A couple of months ago, I wrote a piece, now posted at Seed, about a financial mechanism for reducing deforestation and degradation (REDD) and vaster territory it will likely prime for pricing ecosystem services.

It’s fun to watch the story evolve, as now we’re seeing the U.K.-based Canopy Capital sign an agreement to protect a 371,000 hectare chunk of tropical forest in Guyana — in advance even of a market infrastructure to value all the services provided by this land.

For the most part, I see action in this direction as a good thing. Certainly the climate scientists, conservationists, and environmentalists who support “natural capital” schemes have their heads and hearts in the right place. But in the course of reporting for the story, I uncovered a tier of concerns missing, for the most part, from popular media coverage of the subject. Indigenous rights groups and NGOs are highly concerned [PDF] about the implications of what amounts to leasing their land to foreign investors.

Ecological economist Robert Constanza assured me that there are ways to create pricing schemes that secure indigenous rights over their common property, but that it is complicated. If prevented from logging, what becomes of the people who used to make a living off the land? Who controls the credit money? Does that money go to the indigenous communities so that they can afford to either harvest sustainably or move into a different sector of employment?

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There’s a risk that investors will misconstrue the meaning of natural capital and will begin to see places like the Brazilian rainforest as little more than vast and pregnant money-making opportunities. As this article in Wired points out, “As the new age of environmental awareness dawns, people and governments are starting to put a dollar value on [ecosystem] services … And whoever owns the land can reap the profits.”

Just who owns the land in this brave new world of carbon — and, eventually, ecosystem service — markets is the big question.

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