Capitalism as the Arch-enemy of Ecological Societies

Felix Padel is born in London, went to Oxford & Delhi universities studying ancient literature & history, anthropology, sociology; with a doctorate in Social Anthropology. Presently mostly lives & works in India. Has written two major books – “Sacrificing People: Invasions of a Tribal Landscape” (1995/2010) and “Out of This Earth: East Indian Adivasi and the Aluminium Cartel” (2010, with Indian activist Samarendra Das), which is a major questioning/expose of capitalism, especially the patterns of rampant exploitation through mining and the arms industry, involving mass dispossession of the land’s original inhabitants who have safeguarded ancient ecosystems intact, along with Cultural Genocide and Ecocide. This book has had quite an impact in helping to open up debates on mining & resource-use in India.


The Kurds represent one of the oldest cultures of Western Asia, and their struggle for justice and peace — even just basic recognition! — represents one of the world’s most significant and least understood movements. There are many other such peoples and movements, which we know little about due to media distortion, and its “Manufacturing of Consent”.

The movements I have been most associated with are of India’s indigenous people, known as tribal people or Adivasis, who retreated long ago to India’s most inaccessible regions, of mountains and forests and rivers, where they preserved their natural environment over centuries. These areas are now being invaded by literally hundreds of companies, damming the rivers, mining the minerals from the mountains, cutting the forest, and promoting GM crops.

“Development” is often a mask for extracting resources in a way that destroys communities and ecosystems. You will all know about the Ilisu dam and the destruction it threatens in south-west Turkey. India has over 3,000 big dams. Some single dams have displaced more than 200,000 people — mainly Adivasis, along with field systems and forests they have always lived with. In the Himalaya regions where big rivers descend rapidly, several hundred new dams are being built. There are many movements to try and stop these dams, but the sheer scale of work and finance coming in makes this very difficult.

Apart from the huge destruction to ecosystems and communities that always depended on these rivers, about 70% of each project is financed through loans, and this burden of debt in effect mortgages the rivers, and privatizes their water, which had always been common property.

This use of debt in today’s power structure needs to be understood more openly. The economic system promoted by the World Bank/IMF has plunged one country after another into unrepayable debt. This debt is then used as leverage to force these countries to open up their resources. Especially we have seen this with state governments in India, where some of the poorest states built up the most debt, paying for dams and coal mines — basically an infrastructure for the mining industry. This debt was then used to force these states to open up to foreign mining companies, since these states — Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh — are the richest in minerals.

There is a close link, too little focused on, between big dams and metal-manufacture. Aluminium in particular needs vast amounts of electricity to smelt, and since the 1890s aluminium smelters have usually been built next to big dams to supply hydropower. Egypt’s Aswan dam, Ghana’s Akosombo dam, Tucurui in Brazil — these are some out of over 100 dams world-wide basically built to supply aluminium factories. Possibly Ilisu is another — the connection is usually not made explicit nowadays.

One reason that the aluminium industry is so important is that it is a key metal for aerospace/defence — i.e. for the military industrial complex. Many of the wars happening around the world are basically wars over resources — this probably includes the wars in Iraq and Libya, where huge amounts of oil are at stake, and perhaps even Afghanistan, where there are lots of minerals. Some of the African countries that have been engulfed by war, such as Congo, are very rich in minerals, which has fuelled the fighting. In central India, hundreds of mining projects and metal factories are being promoted, many of them against strong local movements — some in Adivasi areas, others not. These resistance movements are among the world’s strongest, though very little reported outside India.

Superimposed on this situation, a Maoist insurgency has taken off in the last ten years, formed out of the “Naxalite” movement and its “People’s War Group”, active since the 1960s, combined with influence from the Nepali Maoists. In a few years, the Maoist insurgency has spread to over 100 districts, mainly in Eastern Central India. India’s Prime Minister has called it India’s biggest security threat. The exploitation, dispossession and injustice that Adivasis have faced have become so extreme that Adivasis are apparently joining the Maoists in large numbers, and 10,000s of armed police are deployed against them in “Operation Greenhunt”.

