Why the Earth Summit failed

David Treece

The following article was first published in International Socialism 56 in autumn 1992. It is presented here to mark the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development – also known as the Rio Summit or Earth Summit – which was held in Rio de Janeiro from 3 June to 14 June 1992. Thanks to Ian Allinson, Martin Empson and Anna Roik for their work preparing the article for online publication.


We are in our third decade of a series of developmental and environmental conference hinges, each of which is first said to herald salvation and then derided for its impotence. There is one difference today: the ‘Cold War’ can no longer serve as a pretext to set aside the real issues. Far from history having ended, its real contours are only now becoming clear. It is not socialism which has failed but…modernity as a whole, including the very economic model which the North has urged—and continues to urge—upon the disadvantaged South. The Earth Summit will see divergent objectives. The North wishes to talk about the environment while the South wants to talk first about development. A new world outlook has to begin with the interconnection of these goals. Tragically, there is no reason to believe that it will start in Rio.1

The inability of capitalism even to begin to solve the social and environmental problems it has created was demonstrated to the world with breathtaking clarity in June 1992 at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, or Earth Summit. Just a month earlier, the mass rebellion in Los Angeles had exposed the bankruptcy of George Bush’s claim to have instituted a New World Order out of the human and ecological devastation of a Gulf War which, in order to guarantee US control over the region’s petroleum resources, took the lives of 200,000 and condemned hundreds of thousands more to medieval conditions of disease, material deprivation and continuing political tyranny. Millions then witnessed the unabashed contempt displayed by the world’s most powerful leader for the hopes and expectations of so many who saw in the Earth Summit the last opportunity to embark on a commonly agreed global programme of ‘sustainable development’; first, in his reluctance even to attend the Summit, and then in his refusal to sign key binding agreements on biodiversity protection and atmospheric emissions involving significant financial commitments and compliance with specific timetables.

There is an enormous gap between the widespread sense of urgency aroused by the current environmental and developmental crisis and the outrageously cynical and inadequate response offered by Western leaders. This gap mirrors the almost instantaneous disillusionment that has greeted the redemptive promises of market capitalism in the New World Order, both East and West, since the collapse of Stalinism. The Guardian editorial which prefaces this article, with its talk of the ‘failure of modernity’ and of the Northern ‘economic model’, is symptomatic of the current political and ideological vacuum at the centre of this crisis, which so urgently demands a revolutionary Marxist intervention.

The first responsibility of such an intervention must clearly be to identify with the genuine concerns and fears that the environmental crisis has generated, while arguing against that brand of ‘ecocatastrophism’ which interprets each successive disaster as the warning eruption of an imminent apocalypse, whose cause and outcome lie beyond the rational control of human beings. The public sense of catastrophism, if it exists, has real roots in the history of the last decade, which has seen the greatest concentration of social and environmental disasters not otherwise accounted for by military conflict—the leakage of poisonous dioxin gas from the Union Carbide plant at Bhopal in 1984, the explosion of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in 1986, the 1988 floods in Bangladesh and the increasing levels of rainforest destruction in South East Asia, equatorial Africa and Amazonia, to name just a few examples.

The challenge to the revolutionary Marxist tradition goes beyond merely identifying the 1980s as a ‘decade of disasters’ however, and poses the need, which this article seeks to address, for an analysis of the crisis within the wider context of the specific character of recent capitalist development at a regional and global level.

Some of the representatives of developing nations and nongovernmental organisations at the Earth Summit attempted unsuccessfully to prioritise the link between the environmental crisis and the impact of debt, the world recession and the structures of trade and aid on the Third World economies. For many observers sceptical of the possibilities for genuine international co-operation, the deadlock reached on every key item after the 15 solid weeks of preparatory negotiations leading up to the Summit had revealed two irreconcilable agendas dividing the issues of environment and development between North and South: the North’s determination to offload its responsibility for the global environmental mess onto the South, and the South’s concern, first and foremost, with its own economic development.2 As the Summit itself unfolded, that North-South polarisation was increasingly expressed through two counterposed arguments over the responsibility for the crisis: on the one hand, the North’s over consumptive industrial ‘model’ of development and, on the other, the South’s inability to manage its ‘population explosion’.

Any serious attempt to explain the failure of the Earth Summit must first acknowledge the central role played by imperialism in sacrificing the interests of the world’s dispossessed majority to the destructive dynamic of global capital accumulation and market competition. The only significant decisions to emerge from the UN Conference, as shown below, actually served to strengthen the ability of institutions already dominated by the major advanced economies, such as the World Bank, to dictate the priorities of development within the societies of the Third World. The link between political leadership in environment policy and the imperialist struggle for control over the resources of the developing world was exposed when Japan offered to assume the role of ecological superpower apparently left vacant by the US. A major polluter and consumer of tropical timber via its logging activities in the Pacific Rim countries, Japan has decided to boost its international economic profile by committing 7.7 billion US dollars, far more than any other Northern contribution, to overseas environmental aid.3

But such an analysis must also challenge the ‘third worldism’ of those who implicitly or explicitly accept that imperialist exploitation imposes a contradictory set of interests between, on the one hand, the peasants and workers of the developing world and their own agricultural and industrial bourgeoisie and, on the other, their counterparts in the imperialist countries. If the last ten years have simultaneously been the decade of environmental disasters, East and West, North and South, of international debt crisis and of unprecedented economic turmoil, then these are symptoms of both the deepening integration of the global system and its consequent instability.

