Resistance as a strategy for sustainability

Some notes from Latin America [1999]

‘La Resistencia: un Cambino hacia la Sustentabilidad’

(Resistance as a strategy for sustainability)

The price of struggle is blood, death, tears, incarceration and pain. But for the poor, the humble, we have no other choice

  • Lorenzo Muelas, Indigenous ex Senator from Colombia

The poor, the oppressed, the dominated have always resisted. That is why they are still alive. At its core is hope – the belief in something better. Resistance, hope and struggle cannot be seperated one from the other. Resistance is tied with a broader program for a better world – we must take advantage of what is good, reject what is evil. If we lose our way, the enemy will prevail. Then history will be over”.

– Elmar do Nascimento, Movimiento de los Sin Tierra (Landless Peasants Movement, Brazil)

To someone active in the environment movement in Australia, the debate about tactics and vision often revolves around fairly narrow perimeters; do we focus on direct action or lobbying, the tired debate about what constitutes ‘non violent’ action, how much emphasis do we place on public mobilisation, and the opportunities for ‘new’ campaign tools such as shareholder activism. Given that most activists are over-worked in local campaigns, it can sometimes be hard enough to share information and strategies on the national level, let alone around the world. At the same time, there is a growing awareness that in an age of global trade agreements, we can no longer afford the luxury of just running domestic-level campaigns.

At the same time, there is often very little awareness amongst Australian environmental activists of the size and nature of the environment movement that exists in other parts of the world (particularly outside the ‘First’ world or Northern countries). With significant exceptions, and some heartening examples of solidarity over the last few years, Australia has arguably one of the more insular environment movements on the planet.

The following contains some observations about the current nature of the debate within one particular network of environmental activists, Friends of the Earth International (FoEI). However, the debates that are currently occurring are fairly indicative of the issues that need to be considered by environmental activists in Northern countries like Australia if they are to break the current pattern of inward-looking, First World campaigning.

To give a background to this debate, it may be useful to give a brief outline of the politics and structure of FoEI. FoE was founded in the USA in 1969. It is now active in 61 countries, with over half of its member groups based in the South. FoE is especially strong in Latin America, Western and Eastern Europe, and Western Africa. As one of the ‘big three’ environmental groups (along with Greenpeace International and the World Wide Fund for Nature), FoE’s particular niche is that it combines the struggle for social justice with environmental concerns. Its membership of national groups are all independent, which means there is a huge diversity of style, size and politics within the federation. In recent times there has been substantial debate about the differences between Northern and Southern perspectives to environmental activism.

FoEI holds an annual meeting which is hosted by a different group each year. In November 1999, Accion Ecologica (FoE Ecuador) hosted the meeting. Generally, the local group organises a pre-conference on an issue that reflects local politics and concerns. When FoE Australia hosted the meeting in November 1998, the pre-conference was called ‘Global Survival and Indigenous Rights’ and brought together Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists from around the country. This years’ meeting was called ‘La Resistencia: un Cambino hacia la Sustentabilidad’ (Resistance as a strategy for sustainability) and the goal of the gathering was to ‘strengthen processes of resistance based on cultural, environmental and social arguments’. In many ways it was perceived as being in direct counter-balance to much of the debate in Western Europe, which is focussed on achieving sustainability through better use of resources (leading to a fairer share of consumption – ‘environmental space with equity’). In contrast, the seminar organised by Accion Ecologica took the explicit position that more efficient use of resources or ‘cleaner production’ is not enough. It is this debate, effectively about whether sustainability will come from industrial fine-tuning and reform or fundamental social transformation, which is at the centre of the North – South debate. In contrast, mainstream environmental activism in Australia takes reform as being the central tenant and operating model of activity. It is when these two models are placed together that the differences and commonalities become clear and lessons for Northern activists become apparent.

