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North-South Dialogue: 500 Years are Enough! Now It Is Time to Change Course

Opening address of the special session of the “Campagna Nord-Sud: biosfera, sopravvivenza dei popoli, debito” (“North-South Campaign: the Biosphere, the Survival of Peoples, the Debt”). Genova, 1-3 November 1991
Can we imagine a five-hundred year commemorative celebration of the Napoleonic conquest and unification of Europe being held in the Paris of 2312? Or indeed a five-hundred year celebration of the Wannsee Conference in Berlin of 2442 at which the unification and re-arrangement of Europe had been planned - especially the central and eastern parts of it - under the hegemony of Germany, with the Slavs returned to their proper place, cleansed of Jews, gypsies and other inferior races?
No, obviously we cannot imagine this. Fortunately, the Napoleonic troops and the Nazis lost and this helped us to consciously understand and maintain that this way was wrong. In these cases, those attacked acted directly and quickly to expel the invaders and indeed attacked them in turn. Therefore there are no five-hundred year celebrations of these events.

Europe’s “discovery” and subsequent conquest of the Americas, especially Latin America, was, on the other hand, a victory, without being planned as such from the outset, and so became a commonplace in the conscience of the northern hemisphere and celebrated with some modesty and reticence, with some concession to a marginally bad conscience, it is true, but substantially without respecting any distance.
Indeed the same way of celebrating - with further great monuments, accent on cement - and by the perpetuation of North-South relations that still follow that tradition today, is sufficiently revealing and calls for strong, opposing voices to be raised.
The conquest and suppression of the South has been legitimised during all these centuries by a variety of so-called “reasons of superiority” that evolved over the course of time. For instance, by religious reasons that justified enforced Christianity; by economic and commercial reasons that justified the exploitation of entire continents; by scientific and technical reasons that were supposed to justify their enforced annexation in the name of “progress”; up to the more modern ideologies of “development” that, along with industrialisation and the more recent “structural adjustments”, have lead the process of enforced modernisation. It could be that the latest and most modern of reasons for setting oneself as a guardian of the South will turn into environmental conservation, even that “made by the North”.
Our governments, companies, media and cultural organisations are getting ready to “celebrate” with such modesty, such cultural understatement, (an occasional exhibition or programme about the Indios. In Brazil there are now soap operas), with some help but substantially without any “regret” or any willingness to discuss these five-hundred years. There has not even been the will to make a fine gesture along the lines of Switzerland’s. On its seven-hundred year celebrations, Switzerland passed two modest but significant measures. One was the partial waiving of its foreign debt (seven-hundred million Swiss Francs) and the other was planning restrictions to safeguard some of its environment for posterity.

And what are we going to do? Are we going to limit ourselves to playing a countermelody or counter celebrations?
There is also the risk that we, the ecology, solidarity and combined cooperative movements, will merely play a pre-ordained role. Someone must protest, look after the outcasts, air the views of the defeated, conquered, survivors of genocide and ethnic cleansing and to definitely oppose the official celebrations with their own counter celebrations.
We are very well aware of this and it is for this reason that we cannot stop at criticism of the celebrations of Christopher Columbus’s voyage, nor at a simple, historical self-criticism or a re-writing of history (certainly at least as sketchy as the celebrations and in this case not accurate), nor at a purely cultural event, affirming yet another point of view that remains something of a decorative but useless diversity of opinion. It is necessary but not sufficient to give other and more authentic names to these things and try to generate a different awareness.
We want to develop - from a diverse and more accurate analysis - different outcomes (if possible useful ones) and different alliances in Italy, Europe and the world. We are convinced that the five-hundred years celebrations and the events taking place this year offer a good opportunity for changing course, especially for us more than for the South, and that both North and South have urgent need of this.

