Ecosystem Service Commodities

By: Dr Sian Sullivan
Nature is being redefined as a capitalist commodity to be traded and speculated on in the international market. The latest thinking is pushing for global enclosures of local commons that will lead to profound transformations of traditional and cultural values.
Ecology

Ecosystem services are provided by people with ecosystems to people who no longer have one, and who need one. For example, if your forest, or your peat bog is absorbing carbon, it is providing a service to other people who are producing excessive C02 and need something, somewhere to absorb it. Other ecosystem services include climate regulation, maintenance of biodiversity, water conservation and supply, and the preservation of aesthetic, cultural and spiritual values. The emerging view is that these services should be quantified and priced, creating ecosystem service markets in which people receiving such services start to pay for them.

For example, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), together with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), in its document Developing International Payments for Ecosystem Services, encourages the creation of market mechanisms to enable financial investment to flow from areas requiring ecosystems services, to areas providing these services. The predicted pattern is from urban to rural areas, and from the political and economic ‘core’ of the global north to the ‘periphery’ of the global south. The financial benefits would be received by what the UN terms local ‘environmental communities’ – the people living in the landscapes providing these newly priced ecosystem services.

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Local Food is Not a Global Service

Economically, it is a progressive and radical step to be attempting, via pricing, to place financial values on ecosystem health. At the same time, the form that this value is taking begs critique. In this article I want to highlight some possible implications of these schemes for diverse landscapes and livelihoods in the ‘global south’, as they come to be thought of as ‘marginal’ in terms of food production, but as profitable in terms of ecosystem protection.

In a 2006 document entitled Livestock’s Long Shadow by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), for example, some implications of the expansion of new markets for ecosystems services for local food sovereignty become apparent. Its overview makes some startling suggestions regarding the extensive livestock production practices engaged in by pastoralists in so-called marginal lands, i.e. dryland and other highly variable environments, worldwide.

Iterating a long held view that these practices directly cause environmental degradation in these landscapes, the report further demonizes extensive livestock farming by claiming that these systems currently produce the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions attributable to livestock. It goes on to add that livestock farming in developing countries is something that people are trapped into because they are poor, implying that given the choice they would engage in other forms of production. It then proceeds to create an equation between peoples’ local demand for food on the one hand, and a global demand for environmental services located in these same landscapes on the other. A key element of its recommendations is that landscapes characterised by extensive grazing practices need to be “reoriented towards adding environmental service provision [including biodiversity-related services], rather than mere production and subsistence”.

What then happens to all the food producers using, managing and sustaining these landscapes remains unclear. As the FAO report states, “a shift from current ‘extractive’ grazing practices to environmental service-oriented grazing raises questions of paramount importance: [including] how to deal with the poor who currently derive their livelihoods from extensive livestock”. This seems rather crass. ‘The poor’ who have to be ‘dealt with’ might include peoples as diverse as Masai of East Africa, Raika pastoralists of India’s Rajasthan, and highland herders in Peru: a global fabric of rich and different cultures sustained through mixed farming practices of which livestock constitute a major part. Importantly, such peoples may not define themselves as ‘poor’. Nevertheless, it seems as if they are (again) to become ‘extras’, or even ‘disposable’, in a new global restructuring of values that (once again) frames them as poor, marginal, and environmentally problematic.

