The great green land grab

From Britain to Botswana, the Philippines to Patagonia, individuals and organisations are buying up vast areas of land in the name of protecting environments. But is private ownership the way to save them? John Vidal reports.

Click! I have just bought ten square centimetres of rainforest for a few pennies on the Internet. Click click! That’s 0.2 square feet (nearly 0.019 square metres) of Patagonian coastline saved from mining. Click click click! A friend has just given me, as a gift, one square metre of the Palmyra atoll.

Saving the world’s most beautiful and ecologically important places just got much cheaper and easier. Hundreds of websites run by charities, trusts and individuals now invite people to buy up forest, field and mountain to save it from destruction and climate change at the click of a computer mouse. And why stop at pennies? The World Land Trust (WLT), whose patron is the acclaimed British naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough, invites you to buy a whole acre of Indian elephant corridor for £50 (about US$100), or 2,000 square metres of the Chaco/Pantanal in Paraguay for £25 (US$50). WLT supporters have bought 350,000 acres (just over 140,000 hectares) in Britain since 1989.

If you have really deep pockets, conservation gets even easier. Johan Eliasch, the Swedish-born businessman chosen by British prime minister Gordon Brown to be his forest advisor, bought himself 400,000 acres of the Amazon rainforest in 2006 for £8 million [then about US$14 million], and now asks supporters to help him buy up tracts of Brazil and Ecuador. His charity, Cool Earth, is asking £70 (US$1400 an acre (0.4 hectares), and in one year it claims to have bought more than 35,000 acres (nearly 15,000 hectares) — to howls of disapproval from the Brazilian government, which says Eliasch is an "eco-colonialist" and that Brazilians can look after their own forests.

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva declared that "Brazil was not for sale", and a group of ministers wrote that the charity was attacking the country’s sovereignty. These "well-intentioned outsiders", they said, "were ignorant of the reality of the Amazon rainforest and should stick to trying to influence their own governments".

Eliasch and the myriad conservation websites are part of a new worldwide trend. Private ownership is now the favoured way to save environments being ruined by developers, industry or neglect. It’s happening everywhere.

In Britain, where the government is drastically cutting public conservation funding, groups such as the Woodland Trust are now buying up land at an unprecedented rate and becoming major players in the rural property market. Last year the trust, with 200,000 supporters, raised £22 million (nearly $US45 million) and it now owns and manages more than 1,100 woods on 50,000 acres (more than 20,000 hectares). It claims to be planting more new native woodland than the British government’s own Forestry Commission.

"We are aiming to buy about 1,000 acres (about 400 hectares) a year,” says a spokeswoman for the trust. “We have all sorts of sources about what is coming up. It’s a case of ‘Wow, let’s have that’. Buying woods resonates with people. Woods are touchable. There is a huge sense that government is not doing enough, indeed is going in the wrong direction as far as conservation is concerned."

Equally, in the United States, where the government is selling off public land, conservation is increasingly geared towards private ownership. "It is a genuine new model of conservation," says Kim Vacariu, who works with the Wildland Project, which wants to secure millions of acres of land running from Atlantic to Pacific and from Canada to Mexico. "It is too much to rely on governments to protect the land. The only way to make [conservation] happen in time is to buy it from willing sellers."

Conservationists with deep pockets are mostly welcomed in rich countries, such as Britain and the US, because they maintain or increase the market price of land. But in poor countries they often are met with fear and hostility.

This is hardly surprising. Foreign conservationists have a dreadful record in developing countries. First, colonialists took control of countries and communities in order to expropriate their resources; then the conservationists came and did exactly the same thing — this time, in the name of saving the environment. Tens of thousands of people have been evicted in order to establish wildlife parks and other protected areas throughout the developing world. Many people have been forbidden to hunt, cut trees, quarry stone, introduce new plants or in any way threaten the animals or the ecosystem. The land they have lived on for centuries is suddenly recast as an idyllic wildlife sanctuary, with no regard for the realities of the lives of those who live there.

"Conservation has immeasurably worsened the lives of indigenous peoples throughout Africa," says Simon Colchester, director of the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), which works throughout the tropics. His researchers have documented forced expulsions, human rights violations and the progressive destruction of livelihoods as a direct result of conservation in the region.

In Botswana, local conservationists once worked with the government to evict the remaining Bushmen from their ancestral land, which has been turned into a national park. In India, the Gujjar nomads in Uttar Pradesh state have been victims of international conservation charities in the past, too. In Cameroon, whole villages were removed from a particularly rich piece of forest. The aboriginals of Palawan island in the Philippines were forced out to make way for a national park.

One of the worst incidents was in the 1990s, when the Bambuti/Ba’twa tribe of Pygmies who used to live in the low equatorial forests on the border of Rwanda and what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) had their lands designated a national park to protect gorillas. The Pygmies were evicted in the name of conservation and are now found in small groups living in squalor on the edge of the park.

"Life was healthy and good, but we have become beggars, thieves and prowlers," said one chief. "This disaster has been imposed on us by the creation of the national park."

