Interview: "Environmentalism beyond economic solutions"

Interview: "Environmentalism beyond economic solutions"

In the light of several limitations of the organization of the United Nations (UN) it performed quiet weak in asserting its exigencies to the polluting countries “The UN leaves much to be desired. It could implement an international court to judge socio-environmental crimes, but the organization does not commit itself sufficiently”, says Maureen Santos (see Profile). 

Maureen Santos’ central critique deals with the fact that the current approaches to climate and environmental issues solely focuses on an economic perspective on the problem. “There are initiatives by the private sector and corporations that put a price-tag on nature and livelihoods, instead of valorizing the work of local, traditional community members, creating social credits or markets and income projects linked to the work and the products of these communities. We must consider that their products should be more valorized, precisely because they were produced in a way that protects nature and therefore allows the local populations to continue producing and living in these territories.”, she underlines. 

For her, the setback in the environmental legislation is directly connected to the way these new policies are implemented. “The pressure by the Brazilian agribusiness, as we observed, was the determinant factor for the approval of the aberration of the New Forest Code (Novo Código Florestal). All of this is directly connected to the question of (neo)developmentalism”. The researcher explains that “(…) there is a setback in the production politics themselves in order to guarantee the resumption of (economic) growth.”

Boell.de: Considering the partial results of the last report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): What kind of conclusion can we draw about the relevance the countries attach to the political agenda for protecting the environment – especially the major economic powers? 

Maureen Santos: This last partial report confirmed the serious impacts of climate change - what had already been expressed in earlier reports of the IPCC or by a large part of global civil society. Despite a stronger assertion on some topics, it does not say anything new about these impacts or concerns of what is already happening. With regard to the positions of the major global powers however, I would like to underline the recent statement of Barack Obama, in which the president of the United States explicitly expressed his concerns about climate change as well as global warming. This does not mean that the United States had not formally taken a position on these issues before, remembering for example, Obama’s speech at the Copenhagen Summit (COP 15) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Regardless these former declarations, the government never took real actions. This time though, we heard Obama’s personal political position and we wait to see whether it will find practical implementation – in domestic policies as well as in the international climate negotiations.

What is the relationship between the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the countries of the G8 and the G20?

Even though these countries participate in the UNFCCC negotiations and a majority of them signed the convention in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, they do not refer to themselves as countries of the G8 and G20 in climate negotiations. After 1992 we could observe internal divisions, not about the convention itself, but in the ways of political communication between the countries. An example is the group of the “BASIC”, which forms an interest group of the ministers of the environment of Brazil, South Africa, India and China. This group exists since 2009, but does not work as an institution within the United Nations. With regard to the G8, there are people who manifest their affiliation to this group as it has power and status in the global system but do not refer to this membership in the climate negotiations. With the G20 this is even more obvious, although this group has already dealt with environmental questions sporadically; without really advancing with the topic. 

Facing the major polluting and industrial powers: Who defends the interests of the poorer nations and populations? Why does the UN not take a more decisive position? Which constraints come into play?

The United Nations has a number of clear limitations, in terms of its’ structure, but also in the ‘UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’ itself. I am disenchanted with watching the strong statements of the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other representatives of the United Nations on the effects of climate change, knowing about the obvious ineffectiveness of the Climate Convention. There are several organizations in the UN system related to this debate and we observe major gaps in the system itself. An example is the question of how to address the growing problem of environmental refugees. Even the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) does not recognize the legal status of environmental migrants.

Yes, there are many problems on which the UN could be more emphatic. I refer in particular to the impacts on the countries that already have pre-existing vulnerabilities and, under the threat of global warming, those impacts will occur even more frequently. The convention is not yet able to create obligations to increase pressure on the main agents of climate change, beyond the ones made by civil society and public opinion. This is a problem in regard to the compliance with the agreement, a problem that should be solved. There was a big debate on the non-compliance of the Kyoto Protocol, about the possibility of not complying the provisions of the Protocol that were actually very weak. For all of these reasons the UN leaves much to be desired. It could implement an international court to judge socio-environmental crimes, but the organization does not commit itself sufficiently.

Considering these limitations of the UN: What alternatives do the most affected countries have in order to encounter the global problem of climate change?

We would be very naive if we relied only on the system of the United Nations to protect these populations. We know that the UN system consists of national states that have sovereignty in decision-making. Therefore, domestic pressure is crucial. In Brazil, for example, we have numerous entities that counter the Brazilian State in these conflicts of interest, like the representatives of the traditional populations. It’s difficult for them to advance in these disputes, however their presence, efforts and engagement are fundamental. The protection of the Amazon rainforest is a good example: If there were no indigenous and traditional communities in these territories, the forest would be destructed already. The worldwide recognition of the existence of these populations is fundamental to cope with environmental issues and should be an example to the world. 

Is the only possible answer for the climate negotiations the economical one? Which other options are viable?