The incorporation of the newly industrialising economies, in particular, into the doubly exploitative structures of that imperialist system has depended on the collaboration of local ruling bourgeoisies, who have pursued conscious and deliberate strategies of capitalist modernisation in order to guarantee the integration of once peripheral territories, resources and populations into their own national markets. This is merely the latest, most intensely concentrated and violent phase of a process of regional and global integration which began with Europe’s colonial expansionism in the 15th century.

The environmental disasters of the 1980s and early 1990s cannot be viewed, then, simply as the wounds inflicted on a marginalised Third World by a predatory, extractive imperialism, for all that this has often defined its character historically. Neither, therefore, can the environmental crisis be resolved through the regulation of consumption patterns or controls on population growth, were they even desirable, or by piecemeal reforms or adjustments to the conditions of international trade and debt, even if the bankers and business community were open to persuasion. The world’s resources, environments and peoples are locked into a globally integrated system of exploitation, whose defenders and representatives, gathered together at the Earth Summit, inhabit not only the cities of New York, Tokyo and London, but São Paulo, Jakarta and Bombay, too. The struggle to rescue the planet’s environment from destruction and set it on a path of genuinely sustainable, rational development is inseparable from the battle between contending classes for the organisation of society in the interests of either profit or need, a battle that is being waged in the forests of tropical Latin America and Asia, in the mines and oil fields of eastern Europe and the Gulf, and in the factories and shanty towns of the industrialised world, both North and South. Its outcome will be decided by our ability, the ability of a united, international working class movement, to challenge the conditions of our present, global exploitation in their entirety, and ultimately abolish them.

Winners and losers at Rio

There is general agreement that the single most serious threat to the global environment is the impact of toxic emissions on climate patterns. The pollution of the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, released by the burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of trees, is producing a cumulative greenhouse effect’ whereby the sun’s heat is trapped after being radiated back from the Earth. Even the apparently minimal increases in global temperatures caused by this process will be sufficient to melt the polar ice sheets, flooding low lying land and literally drowning entire nations. Other greenhouse gases, such as methane, nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), are destroying the vital stratospheric ozone layer which protects living organisms from the effects of ultraviolet radiation. The discovery of a hole in this ozone layer over the Antarctic has heightened fears of increased rates of skin cancers, damage to crops and fisheries, and further disturbances to temperature levels.4

Yet while the scientific community is calling for a 60 percent reduction in atmospheric emissions immediately, the most that was agreed at Rio was an open ended, non legally binding statement of intent to hold emissions at 1990 levels. With the help of Britain’s environment secretary, Michael Howard, the US, whose industries are responsible for 25 percent of global emissions, managed to delete the specific target date of 2000 from the treaty, previously agreed by 110 countries.5

A biodiversity agreement aimed at protecting the world’s stocks of plant and animal species was similarly undermined by the US’s refusal to sign or commit significant resources to aiding developing countries in this task.6 If, as a result, current rates of tropical deforestation continue, ‘some 15 to 20 percent of the world’s estimated 3.5 to 10 million plant and animal species may become extinct by the year 2000…[though they have] tremendous future potential as renewable sources of energy, industrial products, medications, genetic inputs to agriculture and applied biological research, if they are not eliminated first.’7 This will gravely jeopardise our capacity to meet future global needs for the diversification and substitution of food crops, given that 90 percent of the world’s current food production is dependent on just 16 of the planet’s 80,000 edible plant species, all of which are located in the tropics.8 At the same time, a wealth of medicinal resources and expertise, much of it accumulated by the forests’ indigenous inhabitants, will be sacrificed, and with it the potential to combat diseases such as the HIV viruses and various forms of cancer.

