per cent of the children born each year in India are adequately fed, the Indian government is doing everything it can to encourage more and more food exports. Can you really believe that such a policy is in the best interests of the people of that country? Can you really believe that it is even remotely conceivable to feed the hundreds of millions of starving people in the world by forcing them to sell an ever greater proportion of their food?

What is particularly depressing is that your agricultural policies continue to be influenced by the FAO which has been, for many years, under the complete domination of the agro-chemical industry, whose representatives, the GIFAP, until recently occupied spacious offices at the FAO headquarters in Rome and were instrumental in organising the 1974 World Food Conference.

FAO’s policies only make sense at all when seen in their true light as providing a means of maximising the sales of agro-chemicals and the availability of cheap food imports, in particular beef, to the food-processing industries of the West. By financing FAO-inspired projects, this is what you are helping to achieve at the cost of creating the poverty and the famine we are only beginning to witness today.

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Destroying the Third World environment

There is another way in which your policies are giving rise to this poverty and famine, it is by causing the most terrible environmental degradation. We are generally made to believe that environmental degradation is the concern of the rich, the poor, we are told being only interested in the material benefits and the jobs provided by the enterprises that give rise to it. This is, of course, sheer nonsense. The truth is that environmental degradation is the main cause of poverty and famine in the world today.

Indeed the tragedy we are witnessing in Africa today, rather than being the result of an inevitable and unpredictable drought, in other words an Act of God is, as Anders Wijkman and Lloyd Timberlake demonstrate on pages 9 and 18 but the result of environmental degradation most of which has occurred since the war and much of which (though they do not say so) has been financed by development banks such as yours.

In many areas where the drought is said to have occurred there has not even been a reduction in rainfall. It is the water-retaining capacity of the soil that has been reduced and this has been caused by its over-exploitation for intensive agriculture and by deforestation. At the same time, where there has really been a reduction in rainfall this has had a far more severe effect than such an event would have given rise to in the past, again because of environmental degradation, and because much of the land once used by nomadic pastoralists, to feed their cattle, has been taken away from them for the production of cash crops, in Sahelia, for instance, for the intensive cultivation of peanuts for export to France. (See The Ecologist Vol 11, No 4.)

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The consequences of deforestation

Deforestation in the Third World is another reason for this devastation, and you do not seem to realise its full implications. Traditional forest-dwelling peoples who once made up the bulk of humanity, are totally dependent on the forests for the maintenance of their cultural pattern and indeed for their physical survival. This means that the removal of their forests condemns them to terrible biological and cultural impoverishment. This should be made clear to you by Bharat Dogra’s article on page 44, as well as by the small excerpt we have published on page 49 from Anil Agarwal’s recent seminal article ‘Beyond Pretty Trees and Tigers.

Another reason why you may not understand the terrible effects of deforestation in the tropics is that, in the temperate areas in which we live, deforestation can occur with relative impunity. In the tropics, however, conditions are totally different, a fact that cannot be over-emphasised.

Indeed, in such areas, deforestation inevitably leads to the transformation of rivers into torrents, the drying up of streams and springs and the erosion and desertification of the soil which becomes deprived of all protection against the winds and the heavy monsoon rains. What is more, whereas in temperate areas, forests, even when clear cut, can often recover (though perhaps in a slightly degraded form), in the tropics, once they are removed, they are—at least on a historical time-scale—gone for good.

The US Department of State, as you undoubtedly know, has at last understood this, and indeed the USAID leadership has now undertaken not to finance any projects which lead to the destruction of tropical forests.

In your Fairfield Osborn Memorial Lecture, you tell us that “as a matter of policy, we won’t finance a project that seriously compromises public health or safety; that causes severe or irreversible environmental deterioration”.

Unfortunately, this is not true. The Polonoroeste Project, the Bastar Project, worse still in India the vast Narmada Project, which we shall describe in detail in volume 2 of our study The Social and Environmental Effects of Large Dams, do all these things and worse, yet you still insist on financing them.

You may indeed impose conditions on national governments as part of the loan agreements you make them sign, but these are invariably insufficient and, as you know only too well, are rarely implemented and rarely will be.

Besides, if you really observed this policy, it would not have been necessary for Robert O Blake, Chairman of The Tropical Forestry Working Group, Washington D.C., to have written you the letter we publish on page 78 asking you so earnestly to desist from financing projects that can only lead to the destruction of the world’s remaining rainforests.