‘Sustainability is not simply a problem of technology and standards’

– a plenary at the conference

The seminar sought to define the different types of campaigning – the issue specific and targeted campaigns that epitomise the activity of campaigners in the North (such as the campaign against North’s attempt to mine uranium at Kakadu) and the broader cultural resistance of the South. Perhaps the key inter-twining factor was that of globalisation and the fact that nowhere is spared from the endless demand for resources that are needed to sustain First world lifestyles. The North (Western Europe, the USA and Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand) comprise around 28% of humans on the planet, yet use almost 80% of resources which are consumed. Although it is a figure often used, the issue of consumption is still a remarkable one: if we were all to live at the consumption patterns of people in the North, we would need to put all of the arable systems on the planet under production. This would leave no space for nature conservation as currently understood – through setting aside areas for national parks or other reserves. This is significant enough when considered on its own. However, we would need another two planets of the same size as the earth in order to meet everyone’s needs. Clearly, to achieve ‘environmental space with equity’ we need a massive reduction in consumption patterns in the affluent North. This is the first point we must remember as activists from the North: it is the collective impacts of our lifestyles which are impacting on the South.

The question, of course, is how to achieve the necessary changes, which gets us back to the crux of the debate. Whereas Northern non-government organisations (NGOs) deal with (admittedly intractable and difficult) transnational corporations (TNCs), many of these same TNCs are operating over the top of human communities, often in conjunction with repressive regimes and without any form of regulation or control. The Indigenous experience of dealing with the day-to-day impacts of TNCs (where a mine or waste dump is planned) is not a reality actually lived by most non-Indigenous activists in Australia. The question was posed about how to deal with the differing situation experienced by NGOs in the North and the South. In the North, we lobby and campaign against TNCs, but at the end of the day our livelihood and communities are generally not directly threatened in the short term. In the South, communities, agriculture, food security, basic freedom and the right to community-controlled development are all directly threatened in many instances by the activities of TNCs. While Northern environmentalism is often dismissed as being about quality of life issues, in the South it is often about survival.

A representative of Environmental Rights Action (FoE Nigeria) talked about the political reality of many Southern activists: stating, in effect that what was needed was social transformation and the guarantee of the re-construction of society. ‘It is difficult to attempt dialogue when those who you take your concerns to are those who dominate you’. ‘To resist simply means to oppose; we need the capacity to say NO and the ability to follow through in our resistance.’ A statement from Accion Ecologica also summed up this perspective: ‘we claim the supreme right to resistance in order to exercise all these NOs. But we take up these negatives in order to build the great positive’.

Most institutionalised environmental activism in the North adapts itself to getting the best outcomes under the ruling party of the day. Groups go to great lengths to paint themsleves as being ‘non-political’ and ‘middle of the road’. While most people know that, on a planet of limited resources, a system based on endless economic growth is simply a form of madness, the environment movement almost never articulates this fact. At best we talk about more efficient use of resources and cleaner production. Elements of the Right also embrace this approach, claiming that increased economic growth leads to a greater excess of economic resources and hence greater capacity to improve the environment and moderate any problems associated with economic growth. The mainstream groups are faced with endless attempts by politicians, right wing think tanks, public relations companies and other vested interests to marginalise their influence. As a result, most groups take the understandable, but ultimately cowardly, position of being ‘middle of the road’ when it comes to fundamental political questions. We are over worked and under resourced and lack the time or capacity to develop fully alternative models or visions of what a sustainable society might look like. We are endlessly caught in a holding pattern of fighting ‘effect’, but rarely getting to ‘cause’. There are even off-shoots of the movement where former activists are now acting as consultants to big business. We are consulted, engaged, paid to verify Corporate Environment Reports, we are ‘stakeholders’, we campaign against specific companies, and any attempts to resist ‘corporate rule’ (for example the June 18th anti-globalisation protests this year which targeted major financial centres) are quietly dismissed as being left-of-field. Under this scenario, a benevolent green capitalism seems almost possible.

Again, this is a Northern perspective. Representatives from Movimiento de los Sin Tierra (Landless Peasants Movement, Brazil) stated “we know the capitalist model cannot be painted with nice colours, it must be destroyed. It is a monster that cannot be transformed because by living it has to step on communities. Destroying it is the only way we will achieve a humane society which also has respect for nature.” This is perhaps the second key difference between North and South: the question of whether current economic practises can be made more sustainaible, and if they can, whether this will be enough.

