“You can take the title to your house to the bank and borrow money. Why? Because the market puts value on a house. We need to see rainforest at that same value level,” he says. “Conservation has to be market-driven. The long-term benefits of a healthy forest are more valuable than the short-term profits from logging or mining.”
Dane Gobin, Iwokrama Forest Management, Guyana (Bloomberg, 2019)
For decades methods have been applied about how best to arrest the process of deforestation in the world’s tropical regions. Everyone from international development agencies to Hollywood greenies have gone all out, doing everything from berating, and even ostracizing governments in affected regions, to incentivising them with the promise of aid, legitimacy and investment if only they would quit the logging.
The argument to conserve biodiversity over the argument to develop economically has traditionally come down to a binary ethical one. Western voices have persistently pleaded on the basis that deforestation – whether it be for lumber, squatting, mining, or slash-and-burn farming of cash crops – is an immoral act that not only deprives countless millions of species of a roof over their heads, but also degrades the quality of soil, air and of the lives of every man, woman, and child in the wider world. The value, therefore, of each hardwood tree, each prowling jaguar, and each creeping vine is in and of itself incalculable – or at least with a value exceeding the sum parts of the commodities that loggers, farmers and miners seek when despoiling the rainforest in the first place. Western thinking goes thus: stay in your sprawling shanty towns; let nature be; allow only indigenes the right to dwell in biodiversity hotspots. But in a world of nearly 8 billion ambitious souls, most of whom live in what’s called the Global South where most of the real biodiversity lies broken against a backdrop of poverty, squalor and deep structural inequality, what then?
Making Borneo into one great National Park, or keeping the Amazon as a primordial world, is all well and fine, but does it really chime with our contemporary mood? Making nature exempt from commodification and monetary value was part of a conservation mindset popular during the heyday of the National Park system in the early to mid twentieth century (think the USA under Teddy Roosevelt). Let’s ring fence the beautiful places in perpetuity, which worked beautifully in wild places such as Yosemite. But today, given the mess we’re in what with a toxic blend of population pressure, degraded environment, and a model of capitalism espousing the greatest consumption for the greatest number to produce the greatest happiness, how durable is the view that wilderness should remain untouched? Isn’t it time to take other, more radical, measures to safeguard the last remaining wild places?
Look around and what becomes apparent is not that the old paradigm is changing. Moreover, it’s that it has to. Under the pressure of realpolitik, of shrinking public spaces, of expansive corporate reach, and of burgeoning populations hell bent on getting a slice of that consumer pie, closing off vast swathes of so-called virgin territory is creating a rift between governments and their people, and more importantly between the reality of the situation and the perception of how to solve it. If not, then how come the more that developing countries (as well as a few developed ones) have tightened their environmental laws over the past generation, the more incursions we see made by various players and the greater the overall dismantling of the biosphere within the primary forest? Within this paradox, political populists hostile to established models of conservation can stand on ceremony with the promise of making pots of money for everyone from what they see as their own – and not the planet’s – natural patrimony.
Seen by populist governments in heavily-populated developing countries as symptomatic of the Western tendency toward paternalism towards the regions these great powers used to rule, in some unpopular cases, such as Brazil and Indonesia, the world has seen in recent years a worrying acceleration in the acreage of virgin forest felled for lumber, cash crops, and the riches that lie beneath the forest floor. And what is the motive that belies this degradation we see in spite of decades of lobbying and campaigning for an end to wilful and unsanctioned deforestation? Why are things, in some sense, worse than anyone could have imagined even twenty years ago? Well, in the words of Ricardo Salles, the Brazilian Environment minister under Jair Bolsonaro’s polemic presidency, the reality goes a bit like this:
“We need to recognise that there are real subjects living in the Amazon,” Mr Salles said, referring to the 20m people living in the Amazon. “So we need to give a concrete response to them, and not simply saying that they cannot do anything in the area of the Amazon. That is not reasonable, it is not even feasible.” (Financial Times, 2019)
By promulgating the moral argument for making the Amazon one gigantic exclusion zone for the millions of restless, economically-challenged people living in its vast surrounds, it seems that no lasting progress can be made. The old model, backed by rich, industrialised countries, many of whom have already laid waste to their own primary forests, is turning out to be a dud. Their appeal to goodness based on the ethical presumption that ‘just because we did it to get rich, to develop our nation state, you shouldn’t necessarily follow’, is now clearly falling on deaf ears. Populism has fostered defiance among the developing states in the equatorial belt. The rising power of China as an ideological counterweight to the traditional Western hegemony is emboldening states, such as Brazil, to let ecocide reign so long as the conditions for human inequality persist. Alongside this, the vast improvements in global supply-chain logistics has smoothed the way for biodiversity loss to become one big concerted effort. Salles’ justification for this lawlessness rife on the fringes of the great Amazonian basin is clearly viewable in these terms. He elaborates the point:
‘That is why people go over to the illegal activities… because they don’t have a space to do something within the law.’
