Green grabbing The social costs of putting a price on nature

Demonstrating the economic value of nature once seemed at the forefront of progressive thinking, but on the ground it is turning into the latest wave of landgrabbing. What went wrong?


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Melissa Leach

What is green grabbing?

I think Guardian journalist John Vidal might have first coined the word, but it encompasses all the activities you can see where ecosystems are being put up for sale.

Sometimes it looks like schemes such as African Wildlife Foundation’s 'Adopt an Acre' programme which offers you a certificate of protected savannah for every $50 donation you make. Or it maybe styled as ecotourism, such as the case we look at where conservation agencies in Guatemala brought together military, conservation agencies and ecotourism companies to create a “Maya-themed vacationland.” Or it maybe promoted as providing a solution to climate change, such as New Zealand company Carbonscape's promise to create 930 million hectares of biochar feedstock plantations on “under-used marginal” lands in Africa.

The central idea is that we need to 'sell nature in order to save it.' Advocates argue that we can save forests, wildlife, biodiversity and counter pollution by repairing the damage elsewhere. The emphasis on marketising nature is a dominant one in the run-up to the Rio+20 summit in June 2012. It argues that saving the environment can go hand in hand with economic growth if we do the right kind of green investment and part of that investment is based on commodifying nature.

The central idea is that we need to 'sell nature in order to save it.'

On the ground however as we outlined in various case studies in our recent issue of the Journal of Peasant Studies (Green Grabbing: a new appropriation of nature?), this too often pans out as 'green grabs'; appropriation of resources from previous custodians. It fits into the bigger picture of landgrabbing, where we have seen 'green' credentials used to justify appropriations of land for food or fuel, such as we have seen with biofuels for instance.

It does not necessarily mean wholesale takeover of land from existing claimants, but can just mean changing the rules and authority over access and use of resources that can be equally alienating.

We use the term “green grabbing” in our special issue to examine instances where environmental agendas are the core drivers of the land deals – whether through biodiversity conservation, biocarbon sequestration, protection of ecosystem services, offsets etc.

Can you give us some examples of how this plays out?

There are lots of examples in our special issue on Green Grabbing: A new appropriation of nature?. The most striking ones are around forest carbon, known as Reducing Emissions Deforestation (REDD and REDD+) which is intended to protect existing forests and creating new forest plantations to fix carbon. In practice, this sometimes means restricting access to land to people with many negative effects.

Researcher Kyla Tienhaara outlines one striking example in Liberia a couple of years ago where a UK-based company negotiated the grab of 400,000 hectares of so-called virgin forest land. Yet this was land that people were using for fallow agriculture and other social and environmental purposes. Moreover the deal had no benefits at all for local communities. The eventual grab didn't come to fruition because activists got in first and demonstrated the lack of benefits but there are many cases where these grabs take place.

Similarly, Diana Ojeada shows how the protection of Tayrona National Park on the Caribbean coast of Colombia for eco-tourism has involved the criminalisation, exclusion and forced eviction of community members who have lived and worked in the protected area for decade. With the aid of paramilitary groups who have used violence and repression to “clean up” the park for tourist activities, they have privatised parts of the park by leasing them to a local tourism company.

The workings of new markets can be curiously dislocated from the locally specific histories of environments, land use, governance and agrarian relations

In all of the cases, we show how the workings of new markets can be curiously dislocated from the locally specific histories of environments, land use, governance and agrarian relations. Even the environment does not always behave as 'green' markets expect them to, as we have seen with the rise of super-weeds or epidemic diseases that have accompanied the rise of monoculture oil palm plantations.


What is driving the new green grab?

Well, in some ways it is not new. The phenomenon builds on a long and well-known history of colonial and neo-colonial alienation in the name of the environment. Peasants in environmental protection and conservation schemes of the 1970s and 1980s were often seen as environmental destroyers and dismissed as resource custodians. But there is also something new afoot.

The first is the extraordinary variety of new actors and alliances including pension funds,venture capitalists, GIS service providers, the military and NGOS as well as anxious consumers. They come at a time when 'green' issues have moved centre stage and become big business.

It is also fruit of a new encounter between science, technology and politics that have sought to quantify environmental damage, identified carbon as a commodity and portrayed biofuels as sustainable

It is also fruit of a new encounter between science, technology and politics that have sought to quantify environmental damage, identified carbon as a commodity and portrayed biofuels as sustainable. Fuelled by a sense of economic and environmental crisis, the result has been a thinking that seeks to get the most out of nature and with maximum efficiency.

This has often led to the transfer of public assets – such as forests or common farming land – into private hands, backed and encouraged by states who favour policies to attract investment over providing security and livelihoods for the poor.

It has combined with a growing historical trend of financialisation of the economy –in other words the drawing into financial circulation of aspects of life that previously lay outside it. This has fuelled a market for 'green' commodities, full of speculation, virtual commmodities and cartel-like backroom meetings.

