Turn of the Screw

by David Moberg

In These Times magazine, April 2000


Central African forests that once echoed with the sounds of wildlife are now filled with a "remorseless silence," Chicago Tnbune correspondent Paul Salopek reported recently. "It is the silence of nature drowned out by the babble of human overpopulation," he wrote of his recent journey to Cameroon, describing roads penetrating once-pristine forests and local hunters peddling "bush meat" in the cities.

The worldwide threat to wildlife and ecosystems that support them is increasingly catastrophic. Since the industrialized countries have obliterated many of their wild places, most of the last great spans of wilderness are located in less-developed countries. While the chainsaws of industrial loggers and the machinery of miners and oil drillers account for much of the damage in the remaining forests, poor people-desperate for land-wreak havoc as well.

But the problem is less the "babble of human overpopulation" than the brutality of the global economic system that entraps countries like Cameroon. This cage-a combination of national debt peonage and free-market fundamentalist policies-destroys human lives as assuredly as it wipes out plants and wildlife, often pitting the most exploited people against the environment.

Cameroon became entrapped when it sank deeper in debt as the price of its oil exports dropped sharply after 1982. It turned for help in 1988 to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which loaned money but demanded policies that led to currency devaluation, budget cuts, privatization of public services and widespread hardship. Under the IMF regime, meager education spending stagnated, incomes declined and the debt burden more than doubled. Cameroon was classified as a Heavily Indebted Poor Country (HIPC).

In 1994 the IMF pushed Cameroon to rapidly accelerate its timber exports. The number of logging enterprises nearly doubled within a year, and lumber exports grew by 50 percent in the following year. The forests were devastated, but the policies didn't help relieve debt: World lumber prices were dropping, partly because other countries were boosting their logging exports, often under IMF pressure.

Cameroon's experience was not an anomaly. Although the HIPC designation was part of a plan to boost these national economies, in most cases HlPCs' debt burdens increased, spending on education and health declined, poverty worsened and the environment was ravaged. A Friends of the Earth analysis of U.N. data shows that the loss of forest was 50 percent greater in HlPCs.

Like many countries, Cameroon was sending more money back to rich countries than they were getting in aid: In 1996, according to the debt-relief group Jubilee 2000, Cameroon paid out $2.20 in debt service for every dollar it received in grants. Debt service is now 6 percent of GNP, more than education and health spending combined.

The rich countries have begun to reduce or write off some of the HIPC debt and have proposed that conditions for future loans be more development-oriented. But the process is moving much too slowly. And there is little indication that rich countries are willing to try a new approach that focuses on balanced and sustainable development rather than the quick-fix export of raw materials. Even worse, according to Jubilee 2000, of the 36 HlPCs that were supposed to benefit from a debt relief initiative agreed upon last year, 15 will actually pay more in debt service after they finish going through the HIPC process than they do now.

World Bank President James Wolfensohn has called debt cancellation a "whimsical" idea that would "screw up the market." Yet pursuing the payment of debts from these countries is criminal, "screwing up" the lives of a billion people and devastating the environment. Debt cancellation is a first step toward reviving the economies of these nations in ways that raise living standards and protect ecosystems. The protests at the IMF / World Bank spring meetings this April in Washington will reinforce that message, which has growing support across the political spectrum. For environmentalists, the protests should also be a reminder that it will be impossible to prevent the awful silencing of the forests without first fighting for social justice and new rules for the global economy.

IMF, World Bank, Structural Adjustment