Human rights groups have reported hundreds of hideous atrocities committed by men in uniform on Adivasi villagers, with no hope of getting justice. In several well-recorded cases where Adivasi women and men have dared to bring cases against police for atrocities, the people bringing the cases have been imprisoned on “false cases” and apparently tortured, making them inaccessible to their lawyers and supporters.

There are many parallels between the Maoist movement in central India and the Kurdish struggle. Arundhati Roy wrote a piece in an Indian weekly magazine in March 2010 called “Walking with the Comrades” about visiting the Maoists in the forests of Chhattisgarh, central India, in which she interviewed and recorded the basic life stories of several young Adivasi Maoists — women as well as men. Adivasi women who have seen their close friends and family members raped and killed are strongly motivated to join up. This is one of many similarities with the Kurdish movement.

Another is the extent of violence, and the government’s policy of recruiting Adivasis in large numbers as “SPOs” (Special Police Officers) to fight the Maoists — since the people they are being armed and trained to fight are mainly Adivasis, this is a recipe for civil war: hundreds of villages are in effect divided into Maoists and Government supporters, and it becomes very difficult to remain neutral. This is similar to the “village guards” system in Turkey, and also similar to Columbia, where government militias have played a huge, destructive role in the fight against communist insurgents.

There are differences though. For one thing, Turkey would never have allowed publication of a piece like Arundhati’s. Turkey has one of the un-freeest of presses, while India has one of the free-est — even in the West, it’s hard to imagine a major article being published “Walking with Al Qaeda” or “the Taliban” that gave a sympathetic view. This is not to say the situation in India is easy for journalists — media is often owned by the same conglomerates that own the mining companies, and journalists who try and bring out atrocities by the companies and security forces face a lot of pressure.

Also the Maoist leadership is not Adivasi, and Mao himself imposed steel production as ruthlessly as anyone in his “Great Leap Forward”, causing the death of millions. Maoists are known to collect protection money from mining companies, and leaders refuse to spell out their policy on mining, though in Jharkhand state for example they have prevented numerous mining deals going ahead on the ground.

What is happening in Central India, and in the Kurdish areas of Turkey, follows a pattern laid down by European capitalists centuries ago. America, in particular, is a country founded on the Genocide of its native inhabitants. A similar Genocide took place in Australia — in Tasmania all the native population was exterminated in the early 19th century.

Britain’s East India Company was one of the world’s first “multinational companies”. Britain had already played a major role in the slave trade, buying/capturing blacks from West Africa and shipping them to south America to work plantations. One of the main trades of the EIC was opium, which it forced farmers in India to grow, and China to buy — twice waging war on China to force it to buy opium.

Going over the records of the East India Company, a main concern was to increase the revenue from India — gradually most of India came under British rule. Several wars were fought to make tribal peoples accept British rule, and to suppress tribal rebellions, when British rule had vastly increased the people’s exploitation and dispossession. But what is striking too is the concern with morality — the preoccupation in making British actions appear legitimate and just — “pacifying” and “civilizing” “lawless areas”. The “Government of India” was in origin a subsidiary of the EIC aimed at administering the territory and collecting revenue, which is why the head of a District is even today called a “Collector”.

Another pattern laid down by the British, as you probably know, was the bombing of Kurdish and Arab villages by the RAF during the 1920s, using mustard gas. Oil was the main motive then — as often now. The “War on Terror” is a complete contradiction in terms: when terror is used by security forces, on a far larger scale than “terrorists’ ” terror, why shouldn’t the security forces be called terrorists? It is apparent that in Turkey, in India, and many other countries, the primary terror is the actions of security forces.

Other countries where this pattern is particularly evident include, of course, Israel. Further away, Indonesia is a notorious example — West Papua was in effect betrayed by the UN when Indonesia took it over. Native peoples have been waging an insurgency ever since, and American/Australian mining companies have played a major role colluding with Indonesian security forces.

