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