Decoding Pastoralism: Arid and semi-arid landscapes, are popularly portrayed as inhabited by famine-stricken herders deemed to have caused these conditions through overgrazing. Desertification and degradation are routinely attributed to indigenous and variously mobile pastoralists, who are seen as overstocking land with livestock. These views are subject to vigorous debate. One problem is that they tend to overlook the significance of inherently high inter-annual variability in primary productivity in drylands. Landscapes that appear desolate in one year may become a green meadow following good rains in the next, apparently independently of numbers of livestock. In addition, pastoralists with long traditions are carriers of practices that are well-adapted for these variable conditions. Arguably it is the broader socio-political processes that are transforming such landscapes, in part through displacing pastoralists and hampering their ability to use their local knowledge in ways that sustain both livelihoods and landscapes. These processes include the capture of large land areas for monoculture crops (e.g. biofuels), the setting aside of land for nature conservation, and environmental policies that criminalise indigenous land management practices (e.g. various state bans on fire-use). Many are implemented in the guise of global environmental goals to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and conserve biodiversity, with little concern for the food-producing landscapes and peoples they thereby displace.
Decoding Pastoralism: Arid and semi-arid landscapes, are popularly portrayed as inhabited by famine-stricken herders deemed to have caused these conditions through overgrazing. Desertification and degradation are routinely attributed to indigenous and variously mobile pastoralists, who are seen as overstocking land with livestock. These views are subject to vigorous debate. One problem is that they tend to overlook the significance of inherently high inter-annual variability in primary productivity in drylands. Landscapes that appear desolate in one year may become a green meadow following good rains in the next, apparently independently of numbers of livestock. In addition, pastoralists with long traditions are carriers of practices that are well-adapted for these variable conditions. Arguably it is the broader socio-political processes that are transforming such landscapes, in part through displacing pastoralists and hampering their ability to use their local knowledge in ways that sustain both livelihoods and landscapes. These processes include the capture of large land areas for monoculture crops (e.g. biofuels), the setting aside of land for nature conservation, and environmental policies that criminalise indigenous land management practices (e.g. various state bans on fire-use). Many are implemented in the guise of global environmental goals to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and conserve biodiversity, with little concern for the food-producing landscapes and peoples they thereby displace.

Green Growth?

There is a further thread to this restructuring that is of immense significance. The proposed shift in landscapes – from those that produce food for local contexts to those that provide ecosystem services for global urban contexts – is also framed in terms of a business opportunity in classic market economic terms. Pricing ecosystem services as marketable assets thus will provide ‘new trading opportunities’, with buyers and sellers trading international payments for environmental services to generate profit that ‘does not imply the loss of natural assets’. IUCN economist Josh Bishop further advocates that environmental credits rewarded to businesses for ecosystem improvement activities might be ‘banked against future environmental liabilities’, or sold to other land developers ‘to compensate for the adverse environmental impacts of their projects’. And a new breed of ‘commercial conservation asset managers’ is rapidly emerging to manage these exchanges and revenues.

In other words, a growing scarcity of environmental resources is seen as increasing the demand for the ecosystem services provided by these resources; with both of these factors increasing the market value of these services, in ways that outcompete other uses of the landscapes providing them. For this market value to be captured through pricing mechanisms, what is needed is the creation of new commodities or currencies that symbolise the value of nature in her new guise as service-provider. As with any commodity or currency, these can be traded in global markets, and brought into speculative practices that permit the addition of more financial value to these new commodities/currencies, thereby increasing desire for the profits they might generate.

Something similar has happened with the growing global trade in carbon credits. In this case a new currency (carbon credits) has been created from the designation of carbon as a tradable commodity. This has enabled the emergence of a speculative trade that, in the new carbon exchanges of London, Chicago, China and Montreal and under the frenetic spell of finance markets, seems increasingly released from the material reality of emissions and forests, and arguably has done little to reduce carbon emissions globally.

 

Nature’s New Enclosures

What we are witnessing is a major new wave of capture and enclosure of nature by capital, via the construction of new ‘green’ commodities/currencies that can be traded, and therefore speculated on, internationally. We know that past revolutions in capital investment – the European agricultural and industrial revolutions and their extension worldwide through the colonial enterprise – also had major implications: both in terms of structuring people as labour; and in terms of the shattering of peoples’ relationships with landscapes that was required in the process.

It seems important to think through some of the possibly similar implications of this new revolution of green market expansion, particularly in the areas of food production and alternative choices for autonomy and self-sufficiency. This powerful and globalising growth of ‘market environmentalism’ has set in motion a significant renaming and claiming: of Nature as global service-provider; of those living on the land as caretakers of these services; and of scientists, economists and stockbrokers as creators and mediators of value for both. The circle in its entirety has profound cultural and psychological implications for everyone.

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