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BEST OF 2012: Going once, going twice…the great green land grab

Market-based solutions are perceived as the overriding panacea to the world’s environmental problems. Are they?
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Is land grabbing for conservation on the increase? Photo by Ian Mackenz/Flickr

BOGOR, Indonesia (17 September 2012)_“Buy land, they’re not making it anymore!” Mark Twain’s wry observation on the North American land acquisition boom of the late 19th century remains just as pertinent today as it was then. More than a 100 years later, the sheer scale of contemporary global land purchases and its appropriation from local stakeholders is unprecedented since the colonial land acquisitions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Stimulated by a global spike in food prices toward the end of the first decade of 2000, a number of affluent nation states reliant on food imports began to buy up large areas of land in the developing world for agricultural production to achieve their own food security. Added to this the emergence of the biofuel market, plantation-based forestry and the increasing expansion of commodity crops such as oil palm, vast areas of the global forest estate have been transferred from state control to private ownership, often taking with it valuable forest resources in the process, notably timber.

The economic drivers of such land conversion have been well documented. Land-rich governments stand to profit from the expansion of agricultural production, despite the immediate impact on their own rural populations, who often do not benefit from such economic development and face annexation from their customary lands.

While the phenomenon of “land grabbing”, as it has become known, continues unabated, an increasingly subtle and arguably more ethically questionable movement has gathered momentum. Large tracts of land across the globe are being appropriated by the environmental agenda, a process that has found considerable traction with influential international conservation NGOs. The Guardian journalist John Vidal described this new approach to conservation as “green grabbing”.

Such environmentally driven appropriation is not a new concept. In the late 1980’s the then Earthlife fund was offering private buyers the opportunity to purchase an acre of the newly promulgated Korup National Park in Cameroon to secure its long-term preservation. The scheme failed for a number of reasons, but despite early limitations the commodification of nature that such an initiative represents has become an increasingly pervasive conservation approach.

Witness, for example, the growth of portals such as the Ecosystems Marketplace, among others, who advocate that markets for ecosystem services provided by nature will become fully integrated into our current economic systems. And as John Vidal reported, buying land for conservation has become the preserve of the wealthy, looking for an exclusive and seemingly ethical investment.

In a summary paper in a recent special issue of the Journal of Peasant Studies, James Fairhead and colleagues catalogue the increasing prevalence of “green grabbing” and how the environmental sector is influencing how nature is both perceived and managed. They provide an insightful analysis of just how far the environmental sector has gone in embracing the market economy, be it for carbon, biodiversity or ecosystem services.

Fairhead and colleagues argue that the commoditization of nature has reflected a global trend towards neoliberalism where the market defines and arguably dictates what we should value and what we should not. To that end, payments for environmental services schemes (PES), Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD) and other finance-driven initiatives have become mainstreamed into the conservation agenda.

Increasingly, nature itself has become a source of profit, bringing together the strange bedfellows of corporations, land-rich governments, the banking industry, international conservation NGOs and the donor community. Given the recent loss of confidence in the global financial industry and the resultant global recession, it is perhaps surprising that our shared environmental concerns are being influenced by the need to integrate markets for carbon and other natural commodities into our mainstream economies. It would seem money talks. But does it?

Unfortunately, finance-based approaches, no matter how well intentioned, tend to ride roughshod over the rights of local people. Appropriation of land without full cognizance of the customary tenure that rural dwellers have enjoyed for centuries will undoubtedly have major negative livelihood implications. Although rights-based approaches to “doing the least harm” with respect to local people are conceptually well advanced, the reality on the ground is often very different. Hence the well documented resistance to PES/REDD initiatives by indigenous people who are seeing their land rights infringed upon and livelihoods deleteriously affected.

The primary outcome of Rio +20, where “green economies” were perceived as central to the sustainable development agenda, has compounded the perception that market-based solutions are the overriding panacea to the world’s environmental problems. As a result, some argue that the intrinsic value of nature and respect for local livelihoods and knowledge systems have been lost to increasingly influential market-based approaches.

The global market-focused system has been arguably responsible for overseeing the transformation of almost every ecosystem and biome on earth. To then turn to the same source to provide sustainable and equitable solutions to our environmental problems therefore seems perhaps questionable. Millions of soon-to-be landless people would surely concur

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  • Terry;

    I completely agree that our global economy has wreaked havoc on nature and that extractive industries and agriculture have run roughshod over the rights of local people around the world, but it’s a mistake to portray ecosystem markets as an extension of these activities rather than as a response, which is what they are.

    To begin with, viable ecosystem payments don’t go to people who put a fence around land but rather to projects that support the development of sustainable livelihoods so that the people who live on the land aren’t forced to degrade it to make a living. In Bolivia, for example, water-dependent cities are helping to support beekeeping in the Andes so that farmers won’t be forced to degrade the watershed (see http://www.ecosystemmarketplace.com/pages/dynamic/article.page.php?page_id=9206&section=home), and this is from an isolated example. In fact, it’s the emerging model of a successful finance-based ecosystem project, whether that project is in forestry or water or biodiversity, as we’ve covered extensively on Ecosystem Marketplace.

    This doesn’t mean there isn’t room for abuse, as there is whenever money changes hands. That’s why we advocate strict safeguards for indigenous people and the rural poor. It’s also why our parent organization, Forest Trends, works with indigenous people around the world through the Katoomba Incubator (http://www.ecosystemmarketplace.com/pages/dynamic/article.page.php?page_id=9038&section=home) to make sure they understand the risks, opportunities and intricacies of ecosystem markets, and it’s why we launched the Ecosystem Marketplace Community Portal (http://community.ecosystemmarketplace.com/) as a resource for indigenous people around the world.

    Don’t get me wrong. These markets are not perfect. They are a work in progress, but they are much more evolved than you imply, and they are built on both the lessons of the past and the reality of the present. The global market economy, for better or for worse, is part of that reality, and solutions that ignore that reality do so at their own peril.