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The Dark Side of the “Green Economy”

Why some indigenous groups and environmentalists are saying no to the “green economy.”
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Photo by Ben Powless.

Everywhere you look these days, things are turning green. In Chiapas, Mexico, indigenous farmers are being paid to protect the last vast stretch of rainforest in Mesoamerica. In the Brazilian Amazon, peasant families are given a monthly “green basket” of basic food staples to allow them to get by without cutting down trees. In Kenya, small farmers who plant climate-hardy trees and protect green zones are promised payment for their part in the fight to reduce global warming. In Mozambique, one of the world’s poorest nations, fully 19 percent of the country’s surface is leased to a British capital firm that pays families to reforest.
These are a few of the keystone projects that make up what is being called “the green economy”: an emerging approach that promises to protect ­planetary ecology while boosting the economy and fighting poverty.

On its face this may sound like a good thing. Yet, during the recently concluded United Nations Rio+20 Earth Summit in Brazil, tens of thousands of people attending a nearby People’s Summit condemned such approaches to environmental management. Indeed, if social movements gathered in Rio last month had one common platform, it was “No to the green economy.”

Whose Economy? Whose Green?

Just a few years ago, the term “green economy” referred to economies that are locally based, climate friendly, and low-impact. But since the global economic meltdown began in 2007, the green economy has come to mean something more akin to the wholesale privatization of nature. This green economy is about putting a price on natural cycles through a controversial set of policies called “Payments for Ecosystem Services”—an approach to greening capitalism that some liken to a tiger claiming to turn vegetarian.

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Rather than reducing pollution and consumption, protecting the territorial rights of land-based peoples, and promoting local initiatives that steward resources for future generations, the approach is doing the opposite: promoting monoculture tree plantations, trade in pollution credits, and the establishment of speculative markets in biodiversity and forests, all of which threaten to displace land-based communities.

A report by Ecosystem Marketplace, the leading purveyor of “Payments for Ecosystem Services,” lays out the green economy argument: “Ecosystems provide trillions of dollars in clean water, flood protection, fertile lands, clean air, pollination, disease control. ... So how do we secure this enormously valuable infrastructure and its services? The same way we would electricity, potable water, or natural gas. We pay for it.”

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), among the chief proponents of the green economy, says this approach will result in “improved well-being and social equity while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities.” The World Bank, also promoting the green economy, says, “Natural capital accounting would add to our national GDPs the wealth stored in our natural resources: minerals before they are mined, forests before they are felled, water while it is still in the rivers.”

But, for social movements, land-based communities, and indigenous peoples, the question is, who really pays? For what are they paying? And, most poignantly, since when has nature, the source of all life, been reduced to a service-provider?

One concern is that this new green economy is a form of “disaster capitalism”—a global effort to put the “services” of nature into the same hands that caused the global financial meltdown. And that seems like a very, very bad idea.

Increasingly, the evidence on the ground bears this out.

The reforestation plan in Mozambique has peasant farmers planting industrial monocultures of African palm for biofuel production, not native forest. The Kenyan farmers of the Green Belt Movement, while initially receptive to a World Bank-backed scheme that would pay them to protect agricultural soils, became discouraged when they realized the payments would add up to less than 15 cents per acre per year, and that they would have to wait many years for payment. In Brazil, the “green basket” of food staples adds up to 100 Reales per family per month—but cooking gas alone can cost 50 Reales a month, leaving families without access to the forest hungry and dependent on paltry state support.

And in Chiapas, where families in the Lacandon community are paid to protect the forest against their neighbors, the struggling campesinos from the Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Chol, and Mam ethnic groups are forced off the land and into prefab peri-urban settlements, where their customs and traditional livelihoods will be forever lost. 

Kari-Oca photo by Ben Powless

Signing of the Kari-Oca II Declaration at the indigenous gathering held prior to the Rio summit. The Declaration states the indigenous delegation rejects the green economy as a continuation of colonialism.

Photo by Ben Powless.

Carbon Dumps?

All of these initiatives are based on carbon offsetting—essentially, permission slips purchased by corporations and governments to allow them to continue dumping CO2 into the atmosphere in exchange for the ecosystem service provided by forests and agricultural soils in the Global South, which act as carbon sinks.

But, as Nigerian activist Godwin Ojo says, “Forests are not carbon sinks, they are food baskets.” Ojo tells of a rubber plantation near his home that has deprived hundreds of farmers of their livelihood under the auspices of the  United Nations Collaborative Initiative on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, a pillar program of the green economy.

“We find that most policies affecting indigenous peoples are designed without our participation,” Ojo says. “If this trend continues, it will lead to a vicious cycle of poverty and violence.”

If this is how the new green economy is playing out on the ground, it is no wonder that it has sparked resistance.