When we speak of 1992, we find ourselves right in the middle of some significant deadlines for the world next year that appear to us to interlock directly with the five-hundred years celebrations. For instance, the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development (UNCED, Rio de Janeiro in June1992), the possible conclusion of the GATT negotiations on prices and conditions for worldwide trade and the completion of the single European market at the end of next year should open doors, if not to political unification of Europe, at least to economic and monetary unification of the twelve current members of the European Community.
It is with an eye on these three events that we want to reflect on North-South relations, how they have come together in these five-hundred years and how we want to make a contribution to changing them. Passing through the Pillars of Hercules, once regarded as marking the limit of the known world, cannot be viewed in positive terms today.
The adventurous crossing of frontiers (in our imagination and then by actual navigation...) symbolised by Christopher Columbus, could, at times other than ours, excite greater enthusiasm than today in our epoch that is beginning to be characterised by our knowledge of the radical crisis of the ecological balance of our planet. At other times, passing through the Pillars of Hercules in one’s own world could make one forget or make the trespassing of frontiers and the invasion of worlds elsewhere appear irrelevant. Our enthusiasm for exploration by sea - inventors, engineers, cosmonauts - was focussed on our worship of progress, on going beyond our frontiers, on expanding our universe beyond what was known and governed by our own travel, trade, wars, technologies and laws. Today when we are confronted with the consequences of the systematic trespassing of all frontiers, even those of the genetic code of human life, and with the generalised destructive invasion of the rest of the pre-modern world, we have difficulty looking with serene optimism at Christopher Columbus’s voyage as the quintessence of progress, of positive change and of the discovery of “new worlds”. Here we can agree, not only in the sense of solidarity, but fully participate in our own name with those who have been “discovered”, invaded, occupied, christianised, enslaved, assimilated and exterminated. Raising a voice on behalf of the oppressed, the conscientious objectors, and the deserters in the ranks of the oppressors is becoming a combined commitment calling for a single, united voice.


The South: Our Creditor and the Question of Compensation

The North-South campaign, together with various other organisations, is the originator of this meeting and some time ago reversed the approach to the classic theme of the third world, namely its external debt, with two Copernican discoveries. That is that paying its monetary debt harms the third world and would cause damage that would resonate in the North (destroying the environment in order to gain money would also harm our economy). Instead the combined ecological debt should be repaid urgently. In this regard the North is much more in debt than the South. From many points of view, even financial, but also environmental, social, cultural, occupational, medical etc., the North is in debt to the South.
Faced with the celebrations being held today and the great political and economic events already mentioned, we urgently raise the question of putting a stop to a policy wrongly named as cooperation and for the need for the North to recompense the South substantially.
How can anyone think that the International Conference on Environment and Development should not have such a question at the very centre of its work? What negotiations, what kind of new world order can emerge between the strong and the weak, between polluters and polluted, between conquerors and conquered if one does not start by recognising the true state of indebtedness and credit and right and wrong and does not offer a solution? What sense would the conference at Rio have if, after five-hundred years since the Europeans landed in America, it does not know how to set up the fundamentals for a new and very different pact between the North and South?
When we say the South is our creditor, we are speaking not only in moral terms (sanctioning in this way a modest bill of exchange payable with some nominal cultural adjustment), but also in economic, monetary and financial terms. We have been saying for some time that it is also in the interests of the population of the North that our debt is paid in order not to force the South along the road of maximum rapacious exploitation of its resources and the North on the road to a further race for economic, technological and financial rearmament. It is not only a question of humanity, ecology or justice, but also of our health and welfare.
Increasing the prices of agricultural products, especially those of the South, paying more for energy resources and raw materials, rigorously banning the export of hazardous waste and dangerous chemical products, freezing arms trafficking, limiting over fishing of the seas, erosion of soil and deforestation of the South by parts of our industries, to make us pay the true cost of the atmospheric pollution coming from our industries, our motor vehicles and heating does not mean giving the South a present, but obliging us to try to find more sustainable ways to continue to produce, trade, transport our goods, feed ourselves and have the supply of energy we need.