According to the 1992 World Development Report, developing countries will need to spend between 75 and 100 billion US dollars annually by the end of the 1990s to stabilise and reduce pollution and environmental damage. This is equivalent to between 1.5 and 2.5 percent of these countries’ GDP. By contrast, most donor governments attending the Summit failed even to honour their long-standing UN commitment to raise Official Development Assistance aid to 0.7 percent of GDP. Compare this to the 6 billion US dollars in military aid transferred from the US and the Soviet Union to the Third World in 1972 alone, at the height of the Vietnam War,9 or the 950 billion US dollars earmarked for worldwide arms spending in 1993. The paltry 3 to 4 billion dollars that are to be pledged by the rich nations will be channelled through the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), a scheme first devised behind the closed doors of a G-7 summit meeting, ensuring the exclusion of Southern governments from the discussions.10

As a recent Ecologist magazine editorial argues, the GEF will in fact serve to further impose the economic priorities of the dominant powers on the developing nations, under the guise of ‘helping’ those countries ‘to contribute towards solving global environmental problems’:

By designating the atmosphere and biodiversity as ‘global commons’, the GEF implicitly suggests that everyone has a right of access and that local people have no more claim to them than a corporation based on the other side of the globe. Pressing problems with a direct impact on local peoples—desertification, toxic waste pollution, landlessness, pesticide pollution and the like, all of which occur throughout the globe and could therefore be judged as being of ‘global concern—are pushed to one side whilst the local environment is sized up for its potential benefit to the North and its allies in the South’.11

By framing environmental problems in terms of solutions which can only be provided by the input of capital, technology, managerial expertise and economic policies under the control of the imperialist powers, the GEF will effectively tighten its grip on those aspects of the environment—the seas, forests, the atmosphere and biodiversity—that are essential to the profitability of the global capitalist economy.

In the furtherance of these interests, the GEF is ironically already being used to subsidise environmentally damaging projects under the cloak of financing ‘suitable mitigatory measures’ and so ‘internalising’ ecological costs. Thus the Arun Hydro-Project in Nepal is being indirectly funded by GEF biodiversity conservation money.’12 It should be of no surprise to learn that the administration of the GEF is being entrusted to the World Bank, whose intimate association with Third World mega-disasters is now notorious.13 The Bank’s powers have been additionally strengthened by the creation of an ‘Earth Increment’ fund and a 15 percent budget increase for its affiliate, the International Development Association, which makes loans or grants of up to 6 billion US dollars a year to developing countries.’14

In 1987, following successive exposures of the World Bank’s support for hydroelectric, roadbuilding and colonisation schemes in the Philippines, Amazonia and India, which violated even its own guidelines on environmental and social protection, it announced a review of its policies and the appointment of a new staff of specialised environmentalists. But within days of the close of the Earth Summit, a hitherto suppressed independent report revealed how the same policies had been flouted in the implementation of the Sardar Sarovar dam and irrigation project on India’s Narmada river. Flooding devastated the lands of 240,000 mainly tribal people, at the same time damaging downstream fisheries; fewer than half of those displaced will receive compensation, and fewer still will benefit from irrigation.’15 Their future is likely to repeat that of the 20,000 Amazonian peasants and Indians deprived of their land and livelihoods in the 1970s by another Bank financed project, the Tucuruí hydroelectric scheme. Many of them still lack domestic electricity supplies and are plagued by the malaria carrying mosquitoes which infest the stagnant water surrounding their homes.16

The Earth Summit has therefore reinforced the collective strategic influence of the dominant capitalist states over development in the Third World. ‘In the GEF, the World Bank is judge, jury and executioner’17 of an agenda set by its majority shareholders, and presided over by its US chairman. The Bank’s role, as defined by the Bretton Woods Charter in 1944, is that of promoting ‘private foreign investment by means of guarantees or loans’; that is to say, its financial commitments to the infrastructural sectors of energy and transport serve as a catalyst to attract private capital investment in projects oriented towards the external market. In this sense it has complemented the broader function of its sister organisation, the International Monetary Fund, whose lending policies, exercised during the last decade through Structural Adjustment programmes, have been designed to maximise the export of capital and goods from the developing economies, and ‘to seek the elimination of exchange restrictions that hinder the growth of world trade.’18 In other words, the precarious nuclear power programmes of Brazil and the Philippines, and the devastating roadbuilding and hydroelectric schemes of Amazonia, Indonesia and India are the price paid by local people for being obliged to participate as vulnerable and unwilling junior partners in the global ‘free’ market.

At the same time, the Summit gave a clear go-ahead for the private sector to take full advantage of the free trade conditions fostered by these multilateral state institutions. The 800 page Agenda 21, the conference’s non-binding action plan for sustainable development, leaves the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) free to ignore environmental issues altogether. The UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the poor countries’ response to GATT, has meanwhile ceased to have any meaningful role at all. Earlier in the year the UN Secretary General, Boutros Boutros-Ghalli, axed the Centre on Transnational Corporations (UNCTC), the only world body to monitor the activities of multinational corporations.’19 Intensive lobbying at the Summit by the Business Council for Sustainable Development (BCSD) ensured that these corporations were absolved of any legal responsibilities for environmental degradation, in exchange for a promise of self regulation.

