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Editorial: Greedy investors rape, responsible investors reap

Private investors poured $244 billion into the developing world in 1996, according to the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental think tank. One would like to think this was charity poured into the impoverished Third World on a grand scale, but we know better.

People with great gobs of money seldom say they now have enough, or too much, and then start giving it away to the nearest poor nation. Instead, they do maneuvers like expanding their holdings and maximizing their profits. Lucky for the rich, they don’t have to take the food directly off any pauper’s plate. Instead, mechanisms have been set in place over the centuries to allow for the smooth upward flow of wealth.

“As investors search the world for the highest return, they are often drawn to countries with bountiful resources and weak environmental laws, a potentially disastrous combination for the environment and economy,” writes Worldwatch Vice President Hilary F. French.

The report singles out certain industries, such as coal, oil, gas and forestry as most ecologically damaging. The world’s forests are particularly vulnerable -- the report points accusingly at Brazil, Cambodia, Congo, Guyana, Nicaragua, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Surinam. There is something pathetic and worrying about those mostly impoverished countries selling bodies and souls for short-term Western money -- even as one appreciates the terrific pressures on poor countries to take the money and run.

If a nation’s people are hungry or dying, it’s not easy to worry about posterity. And when entrepreneurs arrive from the “advanced” First World with moneybags and laptops tacitly telling you that raping countries like yours has made them successful, it’s all rather hard to resist.

The report describes some brave efforts by investors and corporations, “channeling money into smaller-scale, less-centralized projects that preserve natural resources.” The Triodos Bank, for example, gets credit for launching a fund to finance loans for solar systems in rural communities in Africa and Asia.

The Triodos people are probably much like us. Even the leaders of big corporations would, in general, prefer that everybody be happy and have sufficiency, and it should be a small enough step to do something about that. Especially if time proved that short-term greed is bad and that generosity works. And the report says that is so: that “environmentally progressive companies generally perform better than companies with large environmental liabilities.”

National Catholic Reporter, March 27, 1998