Globalisation: ‘privatising the benefits, socialising the costs’

  • Ricardo Navarro, El Salvador

The notion of cultural resistance is at the core of this opposition, at the local level and the global. Globalisation, as noted by Ricardo Navarro of CESTA/ FoE El Salvador, is simply the logical consequence of the capitalist model; its excesses and negative impacts shouldn’t surprise us. It is an extension of what has happened in the past; the history of capital has always been to seek out new markets. It seeks to privatise the benefits but socialise the costs. However, what is different now is that the global economy is running out of new regions in which to exploit resources.

One development that has become noticeable in recent years is the dramatic impact of climate change on Southern environments. With increased flooding, unseasonal weather and more and more destructive storms, many in the South say that they are already paying the cost of the enhanced greenhouse effect through loss of life and environmental destruction. 1998 was the warmest year recorded during the last 600 years and the second highest was in 1997. (1) ‘Climate chaos’ has become a regular occurrence in many parts of the South: fires in Brazil, Indonesia, and Russia; enormous floods in Peru and Ecuador, major flooding in East Africa and India, drought in Papua New Guinea and Hurricane Mitch, which killed 20,000 people in Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador. While climate change is affecting the North as well, it is the South where the human and environmental costs have been the greatest. And while the North has extensive infrastructure (from emergency services to insurance cover) in times of crisis, most Southern countries are hard-pressed to maintain their payments to their external debt to the North and, as a result, simply lack the resources necessary to provide for rapid recovery from these disasters. With this in mind, the environmental journal Rachel’s Environment & Health Weekly proposed naming hurricanes after oil companies: ‘a headline like “Exxon kills 10,000, Leaves 50,000 homeless” has a certain ring to it’ and drives home the fact that it is Northern consumption patterns and transnational behavior that are creating this change. (2)

Apart from the impacts of climate change, the simple extent of intrusion by transnationals is remarkable. This is, of course, primarily because of the demand for resources by the North. The rapid globalisation of markets and expansion into new regions is almost a mopping up operation: the last ‘frontier forests’ of Eastern Siberia and the Amazon are being logged and mined, resource wars for water, oil and access to land continue to grow in number, and oil production is where the current battlelines are being drawn. (3) From undersea exploration in the Northern Arctic to the mangroves of Bangladesh, it is the oil industry which has become the ‘new wave’ of impact by industrialized society on communities in the South. Apart from new projects, there is also the legacy of oil deposits which have been exhausted. Companies move on, often with minimal remediation and considerable displacement of local communities. For the sake of cheap petrol in the North, communities and landscapes are left with a huge social and environmental burden.

This is apparent in Ecuador, where oil companies have been active for around 26 years. As one example, Texaco left around 700 pools of crude oil and toxic waste on lands that they had under production. Representatives of the Committee of Affected Peoples stated “the destruction of natural resources has only fulfilled purposes for others – it has made others rich; it has moved millions of vehicles, but it has left us sick. This path does not take us anywhere towards hope, only the road to destruction”. Following community campaigning, Texaco has agreed to remediate 120 of the pools, but none have yet been adequately cleaned up.

It is easy to be discouraged by these facts. But it is heartening to remember that things are changing. While it has been 15 years since the Bhopal disaster in India, and Union Carbide has never properly compensated the victims of this terrible disaster, there are signs that TNCs are being forced to fulfill the role they like to say they do: that of the ‘good corporate citizen’. Fifteen years ago, companies like Texaco effectively operated without controls in the Amazon. Local communities began to resist, which had an influence. Then local campaigns linked with international NGOs in the consumer countries. This is when changes really started, and is the third lesson – co-ordinated internationalised action can deliver results not possible through national level activity.

External debt: who owes who?

The question of climate change and external debt raises some interesting questions. While many thousands of people in the North have been concentrating on the Jubilee 2000 campaign, which is calling for the cancellation of ‘debt’ owed by the poorest countries, a parallel voice is being raised in the South about the ecological debt.

