Danielle Mackey


Land rights, the environment and African Palm in the Bajo Aguan, Honduras


Guernica December 3, 2012 & The Utne Reader, May/June 2013.

Bajo Aguán & Tegucigalpa



Carmen* watched as steam rose from the coffee mug between her hands and dissolved into the cool morning air. She leaned against the clay walls of her family home and sighed, tired from a dawn spent pounding dough into breakfast tortillas. Her husband and their six year-old son left for work on the African palm tree plantation about an hour earlier. In a few more hours, the boy would return to Guadalupe Carney, their rural Honduran community, to collect lunch for himself and his father. Carmen felt eager to bask in the morning quiet while it lasted.

Suddenly, her son skipped back through the door, chewing a blade of grass. “Weren’t you going to help your father today?” she remembers asking.

“Nope,” the boy shrugged. “He sent me home.”

Her cell phone rang. Carmen remembers that she began to feel faint as she registered her husband’s words: “Things are getting ugly here. I don’t want any of you on the plantation today. I’ll see you tonight.”

It was November 15th, 2010. Shortly after she hung up the phone, Carmen’s husband and at least three other farm workers were shot to death.

                 *                      *                     *

The “Tragedy of the Commons” scenario is commonly used to explain why fighting climate change is difficult. It describes “a group of livestock farmers who share grazing land [and] allow their animals to overgraze on the communal turf, despite knowing that they are ultimately destroying everyone’s resource, including their own.” A farmer could choose to limit his livestock’s grazing time in order to protect the communal resource, but that would mean less food for his animals. The challenge for curbing climate change has been to find a way to incentivize the choice to protect the commons. And quite a challenge it has been: as environmentalist Bill McKibben put it in a recent article, “Since all of us are in some way the beneficiaries of cheap fossil fuel, tackling climate change has been like trying to build a movement against yourself.”

One proposed solution is known as the Green Economy, which purportedly protects the environment while creating wealth. It accomplishes this through programs like the carbon credit market, and the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation program (REDD+.) Through these programs, international organizations like the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) have begun paying for the protection of ecosystems that do valuable things for the environment. When a tree absorbs greenhouse gases, for instance, it is considered to be performing an “ecosystems service.” From the green economy perspective, this service should paid for, just like any other. “We see the green economy as the only type of economy that can deliver sustainable development and really solve the problem of persistent poverty… the only kind of economy that can manage to do all this while reducing ecological scarcities and reducing environmental risks,” argues Pavan Sukhdev, former special advisor to the UN Green Economy Initiative, in a videotaped interview from March 2011. “It means it’s the only economy for the future,” he explains.

The creation of a “carbon market” also allows nations to choose not to reduce their own carbon emissions, by instead paying for the protection and expansion of natural ecosystems in other countries, mostly those in the developing global south.

Even transnational corporations can go into the business of ecosystems protections, buying undeveloped territory and working to keep them pristine. In theory, where trees are being planted does not matter, because they lower the total amount of climate-changing carbon emitted to the atmosphere from wherever they are.

Thus, natural resources have acquired a new business value. In this way, the green economy aims to incentivize protection of the commons. In fact, it can now be more valuable for a landowner to protect a forest than to raze it for planting crops.

According to recent estimates, humanity has very little time to slow climate change—possibly as little as sixteen years—or we will have passed a critical limit. The green economy seems to make saving the planet an easy choice. Why, then, are protests breaking out in resistance to it, especially across the developing nations of the global south?

An example from the Bajo Aguan region of Honduras exposes the major problem: the green economy has caused a modern Tragedy of the Commons by incentivizing practices that hurt the common good, like resource hoarding. There, the green economy is exacerbating existing social inequalities in the name of saving the environment. And it is doing so in the middle of a low-intensity war that has consumed entire communities….

[Remainder available at Guernica or Utne.]


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This entry was posted on February 17, 2014 by in Investigative, Longform and tagged , , , , .
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