No one knows for certain when nature first became a commodity, that is, when nature was first divided into discrete units that could be bought and sold. You could argue that it was when the fruits of harvest were first traded for other goods. Or maybe you could say that the first instance was California’s 1851 water right’s system. But regardless of when it began, the use of commodification and markets to solve environmental problems has reached an unprecedented level. From the successful acid rain reduction programs in the United States to the international negotiations aimed at creating a global cap-and-trade system to succeed Kyoto, market-based solutions have fully arrived. Despite their popularity, however, these market-based solutions do not come without challenges and flaws.
Accompanying the arrival of market-based solutions is that of the opportunity to profit from nature in the same way that profits are generated from any commodity. Yet the cloudy nature of property rights attached to commoditized nature creates significant problems. Nowhere is this more evident than in the commodification of forests through REDD+. While REDD+ could provide significant funding for development, it also threatens to displace local communities that lack strong property rights to their traditional lands.
A newly published paper (subs. req’d) on the Rufiji Delta in Tanzania highlights the challenges that REDD+ projects face when the property rights of local communities are unclear or not respected. The local indigenous resources users, the Warufiji, have resisted the development of a WWF REDD+ project in the globally important mangrove ecosystem because of stated plans to evict villagers from their traditional lands. These relocations would happen despite the existence of a Joint-Forest Management (JFM) plan for the delta that grants the villagers the right to jointly determine how the forests are managed.
Although the villagers will be relocated to land outside the delta provided by the project developers, the Warufiji view the project as a threat to their subsistence rice agriculture and have resisted the project through community meetings. They have also objected more directly by refusing to plant mangroves in their rice paddies or by planting the seedlings upside down. Without respected property rights to their lands in the delta or to the mangrove forests, the villagers will see no benefits from the REDD+ project and instead view it only as a threat to their livelihoods.
The story of ignored indigenous property rights is one commonly heard in discussions of REDD+ around the world. While a market-based REDD program has the potential to mobilize enormous sums of money, claims upon this money rest on the strength of claims on the forest as a commodity. In this regard, carbon is like any other commodity—in order to make a claim on the commodity the claimant must have property rights to that commodity. Unfortunately, more often than not, local communities do not have strong, legally recognized and respected property rights to their forest homes. This makes it nearly impossible to claim the benefits of REDD+ projects.
As the example of the Rufiji Delta highlights, the inability of local communities to claim the benefits of REDD+ projects not only prevents them from accessing this source of funding for development, but also threatens the viability of the projects themselves. Locals will choose to violate the borders of forest reserves to continue to meet subsistence needs, or, as in the case of the Warufiji, actively resist the project by refusing to plant trees.
Not all REDD+ projects are aimed at disenfranchising local communities and excluding them from the benefits of REDD+. In fact, many local forest protection groups exist solely for the creation of REDD+ projects that benefit local communities. Even the Tanzanian WWF explicitly aims to alleviate poverty through community forestry. In many cases, it is not malfeasance that excludes locals, but the simple fact that property rights remain murky and weak in these areas. Sorting through these conflicts and defining new property rights is a necessary part of a REDD+ project that is too often skipped over.
Commodifying nature can allow many of the most powerful aspects of the market to solve environmental problems. It is the goal of REDD+ to bring these aspects to bear on stopping deforestation and it has a great deal of potential. But, like all commodities markets, it requires strongly defined and well protected property rights for all participants. Without these rights, many local communities will see none of the benefits of REDD+ and, as a result, will actively resist the projects.