There is another reason of course why you do not understand the importance of forests in the tropics. It is that your organisation, as I learnt to my horror some years ago when I spent an afternoon in Washington with your Director of Forestry, Mr Spears, refuses to distinguish between a forest and a man-made plantation of quick growing exotics. A plantation may alone be able to yield the financial return that enables its owners to pay back the money they have borrowed from you for setting it up, but as you will understand when you read Bharat Dogra’s article on page 44, it can provide almost none of those subtle benefits which a natural forest provides its traditional inhabitants and on which they are so totally dependent for their survival.

A natural forest, as Sunderlal Bahuguna, the great Chipko leader of the Himalayas always says, provides “soil, water and pure air”—the very source of life—a plantation provides but “timber, resin and foreign exchange”—a source of commercial wealth to but a tiny minority.

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Deforestation and climatic change

Furthermore, deforestation must ultimately lead to climatic change. It has already done so in many areas on a local level. But there is now every chance that further deforestation could lead to a global and irreversible climatic catastrophe. Already at the 1977 conference at Reyjkavik, four of the world’s leading climatologists (Kenneth Hare of Canada, Hermann Flohn of West Germany, Tom Malone and Reid Bryson of the USA) declared that, if we continued burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests at the present rate, a global climatic catastrophe was inevitable, a view which is now shared by most serious climatologists.

Since then, much has been learned of the global mechanisms which have evolved over the last 3,000 million years to assure world climatic stability, and in the absence of which, life on this planet would become extremely difficult. It has in particular become reasonably clear that if we tamper sufficiently with the structure and functioning of the biosphere, above all by destroying any more of the forests which once practically covered this planet and replacing them with endless stretches of monoculture and cement, a point must eventually be reached when these mechanisms can no longer function.

The well known atmospheric chemist, Dr Jim Lovelock, who has possibly looked at this question more closely than anyone else, describes on page 52 just why this must be so, and how the destruction of the Amazonian rainforest which you are helping to finance, could trigger off a climate ‘flip’.

Let us not forget that the heavy rainfall in Amazonia over an area of something like seven million square kilometres is largely derived from evapo-transpiration from the Amazonian forests themselves. This means that a massive volume of water is continuously moving upwards and downwards over an enormous area. This, it seems, provides a very effective global cooling system, and to destroy it is to court disaster. Indeed a tentative model recently published in Science suggests that the mean temperature of the tropics, could, as a result, shift to something like 50° centigrade which would be sufficient to render a considerable part of our planet uninhabitable.

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Who destroys the environment?

Needless to say, you pretend that it is the poor who destroy their environment. In your Fairfield Osborn Memorial Lecture you tell us that “poverty puts . . . severe—and often irreversible—strains on the natural environment.” You also tell us that “at survival levels people are sometimes compelled to exploit their environment too intensively”, and that “poverty has often resulted in long years of mismanagement of our natural resources, evidencing itself in over-grazing, erosion, denuded forests, and surface water pollution.” You know that this is very misleading.

Of course the peasants have a greater impact on their forests today than they did thirty years ago. This is partly because their numbers have increased, but very much more because the vast bulk of their forests have been cut down by logging companies, which means that their activities which were quite tolerable when their forests were intact, have now become very destructive.

The same is true of the impact of peasant agriculture and of pastoralism. If the Masai, for instance, are over-grazing their land, it is that their cattle are confined to a quarter of the area that was once available to them, the rest having been confiscated the the former colonial government to satisfy commercial requirements. As already mentioned the same is true of the impact of pastoralists on the marginal lands of Sahelia (see The Ecologist Vol 11, No 4).

Indeed, rather than destroy their environment, the villagers and tribesmen of India, for instance, are the only people in their country who are seriously engaged in protecting what remains of their forest. In Bihar, hundreds of Santal tribesmen have been killed in clashes with the army, when they tried to protect their sal forests from being transformed into eucalyptus plantations.

In the Himalayas the Chipko movement has been organised by the peasants themselves under the leadership of Sunderlal Bahuguna and Chandi Prasad Bhatt and is spreading throughout the area. The village women, when they see the commercial loggers approach, stream out of their villages to hug the trees, which they thereby protect with their own bodies from the depredations of government contractors (see The Ecologist Vol 13, No 5).

Environmental degradation in the Third World is thus but the inevitable consequence of present development policies, and Third World people are poor, not as you would like to think, because they are ‘underdeveloped’ but because they have been impoverished by previous development, because, they have been robbed by developers of their means of sustenance, and are now condemned to scratching an ever more marginal existence from land that resembles ever more closely the surface of the moon.