Social movements in the Global South do not mince words: The invitation for the People’s Summit in Rio declared, “Nothing in the ‘green economy’ questions the current economy based in extraction and fossil fuels, nor the patterns of consumption and industrial production, but extends this economy into new areas, feeding the myth that economic growth can be infinite.”

At the People’s Summit, spokespeople allied with smallholder farmers, women’s organizations, human rights groups, and others debated Achim Steiner, director of the UNEP.

Larissa Packer, a Brazilian lawyer with Terra de Direitos, an organization that works to secure land rights for landless communities, was among those who participated.

“Payment for environmental services,” Packer said, “posits that the actions of nature—the water cycle, the carbon cycle, the pollination of flowers by bees—are commodities, subject to the law of the market. In essence, such an approach implies the natural enclosure of these ‘services,’ and, when encoded in legal norms and property rights, the actual enclosure of the natural areas—forests, watersheds, wetlands. ... Such an approach is akin to the continued enslavement of nature.”

She then offered a clear summary of the economics at work: “In the current market,” she said, “prices are based on supply and demand, that is, on scarcity. As petroleum becomes scarce, its value goes up. The green economy will follow the same logic. ... If we put a price on forests, on biodiversity, on other common goods, those prices will be driven up by scarcity, So, for investors in these things, the greater the scarcity of ecosystem services, the greater their value. Where do we think this will lead?”

Steiner responded by saying that, while we may be frustrated with the state of the world, “whether we like it or not, economic thinking is dominating all our nations,” and we need to come to terms with this.

“When you say we give a price to nature and automatically it becomes a tradable commodity, I would ask, is it not useful to capture the value of an ecosystem also in economic terms? If countries began to understand how dramatic the value of our ecosystems and resources is to the future of our development prospects, then maybe we would enact laws to protect nature, we would increase protected areas, we would have far more indigenous peoples manage land and reserves, and we would pass far harsher laws to prevent the private sector from engaging in destructive practices.”

Steiner’s plea, however, left the social movements cold. Speaker upon speaker rose to denounce the green economy as the commodification of life, the final enclosure of the commons, and the largest land grab ever dreamed up by the corporate sector.

Tom Goldtooth, director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, boils it down to “the difference between money-centered Western views and the life-centered indigenous worldview based on the sacred female creation principles of Mother Earth.”

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On June 21, winter solstice in Brazil, a delegation of indigenous people from an encampment called Kari-Oca II near the Rio summit delivered a declaration to U.N. officials. The declaration, signed by more than 500 indigenous leaders and blessed in a ritual ceremony, took direct aim:

“The Green Economy is a perverse attempt by corporations, extractive industries, and governments to cash in on Creation by privatizing, commodifying, and selling off the Sacred and all forms of life and the sky, including the air we breathe, the water we drink, and all the genes, plants, traditional seeds, trees, animals, fish, biological and cultural diversity, ecosystems and traditional knowledge that make life on Earth possible and enjoyable.”

Life-Affirming Alternatives

What is especially offensive about this new green economy is that it removes from the table all of the positive, life-affirming approaches that the social movements of the Global South have been nurturing for decades:

  • The solidarity economies, where values and prices are set within a local, social context in order to create an exchange of goods and services outside of corporate-controlled markets;
  • Rights-based frameworks that protect women, indigenous peoples, and other vulnerable populations not only within the market, but from the market; 
  • The Rights of Mother Earth, which says that all of life has inherent and inalienable rights;  
  • Territoriality, the notion that land-based people are not stewarding “a piece of land like a piece of bread,” but a sovereign space to call home; 
  • Climate debt, the idea that northern countries, whose prosperity is built on resource extraction, slavery, and protectionism, must pay for what they have taken; and 
  • The Commons, that age-old notion that democratic governance of shared resources must happen in spaces explicitly protected from the dominance of the market.

In other words, rather than expanding the scope of markets to every domain of nature, a true green economy would do the opposite: reverse the tide of commodification and financialization, reduce the role of markets and the financial sector, and strengthen democratic control over the world’s ecological commons.

As the Kari-Oca Declaration was delivered at the Earth Summit, many of those present looked up to notice a condor circling over the ceremony. In a week filled with acrimony and heated debate, with the United Nations poised to sell off the very foundations of life and our common heritage, the moment was rich with significance. If the social movements are able to stand their ground, that condor, the wind upon which it hovered, and the life which its solstice flight affirmed will remain ever as it was that day—just out of reach and priceless.


Jeff Conant wrote this article for It's Your Body, the Fall 2012 issue of YES! Magazine. Jeff is an interdependent journalist and author of A Community Guide to Environmental Health and A Poetics of Resistance: The Revolutionary Public Relations of the Zapatista Insurgency. 

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