Thanks to a recent article in Yes! magazine by Jeff Conant, I learned that to many indigenous people in the ‘New World’ today, Christopher Columbus is alive and well despite his claims to have gone “green.”

I’m referring to the so-called ‘green economy,’ which is much in the news these days as a potentially significant solution to a variety of environmental and economic ills. However, to an increasingly vocal segment of the world’s indigenous population, the ‘green economy,’ or ‘green capitalism’ as it is sometimes called, is just another round of colonial exploitation – Columbus with a green face.

What is Green Capitalism? According to the United Nations, its aim is to create economies “whose growth in income and employment is driven by public and private investments that reduce carbon emissions and pollution, enhance energy and resource efficiency, and prevent the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services.”

Who could argue with that? That’s what I thought when I first heard the term ‘Payment for Ecosystem Services’ some years ago. Here’s the idea: Since ecosystems provide humans with trillions of dollars worth of vital “services,” such as clean water, flood protection, carbon sequestration, pollination, fertile land, waste removal, and so on, why not stimulate the marketplace by putting a price on these “services” so that landowners could earn desperately needed income by delivering them to ‘customers’ in good condition? Right now, these “services” are largely unvalued by markets, which means they are open to neglect or abuse (overgrazing, overlogging, etc) by landowners. If they had an economic value, however, it would be more profitable to protect them than exploit them.

A good example are carbon markets. This involves the buying and selling of ‘carbon credits’ or ‘carbon offsets’ which are, essentially, permits to pollute. If a polluter – a coal plant, say – is required to stay below a carbon dioxide “cap” it can purchase a ‘credit’ from a tree farm or some other carbon-sequestration project to ‘offset’ its emissions. This is frequently called a ‘cap-and-trade’ scheme and it has been the basis for the development of carbon markets around the world. Farmers get paid for the ecosystem service they provide and the polluter agrees to cap its emissions. Win-win, right?

“No!,” shouted 500 indigenous leaders this summer when they signed and delivered a declaration called Kari-Oca II to the big U.N. Summit in Rio de Janeiro (“Rio +20’). It said: “The Green Economy is a perverse attempt by corporations, extractive industries, and governments to cash in on Creation by privatizing, commodifying and selling off the Sacred and all forms of life and sky, including the air we breathe, the water we drink, and all the genes, plants, traditional seeds, trees, animals, fish, biological and cultural diversity, ecosystems and traditional knowledge that make life on Earth possible and enjoyable.”

Here’s a photo of a native leader signing Kari-Oca II:

I can’t say I was surprised to learn about their protest, though I can say I find the whole situation highly distressing because it demonstrates just how difficult it is to find real solutions to pressing problems today.

My doubts about green capitalism began in 2007 at Quivira’s Annual Conference, when someone asked author and farmer Wendell Berry if capitalism can be both the cause and the cure of our environmental troubles? In other words, can the fox be trusted to guard the henhouse? His answer was an unqualified “no.” Sooner or later, Wendell said, the fox will give in to its true nature and eat the hens. It is the same with free market capitalism, he said.

My doubts escalated dramatically when I learned that biggest player waiting to get into the U.S. carbon market if Congress passed national cap-and-trade legislation, as it was trying to do in 2009, was the huge Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs. A major contributor to financial meltdown of the U.S. economy that began a year earlier, Goldman Sachs was described by one observer as a “giant vampire squid” sucking the life out of the American people. The fox in this case wouldn’t even bother pretending to guard the henhouse. It would eat the hens immediately and go in search of more.

This, of course, is exactly what the Kari-Oca II declaration is all about.

“Forests are not carbon sinks,” says Nigerian activist Godwin Ojo. “They are food baskets.” A rubber plantation near his home, designed to offset carbon emissions and blessed by the U.N., has deprived hundreds of local people of food and livelihoods. If this trend continues, Ojo says, it will lead to violence. Similar stories abound, all across the world.

A U.N. spokesman responded to the protest at Rio with a reasonable argument, I thought: If we don’t place a price on ecosystems services, then Business-as-Usual market forces will continue their destructive behavior, dooming us all. At some point, he argued, we have to think of nature in economic terms. Not all capitalism is bad. Its good parts can and should be put to work to solve problems (think renewable energy companies, for example). Besides, what’s a real alternative?

However, according to Conant, the spokesman’s pleas fell on deaf ears.

This suggests that Columbus is alive and well, in practice and in the strong emotions his legacy still stirs among native peoples. A foreign power is a foreign power and exploitation is still exploitation no matter how worthy the cause.

I understand. But how does any of this get us closer to solving pressing problems? If carbon markets are another tool of oppression, then how do we get down to the dirty business of sequestering carbon in plants and soils for the benefit of all? Not in rubber plantations, I agree. But in what instead?

Here’s a photo of a palm oil plantation – used as a ‘green’ biodiesel:

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