Grist's coverage of Copenhagen climate talks

With their natural resources pilfered, have Native American gambling casinos been payback, a further pillage (described as Tonto’s revenge during the Abramoff scandal) or perhaps both? It’s a relevant debate for today’s global warming talks.

During these next weeks of climate change deliberations in Copenhagen, environmental service payment programs will be hammered out. What’s the fair way to compensate indigenous and rural communities for their help in stabilizing the climate?

Colonialism and its more modern forms haven’t been kind to rural communities and their ecosystems. Globalization and its trade agreements have tended to steamroll rural enterprises by flinging borders open to imports and making it cheap and easy to extract natural resources. With their land and water gobbled up by energy, mineral, and crop exports, communities’ forests and soils have been transformed into hydroelectric dams, gold, and baby carrots.

Insult to injury, this style of extractive economic development is half-justified by scapegoating communities for being lousy stewards of their natural resources, recklessly planting cornfields on steep hillsides or burning too much wood for cooking fuel. The logic has been something like: Instead of (unsustainably) growing food for family consumption, why don’t small farmers and foresters cash in on their comparative advantage and grow melons for export or lease land to transnational timber companies?

Yet, consensus is building that the gains for poor countries following this development advice have been few or negative. Enter a new revenue scheme.

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The global market in climate change mitigation is still taking shape through environmental service payment instruments like carbon sequestration credits and Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD). Rural communities are on the cusp of being injected with a volume of foreign investment the likes of which may even surpass centuries of coffee plantations and gold mines. These new products not only offset the carbon footprint of “the man’s” unsustainable economic growth but will purportedly chip away at rural poverty. Many hurting communities — bleeding from failed farms, broken ecosystems, and their youth migrating away to find work — are happy to take the man’s dollars to plant his eucalyptus trees on their farmland.

As with the Native Americans, however, communities may have to exchange traditional livelihoods — which had put feeding the family and the nation first — for something different, say working for a wage at a biofuel or carbon sequestration plantation. Impulses towards autonomy and food sovereignty may dissipate as communities become integrated into this new economy.

It’s ugly out there at the climate change trough. On the opening day of the Copenhagen talks, a $10 billion mitigation fund was described on the BBC by a developing country representative as only “enough to buy our children coffins.” In preparation for the rain of resources, some countries are legislating how monies will flow — from environmental ministry to forest agency to landowners. Intra-governmental agency competition for the monies is shaping up to be fierce. Corruption antennae are perking up to detect misuse of funds as has been alleged in Mexico’s Pro Arbol reforestation program, in which up to 90 percent of planted trees have died and politically connected landowners received large cash payments.

International environmental NGOs are presenting their programs as Chambers of Commerce and their equivalents draw up their plans. It seems likely that farm and forest organizations will be secondary beneficiaries after governmental, business, and non-governmental intermediaries decide what activities and which actors qualify for the funding. Grassroots associations and their federations of producers may get scraps — but not before the big boys get fat.

With power relations so askew, it’s not hard to spin pessimistic scenarios. Is there a winning scenario for rural communities and the planet?

Conservation research is showing that forests tended by the rural communities that live in and around them are the best stewards out there. It’s becoming increasingly clear that we can provide rural communities with the technical and financial tools they need to better preserve both their livelihoods and ecosystems.

The Holy Grail of climate payments would be for communities to be compensated for what they do and know already — more or less. More or less because technological improvements are clearly essential — ones that many farm and forest organizations would be eager to make if they had the support. And there’s no reason to count only on the forest sector for its contribution, even as environmental payment programs tend to be singularly focused there. Greening the food system through agroecology can make a substantial contribution to mitigating climate change — advances that land reform networks like the Via Campesina seek to make the norm. Inter-mixing annual crops with trees, reforesting watersheds, supporting local markets, reducing tillage, and backing off of petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers all diminish agriculture’s substantial contribution to global warming. It is now widely believed that the same technologies that are good for climate stabilization are good for the soil.

Likewise, managing our water as a permanent commons and public trust — an ethos and practice ensuring that water is both everyone’s and no one’s — will have a profoundly stabilizing impact on the climate. Maude Barlow proposes declaring not only water, but watersheds themselves, as a commons.

These more thoughtful resource management systems and sustainable technologies might have been standard if the green revolution, water privatization, and U.S. Farm Bills hadn’t provided such perverse incentives and turned things so topsy-turvy. The repair will be costly — a perfect use of climate stabilization monies. Importantly, ensuring stable land tenure, including collective titles, is part of the repair. Implementing land reform programs, often discarded as failed and anachronistic, is a friend to climate stabilization.

This then is one scenario in which climate change monies could help rural producers and the environment — without pushing farming families off the land or turning them into forest rangers for a transnational plantation.

Are the chances good that climate change mitigation programs will play out this way? Despite the long odds, I’ll roll the dice, hoping against hope that rural communities can negotiate a fair deal here. It’s the winning ticket for rural communities and the planet.

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