Wilderness, International Loans, and Protests

April 20, 2000

Steve Holmer

Why were forest activists in Washington D.C. for the activities around the semi-annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank? At first, the linkage might not be obvious. Neither the IMF nor the World Bank make loans in the U.S.; unlike the WTO, they do not threaten to undermine our domestic environmental laws by declaring them "barriers to trade."

Activists concerned about wild places have long understood that behind every timber sale, land development, or other threat to wild nature there are economic factors. Sometimes, our strategies focus on economics: the campaign against the timber road subsidies has helped protect National Forest roadless areas. As we learn more about the economics driving the loss of wildness we have tuned in to the debates over international financial institutions like the IMF and World Bank, too.

Fundamentally, these debates are about values. In a global economy, the WTO, IMF, and World Bank are major players. The issue is whether the policies of these institutions will serve only commerce, or whether other values including the environment have a place at the table, too. As E. J. Dionne points out in an excellent column in Saturday's Washington Post, no country accepts an unregulated market as the sole judge of what is important -- that's why we have environmental laws, a minimum wage, and medicare. But such rules do not exist for the global economy, and the IMF and Bank rarely respect environmental, human rights, and economic justice concerns.

This is not all an abstraction. The World Wide Fund for Nature recently reported that orangutans will be extinct in the wild in 5-10 years if current levels of logging and forest conversion in Indonesia continue. This logging is driven, in part, by the policies of the IMF and World Bank that have encouraged an export-driven economy in Indonesia (and other nations) to generate revenue to repay loans. Ironically, as protesters chanted in the streets, the Bank and UN released a study by the World Resources Institute showing that half of the world's forests have disappeared.

It is important that environmental advocates tell this story, explaining to the public not only how the environment is threatened, but why. The protests in Washington D.C. have put the IMF and World Bank on the public's screen; the door has been opened by the young people who were arrested and in some cases endured police brutality to get the IMF and the Bank in the news. Part of what people should know now is what the U.S. Congress can do to fix the problem. The U.S. dominates both the IMF and the World Bank because we pay the largest share of the cost. The Congress controls the money, and if Congress wants to make changes in the IMF and Bank it can.

It isn't enough to protect the places we care about close to home and push logging and mining elsewhere. If nothing else, the WTO, World Bank, and IMF have "globalized" the forest activist community and helped us understand how our struggles are related to those of activists in distant lands. To stay informed, check out our web site at http://www.americanlands.org or sign up for alerts from our international campaigner, Antonia Juhasz, at mailto:antonia@americanlands.org. Thanks.

Steve Holmer

Campaign Coordinator

American Lands

726 7th Street SE

Washington, D.C. 20003