Among the 600 or so transnational conglomerates belonging to the BCSD, which account for a third of global GDP and 70 percent of world trade, are such pioneers of ecological stewardship as Shell, Unilever, Rio Tinto Zinc and Du Pont.20 Du Pont is just the latest to have embarked on a publicity campaign of self promotion as the environmentally enlightened visionary of the business world. Yet as a recent report argues, ‘If any one company can be held accountable for the hole in the ozone layer, it is Du Pont.’21 As the single largest corporate polluter in the United States, Du Pont produced more chemical pollution in 1989 than Allied-Signal, Ford Motor Company and Union Carbide combined. Its total reported pollution was 14 times that of Dow Chemical, 20 times that of Chrysler and 30 times that of Mobil— all companies that are themselves among the top 100 US polluters.

If Du Pont is a pioneer, it is in the development and production of CFCs. Since the company first marketed them in 1931, it has enjoyed a near monopoly of the trade in many of the compounds used in aerosol sprays, insulating foams, cleaning agents, chillers and automobile air conditioners, controlling as much as a quarter of the global market. In March 1988 it won media admiration and praise from environmentalists by announcing that it would unilaterally halt the production of CFCs. In fact, when the impact of these compounds on ozone depletion was first revealed in 1974, the company vigorously fought a US ban on aerosol sprays and argued for non-regulation of the industry. In the 1980s, Reagan’s anti-regulatory policies removed any incentive to research into alternatives, and Du Pont instead expanded its CFC production facilities in Japan in response to increased world demand for non-aerosol products. The company’s decision to now shift to ‘CFC-Lite’ substitutes (HCFCs and HFCs, which will themselves continue to contribute to global warming and ozone degradation, if at lower levels) is therefore a strategic move to ensure its monopoly of a new market in advance of its competitors. Part of this strategy is to buy time for itself, convincing the Bush administration that its products are the only viable alternatives to CFCs, and ensuring that the 1990 US Clean Air Act amendments postponed the phasing out of HCFCs and HFCs to the year 2040. In the meantime it is busy securing major commitments from industrial customers, such as General Motors.22

Du Pont’s corporate environmental image must also be set against its record in falsifying information concerning its toxic emissions and failing to uphold safety standards. In April 1991 a mining subsidiary of the company, Consolidation Coal, was found guilty on six counts of tampering with coal dust samples used in monitoring permissible dust levels in underground mines, and was fined 20,000 dollars. In the previous year, its oil subsidiary Conoco was forced to pay the residents of Ponca City, Oklahoma, 23 million dollars in compensation for the contamination of homes and property by seepage from its refinery and tank farm. Since June 1990 the company has been fined on at least six occasions for the mishandling and dumping of toxic materials, chemical leakages and the distribution of damaging pesticides.23 This gives the lie to the ‘polluter pays’ principle, the notion defended by some environmentalists that the market can be used as a mechanism to control the destructive activities of big business. In reality, ‘internalising’ environmental costs by attributing a monetary value to them in this way simply commercialises and legitimises the right of capital to degrade the environment, while passing on the real costs to the consumer.

The ‘alternative’ Summit agenda: population, consumption, limits to growth and debt

It is against this background, the subjugation of the environment to the destructive forces of a market dominated by multinational capital and administered by multilateral financial institutions, that we must assess the alternative explanations for the environmental crisis advanced by the Greens and others.24 The related arguments about the need for controls on world population growth, Western consumption levels and industrial growth have been addressed previously in this journal and elsewhere.25 Without rehearsing them again in detail, it is worth identifying the underlying assumption which unites them—that the capitalist status quo, in particular the dynamic of the market, is natural and inescapable.

The Malthusian theory that the Earth’s resources can only sustain a finite population was first used in 19th century England precisely in support of the logic of the free market, which dictated that the unemployed should be denied ‘outdoor relief’ through the Poor Laws, and condemned instead to choose between the workhouse or starvation. Its modern equivalent, as set out in The Limits of Growth (1972) and its recently published update, Beyond the Limits, effectively imposes a double sacrifice on the world’s exploited majority in the name of ‘natural’ limits, which are in reality the product of the private monopoly of resources and their squandering in the competitive drive for profit. When the Greens say that a slowdown in Third World population growth must be matched by the contraction of industrial output in the West, they are offering nothing more than a mirror image of existing capitalist society, whose recessions, wars and famines regularly guarantee the destruction of whole sectors of industry, the slashing of consumption levels for millions through mass unemployment and the decimation of entire populations. Frederick Engels provided what remains the Marxist response to this ‘Green’ Malthusian legitimation of the market system a century and a half ago, in his Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy (1844):

The productive power at mankind’s disposal is immeasurable… Capital increases daily; labour power grows with population; and day by day science increasingly makes the forces of nature subject to man. This immeasurable productive capacity, handled consciously and in the interest of all, would soon reduce to a minimum the labour falling to the share of mankind. Left to competition, it does the same, but within a context of antitheses. One part of the land is cultivated in the best possible manner, whilst another part… lies barren. One part of capital circulates with colossal speed; another lies dead in the chest. One part of the workers works 14 or 16 hours a day, whilst another part stands idle and inactive, and starves. Or the partition leaves this realm of simultaneity: today trade is good; demand is very considerable; everyone works; capital is turned over with miraculous speed; farming flourishes; the workers work themselves sick. Tomorrow stagnation sets in. The cultivation of the land is not worth the effort; entire stretches of land remain untilled; the flow of capital suddenly freezes; the workers have no employment, and the whole country labours under surplus wealth and surplus population.26