This year, 1991, began with the exemplary punishment of Saddam Hussein, the part of the South that had become more similar to the North and therefore more dangerous. This confirmed that other countries cannot be threatened and invaded, entire races (like the Kurds) cannot be exterminated and arsenals of weapons dangerous to all of us cannot be stockpiled. These are sacrosanct principles for a new world order.
We know that the third world movements are indecisive and divided. Someone in the south supported Saddam Hussein, who was not a very convincing champion of the South. Others showed themselves to be indifferent to and detached from the issue, apart from ridiculous and servile interventions, of which a planeload of pro-western Senegalese soldiers that crashed on its return journey was the ultimate symbol. Embarrassment was widespread in the North by two forms of solidarity, both impossible, and by the call for a new post-bloc world order that showed itself to be incapable of affirming and guaranteeing peace. Faced with the thousands and thousands of deaths in the South, we then took up the case of the Kurds and often called for armies of protection and security zones guaranteed by the west.
As you can see, the new world order, invoked for various and such contradictory reasons by more than one side, is making only very slow and uphill progress. And we who are speaking here in Rio de Janeiro of the need for a new North-South pact are aware of the risk posed by this new world order, whether authoritarian or technocratic, even if it is wrapped up in the cloak of ecology, or its ecology taxes and compensations, its laws on pollution, its levies, population growth, fishing, deforestation, stockpiling of hazardous waste. It is a sort of world stock exchange where everything has its price in times of peace, or becomes part of a political-military game of poker where the strongest win and impose their rules.

So that we do not repeat the same pre-ordained role at Rio de Janeiro, we have to send out a clear message today and do our best to turn it into reality. The message is to pay the price of the combined ecological debt on behalf of the North, the major debtor, to agree on the right policies to recompense nations and the environment of the South. This is, according to us, the prime objective of the Rio conference. This is also what we are asking the executive committee and our governments to push forward here.
This is why we lay great importance on the presence of non-government voices from South and North at this venue and this is why we think that, beyond what the UNCED conference will endorse, of course purely in cosmetic terms, North-South relations today have to be steeped in these concepts. That means that it is time to change course because really “five-hundred years of dependence, invasion, homologation and expropriation are sufficient”.
When we speak about the unification of Europe, we should not forget the South; the war between the poor of the East and South; a besieged stronghold subject to “inflexible” development procedures.
Today many people in the South, especially in government and the aid agencies, seem worried that Western Europe and, perhaps even the USA, will forget the South because they are concentrating on the problems of Eastern Europe as it is emerging from communism. In effect, even before we are actually called into action on behalf of the South, the other half of us Europeans, forced for years into a sort of coercive and glib solidarity with the South and now dangerously fed-up of hearing about the Third World, is approaching us for help. At the moment an attempt to become like us as quickly as possible, or even possibly like South Korea, Singapore, Formosa, seems to prevail.
It is a difficult task for us to offer these other Europeans the classic method of aid, or even that preached to the South for decades. That is exert yourselves, tighten your belt, work, save, cut unnecessary costs (i.e., social security), make structural adjustments, join the monetary fund and soon you will be like us. The big question for democracy, development and for a “European” standard of life is even more difficult to control than for the South and, at the same time, the explicit call for a “shared European house” does not allow western Europe to pay off its other half in the same terms as have been set aside for the southern hemisphere.
The growing number of immigrants from the South and East coming to the wealthy countries are, on the other hand, part of the East and South in our own homes. Clearly a war among the poor of Eastern Europe and the southern hemisphere (and their respective emigrants in western countries) is looming, indeed, it has already begun. They are fighting and will fight to win more favour with the North West. A policy of handing out crumbs, charity, of an increase in aid from 0.40% to 0.70% from the developed world clearly cannot possibly be a serious proposal.
The sudden unification of the world after the Fall of the Berlin Wall has put the whole of humanity into a system of communicating vessels. It is patently impossible to generalise and extend to all the same standards of life, consumer goods, waste and pollution as in the North West, more for environmental than for economic or social reasons.
Therefore, we find ourselves faced with a new reality and at a very clear crossroad: either the “inadequate and inflexible development” of the North with marginal concessions, differentiated of course, for the East and South; or a radical change of course based on agreed and fair choices.

