Socialist Worker

No place in the sun for the majority

Ghanaian socialist Gyekye Tanoh says the tsunami disaster has demonstrated that capitalist globalisation is itself destructive, and makes natural disasters worse

Issue No. 1934

Behind postcard images of

Behind postcard images of 'paradise' lie real people’s lives—and suffering

THE TSUNAMI tragedy has shown the consequences of capitalist globalisation. It has transformed the impact of natural and environmental hazards into terrible human disaster.

Worse still, when disasters occur they are ruthlessly exploited to advance the globalisation agenda.

In the current tsunami tragedy, there are reports from India and Sri Lanka of survivors from devastated fishing communities being resettled further inland, in areas even more unviable and inhospitable than before.

The inevitable worsening of their working and living conditions and the intensification of their poverty will render them even more vulnerable to future hazards.

This resettlement of communities may allow the coastal locations the survivors previously occupied to be turned over into tourism strips.

These will no doubt have buildings that are more hazard-resistant, with the latest comforts and five star hospitality. They will ease the brisk expansion of profits for the hoteliers, global tour operators and airlines that monopolise the tourism industry.

In Sri Lanka, the Alliance for the Protection of National Resources and Human Rights has begun organising against the government’s rebuilding plans. The alliance is made up of major trade unions, independent fisheries and other civil networks of activists. It warns against the US presence and the unfolding project of economic and military globalisation.

It also says that aspects of the “relief effort” are an ill-disguised attempt to ram through neo-liberal policies that Sri Lankans have successfully resisted in the recent past.

A government-appointed Task Force to Rebuild the Nation is made up of figures from the corporate sector with the backing of the military and foreign governments.

The government, with the backing of the US, is using the tsunami crisis to increase its military grip over the country. All the camps for tsunami refugees have been handed over to the military, and US troops have established a presence in Sri Lanka.

The hundreds of thousands of lives that were lost and the millions more devastated by the Indian Ocean tsunami, mirror the disaster that is being wrought by globalisation among increasing swathes of the world’s population.

In recent decades the human and economic costs of natural hazards have multiplied many times. In the last ten years millions have died and hundreds of billions worth of economic resources have been destroyed.

The causes of much of this destruction are readily identifiable. The chaos and erratic weather patterns that are part of the early effects of climate change have been identified as contributing to hazards such as the El Nino weather system and the cyclones that have hit countries like Bangladesh with ever-increasing frequency.

In the 1990s Bangladesh was repeatedly battered by floods and cyclones. This took place as the Bangladeshi economy was buffeted by the maelstroms of globalisation.

Bangladesh tried to industrialise its textile and garment industry to produce manufactured garments for export.

Privatisation of state companies coincided with the inflow of foreign capital seeking to take advantage of cheap resources and labour and the removal of government support for existing agricultural sectors.

In its wake came new wealth concentrated in fewer national and foreign hands, side by side with a growing wasteland of misery in the countryside.

This soon found its echo in the explosion of the urban population swollen by migration to the capital, Dhaka, which was turned into a mega-city without anything like the infrastructure to match. It lacked storm drainage and storm-proofing of housing.

Other huge migrations took place from the interior to the coastal garment industry belt around Chittagong.

It is these overstretched coastal regions, spawned by chaotic and unregulated capitalism, that are most prone to natural hazards.

Now, as globalisation intensifies cut-throat competition, newer garment producers will knock Bangladesh out of its niche and unleash another bout of suffering and a new vulnerability to natural hazards.

Another feature of globalisation—the export-led economic strategy intended to generate hard currency to pay-off foreign debt—has driven the “race to the bottom”.

In country after country in the so-called Third World, the scale of plunder, export and sale of natural resources is almost beyond belief.

The murderous floods and landslides that have hit countries such as the Philippines are a direct result of the catastrophic deforestation that has taken place there.

The Philippines, with other south-Asian countries, supplies about 85 percent of all tropical woods sold on the international market.

Such excessive forest depletion reduces the absorption capacity of the soil leading to recurrent flooding. Then follows land erosion with all its consequences for agriculture and the livelihoods of entire communities.

Countries such as Brazil, Cameroon and Papua New Guinea are following in the footsteps of the Philippines, driven on by the relentless dictates of the global profit system.

A similar tale of the impact of deforestation is behind the recent floods in impoverished Haiti, and the Mozambican floods of 2000.

Elsewhere, the same trends have given rise to various other climatic extremities. In Southern Africa, flood years have been followed by drought years causing widespread famine and death in the region.

Again, these disasters are down to the capitalist system. Barely two years ago, the World Bank and the IMF pressured the government of Malawi to sell off stocks of maize to pay its debts.

It forced through privatisation of the state grain agency and the grain market. A few months later erratic rainfall led to a failed crop, a disastrous harvest and a full-blown famine.

Hovering over this devastated region were the multinational corporations that monopolise the global food markets. They offered only genetically modified maize as food aid.

A system that globalises such outcomes for the benefit of a few can only be maintained by an elaborate system of violence and repression.

The forcible exclusion of ordinary people from the benefits of their natural resources is having a big impact.

Too often the integration of local economies into the expanding world market produces its own social and economic dislocations every bit as chaotic as environmental disasters.

Malawi no longer has a meteorological service to monitor and predict weather changes—just as there was no tsunami monitoring centre in the Indian Ocean—because the cost was too high.

Fortunately, the tens of millions of people across the globe fighting environmental destruction, corporate greed, dehumanising exploitation and imperialist war are working for a radically different outlook.

The tsunami reminds us about the urgency of making another, better world.

Gyekye Tanoh is a member of the Intenational Socialists, Ghana, and a contributor to Third World Network. Go to

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Sat 15 Jan 2005, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1934
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