In Latin America, the Amazon regions of Ecuador, Peru and Columbia have been invaded by oil companies, with escalation in violence and environmental devastation in recent years. Nigeria has also been witness to huge violence by the security forces in collusion with Shell and other oil companies. In India, a thousand or more police are often deployed to force construction of a project, with considerable violence, and a number of “police firings”. Here too, the pattern goes back to the violent years just after the First World War, when Colonel Dyer in the Punjab ordered his troops to fire on an unarmed crowd in Punjab, killing several hundred.

One of the biggest police firings in the last few years was at Kalinganagar in Orissa, where several major steel plants are being built, in particular by one of India’s biggest companies, Tata. On 2nd January 2006 Tata tried to start construction supported by lots of police — there was a fight and explosions from a trip wire. After a policeman was killed, police fired on Adivasi villagers for over an hour, killing 14 and wounding about 60. The irony in the name is that Kalinga were a people who resisted the emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC when he was conquering most of India. They were a people without kings, but put up a strong fight. Ashoka erected inscriptions throughout India in which he expresses remorse of a kind, saying that 100,000 Kalinga were killed, 150,000 enslaved, and many times these numbers died from disease and famine. So in a way, the Kalinga war is one of the first recorded facts of Indian history, and its genocidal proportions are being repeated now. The numbers being actually killed may be relatively small (though the atrocities in “Operation Greenhunt” are not small scale), but the communities being displaced from the land face Cultural Genocide — a destruction of everything they have valued, and an uprooting of their bond with the land.

This is also evident in the Kurdish areas of Turkey, where several thousand villages have reportedly been destroyed, and 10,000s of villagers have come as refugees to the cities, or left Turkey. Genocide arguably consists of two main processes — one is a physical extermination, as was carried out against many American and Australian tribes, against Armenians in Turkey, and by the Nazis against Jews.

The other is the killing of cultures that are rooted to the land: this was another aspect in America and Australia, where missionaries were given the task of “detribalising” the children by taking them to boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak their own languages etc — a similar pattern to the forbidding of Kurdish in Turkey. Adivasis often say “Our blood may flow, but we won’t leave our land” — knowing the condition of 10,000s of people who’ve already been displaced, and suffer a “soul death”.

In many ways, tribal societies, or “ecological societies” are the antithesis of capitalism. As an Adivasi about to be displaced by the Narmada dam said in a statement that was published

You take us to be poor, but we’re not. We live in harmony and co-operation with each other…. We get good crops from Mother Earth…. Clouds give us water…. We produce many kinds of grains with our own efforts, and we don’t need money. We use seeds produced by us… In the spirit of Laha (communal labour) we produce a house in just one day…. You people live in separate houses. You don’t bother about the joy or suffering of each other. But we live on the support of our kith and kin…. How does such fellow-feeling prevail in our villages? For we help each other. We enjoy equal standing. We’ve been born in our village. Our Nara (umbilical cord) is buried here). (Baba Mahariya 2001)

A Kond (Adivasi) elder asked a friend of mine “Where are the saints in your society? In this village we’re all saints! We consume little, share what we have, and waste nothing.” An American India leader called Russell Means put this even more strongly in a speech in Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, in 1982:

Being is a spiritual proposition. Gaining is a material act. Traditionally, American Indians have always attempted to be the best people they could. Part of the process was, and is, to give away wealth — to discard wealth, in order not to gain. Material wealth is an indicator of false status among traditional people, while it’s ‘proof that the system works’ to Europeans…. The European intellectual tradition of despiritualizing the universe is very similar to the mental process that goes into dehumanizing another person…. The mental process works so that it becomes ‘virtuous’ to destroy the planet. Terms like ‘progress’ and ‘development’ are used as cover words here…. For example, a real estate agent may refer to ‘developing’ a parcel of ground by opening a gravel quarry. Development here means total permanent destruction, with the earth itself removed. But the European logic has ‘gained’ a few tons of gravel, with which some more land can be ‘developed’ through the construction of road beds. Ultimately the whole universe is open to this kind of insanity… Mother Earth has been abused. The powers have been abused. And this cannot go on forever…. When I use the term ‘European’ I’m not referring to a skin colour or a particular genetic structure. What I’m referring to is a mindset, a world view that is a product of the development of European culture… the Death Culture.