One example will suffice to illustrate the remarkably contemporary ring of Engels’s description. In a world where just 44 percent of potential arable land is actually exploited, while 950 million people are chronically undernourished, Brazil occupies eleventh place in the league of economies but fifty-ninth in the table of human development.27 Forests are cleared and US banned pesticides are poured into the soil to guarantee Brazil’s place as the second largest global exporter of soya beans. Meanwhile 20 million peasant farmers are prevented from supplying domestic food needs by the ranchers’ and plantation owners’ monopoly of agricultural land, which ensures that just 18 landowners control an area equivalent to that of the Netherlands, Portugal and Switzerland combined, much of it lying idle. As a result, 40 percent of the country’s 150 million population live in endemic hunger, the world’s fourth worst record, whose latest symptom is a new form of dwarfism amongst the inhabitants of the impoverished north east.

To claim in these circumstances that the relationship between population, resources and environment is thus shown to have reached the breaking point of sustainability means two things: leaving unquestioned the system of private monopoly and global market competition which lies at the heart of this misery and destruction; while at the same time condemning the victims of that system, North and South, to pay three times over for its preservation—first, as exploited wage labourers and peasants, second, through the degradation of environments which are often also the very source of their livelihood, and third, by suffering the artificial scarcities upon which profits depend. As Engels said of Malthusianism:

Through this theory we have come to know the deepest degradation of mankind, their dependence on the conditions of competition. It has shown us how in the last instance private property has turned man into a commodity whose production and destruction also depend solely on demand, how the system of competition has thus slaughtered, and daily continues to slaughter, millions of men. All this we have seen, and all this drives us to the abolition of this degradation of mankind through the abolition of private property, competition and the opposing interests.28

There is one further factor, specific to late 20th century capitalism, which is widely accepted as playing a major role in pressurising Third World governments to promote socially and environmentally damaging projects: the burden of debt repayments to Western creditors. Certainly even a fractional reduction in the 1.3 trillion US dollars owed by the developing countries would be sufficient to pay for the 100 or so billion US dollars needed annually to clean up the world’s environment. It is true, as Susan George and others have noted,29 that the five countries with the largest areas of tropical forest threatened with destruction — Brazil, Indonesia, Zaire, Peru and Colombia — are also all among the top debtor nations. The 1991 floods and mudslides in the Philippines, which killed 6,000 and made 43,000 homeless, can be traced to a 4 billion US dollars agricultural project aimed at generating exports to service the country’s 26 billion US dollars’ worth of debt. The clearing of irreplaceable tracts of rainforest left the local populations and soils deprived of the vegetation which would otherwise have protected them against the impact of the typhoon that swept across the country.

In the 1980s some environmentalists suggested that it was possible to kill two birds with one stone, exploiting the relationship between debt and environment to their mutual benefit. This they would do by means of ‘debt-for-nature swaps’, through which organisations in the creditor nations would buy up and cancel some of the loans owed by developing countries in return for grants to local non-governmental organisations for conservation projects, in particular national parks. By mid-1991, 19 such swaps had been completed, most of them in Costa Rica, the Philippines, Ecuador and Madagascar.

In reality, however, these deals, besides failing to address the wider economic forces which threaten the survival of fragile ecosystems, have in fact served to reinforce the imperialist structures tying the debtor nations to their creditors. What effectively happens is that environmental groups in the developed world give money to commercial banks in the developed world, while a Third World country promises to give money to its own environmental groups. The transfer of resources from South to North is left unaffected, indeed the swaps actually legitimise the debt in the face of campaigns by local trade unions and popular organisations which argue that the loans have already been repaid many times over through extortionate interest rates. The struggle for local democratic control over the environment and over development priorities is thus undermined, enabling the dominant economies to further their strategy for appropriating and merchandising resources in the Third World.30

In any case, the notion of a simple causal relationship between debt and environmental disaster is itself questionable. Far from being the desperate response of indebted governments to the pressure to keep up interest repayments, many of the mega-projects in the energy and transport sectors of the Latin American and Asian economies were initiated in the 1970s by way of loans which themselves contributed to the debt crisis of the following decade. The Bataan nuclear power plant in the Philippines, for example, was ordered in 1976 from Westinghouse on a design rejected in the US for safety reasons. The 2.1 billion US dollars debt incurred for the plant—which was built just 60 miles from Manila, on three earthquake faults and near two active volcanoes—has been costing the Filipino people 500,000 US dollars a day in interest payments since 1987.31 The most ambitious agro-industrial development scheme in Amazonia, the Grande Carajás Programme, was launched in 1980, when Brazil’s debt stood at 60 billion US dollars. Yet total borrowing for Carajás was itself projected at 62 billion US dollars, hardly the cautious response of a weak, peripheral economy to financial crisis.32 What this and similar projects instead force us to confront is the role played by national states in Latin America and Asia, allied to indigenous and multinational capital, in integrating previously marginal economies, populations, resources and environments into the global system.

