Show me the money

June 22, 2009

Everything on earth costs money or can only be obtained at the cost of someone/something else. The conservation sector woke up to this reality and started calculating the cost of ecosystem services and livelihood opportunities  from forests. This, they believed would serve as a valid argument for protecting forests from destructive alternate land use. All very fine and noble. But they went a bit too far and started placing a price on forests as well. In boom time, conservation organisations vied with each other to buy leases to a gazillion acres of forest concessions as an alternative to logging. These leases were by no means cheap. Millions of dollars were raised in record time to secure them, as they were guaranteed to generate publicity and in turn more funding.

The flip side of this forest real-estate boom was that cash-strapped governments were let off the hook and absolved of all their responsibilities to safeguard their own natural heritage.  All that they had to do was give the developed world an ultimatum to pay up or face the chainsaw. In their view, the only other option to logging their forests is to sell them to eco-bidders. This sudden influx of ‘green money’ resulted in years of conservation education programmes being flushed down the john. These education campaigns worked on the ‘slow but sure’ model of helping communities restablish the link between forests and people. In one clean sweep, the conservation and forest carbon market has nullified the hard-won gains with a short-term cash influx. Now with the recession, conservation groups and carbon financiers are finding it increasingly difficult to pay governments the asking price for their forests. For example, Cameroon has given Wildlife Works, 30 days to cough up $ 10 million for almost 2 million acres of forests or see it opened to logging and mining leases who are willing to pay to plunder.

In a world experiencing climate change, it is only too easy to assume a global stewardship of the world’s forests as our shared, common life-raft resource. In reality it is far from the truth. The first right to any forest can only be claimed by the local indigenous people and communities living beside/in them, followed by citizens of the State and countries that have a legal jurisdiction over them. Equally, the responsibility for protecting those forests also follows the same chain of claims. A Brussels banker has as much claim on a rainforest patch in Borneo as an Irula adivasi elder has on a Citibank branch in Tokyo. Global solutions to local problems is akin to selling hybrid Hummer trucks to combat climate change.