Among the most striking differences that mark out Adivasi & other Ecological societies from mainstream society, are an emphasis on sharing as opposed to competition, which is a prime value in mainstream, capitalist society. This also applies to Law, where a traditional legal process aims at reconciling contestants in a dispute rather than making one right and the other wrong. Usually, both parties will be fined, even if one more than the other, and the fines will pay for a feast of reconciliation.

Another main difference is that these societies lived in a sustainable relationship with their environment — sustainability is the essence of these cultures. This is also evident regarding Kurdish villages: living lightly on the land, without taking beyond a certain point. This is in marked contrast to many projects justified under “Sustainable Development”, when what is “sustainable” is primarily defined as what is profitable: the “3 pillars of SD” are economy, society and environment. But putting “economy” first makes a nonsense of the concept. All life depends on healthy ecosystems. Society also existed long before the economy and markets were separated off as a separate category.

At the heart of capitalism, since the 18th century, is the idea that if people follow their self-interest this will lead to the greatest common good — an idea we know has led to absurd levels of over-exploitation.

In many ways Neoliberal Economics is the most dangerous fundamentalism there has ever been. It is a set of dogma full of blatant contradictions — everyone knows that the rich countries got rich by protecting their markets, not by freeing them to competition. The economists running the IMF and World Bank, as well as Wall Street and the world’s major banks, are out of control, in the sense that their loans, policies and deals have had devastating impacts on ecosystems and communities since the 1950s, for which they take no responsibility.

Unusually, a woman World Bank consultant visiting villages that would be impacted by the WB-funded Upper Indravati dams in Orissa, recorded a conversation with villagers:

You are a woman and we are women…. You are a literate person from a big country. You understand these things are happening to us. So please, as a woman, help us…. The human society living in America must know what is going on in another human society living in India. And they are responsible because we’re all humans, living on earth. They can’t escape, you know. If I starve, you also bear a responsibility.

But taking responsibility is precisely what economists tend not to do. Not least for building the bubble of Debt. If any of you have seen Charles Fergusson’s documentary Inside Job, this documents the financiers and economists responsible for deregulating derivatives trading in the US, including Alan Greenspan and others, showing precisely how they were responsible for the 2008 sub-prime mortgage crash, in which thousands lost their homes.

When one explores the role of debt in modern finance, one gradually realises that the whole system is based on a monstrous bubble of debt. The capitalist system has been kept going through a number of artifices. The arms industry and war has played an important role. For one thing, wars have been a major cause of national debt, but also, arms industries are a main source of profit for the richer nations, and a main cause of the rising burden of debt of the poorer nations.

Economic theory doesn’t adequately deal with this debt-basis of modern finance; nor does it show the central place that the arms industry plays in the modern economic system — let alone the key role it plays in spreading corruption. As The Times commented in 1926 when a motion brought in the League of Nations to ban the sale of arms for private profit was defeated thanks to US arms lobbyists “War is not only terrible — it is a terribly profitable thing.”

In many ways, modern democracy is a sham, because elections are funded by corporations, including arms companies, that elected parties are then reluctant to challenge. Elected politicians often appear as the characters on a stage, when the strings are being pulled by financial entities with little public visibility.

It is worth remembering the original model of democracy, formulated in Athens in the 5th century BC. Among its key features was banning professional politicians and judges — these roles had to be taken on by citizens in rotation.

The capitalist system as we know it cannot continue for much longer without destroying the earth. If we’re to survive as a species, a lot of relearning the principles of ecological lifestyles needs to be done, along with a sense of living as a community, sharing instead of allowing individuals to accumulate ridiculous amounts of private wealth.

This is in tune with the need for Justice, and much wider recognition, for the Kurds, and for India’s Adivasis, among many other Ecological Peoples. The injustice fuels war, polarization, mutual acts of terror, and accompanies an insane over-extraction of resources, that these peoples regard as Sources of Life. It’s significant that in these two cultures, as in those of many other Ecological Peoples, Dancing plays a vital role in community life — peoples who still know how to dance!