Industrial revolution in the tropics

The last quarter century has seen the emergence of new centres of capitalist production, in particular in Mexico, Brazil, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, which have rendered the term ‘Third World’ obsolete as a description of the major economies of Latin America and South East Asia.33 Like others before them in the post-war period, such as India, these Newly Industrialising Countries managed, through massive state intervention, to raise their export of manufactured goods above that of raw materials, often evolving regional, sub-imperialist spheres of influence in the process.

This phenomenon is most obviously identified with the urban industrial centres, such as the São Paulo conurbation with its Ford and Volkswagen automobile plants, or the shipyards of Seoul. What is less readily acknowledged is the extent to which these development strategies have often included the incorporation of the most remote rural regions and their populations into the national market structure and into the process of industrialisation. Thus the tropical hinterlands of Brazilian Amazonia and the outer islands of Indonesia are suffering the effects of late capitalist modernisation whose classic features, completed over a period of two centuries during Europe’s industrial revolution, have here been compressed into the space of a generation. These are permanent, irrevocable economic and social transformations, not merely sporadic cases of extractive plunder, and it is their swiftness and intensity which explain much of the environmental upheaval currently being experienced.

The first of these processes is the appropriation of vast areas of land and their natural resources as private capital under monopoly control. Private and state enterprises, ranchers and plantation owners employ legal means and force of arms to carry out mass evictions in what, in the Amazon, has been described as ‘one of the most rapid and large-scale enclosure movements in history as more than 100 million acres pass from public to private ownership.’34 This is the source of the current, unofficial war between rural labour and the agrarian bourgeoisie which has claimed the lives of some 1,700 peasant farmers since 1964, as the state provides tax incentives for banks and industrialists to speculate on idle, deforested land, while the landowners’ organisation, the UDR, holds cattle auctions to finance its private armies.35

A major consequence of these latter day clearances is the enormous shift of population, not only via migration to the established urban centres of the South, but also into the newer cities of the Amazon, such as Manaus, Belém and Marabá, and further west along the state built highways which function as bleeding arteries draining the forests of their timber and other resources. Parallel to the urbanisation of Brazil’s population at a national level, which has reduced the rural sector from 70 percent to less than 30 percent over the last quarter century, the Amazon has seen its own proletarianisation of the peasantry, many of whom are directly involved in environmentally destructive industries, such as the burning of charcoal for the production of pig iron. One migrant from Bahia put his predicament starkly and simply, as he recognised that, like it or not, he was now an industrial worker: ‘We’re in the saw-mills because we’ve got no option. If we try and work on the land, the gunmen will stick their guns down our throats.’36

In many cases, population movement has been a matter of systematic state policy, involving the ethnocidal repression of communities whose peasant and tribal economies pose an obstacle to the integration of the national capitalist market. Indonesia’s Transmigration programme, which absorbs 6 percent of national spending, initially aimed to move 65 million people from the central islands of Java, Lombo, Bali and Madura to the outer islands in order to replace the rainforest with cash crop plantations. By 1984, 3.6 million had already been resettled, thousands of them facing starvation on disastrous colonisation schemes, while the local tribal inhabitants have been swept aside.37

The Indonesian government is already notorious for its savage repression of the indigenous inhabitants of East Timor, where a peaceful nationalist demonstration was massacred late in 1991 But it has long since pursued quasi-fascist policies of forcible racial assimilation through its implementation of the Transmigration Programme, in the interests of promoting ‘national security’ and crushing potential dissent. In 1985, the minister for transmigration recalled a youth congress of 1928, where it was concluded that:

we are one nation, the Indonesian nation: we have one native country, Indonesia; one language, the Indonesian language. By way of Transmigration, we will try to realize what has been pledged, to integrate all the ethnic groups into one nation, the Indonesian nation… The different ethnic groups will in the long run disappear because of integration…and…there will be one kind of man…38

