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What’s yours is mine

The scramble for the world’s resources has barely abated with the recession, and our ecological debt

The elephant is still standing, and still dead. Around its feet are hundreds of coins thrown by visitors. Room after room at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, on the outskirts of Brussels, is full of stuffed animals perched rigidly against crude backdrops of African forest and grassland. Another exhibit surveys Africa's economic contribution to the world: maps on the wall dissect and label each country, tagging them like the pickled fish and stuffed apes.

This is Africa as a cornucopia of natural wealth to be mined, harvested, picked, squeezed and taken. The maps reduce the continent in general, and Congo in particular, to a series of carefully plotted locations for the extraction of oil, cotton, coffee, sugar, rice, maize, diamonds, jute, cobalt, tin, copper and gold. One term for it is the "resource curse", exemplified by King Leopold II's brutal Central African reign during the first scramble for Africa in the 19th century. Leopold still sits proudly in the central courtyard of the museum, chin imperially upturned: a statue in honour of international relations built on murder, theft and deception.

Is his presence shocking because things are so different today, or because there remain dark continuities? A new report from Nef (the New Economics Foundation) reveals that humanity, driven by European-style consumption patterns, went into "ecological debt" on 25 September. It is based on the "ecological footprint" measure, which adds up all the natural resources we consume and the waste we generate, and compares them with what ecosystems can produce and absorb. As with financial planning, spend more than you earn and, before the year is out, you go into debt. The earlier it happens, the worse things are. This year, "ecological debt day" fell a day later than last year, but still two weeks earlier than the year before that. It has been shifting earlier since first going into the red in the mid-1980s. Strikingly, it suggests that global overconsumption has barely been affected by the recession.

No rich country can support its lifestyle without huge imports of resources. Now we are racking up these ecological debts in a way that looks a lot like a new scramble for Africa. Since 2006, for example, large-scale transnational land acquisitions and leases - so-called "land-grabs" - have laid claim to almost 20 million hectares of farmland in developing countries (an area equivalent in size to all the farmland in France) to grow food and biofuels for consumers in wealthy nations. Countries caught up in the current wave include Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Madagascar, Mali, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Zambia and Cameroon - all of which are poor and troubled in various ways.

Many of the land acquisitions were triggered by the spikes in food and fuel prices in 2008, when wealthy people suddenly became aware of how vulnerable global markets had become. As a result, direct ownership of resources came to look more attractive than depending on the casino of the commodity markets.

Oil and overconsumption

More than half of the money flowing into Africa as foreign investment (from the United States, Europe and the increasingly competitive China and India) goes straight to the oil sector, according to the UN's World Investment Report. The US is expected to get a quarter of its crude oil imports from West Africa by 2015.

As Europe (and even, falteringly, the UK) recovers from recession, a return to debt-fuelled overconsumption is imminent. And it is energy that fuels it. The UK's relative dependence on imported energy has risen fivefold since the country lost self-sufficiency in 2004. We are less self-sufficient in food now than we were 40 years ago. And because we do not have to pay the full environmental cost of fuel, we engage in bizarre forms of "boomerang trade". The UK imports 5,000 tonnes of toilet paper from Germany, and then exports almost 4,000 tonnes back again. We export 4,400 tonnes of ice cream to Italy, only to import 4,200 tonnes. There are many similar examples of this crazy business.

Today, all respectable European powers must profess commitment to global poverty reduction and sustainable development. But Europe is still hungry for Africa's resources and, for all its sophistication, it is less energy-efficient today at delivering a given level of "life satisfaction" than it was four decades ago. Others are paying the price for our materialism.

Projections for the impact of consumption-driven climate change show potentially catastrophic impacts over the coming decades on Africa - a continent that has made a negligible contribution to the problem. These coincide with the rapacious international exploitation of Congo's tropical forests.

Expected deforestation up to the year 2050 - feeding the demand for wood floors, garden furniture and ministerial front doors - will have the effect of releasing more than 34 billion tonnes of CO2, somewhere close to the UK's entire emissions over the course of 60 years. Overall, up to a quarter of greenhouse-gas emissions are thought to come from clearing tropical forests. When the World Bank began lending, post-conflict, to the DRC in 2001, 107 new contracts to log 15 million hectares of forest in total were signed in just four years. But the benefits that were promised to local people from the trade have failed to materialise, and tax avoidance and timber smuggling are reportedly rife.

In late 2008, the DRC again stood on the edge of full-scale conflict and calamity. It is estimated that even before then, in the decade from 1998, 5.4 million people died from war-related causes in the Congo. The continent is still seen as a lucky dip of natural resources - be those oil, wood, diamonds or minerals - with little concern for the consequences.

Leopold's legacy

I visited the museum in Tervuren to understand better an "official" version of the events by which Europe and Africa emerged with such different fortunes, after two and a half centuries of rapid global economic expansion and huge divergence between rich and poor. Such unequal development has been paid for, in large part, by the creation of an enormous ecological or carbon debt, which has taken the form of global climatic upheaval. We are left in a world that is divided, volatile and living beyond its environmental means.

In 1972, Sicco Mansholt, then president of the European Commission, asked if Europe would "continue to produce 'bigger, faster and more' for some to the detriment of the global environment and the welfare of the rest". As long as Leopold II's statue stands in the heart of Europe, the answer is probably yes.

Andrew Simms is policy director and head of the climate change programme at Nef (the New Economics Foundation). He is the author of "Ecological Debt: Global Warming and the Wealth of Nations", published by Pluto (£13.99)

 

Behind Conrad's Heart of Darkness

Leopold II of Belgium fixed his sights on Africa from the start of his reign in 1865. In 1878 he employed the English explorer Henry Morton Stanley to buy up 100,000 square kilometres of the Congo Basin. By 1885 he had expanded his fiefdom to 2.3 million square kilometres: the "Congo Free State" was formed.

As sovereign, the king established the Force Publique, an army of Congolese conscripts commanded by European officers. Under the pretence of protecting his African subordinates from Arab traders, Leopold created what was, in effect, a huge labour camp.Employment laws allowed workers to be indentured for up to seven years, and enforced daily quotas of rubber and ivory. Punishments for failing to meet these were brutal - beatings, rape and the amputation of hands, as well as killings, were common.

The invention of the rubber tyre in 1891 made the rubber trade even more lucrative. However, the regime's brutality was attracting international attention. In 1904, Roger Casement published a report on Congolese genocide - the death toll had run into millions - forcing Belgium to commission an inquiry. The Belgian government annexed the colony in 1908 and declared the Belgian Congo. In disgrace, the king attempted to cover up his crimes by burning archives. When he died a year later, booing crowds followed his coffin through the streets.

Stephanie Hegarty

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Strange Death of Labour England

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Strange Death of Labour England