From Socialist Voice, January 2005

The planet can no longer afford capitalism

The tsunami disaster that hit the countries bordering the Indian Ocean caused widespread devastation, with more than 150,000 people dead, thousands injured, and still many thousands missing, most probably dead. The loss of life and the destruction of homes and livelihoods are almost unmeasurable. Those hit hardest were many of the poorest people in the region.
      The people of the world have responded with tens of millions of euros, dollars, and every other conceivable currency. In Ireland it is estimated that the total raised by ordinary people will reach €40 million—more than the Government had offered. Given the size of our population and GDP, both our people and the Government have given proportionately more than most developed capitalist countries, including the United States.
      Much has been said and written about the financial consequences of this disaster on the countries hit by the tsunami. It has thrown into sharp relief the whole question of indebted countries, unfair trading relations, and the nature of development aid and assistance.
      There are three important areas for all those concerned with world development: aid, debt, and development. Aid, if not properly targeted, can undermine existing economic development and increase dependence between the donor countries and the recipients. The countries hit by the tsunami pay out more than $46 billion annually in repayments just to service their debt. $6 billion is the total aid pledged throughout the world so far, while these countries between them owe more than $350 billion in debt. This debt is unpayable.
      Because of the high levels of debt owed by many developing countries to western institutions, such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and western governments, many of these countries’ economies have been skewed and restructured to service the needs of western trading relations and the needs and power of global corporations. The wholesale privatisation of natural resources, such as water, is being pushed on these people. Economic development and agriculture are geared towards producing cash crops for sale in western markets for the foreign currency they bring, thereby undermining the countries’ ability to produce crops to feed their own people.
      For just a few million dollars—a tiny fraction of the nearly $1 trillion spent annually on its global military budget—the United States could supply supplementary tsunami warning devices that could have been placed in the Indian Ocean. The United States and Britain are spending between them $50 billion per year to occupy Iraq, where an estimated 100,000 civilians have been killed since their illegal invasion. The destruction of al-Falluja is on a par with the destruction of Dresden during the Second World War. These two countries have so far pledged $500 million for tsunami relief—less than they spend every four days in Iraq.
      People in the developing countries not only have to face natural disasters but have to deal with such other disasters as the AIDS crisis, which claims 8,000 lives every day in the world’s poorest countries; the 1.4 million children who die each year for lack of clean drinking water and adequate sanitation; and the millions killed in civil wars in Africa, fuelled by arms sales from the major powers in their political strategy of creating weakened and dependent states. Weakened and dependent states are far more useful in serving the interests of neo-colonialism.
      The countries of the region hit by the tsunami are an example of how the environment and the local economy are sacrificed to repay debt. Over the centuries the countries surrounding the Indian Ocean were protected from tsunamis and seas stirred up by cyclones and typhoons by a combination of coral reefs and mangrove swamps. The solid barriers of the reefs broke up and slowed down the waves, leaving the tangled root networks and dense vegetation of the mangroves to absorb most of the remaining force. Today only about a third of the world’s coral reefs remain healthy. The reefs have been destroyed by a combination of factors, including fishing with dynamite, global warming, sewage pollution, and quarrying for building materials—in many cases to build tourist facilities. The United Nations has stated that half the remaining reefs in the Indian Ocean are now in danger.
      The same goes for mangroves. More than half have been cut down in Thailand, India and other parts of south-east Asia to make way for towns, tourists resorts, and shrimp farms—mainly for export to provide foreign currency to repay debts. In India, for example, in the state of Tamil Nadu the areas of dense remaining mangroves in Pichavaram and Muthupet suffered far fewer casualties and much less damage than places where they have been destroyed. The Malayan island of Penang suffered little damage or loss of life, as did the islands of Burma, where the coral reef and mangroves remain intact.
      Venkatigry Vivekandan, chief executive of the South Indian Fishermen’s Association, is reported as stating that “mangroves took the brunt of the attack. They were ravaged and uprooted, but they protected their people and villages.” The planting of seventy miles of mangroves along the Vietnamese coast protected the land to the rear in 2000 from one of the worst typhoons in a decade and in 2003 from the worst flood in thirty years.
      So the type of development encouraged is very important. Most countries are encouraged to develop tourism and cash crops. Tourists want to lie on beaches and drink Coca-Cola, and therefore removing mangroves and other vegetation is necessary. To get building materials they blow up the coral. But behind it all is the unpayable debt burden.
      The cancellation of world debt is now a priority for humankind. In the main it was borrowed and in a lot of cases foisted on poor countries by corrupt governments or global finance institutions. Working people were never consulted, but they are having to pay the price.
      Capitalism leaves a trail of misery behind it as it destroys communities and moves on to the next feeding-ground. It will destroy our planet if we do not put an end to it. The world debt problem will continue to lead to more famines and to dislocate and destroy agricultural development; so the collection boxes will be out with even more frequency.
      The planet can no longer afford capitalism.

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