Similarly, the geo-political strategy of Brazil’s military planners has used the language of integration to conceal ethnocidal policies whose aim has been to eliminate the collectivist, non-accumulative and non market based economies of the region’s Indians. ‘We do not want a marginalised Indian, what we want is a producing Indian, one integrated into the process of national development’, said the president of the state Indian agency in 1969.39 The state colonisation programmes of the 1970s sought to deny the existence of any indigenous Amazonian population, describing the region as ‘a land without people for a people without land’, a familiar slogan to anyone acquainted with the history of the Israeli state’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. Despite Brazil’s official return to civilian rule in 1985, military force continues to play a key role in the state’s efforts to integrate Amazonia into the national economy. Since late 1986, under the Northern Watershed Project, 6,500 km of the region’s northern frontier, representing 14 percent of the entire Brazilian territory, has been under military occupation. The aim is to guarantee access for state and private capital to the region’s sizeable mineral and fossil fuel reserves, many of them concentrated on Indian lands.40

Such measures have laid the basis for the industrialisation of Amazonia, whose centrepiece is the Grande Carajás programme. Financed with private and state capital, and loans from the World Bank, the EEC’s Coal and Steel Community, and Japanese, European and US private banks, the scheme’s central purpose is the exploitation of the world’s largest iron ore reserves. A 900 km railway was constructed to export the iron to these countries, and to provide an outlet for the further complex of industries spawned by the project, including pig iron smelting, charcoal burning, aluminium smelting and sawmill processing. As well as the threat to 2.4 million hectares of rainforest, this has resulted in the chemical pollution of rivers and the atmosphere, the wholesale eviction of peasant and Indian communities and the shattering of their lifestyles.41 Above all, it demonstrates how, through the integration of indigenous and multinational capital, and the intervention of national state and multilateral institutions, resources, populations and ecosystems once at the distant margins of the world economy are now fully locked into a global system of exploitation.

The class struggle and the environment

At the same time, Carajás is a powerful illustration of the fundamental contradiction within capitalism, the way in which it generates both the processes by which the world’s environment is systematically degraded and the force, the only force, which is capable of exploiting that environment creatively, rationally and in the interests of the majority—the working class.

The struggle of one small sector of labour, the rubbertappers of western Amazonia, to defend their forest environment and livelihood, was brought to light by the murder of the trade unionist and revolutionary socialist Chico Mendes in December 1988. Some of the few instances where the rainforest has been saved from the ranchers’ chainsaws and bulldozers have been the results of mass pickets involving the rubbertappers and their families, who have confronted and appealed to the ranchers’ employees as fellow workers. The movement culminated in the mid-1980s in the creation of a Forest Peoples’ Alliance uniting the rubbertappers and their traditional rivals and enemies, the Union of Indian Nations, and in the first successful expropriation of a rubber estate and its conversion into an extractive reserve under workers’ control.42 For some this offers a model for a sustainable alternative to the industrial exploitation of the region.

But a partial and local reform such as this must inevitably confront the isolation and vulnerability of such a small sector of workers in the face of a ruling class which has not hesitated to use the police and army to maintain its control over the region’s resources. It must also address the problem of its vulnerability to the forces of the international market. Even allowing for some diversification, what degree of economic security can be guaranteed by a dependence on the commercialisation of a limited number of extractive commodities in the context of a world market notorious for its instability and price fluctuations? By way of an indication, in March 1991, the Rubbertappers’ Council protested that its members’ livelihood was threatened by the current price of rubber in Brazil, which is fixed at rock bottom levels under the influence of multinational tyre companies such as Goodyear and Firestone.

As Julio Barbosa, Chico Mendes’ successor in the leadership of the Rubbertappers’ Union, has argued, the local struggle for improved conditions must be linked to the wider, and ultimately international struggle against capitalism as a whole.43

Among those companies active in the exploitation of the Amazon region’s mineral resources are subsidiaries of multinationals such as Rio Tinto Zinc, Shell, BP and Anglo-American, familiar protagonists in the worldwide battle between capital and labour as it is being fought in Europe, the Americas, Asia and the Middle East.

The first step in building that united working class movement is to make the connection with the vibrant and increasingly organised industrial proletariat that has grown up around the Carajás project, in the east of the region. Workers here in the construction industry, the power plants, mines, iron smelters, sawmills, in the Brazil nut processing factories, in education and urban transport, are fighting over health and safety issues, wages and for the basic right to trade union organisation. But they are also placing environmental questions at the centre of their demands; a united campaign in the city of Marabá succeeded in shutting down the charcoal burners which had been polluting local homes and schools.44 Urban and rural trade unionists have united in the defence of forest peasants attacked and arrested by police working hand in glove with a local landowner.