Says FPP’s Colchester: "It is estimated that some one million square kilometres of forests, savannah, pasture and farmland in Africa have been redefined since 1970 as protected or conservation areas, yet in the great majority of these areas, the rights of indigenous peoples to own, control and manage these areas have been denied. No one knows how many people have been displaced by these protected areas."

Now that there is an explosion of individuals, charities, trusts and conservation groups buying up farms, fields, hills and forests, many are worried that a new wave of eco-colonialism is being unleashed.

Down in Patagonia, which stretches across southern Chile and Argentina, an estimated 300 wealthy North Americans have bought — mostly for little more than £30 (US$60) an acre — very many millions of the wildest, remotest and most stunning acres in the world in the name of wilderness preservation. They argue that they are investing in the world’s future.

The biggest buyers of Patagonia’s pristine lakes, rivers and snow-capped peaks are billionaires such as the American couple Douglas and Kris Tompkins, who set up the North Face and Patagonia clothing empires. They started with one sheep ranch and now have several million acres. Their aim, says Kris Tomkins, was to create the first new coastal national park in Argentina.

"I realised,” she said, “that the seemingly perfect wild nature in which we had been climbing, skiing and hiking for years was actually in big trouble … Private wildlands philanthropy, mixed with political will, can create wildlands preservation on a grand scale and swing the pendulum of extinction back on wavering species."

Their near-neighbours, with only slightly less eco-ambition, are the founder of the CNN television network, Ted Turner, the financier George Soros, the fashion tycoons Luciano and Carlo Benetton, and the actors Sharon Stone and Christopher Lambert. Together, they have created vast new private wetland, coastal and mountain parks, some of which they say they plan to give to the state. Turner – the biggest landowner in North America – owns a little over 128,000 acres of Patagonia, which, he says, will be farmed "ecologically".

However, some of the land sits on top of one of the world’s greatest underground stores of water and he has been accused in the Argentinian press of trying to seize control of water supplies and putting Argentine farmers out of business. Turner denies both allegations.

Tompkins acknowledges that local suspicion is a problem. "We were clearly a little naive about the amount of political and non-political opposition we would face," he told journalists last year. "We should have tried to know more, going in, about the political culture. We’re getting better at that." But he remains unrepentant: "Those who can do a lot because of their position and potential should jump right in there. They will find tremendous pleasure in doing this, and discover that it is worth every penny."

And those who can are jumping right in. Giant international conservation groups, such as Conservation International, the WWF and the Nature Conservancy, have attracted billions of dollars of private money and World Bank environment cash to buy or lease national parks and tracts of land for poor governments. These charitable or non-profit groups are allowed to collect money, employ police, build hotels and, in many cases, dictate how land inside the parks should be used — and even whether communities can live or hunt there. It may be good for conservation, but it can lead to hostility.

Last year, deep in the forest near Isangi in the DRC, I found a WWF office right in the middle of a logging camp. "Who are these people? They must be here to take our land," said Michel, a local teacher who, with a crowd of angry villagers, had tried to stop the forestry company logging a large area of their traditional land. In fact, WWF had been trying to persuade the logging company to log more responsibly. But the point was lost on the locals, who now assume that conservation is the same as logging.

And conservation could now be about to get even bigger still, exerting more control over local communities than traditional colonialists ever did. Because forests lock up nearly one eighth of all the world’s carbon, US hedge funds, financiers, governments, the World Bank, private companies and many conservation charities see the chance to make potentially enormous amounts of money by stopping trees being felled.

The big new climate-change idea, now snowballing around the world, is for rich countries to pay poor ones not to cut down trees in return for carbon credits. One plan is to give communities or countries cash; another is for a global system of carbon trading where poor countries sell the carbon locked up in their trees to allow rich countries to continue polluting as usual.

It sounds good for the climate and the communities, but the reality on the ground is it could be disastrous. "Once you get big carbon money going to the world’s forests, you get questions about who actually owns the trees," says Dr Tom Griffiths, who works with Forest Peoples Programme. "Is it the people who give the money to save them, or the communities?" The carbon rush, he says, could turn conservation back to the bad old days of fences and guns and guards, with increasing control by governments and big international conservation groups over vast areas of land.

He and others foresee over-zealous officials evicting people to protect lucrative forest carbon reservoirs, more corruption, speculation, land grabbing and conflicts. "All these new schemes being devised have important implications for how forests are managed and what may or may not be allowed to happen in them,” he says. “Carbon companies are already approaching communities, offering to strike deals so they can obtain carbon credits. We are very concerned."

Observers say a legal nightmare could ensue. A hypothetical case might be a conservation group signing up a community to protect a large swath of forest in return for cash. What happens if the chief agrees without people’s knowledge? Is there any guarantee that the money will be paid? What happens if a logging company has the rights to fell the trees? Will it take the money, leaving the community nothing? Who does the carbon stored in the trees actually belong to?

"It is understandable that people are fearful about private ownership and conservationists managing the land," says the Wildland Project’s Vacariu. "It does not matter if it is in the US, Mexico or Africa, it needs to be approached very carefully indeed."

Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2008

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