When talking about nature, economists and conservationists used to speak different languages and conceptions. The former would emphasize on how humans can maximize the extraction of resources that nature is offering, while the latter would focus on how humans have to protect nature from overexploitation.
Recently, the demarcation between the two groups somehow started to vanish with the emergence of an idea to put price tags on nature. Conservationists have started to apply business terms in their messages.
Meanwhile, economists have begun to explore opportunities to profit while at the same time saving nature. We can see the beginning of a new coalition between the two traditional adversaries.
What does putting a price tag on nature actually mean? The logic behind the idea is that nature could be protected more effectively using market mechanisms. In doing so, the ecological services provided by nature, such as carbon sink and water filtration, are commodified into tradable goods.
This idea can be traced back to the notion of the “tragedy of the commons” a term coined by American biologist Garret Hardin in the 1960s. According to Hardin, the tragedy of commons refers to the overexploitation of shared resources due to individuals acting in for own immediate, selfish interests, despite being aware that the depletion of common resources is detrimental to the long-term interests, including their own.
Central to Hardin’s argument is the dilemma of the common as the root of the tragedy. It goes on to say that stricter access to resources is needed to avoid tragedy. In a situation where enclosure or stricter rules are not applicable, offering incentives to people to protect nature may seem logical and sensible on the face of it. But is it?
Centrally located in the narratives of giving incentives to protect nature is the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation Plus (REDD+) mechanism. In the context of REDD+, the forest’s capacity to store carbon and reduce emissions is being protected, enhanced, measured, valued and then traded.
Those who engage in the logic of REDD+ have many reasons to support the program. The decline in funding for conservation and nature protection programs has made conservationists turn their attention to money raised from the market system.
In the era of climate crisis, REDD+ is perceived by many as a “low-hanging fruit”, offering a cheap and quick mitigation mechanism. The seductive image of REDD+ as a win-win solution, embracing forest protection and improving livelihoods for forest-dependent communities, adds to the long list of reasons to favor REDD+.
Another item on the list is the fact that REDD+ is seen as an alternative to the extractive forest businesses, such as timber trade, which according to Greenpeace is one of the underlying causes of deforestation. Thus, proponents of REDD+ argue that it is just the right instrument for “greening” the market.
On the other hand, those who resist REDD+ argue that it is a mechanism for marketing nature, in which the existing noble relations between forest and community start to be commercialized by imposing external rules. Nobel Prize winning anthropologist Elinor Ostrom argues that nature stewardship comes from the community’s internal authority and self-monitoring rather than something imposed from outside.
Another argument contesting REDD+, particularly related to Indonesia’s context and experience, is the legacy of some forestry projects and policies in the past, such as forest enclosure as part of commercial logging concessions.
These policies and projects have threatened the livelihood of forest-dependent communities by excluding them from the decision making processes and blocking their access to the forest that sustains them.
The debate on whether REDD+ is an instrument to green the market or is an instrument to market nature is still being contested by groups that seek to engage and resist REDD+. As both groups have equally strong stances, we may well expect there to be no agreement in the end.
Meanwhile, it seems that the Indonesian government does not want to put an end to the development of REDD+ policies and programs. Therefore, it is worth it for the government to turn their attention to those affected the most by REDD+; the forest-dependent communities.
There are at least two important aspects with regard to protecting forest-dependent communities. First is protecting and guaranteeing a community’s access to the policies and programs related to REDD+. Access refers to the ability of forest-dependent community to participate in the decision making process of program implementation or policy development.
Second is acknowledging and respecting a community’s control and ownership of their resources. This is surely essential if people are going to talk about putting tags on what the forests offers.
Let’s not forget, however, that a forest-dependent community is not a homogenous entity and there are complex social stratifications based on class, gender, age, disability and ethnicity, which could lead to social inequalities. One of the most severe issues is gender-based inequality.
Gender based inequality is a persistent kind of inequality rooted in the patriarchal paradigm, which confers upon the community’s men with a higher status than women. The inequality leads to marginalization and subordination of women in terms of access to and control of natural resources.
Realizing the asymmetrical power and gender inequality, which may exist within the community, it is important to develop a comprehensive policy, which not only addresses this issue of community access and control but also employs gender perspective.
Finally, we do not want regrets in the future for saving the forest but at the same time marginalizing forest-dependent communities. While conservationists and economists speak a common language to address this dilemma, we must guard against important principles being lost in translation.
The writer is a PhD candidate in political ecology at Victoria University of Wellington.