In many cases skilled workers brought into the region by the mining and smelting companies based in the urban centres of the south have taken traditions of organisation and socialist politics with them. The writer and journalist Arthur Ransome recorded how, in revolutionary Russia, the lateness of industrialisation meant that many factory workers retained their connection with their native villages through annual migrations backwards and forwards from the towns, carrying with them the ideas of the revolution.45 In many ways, the swiftness of the social and economic transformations in late 20th century Brazil means that, despite the often enormous physical distances involved, the proximity between the experiences of urban and rural workers is even greater, and therefore the possibilities for building a united political movement even more promising. Chico Mendes’ trade union and political career would be incomprehensible without his chance friendship with a revolutionary veteran of the l920s and his involvement in the construction of the nationwide independent trade union federation, the CUT, and the Workers’ Party.46

Thousands of miles away, in India, the recently murdered revolutionary workers’ leader, Shankar Niyogi, helped to forge similarly extraordinary links between the experiences of workers in Asia’s largest steel company and the tribal workers of the Chattisgarh forests.47 Elsewhere in India, too, the power of collective organisation has achieved tangible, if minor, victories in the struggle against destructive development projects. Construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam led to clashes between police and thousands of local demonstrators protesting because they were not consulted about the project. As a result, Japan, which had originally agreed to co-fund the scheme, pulled out in 1990.48

The Bhopal disaster in December 1984 offers an inspiring and at the same time tragic reminder of how the collective identity of workers gives them a unique interest in fighting for solidarity with the rest of their class, not least in the struggle over the environment. A leak of the highly toxic MIC gas spread from the Union Carbide chemical plant over 40 square kilometres, killing thousands and affecting hundreds of thousands more with eye and respiratory complaints. Yet it was the self sacrifice and organisation of transport workers which ensured the evacuation and survival of many others. Staff at the railway station close to the factory remained at their jobs, waving incoming trains through and alerting neighbouring stations to stop trains entering the city. Many of these workers subsequently died from the effects of the gas themselves.49

The Earth Summit demonstrated that those who hypocritically claim to speak of ‘our common future’, while upholding an exploitative, destructive market system, cannot be relied upon to abolish the conditions which endanger our well being and survival. Paradoxically, though, the same capitalist system which devours resources and environments from the furthest reaches of the globe in its drive to accumulate and compete, has also created its own gravedigger. The integration of capital brings with it the integration of labour, the development of a world working class that is forced to engage in a common struggle against the international bourgeoisie, whether in the forests of Amazonia and Indonesia or the factories and oilfields of North America, Europe and the Middle East. Nearly a century and a half ago, in the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels wrote:

The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country… But not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons—the modern working class—the proletarians.

Today the necessity and potential for an international revolutionary movement to complete that task has never been greater. In all possible senses, we have a world to win.


1: Guardian, 1 June 1992.

2: Thompson and Vidal, 1992.

3: ‘Japan Set to Take World Lead on Aid’, Guardian, 25 April 1992, and ‘Environment superpower role for Japan’, Guardian, 5 June 1992.

4: Pearce, 1989. See introduction and chapter 1.

5: Vidal, 1992.

6: Vidal, 1992.

7: Baum and Tolbert in George, 1990, p167.

8: George, 1990, pp166-167.

9: George, 1990, p23.

10: Vidal, 1992

11: Tickell and Hildyard, 1992, pp82-83.

12: Tickell and Hildyard, 1992, pp82-83.

13: See, for example, The Ecologist, vol 15, no 1/2 and no 5/6 (1985), vol 16, no 2/3 (1986) and vol 17. no 2/3 (1987), all of them special issues devoted to bank financed projects.

14: Vidal, 1992.

15: Erlichman, 1992.

16: Treece, 1987, pp82 and 102-108.

17: I Johnson, administrator of the GEF, cited in Tickell and Hildyard, 1992.

18: George, 1990, p50.

19: Vidal, 1992.

20: Watkins, 1992.

21: Doyle, 1992, p87.

22: Doyle, 1992, pp88-89.

23: Doyle, 1992, p86.

24: See, for example, Meadows, Meadows and Randers, 1992, and the contributions by P Harrison and S George to the Guardian/Oxfam Earth supplement, June 1992.

25: Simons, 1988, pp51-58, and Blackie, 1990, pp17-27.

26: Engels, “Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy”, appendix to Marx, 1977, pp171-172.

27: United Nations, 1992.

28: Engels, in Marx, 1977, p176.

29: Guppy, 1984, note 13, table 1, p930, cited in George, 1990, pl66.

30: Mahony, 1992, pp97-103.

31: George, 1990, p18.

32: Treece, 1987, pp12-20.

33: Harris, 1986.

34: Hecht and Cockburn, 1990, p107.

35: Branford and Glock, 1985.

36: MacDonald, 1991, p79.

37: See ‘Indonesia’s Transmigration Programme: a Special Report in collaboration with Survival International and Tapol’, 1986, The Ecologist, vol 16 no 2/3, pp58-117.

38: Cited in Colchester, 1986, p89.

39: Beltrão, 1977, p26

40: Allen, 1990.

41: Treece, 1987.

42: Gross and Mendes, 1989.

43: Socialist Worker, 1989.

44: Amazon Sisters (video documentary), 1992.

45: Ransome, 1992.

46: Gross and Mendes, 1989, pp16-17 and pp24-27.

47: Rose, 1992, p17.

48: Erlichman, 1992.

49: Gupta, 1988, pp53-55.


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