Tuesday, August 23, 2011


            In answer to a question about the poor in New York City, Boss Tweed is reported to have said “I’m not concerned with the poor.  If they give me trouble, I’ll pay half of them to kill the other half.”  Unfortunately it seems that some ecologists are saying something similar these days, albeit not with the disgusting flair Boss Tweed was known for.  Rather, in an astounding failure to heed their own warnings about unanticipated consequences and indirect effects, the theoretical (and increasingly actual) consequences of programs such as REDD (Reduced Emissions through Deterred Deforestation), climate-friendly agriculture (a new World Bank scheme), and more generally payment for ecosystem services, are rarely pondered.  Consequently, when grass roots social movements come out in strong rejection to such programs, ecologists and the NGOs that claim to speak for them, seem like a deer in the headlights.
            In my experience ecologists (and increasingly ecological economists) have not even thought through the objections of these grass roots groups.  When Annie Leonard (famous for her viral video “The Story of Stuff”) came out with a very clear and well-presented argument against “cap and trade,” she lost the fawning support of many ecologists who thought The Story of Stuff was great. Her argument actually is part of a larger argument about payments for ecosystem services.  Whether you agree or not, it is important to at least understand what the issues are.   Simplifying a bit, the argument can be summarized with four interrelated points.

1) Poor farmers and communities in the Global South have been protecting their agroecosystems and forests for many years before the entire idea of payments for ecosystem services.  Why should they now begin serving bloated carbon emitters in the North?  It is at least ironic, and a bit insulting, that the major culprits in the current global ecological crisis are the ones calling on family farms and communities in the Global South to help them out.  To suggest to the poor of the Global South that they serve as an excuse to continue polluting and earth-destroying production activities is reverting to the past where the poor of the Global South provided the raw materials at remarkably unfair terms of trade, to the capitalists of the industrial world.  Rather than supplying raw cotton to the textile mills, they now are expected to supply the legal ruse that permits giant energy companies to continue with business as usual.  Exon, rather than cleaning up its refineries, bribes a small community in southern Mexico to NOT cut its community forest down.  Effectively carbon is “extracted” from the Global South at bargain prices. In addition to insulting, it does little to change the pattern of emissions since most of the payments are for things that people had been doing for generations and almost certainly would continue to do even without payments.  The slogan of Via Campesina “Our carbon is not for sale!” is telling.

   2)  Most schemes of ecosystem service payments involve, either directly or indirectly, some sort of affidavit, a stock or bond so to speak.  The energy company buys from the community a promise not to cut their forest down, and agrees to pay x amount of money each year to do that.  If that particular company sees a downturn and is forced to downsize, there is nothing to stop it (indeed there are structures that encourage it) to sell that promise to another company.  Once these affidavits begin generating their own markets (hard to imagine that NOT happening), the same sort of speculative behavior can be expected as we have seen in the past, with the sequential bubbles that “inexplicably” burst at regular intervals.  As prices of affidavits increase, the land on which they are based is also likely to inflate, and investors will begin the process of land acquisition.  (indeed, some analysts have suggested that the “land grabs,” especially by China and India, in recent years are at least partly a consequence of this new speculative market). Small scale farmers and poor communities may have little resistance to such pressure, leading to massive abandonment of the countryside and swelling of the cities.  And the payments will eventually go to whichever rich capitalist was able to buy the land from which the peasants were excluded.

3) Land speculation is likely (indeed some analysts have claimed that it has already begun) to create antagonistic class struggles within the poor classes.  The farmer who receives payments suddenly has not only extra money but also extra incentive to purchase his neighbor’s land.  Buying into the system by one newly rich (comparatively) class to the detriment of the other class, whether intentional or not, is what Boss Tweed said.  If Exxon can arrange it so that farmers in the Global South are fighting with each other over who will serve Exxon, it will have engineered the proverbial win-win situation for itself.

4) Many, perhaps most, programs of payment for ecosystem services will dictate certain aspects of how the ecosystem is to be utilized, ranging from not cutting trees (REDD) to tillage constraints (climate-friendly farming) and undoubtedly many others.  Which payments go to which communities and which farmers is a decision that will be made by agencies ranging from the World Bank, to the IMF to the BINGOs (e.g., Conservation International, World Wildlife Fund) to local governments/militaries with questionable motivations (e.g., the Mexican government in Chiapas whose main concern is to put down the growing Zapatista revolution). Peasants and peasant communities who go along with these schemes, while they prosper in the short run, in the long run they loose a bit of sovereignty over their own land.

In the end, REDD and REDD+ and REDD++ and climate-friendly agriculture and any of the other proposed schemes will likely be opposed by popular social movements.  Unfortunately, academics with careers to nurture play the same game as speculators with capital to maneuver.  The urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is likely to blind many people to the collateral damage likely to be caused (we already see this happening in Mexico) and encourage participation in these schemes.  And once participation begins, it is difficult to change a funding pattern (it is always surprising to me how cheaply academics can be purchased). With regard to agriculture, the overwhelming importance of the industrial system as a contributor to GHG emissions is now well-established and should be opposed.  Trying to elicit the support of small-scale agriculturalists and communities in the Global South and asking them, implicitly, to relinquish a part of their sovereignty over their own productive enterprises is akin to the drunk looking for his lost keys on the wrong side of the street simply because the light is better there.  Challenging Monsanto or Exxon is daunting.  “Helping” the poor farmers sell their sovereignty in the name of GHG emissions is a lot easier.


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