They are poor, in fact, Mr Clausen, because you and your colleagues have made them poor, and, at the rate you are going, the poor and the starving will, in but a matter of decades, make up the bulk of humanity on this planet.

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The irresponsiblity of FAO

Consider what would in fact happen if you were to finance in its entirety, the plan for feeding the world described in the October 1971 issue of the FAO journal Ceres. “First”, this journal tells us,

“we would open up for intensive arable farming some seven million square kilometres in the Amazon basin and a smaller area in equatorial Africa. Second, we would make it possible to turn the warm deserts of the world into a sea of waving green, with some twelve million square kilometres in the Sahara alone, an area almost equal to the total cultivated land in the world at present. An unlimited supply of fresh water would also make it possible to provide perennial irrigation to the existing cultivated lands, to the vast areas under permanent pasture, and to the lands now under tropical forest.”

This sounds like the LSD-inspired dream of some technology-obsessed adolescent. No serious person could really believe that it is a serious statement from a United Nations agency which received some 500 million dollars a year for research on strategies for feeding the hungry millions.

The sheer folly of such a plan should be evident to all. The great bulk of the seven million sq km of the Amazonian basin is, of course, unuseable for agriculture, the soil being largely lateritic and yielding two or three harvests at most before becoming desertified (see Jose Lutzenberger’s article on pages 69 to 72). To clear it of its forests, as pointed out by Jim Lovelock, (see pages 52 to 55) might well trigger off a climatic catastrophe that could make agriculture impossible over a vast part of our planet.

Significantly, fourteen years after this plan was published, the twelve million sq km of the Sahara Desert, rather than being transformed into “a sea of waving green” is on the contrary rapidly expanding and threatening to engulf a major part of Africa, and this inspite of, or perhaps more realistically, because of, the money spent on FAO-inspired development schemes in this area.

Even the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) admitted at its 1977 Conference on Desertification that at least a third of the world’s remaining agricultural land was, at current trends, being turned into a desert.

As for the unlimited supply of fresh water, this is also but a dream. Water shortages are likely to be one of the most serious problems facing the world in the next decades and they are caused precisely by those strategies which you and the FAO recommend for solving the world food problem: economic development which necessarily involves deforestation and intensive export-oriented agriculture.

As for the perennial irrigation which is supposed to provide this water (see our book The Social and Environmental Effects of Large Dams and The Ecologist issue Vol 14, Nos 5/6), this can only result in large-scale water-logging and salinisation and hence in the creation of wet and salt encrusted deserts. Indeed even the FAO admits that more than fifty per cent of the land under perennial irrigation today is already suffering, in varying degrees, from these associated and eventually fatal evils, though none of these considerations have led Mr Saouma to modify his lunatic policies, as is clear from his insistence on turning Central Africa into a seven million sq km cattle-ranch (see Marcus Linear’s article page 27).

Finally, when you finance these massive projects, you are more often than not allying yourself with criminal elements in Third World governments, in their bureaucracies and in the business community, both here and over there.

When doing the research for our book on The Social and Environmental Effects of Large Dams we found that an enormous proportion of the money you provide for large development schemes is simply syphoned off by crooked politicians. With regard to the Mahaweli scheme in Sri Lanka, for instance, we were assured, though of course no one can prove it, that at least thirty per cent of the funds provided by aid agencies for its construction, were diverted in this way. It is well known that the same is true of the funds provided for putting up the large Brazilian Dams that are being built today.

In many countries—Indonesia for instance—it is also generally conceded that each minister has his own private forest concession. In India, B B Vohra, one of the most respected authorities on forestry and agriculture in the country, and for many years a top civil servant, admits himself (see “How India’s forests have been cut down” page 50) that the forests of that country have been cut down by what he refers to as “formidable mafias based on a triangular alliance between the corrupt bureaucrat, the corrupt politician and the corrupt businessman.”

Do you realise that by financing such enterprises you are in effect becoming a member of this alliance? You are financing “institutionalised crime” on an unparalleled scale, what is more, crime that will not simply lead to a diversion of funds from a few rich individuals but to a diversion of essential resources from the rural masses you are supposed to be serving and without which they are condemned to irreversible impoverishment and starvation.

It may be a shock to you, Mr Clausen, to be brought down to earth in so rude a manner, but I strongly suggest you do not ignore this letter. You cannot be allowed to continue financing the destruction of the tropical world, the devastation of its remaining forests, the extermination of its wildlife nor the impoverishment and starvation of its human inhabitants.

Yours sincerely,
 
 
Edward Goldsmith
Publisher of The Ecologist

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