The claim for the ecological debt is from the South to the Northern industrialised countries, and is based on the observation that the North has lived, to a large degree, for the last 500 years on the land, labor and resources of the New world. The current economic system is based on the transfer of resources from the South (timber, fibre, food, energy, minerals and water) flow to the consumer-based societies in the North, usually in a way which does not adequately represent the cost of providing the resources. At the same time, the North’s consumption patterns are creating human-induced climate change, being felt already in the South. So the industrialised world owes a double debt to the South, for resource use and the impacts of climate change. Put at its simplest, ‘the ecological debt involves the historical claim for the debt that the industrialised countries of the North have with the countries of the Third world for the looting, destruction and devastation that these countries caused during the colonial period’. (4) Even at a basic economic costing, it far outweighs the external debt owed to entities such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Recognising this fact shifts the emphasis of campaigns such as Jubilee 2000 from a sentiment of goodwill to a simple acknowledgement of owing the South, and places the North in the unusual position of being the debtor. The fourth point for Northern activists is that until we clear our ecological debt, it will be impossible to achieve sustainability.

The North in the South (and the South in the North)

There are some who believe that the terms ‘North’ and ‘South’ are already dated and no longer of use in either political analysis or day-to-day campaigning. They point to enclaves of middle class consumers throughout the Third World and the pockets of absolute poverty in the North. Many also point to the fact that the gap between rich and poor within individual countries continues to widen. Yvonne Yanez, of Accion Ecologica, points out that we need to still use the terms and the analysis because ‘the North still has the economic and political voice and the armed power to enforce its will on the rest of the world’. While there are these enclaves of difference (and certainly, there is huge diversity amongst all parts of the world in terms of the place of specific countries and communities in the global economic system), trade continues to be defined by the relations which have been set over the last 500 years. While we live in a post-colonial world, we operate by economic rules which were established during centuries of domination of the South by the North. And while new members may be admitted to the elite economic clubs (such as the OECD) and other groupings create their own alliances to protect and advance their interests (such as APEC), the evolution of free trade agreements continues to favour the interests of those who control both the North and the South, while increasingly under-mining living and working conditions and environmental protection around the world. This is the fifth lesson: the middle class environment movement will remain only partly relevant until it names this political reality.

‘Resistance is trying to recollect history’

As stated many times, we need not only to know what we are against; we need to articulate what we are for. Gabriel Rivas Ducca (COECOCEIBA-AT/ FoE Costa Rica) re-iterated that we need a ‘radical disruption of globalisation’, with a new framework for visualising sustainable societies. This will include protection for existing local economies and active opposition to the globalising/ integrating tendencies of transnational corporations. It is here that groups in the North come into the picture: they need to co-ordinate focused campaigns against the activities of TNCs in the countries of the South. While there is a strong and on-going tradition of this (such as campaigns targeting Shell over its support for the Apartheid regime in South Africa to BPs involvement in oil drilling operations today in Colombia), there is a need to dramatically increase the level of this type of campaigning. Activist groups in Australia should consider a ‘solidarity tax’; an allocation of a set amount of time per month to international solidarity activism.

Another common theme that was evident at the conference was that the governments and TNCs are selling and claiming ‘things’ they don’t even own: access to Indigenous lands, bio-resources, intellectual property rights. Esperanza Martinez (FoE Ecuador) explained the necessity of re-claiming rights to these things; ‘sovereignty is the horizon that allows us to understand sustainability’.

As Gabriel Rivas Ducca notes ‘once we have a framework for what we believe is the sustainable society, anything that doesn’t fit the model should be rejected’. A primary consideration is the fact that, while many of us in the North are seeking models of what a sustainable society might look like, there are thousands of examples of pre-existing societies which have managed to be sustainable for many centuries. Yet many of these are under direct assault by economic and political sources that seek to use their lands for resource production for export to the industrialised world. Hence, opposition to these trends becomes an automatic defense of ‘sustainability’; back to the notion of La Resistencia: un Cambino hacia la Sustentabilidad.

Lorenzo Muelas, an Indigenous ex Senator from Colombia, noted that ‘the resistance has been going forever’ and raised the fact the ‘ecologically sustainable development’ is nothing new: ‘Indigenous people have always had to handle it – it is food security. Indigenous people capture and manage the resources of the land but without exaggerating their needs, whereas Western notions of sustainable development seek to harvest resources at an exaggerated rate’. The constant undermining of Indigenous values makes Indigenous communities weaker and hence more prone to the influences of western thought, but ‘our identity is a formidable weapon in the struggle’. Many of the Indigenous speakers at the conference identified the onslaught of TNCs as merely an extension of the original invasion by the Spanish: ‘resistance is trying to recollect history and developing the capacity to move forward into a future based on good conditions for all people’, in other words ‘constructing justice and the creation of a culture where life may be possible’.

