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Bond, Patrick (2012) Prices versus values at the Rio+20 Earth Summit . Eye on Civil Society : -.

Thanks to market failures, ‘Green Economy’ gambit is a flop in the making
Given the worsening world economic crisis, the turn to ‘Green Economy’ rhetoric looms as a potential saviour, enormously welcome to the most corporations panicking at market chaos in the topsy-turvy fossil fuel, water, infrastructure construction, agriculture and financial sectors.

But the Rio+20 Earth Summit underway this week in Brazil, devoted to advancing Green Economy policies and projects, appears as a disaster zone for the people and planet.

No surprise, following the logic of two South African precedents – the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg (Rio+10) and last December’s Durban COP17 climate summit – in which UN sustainability rhetoric was sabotaged by government negotiators acting on behalf of their countries’ polluting and privatising corporations.

I’m here in Rio within a research network – the Barcelona-based Environmental Justice Organisations, Liabilities and Trade – whose intellectual leaders, Joan Martinez-Alier and Joachim Spangenberg, issued a statement cynical about the Green Economy: “The promises are striking: conserving nature, overcoming poverty, providing equity and creating jobs. But the means and philosophy behind it look all too familiar: a stale diet of environmental modernisation reloaded, and freshened up with a significant dose of neoliberal political thinking.”

Unfortunately, as multinational corporations increasingly dominated the emerging terrain of global environmental governance, the United Nations Environment Programme came to view “the sustainability crisis as the biggest-ever ‘market failure’.” This is silly, say the two political-ecologists, for “Describing it this way reveals a specific kind of thinking: a market failure means that the market failed to deliver what in principle it could have delivered, and once the bug is fixed the market will solve the problem.”

Martinez-Alier and Spangenberg reverse this logic: “Unsustainable development is not a market failure to be fixed but a market system failure: expecting results from the market that it cannot deliver, like long-term thinking, environmental consciousness and social responsibility.”

This lesson must urgently be considered by the leaders of Botswana, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa and Tanzania, who last month signed the ‘Gaborone Declaration.’ It commits them to “quantify and integrate into development and business practice” what ordinary people consider to be the value of nature.

As the Declaration insists, “Watersheds, forests, fisheries, coral reefs, soils, and all natural resources, ecosystems and biodiversity constitute our vital natural capital and are central to long-term human well-being, and therefore must be protected from overuse and degradation and, where necessary, must be restored and enhanced.”

However, by terming our environment ‘natural capital’, the next step is to convert value into price and then sell it on the market.

“The bait of revenue from natural capital is simply a cover for continued rape of African natural resources,” warns Nnimmo Bassey from the Niger Delta NGO Environmental Rights Action, who also chairs Friends of the Earth International. Thanks to inadequate protection against market abuse, he adds, “The declaration will help corporate interests in Rio while impoverishing already disadvantaged populations, exacerbate land grabs and displace the poor from their territories.”

To illustrate, Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe once said of the rhino and elephant, “The species must pay to stay” – which in turn allowed him and (white) cronies to offer rich overseas hunters the opportunity to shoot big game for big bucks. The dilemma about hunt marketing is that it doesn’t stop there: black markets in rhino horns and elephant tusks are the incentive for poachers to invade not just poorly defended game parks north of the Limpopo River, but also now in South Africa.

The alternative strategy would have been to tighten the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species’ restrictions against trade in ivory. But South Africa’s game-farm owners and free-market proponents got too greedy, and by influencing Pretoria to press for relaxation of CITES’ ban, hundreds of corpses denuded of horns and tusks now litter the bush.

The best language in the Gabarone Declaration commits the ten countries to “reducing poverty by transitioning agriculture, extractive industries, fisheries and other natural capital uses to practices that promote sustainable employment, food security, sustainable energy and the protection of natural capital through protected areas and other mechanisms.”

How, though, is the question. It is well and good to protect nature through imposing a prohibitive fine and ban on those who pollute, or demanding an ‘ecological debt’ repayment from companies and government which take too much of the shrinking carbon space left in the environment, for instance.

It is another thing, however, to treat nature as ‘capital’ for which a fee-for-use – at Rio+20, termed ‘payment for environmental services’ – is offered by deep-pocket polluters to continue business-as-usual.

Valuing nature and imposing fines is the approach needed – but given the power balance here, we can instead expect the Earth Summit to promote the pricing of nature based on a fee system and environmental markets, which in effect will give discredited bankers the job of regulating ecology.

Then watch out, people and planet – you will be swamped by hunger for profits.

Patrick Bond directs the UKZN Centre for Civil Society.

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