Are we hearing the makings of policy based on the precepts of what is known as ecological economics? This idea is not exactly hot off the press, but it is beginning to demand attention. With the UN’s Millennium Development Goals teetering on the brink, something has to give. And that, unfortunately, is policy attachment to the notion of deep ecology. As outlined previously in this article, building policy goals around a shared ethic that one can never put a price on nature, has proved a bridge too far, and this failure is seen in terms of unsustainable losses to tropical biodiversity in this century alone. Purists might baulk at the idea, but monetising a forest and all that’s in it might just be the one compelling way to make business, and all the rogues that dwell on its fringes, sit up and listen. Speak their language. It’s called cash. Easy to learn; tough to forget.
So, what does monetisation of nature mean in principle? According to Barbara Unmüßig of the Heinrich Boell Foundation, that conservation efforts can be bolstered and public sympathy heightened by revealing an economic contribution of nature and the services it can provide. This translates as tradable prices for ecosystem services. We can encapsulate these wider definitions into what I would term ‘natural capital/equity’. Measuring nature with economic indicators over a tradition of measuring nature, sui generis, against other ethical considerations still has a touch of the abstract to it. So, in short, ecological economism really boils down to saying, look, if you want this patch of forest you’ll have to show you truly value it by paying a high tariff for it. Ergo, those who would place such high stakes on their own economic future, and that of their corporate interests, would therefore place an enormous value on natural capital, to the extent that it would be safer in private hands (acting as a trust) than at the mercy of prohibitive legislation that invariably ends up breached by corrupt officials and short-term prospectors anyway.
If the past fifty years have amply shown that the world doesn’t quite agree on an absolute value placed on nature, it has always contrastingly shown that free market capitalism has been instrumental in placing absolute value on something so long as it can be considered commodity. No one quibbles with the price the market sets, after all. And this is where the problem lies: is it right to commodify nature? Does doing so lead to privatisation by other means? Where governments have failed, can the private sector, including the world’s investment bankers, step into the fray and actually flick the switch on ecological damage and destruction? In short, is it better to harvest a tropical hardwood than to fell it? For the tree, the answer is an unqualified yes. But for the guy who wants a quick hit of capital from the lumber, or he who desires the empty space left once the tree goes, what then? Even this radical idea (well, radical for our modern age) has its limitations. Without applying what Unmüßig terms the precautionary principle – the principle that the higher the risk to the natural environment, the greater the justification must be for a stakeholder to take such action – monetization of the natural world can all too easily slide into the kind of excessive commodification that drives Man to desire ownership and control over every tangible thing. We all know where that leads. And this instinct of tearing down only to build up, or to destroy in order to prosper, can only be moderated at the levels of governance and legislation. Which brings us back to the old ways of trying to combat ecocide.
Perhaps, there is a way, though. A new modus operandi where some ecosystems can thrive while we survive. And all in a more symbiotic, a more mutually-beneficial way. The Selva Maya is an area of tropical jungle spanning three countries: Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. A 150,000 sq km biodiversity hotspot containing no less than five species of big cat, La Selva Maya has recently been acquired at cost by conservation groups with money to put into something other than publicity and administration (Guardian, 22/04/21) Thanks to direct purchasing from the national government of Belize (i believe), this splodge of megadiverse, pristine forest finds itself now perpetually protected. Barring a constitutional catastrophe in Belize, nothing large-scale will ever again encroach on the fragile makeup of the forest. By any measure, what has happened here is a great thing for nature. And by extension, for the whole world. In purchasing the forest, conservation groups have clearly come out in the open, admitting that a monetary value – whatever it is – has been agreed with the previous custodians of the land. However, the arrangement seeks not to commodify what has been purchased, ironically, as a commodity. The contents of the forest will not be up for negotiation, or fair game for the highest bidder. No, that would miss the point.
The best analogy i can come up with for the money paid is that of a ransom. The right people now have the title deeds in their name, and presumably their business model is to leave the place the hell alone to simply be. If enough consortiums can come together to purchase small, affordable patches of rich biota, mainly rainforest, along the entire equator, then we might just begin to witness a joining of the dots until one day every last hectare that was bought by conservationists will start to outweigh the great green spaces on the map occupied by the industrialists, the agronomists, and the settlers, all content with one thing: to bleed nature for all she’s worth. By that point, capitalization of all natural ‘assets’ will be so valuable as to be out of the price league of every sinister corporation or corrupted government.
There is a faint whiff of Thatcherism in all this. In the early 1980s, with Britain exhausted and failing miserably, she encouraged affordable home ownership, and what transpired? Newly privately-owned homes across the kingdom didn’t get trashed; many actually ended up beautified where everyone become a vested stakeholder. The nature wars are reminiscent of her era. Whether humanity continues with the short-term strategy of raid and pillage until no booty is left, or the long-term one of benign ownership at a dollar price – monetising nature without commodifying her – we are, it seems, at a critical juncture. The race is on. It’s all to play for.