Today, the first seems the more probable option. The North will continue to want to grow and develop and make ever larger debts at the expense of the South, the environment and future generations by postponing as long as possible a settlement of its debts, or better, bankruptcy. (The longer the bills remain unpaid, the more likely they are to remain unpaid).
I repeat such a choice today appears prevalent. Not only is it unhealthy from an ecological point of view and therefore for the welfare of the population of the North, it is unacceptable from the point of view of justice. In order for it to be activated, it also calls for a high level of militarisation and isolation in respect of the rest of the world. Fundamentally, it calls for new and stronger walls to be erected by western islands of development. Let us think about the relationship between Israel and her internal and external neighbours (and hope that it is now about to change), the border between the USA and Mexico, and the “wall” that Italy has erected to keep out the Albanians, not to have to always think only of South Africa.
But within the northern hemisphere itself voices are being raised and more consistent movements are calling for and proposing a change of course. To live in a besieged stronghold, even if privileged, is not good for anyone and leads to feelings of insecurity. A different choice is more suitable for the besieged and the besiegers; that of renewal, realignment, compensation and justice.
We want to take the occasion of “Another 1992” to radically review the relationship between besieged and besieger from the standpoint of a lasting and impartial solution that simply cannot revolve around today’s relationships based on strength with an increased risk for both parties. And it will be in this setting that the North-South movements will also have their say on the unification of Europe and on the new world order. What our choice will be is clear to all by now.


What can we do and with whom?

Since we here do not represent governments and institutions, but are part of a variety of movements, we have to identify instruments for intervening that go beyond mere petitions to governments or recommendations to the International Conference, but also on which citizens can act directly.
In conclusion, I should like to recall only a few of them, and purely as illustrations, given that the various working groups will be looking at them closely and attentively.
Our choices for consumption and how savings should be spent could assume a growing importance. The ways in which we travel, build, feed and clothe ourselves, furnish our homes, package our goods, treat our illnesses and invest our savings have an immediate impact on social and natural balances between North and South. This opens a vast field for “changing course”;
Our increased attention, knowledge and solidarity towards the people of the South, more numerous in our countries today, can lead us to evaluate much more positively and therefore perhaps to see how “help for our own development”, our style of life, temporal rhythms, economies “of life” (not profit), cultural diversity, wealth of knowledge etc., can render our individual and collective lives more open to a kind of “penetration from the South”.
“Direct pacts” of North-South alliances, as for example the “alliance for the climate change” or similar relationships of direct (sustainable) cooperation between local communities of North and South can have a growing relevance and direct implications for our models of development and life. To devote ourselves to promoting changes in the North in a direct and reciprocal relationship between North and South is a route well worth exploring and pursuing further. And why not pursue it as a threesome between North, South and east respectively?
Today immigrants from the South and East represent a direct intrusion into our world and are also the first test bench for all of our discussions on fair and sympathetic cooperation and compensation. They can become an important bridge between our societies and their original communities. Why not push ourselves courageously forward in this direction? It would be a reasonably realistic contribution to “Another 1992”.
In closing, I should like to say that for five-hundred years we have been conducting, with ever growing intensity, a “discovery” that ends up in conquest and even total destruction of the population of the South. For about two-hundred years we have been conducting with ever growing intensity a similar campaign of discovery, conquest and total destruction of our own environment.
In order to have a enjoyable future, it is essential for us to cry out “enough” or lose our wars. To win them would be disastrous also for us in the North.


Opening address of the special session
of the “Campagna Nord-Sud: biosfera, sopravvivenza dei popoli, debito”
(“North-South Campaign: the Biosphere, the Survival of Peoples, the Debt”)
Genova, 1-3 November 1991

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