So now a forest is valued not just for its beauty or its importance to a community for livelihoods, but for its underground potential for carbon storage, its solar absorption, its soil and water as potential for biofuel production, its trees as a source of carbon credits, and its biodiversity as a source of global conservation funding, species offsetting or tourism revenue.


Some years ago, giving economic value to nature seemed at the forefront of progressive thinking. What went wrong?

It is true that back in 1980s, the cutting edge of environmental economics was about properly valuing resources that are often ignored and invisible. I think a few things have gone wrong.

First like all markets, 'green' markets are based on social and political relationships and cartels, with winners and losers – and just as in the global market local benefits, while promised, are rarely realised.

Second the interaction of these markets with nature has now extended beyond resources to the processes involved, such as ecosystem services (capacity to absorb carbon for example) which should frankly not be monetized.

Logic might suggest that putting value on the ecosystem would help protect it, but this is also what employees think of viable businesses they work before they are sold and then asset stripped. Once there are markets for nature's assets, so nature's assets can also be stripped.

Once there are markets for nature's assets, so nature's assets can also be stripped. 

Third, these processes have been accompanied by what we call an “economy of repair”, which is valuing resources in one place as a way of repairing damage done elsewhere, so emissions in one place can be offset somewhere else. This creates the condition for asset stripping by putting economic value on misuse elsewhere and it takes attention away from the consumption and production processes that generated the environmental damage in the first place.

If we falsely believe we can solve our environmental impact by offsetting, it gives us a good excuse to avoid tackling production systems at source.


What has given this ideology such dominance – accepted by governments, business, conservation agencies and the UN alike?

I think this umbrella of a “green economy” has provided common ground for private businesses seeking profits, green groups, local elites and global agencies to appear to be bedfellows pushing for the same things. As you dig under the surface, however, there are a lot of divergences of what people mean by “green economy” and many different positions on, for example, current rates of growth, and whether a "green economy" should be fair and just.

I think there is a private sector-led effort seeking to make a quick buck from emerging green sentiments. Meanwhile some environmentalists and NGO alliances believe that “green economy” thinking is a new opportunity to make capitalism work for the environment and the poor as well. There is a sort of pragmatism by many NGOs that this is the only way to get corporate power to play to an environmental agenda. We are only now just starting to see the downsides of that thinking in cases on the ground.


Is the 'green economy' reformable or are we going down a dead-end?

I argue it both ways. I think there is room for reform in markets, more transparency, a better look at value chains, to make sure benefits go to local people. Principles of justice, fairness, local inclusion and accountability – if applied properly – can enable green markets to work for the poor. We can't wish away all 'green' markets fully so there is room as has happened in the Fair Trade movement to restructure those market chains to empower local communities as custodians.

But at same time we have to recognise the limits of the market for addressing sustainability. Using 'green' markets to continue business as usual and to offset downsides is not sustainable. We have to tackle climate change by building lower energy systems, and helping people live more effectively within ecological limits. This will involve lowering rates of growth, particularly in the North, and refocusing investment towards valuing livelihoods , employment, human relationships, and a living connection with our biosphere.

Using 'green' markets to continue business as usual and to offset downsides is not sustainable. 

We also need a different approach that starts from the bottom-up, looking at local rights and experiences of living with nature. There are many examples. In a chapter on West Africa in the journal we looked at indigenous use of soils, where communities buried charcoal that massively enhance soil fertility, fixes carbon and produce marketable crops, in otherwise poor soils. So there are pathways there that with extra resources such as kilns to speed up process could be upscaled.

The problem has been that international agencies have come in looking to market this on a large scale, selling the wonder cure of 'biochar' on carbon markets, which immediately removes this process from the interconnectedness at local level.

The differences on how you upscale can be sometimes subtle but there is a big difference between building on local relations and remaining embedded within local ecologies than turning these processes into an international market. In the end, we need to look not at single bullet solutions, but a diversity of small actions that necessarily reflect local contexts and local human relationships.

> Find out more by reading the full issue of the Journal of Peasant Studies on "Green Grabbing: a new appropriation of nature?"  (Please register to access all the 18 articles in the special issue.)

Melissa Leach is Professorial Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex where she directs the ESRC STEPS (Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability) Centre. She is the co-editor with Ian Scoones and James Fairhead of the Journal of Peasant Studies special issue on 'Green grabbing: a new appropriation of nature?. The Journal of Peasant Studies is edited by TNI fellow Jun Borras

Picture: "Green grabbing", by Filipino painter Boy Dominguez, water color on 20 in. x 30 in. illustration board, 2012. The painting was first used as cover image of Journal of Peasant Studies, vol. 39, no. 2: We thank JPS Editor Jun Borras for giving us permission to use the cover image." 



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