There is a huge gap between the expectations of public policies and the way they are actually implemented in the territories, often by means of the financialization of nature. This is the case with financial programs, such as the “bolsa verde” (green grant), that prohibits the local beneficiaries to use and manage their forests the way they used to. In order to receive payments from the “bolsa verde” (around US$ 300 every 3 month / family), the families have to declare a very small income As a consequence these families cannot access other funding programs such as the Programme to Strengthen Family Agriculture (Programa de Fortalecimento da Agricultura Familiar PRONAF). With these programs the specific communities are in a trap they can hardly get out of. There are other initiatives by the private sector and corporations that put a price-tag on nature and livelihoods, instead of valorizing the work of local community members, creating social credits or markets and income projects linked to the work and the products of these communities. We should learn to valorize their products, because they were produced in a way that protects nature and therefore allows the local populations to continue producing and living in these territories. The debate on economic solutions for climate change is something we are very worried about. First of all, because projects like Payments for Environmental Services (PES) are based on private contracts and we know what these contractual obligations may cause. Second of all, these contracts create specific identities of “environmental service providers”. They don’t embrace the social and cultural identities of the traditional populations like indigenous peoples, quilombolas, family farmers, peasants, and so on. This could destroy a broad range of the ethnic and cultural heritage and create a series of problems. This becomes visible in the implementation of policies that aim at valorizing the local communities via mechanisms that financialize nature. Within PES projects as the ‘REDD’ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), the official carbon markets already arrived in the local communities - quite different from their traditional demands. To my mind these economic mechanisms are complete nonsense. It is a serious problem and Brazil jumped on the bandwagon.

If we take a look at Brazil’s current national developmentalist program: What do we learn about Brazil’s positions to environmental issues and foreign relations with the neighboring countries?

The critique does not only refer to Brazil, but also to the other Latin American countries. It is a criticism of the returning (neo)developmentalism and of extractivism. It had been reduced on the continent in the past, but came back in the 2000s - and at the same time, we observed a step backwards in the environmental legislation and in national politics. This is clearly expressed in the loosening of the rules in the New Forest Code (Novo Código Florestal Brasileiro) and, above all, in the way it was implemented – in the absence of public opinion and the traditional populations of the forest, family agriculturalists, civil society and environmentalists. The pressure by the Brazilian agribusiness, as we observed, was the determinant factor for the approval of such an aberration. All of this is directly connected to the question of (neo)developmentalism. There is a setback in the production politics themselves in order to guarantee the resumption of (economic) growth. In the 1990’s, there was a desire to diversify the exports, but in the last 10 years we observe a re-primarization of the economy. That means there is more production of grains, more plantations as well as more credits and subsidies for exactly those sectors of agriculture. Even though there has been a credit enhancement for family-based, small-scale peasant agriculture in the last years, inequality in investments remain unchanged. All this has impacts on the environment. Although the deforestation was on a downward trend since 2005 due to political efforts to fight deforestation, it is rising again, especially in the biome of the Brazilian Cerrado (a tropical savanna region). The most precise answer to Brazilian environmental issues is financialization. An example is the ‘Rio de Janeiro Green Assets Stock Exchange’ (Bolsa de Ativos Ambientais do Rio de Janeiro), an online platform that matches buyers and sellers in regard to their Environmental Reservation Quotas (CRA). According to law a specific landowner is allowed to deforest only 10% of his land. If he deforests 20%, he can now easily buy ‘Environmental Reservation Quotas’ from other landowners making use of the stock exchange in order to keep his own ‘quota’ clean. In other words, those who have forestry deficits are able to buy surplus forests from another rural property. This process promotes a virtualization of our environmental issues and policies and it is a process that will worsen in the upcoming years. 

Looking back on the last 20 years of international climate conferences: what has changed in the accountability of the countries and their commitment to combat global warming?

If we compare the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change with the Convention on Biodiversity or the Vienna Convention for the protection of the ozone layer, we notice that the concrete measures and the adopted commitments are very different. There is a huge criticism that the urgency of the climate debate cannot be solved without relating it to other urgencies such as the biodiversity crisis, which in turn is addressed in a totally different way. The discussion of climate change has been ruled by the market. We see that economic and political instruments like the carbon market are created to support this process. In the case of the Kyoto Protocol we observe that its goals are minimal and without effects to actually reduce emissions. The question is: How long do we keep creating new economic instruments to reach new reduction targets for the high polluting countries that will cause new problems? This is very alarming. I fear what is going to happen if we establish new reduction targets. This signifies that we can continue emitting pollutants, as long as there is enough money to purchase carbon emission quotas of someone else.

In concern to the current scenario: For whom are we moving forward and for whom backwards? 

I believe that we will move forward in the eyes of the sectors that want to implement a green economy – especially the dominant sectors in agribusiness with their idea of low-carbon agriculture, whatever this might mean. The Green economy brings along elements that become stronger from the point of view of the economic politics and the profits of those sectors. Unfortunately, I do not see any hope, that the sectors of the green economy are thinking about concrete alternatives for Brazil or are elaborating a new model of development. Talking about the development model is central to this debate, however it remains untouched. What would a sustainable development model look like that addresses environmental problems and helps us construct a world without a degraded environment for the next generations? That is an issue that neither the conventions discuss, nor the national states approach, and that traditional communities and civil society deal with in their daily work. 

Do you wish to add anything?

From the point of view of civil society, we are facing a year with a lot of work due to the upcoming COP-20. It will take place in Latin America, in Lima, Peru, from the 1st to 12th December 2014. It will be an indigenous and ‘Amazonian’ event. This big event will be advantageous, not necessarily from an official point of view, but it will strengthen civil society and give the participants the opportunity to exchange know-how and experiences – especially for a number of traditional populations and their representatives. The event is of great importance to Latin America as it is a starting point for us to create something new, to think about new forms of making politics and engage within environmental questions, that are more ample than talking only of climate change.

Translation from Portuguese by Lando Dämmer and revision by Julia Ziesche. Interview was first published by IHU Online (Portuguese) 

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