Q.&A.: The Underside of ‘Green’ Transactions
At Rio+20, the global conference on sustainable development that got under way Wednesday morning in Brazil, discussions abound on advancing environmental goals in a way that will benefit local and national economies. But development experts say there is a dark side to some ostensibly “green” market initiatives: the appropriation of resources for biofuels production, carbon offsets, ecotourism and so on can have devastating consequences for local people.
In effect, their ecosystems can be “asset-stripped,” forcing locals from their homes and worsening poverty, according to 17 case studies presented in a special issue of the Journal of Peasant Studies. Examples include the creation of what researchers describe as a Maya-themed vacationland for ecotourists in Guatemala and “land grabs” for biochar production in eastern and southern Africa.
We spoke by telephone with Melissa Leach, the director of the Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability Center in Britain, who helped assemble the journal issue and is in Rio this week. Following are excerpts, edited for brevity and clarity.
Q. What are the origins of the notion of putting a price on nature, and what is the darker side that you refer to as “green grabbing”?
A. The movement to put a price on nature goes back to the early 1980s, when environmental economists like David Pearce began to argue that you needed to put a monetary value on the environment to avoid its being grabbed by basically anybody.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s there was a great deal of work to try and price aspects of the environment. But I think it was really the Millennium Ecosystems Assessment of 2005 when the idea of ecosystem services was popularized, which gave rise to a concerted effort to try and assign prices to every “natural” service. This gave birth to what we are now seeing: a whole series of payment schemes for ecosystem services from biodiversity to carbon storage and aesthetic and tourism values.
At the same time, there has been a move in the last three or four years of countries in the industrialized north, China and the Middle East to invest in land and resources in low-income countries. That has given rise to a phenomenon of land-grabbing in which large areas of land in the developing world are being parceled off for food and biofuels, often with very negative effects on land rights for the people who live there.
What we have defined as “green grabbing” is where these two trends intersect — instances where foreign land grabs are being driven by ecosystem commoditization.
Q. Can you give an example of how this is happening?
A. There are two particular cases, both of which appear in the current special issue of the Journal of Peasant Studies that I think are particularly illustrative.
The first is in Tanzania, where over time areas of land that were once the common-property grazing land of Masai pastoralists, were taken over as wildlife preserves by the government and then essentially sold off to a set of private companies that are marketing the wildlife values of ecotourism on those lands. This has served to progressively exclude pastoralists from lands where they were previously grazing their animals.
Some of the most interesting cases, however, involve forest carbon schemes like REDD [the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation program] and others that encourage land deals which sound great but look very draconian in practice. In Liberia, for example, a few years ago a British company attempted to do a forest carbon deal with the government for 400 hectares [nearly 1,000 acres] of what they called virgin rain forest in the southern part of the country.
The contract that was worked out was very unspecific about what portion of the carbon market revenue would go back to the country, and made no mention at all of what would happen to the local people who lived in and around the forest and used it for hunting and water and forest products.
Fortunately in this case, a development aid adviser working in Monrovia took a good look at the contract and pointed out to the government that it stood to gain nothing and the deal was eventually canceled.
Q. Can you break down some of the systemic issues that lead to green grabbing?
A. Most of the governments selling off their ecosystem services are impoverished and desperate for money so are in a position to be taken advantage of. And these payment schemes are so obscure and complicated that it’s nearly impossible for the governments, let alone local people, to grasp their implications.
Another fundamental problem is that the way these schemes are often constructed and justified builds on the assumption that forests are being lost fast and that local people are to blame for it. This leads to a kind of project that returns to older approaches of fortress conservation that relied on just shutting people out of forest areas.
We know from decades of experience that conservation schemes fail when local resource needs aren’t respected. But forest carbon schemes rely on leaving forests alone because the carbon stocks have to stay put, which isn’t really compatible with people using the forests for anything.
So we are seeing a new kind of colonization. Small farms and villages that have thrived alongside nature are being replaced by a landscape of grabbed concessions, and people, if they have any rights at all, are being reduced to laborers in ecosystems in which they no longer have any stake.
Q. Do you think the monetization of ecosystems is intrinsically a bad idea?
A. No, there is room for monetary approaches as a way of giving value to the environment and as part of this move toward green economies, which is very much a focus at Rio — but with the proviso that concerns about justice around local resource rights and ownership have to stay center stage.
Secondly, I think that the assumption that all aspects of nature can and should be monetized risks creating a situation where we chop up ecosystems, we separate them out, we see them in terms of their component monetized parts in a way that misses the more interconnected relationships that are so crucial to the ways that people have lived with nature in sustainable ways.
We need to put limits on the extent to which money comes to drive the ways we are thinking about people and ecosystems and their relationship, and there are some things we need to recapture from the market’s grasp.
Q. What is an example of something that might need to be untethered from the market?
A. In some villages in West Africa where I have done research, villagers dispose of household and agricultural waste around their settlement in ways which, over time, create fertile rings of soil around the village. When the village moves, these areas become prime farming land.
Now, this very same enrichment of soil by charcoal is being seized upon by businesses as an opportunity to create biochar — generating carbon credits by burying burned organic matter in the ground.
But local farmers don’t see carbon-enriched soils as a commodity or the soil carbon as a separate salable item, it’s all just part of a way of life. And while there may be opportunities to support farmers in creating biochar and they may even be able to profit from doing this, there is also the risk that farmers who buy into the new scheme become laborers for a biochar industry as opposed to just people living their lives. You have to build on the logic and systems already in place.
Part of the broader argument is that local knowledge, stewardship and cultural practices are part of the solution and need to be recognized, supported and scaled up instead of ignored, marginalized or uprooted and replaced.
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