Environmental justice: an answer for the North?

If the recognition of a debt from the ‘developed’ world to the ‘Third’ world is the cornerstone of beginning to develop sustainable models of production and consumption, there will need to be fundamental change in the way the world carries out its business. Apart from reducing consumption to globally equitable levels, the countries in the North will also need to address their internal disparities of immense wealth and poverty. This is where environmental justice offers a solution.

Mainstream environmental activism in countries like Australia tends to be conciously middle-class and seeks to appeal to the existing power structures to gain environmental protection. In contrast, there has been a steadily growing movement which is based on demanding healthy work and living environments in many parts of the North. The environmental justice movement has it’s roots in poor Anglo, Indigenous, African and minority communities in North America who have been opposing the placement of noxious industry, waste dumps and other aspects of the ‘downside’ of modern capitalism within their communities. At its simplest, environmental justice is based on the observation that poorer communities tend to bear the brunt of environmental pollution. Environmental justice, with its strong emphasis on community resistance and demand for equity, has obvious links with the cultural resistance of the South.

It also offers new paths for the mainstream environment movement in that there are large numbers of people and whole communities in the North who have been politicised through resisting the imposition of developments within their communities. Many, if not the vast majority, of these people are not active within the mainstream movements and often come from constituencies and demographics dramatically under-represented in that movement. If the ‘traditional’ environment movement is able to respond to these new constituencies, it will have taken an enormous step towards embracing an activism which is relevant in the global context.

We have no option but to globalise our resistance to environmental destruction. There has been a slow shift amongst many mainstream environment groups over the last decade to embrace social issues, but, in the light of current trends of globalisation, there is also a strong need to increase the rate of this evolution. Esperanza Martinez of Ecuador believes that in order to move towards sustainability, we need to respect and defend cultural diversity, question existing power structures and balance consumption patterns. This is in contrast to the mainstream environment movement in the North, which tends simply to want to lobby and campaign harder and more effectively to achieve short-term environmental outcomes without pushing for social change. According to REDES/ FoE Uruguay, there are four dimensions to sustainability:

  • Environmental considerations;
  • Social considerations;
  • Political and economic considerations; and
  • Cultural concerns.

All must be present at the same time for sustainability to be achieved. The key issue stopping sustainability is access to resources and decisison-making power and a lack of access to minimal consumption levels. Clearly, this is a problem for many around the world, not just the South, and hence provides the commonality in developing a truly globalised resistance which will put us on the path to sustainability.

It is heartening to remember that this model is already strong in many parts of the North, including Australia. Kevin Dunion, of FoE Scotland drew together the debate by talking about the struggle by the Greengairs community in Scotland, which had PCB contaminated waste from England dumped in their area because it was too toxic to be dumped in England. This working class community joined with environmentalists to blockade waste shipments. (5) The blockade was lifted after an agreement was reached for an independent environmental assessment of the site. Greengairs is, in many ways, an example of ‘the South in the North’ and is indicative of the common cause to be found between First world and Third world communities. It potentially also points the way to an activism which is global, politically aware, and based on the simple adage of ‘no less than a decent environment for all: no more than a fair share of the Earth’s resources’. It is this type of action that could lead us to a future which is not only sustainable but also empowering and inherently based on equal access to decision-making and resources for all.


Cam Walker, with thanks to Sarojini Krishnapillai


(1) Fred Pearce, “Can’t stand the heat”, New Scientist, Vol 160, No 2165/6/7 (December 19 & 26 1998 and January 2, 1999).

(2) Rachel’s Environment & Health Weekly, #634, 21/1/99 (

(3) See for instance ‘Drilling to the Ends of the Earth: the Ecological, Social and Climate Imperative for Ending Petroleum Exploration’, Rainforest Action Network/ Project Underground, 1998.,

(4) For further information on Ecological Debt, contact the Campaign for the Recognition and Claim for the Ecological Debt (Accion Ecologica/ FoE Ecuador). The co-ordinator is Aurora Donoso, Email: Web:

(5) see ‘The Campaign for Environmental Justice’, FoE Scotland,
Originally published in Arena magazine and Greenleft Weekly

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