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Accumulation by Restoration: Degradation Neutrality and the Faustian Bargain of Conservation Finance
Institute of Development Studies and STEPS Centre
University of Sussex
In this Intervention, we argue that the emerging paradigm of large-scale land restoration premised on the logic of “degradation neutrality” points to a new dynamic in both land governance and conservation finance. It reflects a fundamental shift from protection and conservation of ecosystems to an “economy of repair” (Fairhead et al. 2012), feeding into a new regime that we frame in terms of accumulation by restoration. We further argue that accumulation by restoration amplifies the exclusionary, racist, and violent trajectory of neoliberal conservation and particularly “green grabbing”, exacerbating socio-economic inequalities and power hierarchies via both material and discursive pathways.
In an international policy environment shaped by concerns over climate change and breached “planetary boundaries”, land restoration based on the principle of Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) has become a new frontier in international finance and environmental policy. To correct the “mis-match [sic] between land use and land potential” (UNEP 2016: 15), advocates of LDN promise to deliver multiple “wins” by reducing poverty and food insecurity, addressing the biodiversity crisis, halting soil degradation, contributing to climate change mitigation and adaptation, delivering financial returns to investors, and boosting struggling markets.
The language and promises of LDN have resonance with observations by political ecologists and critical geographers who have highlighted the changing dynamics of conservation based on a convergence of interests and intensifying alliances between corporate capital, finance, and conservation (Brockington and Duffy 2010; Büscher et al. 2012; Sullivan 2006). These have given rise to new politics and practices of resource control and territorialization (Neves and Igoe 2012; Peluso and Lund 2011), often under the guise of “green growth”, sustainable development, and climate change mitigation (Cavanagh and Benjaminsen 2017). Along these lines, “green grabbing”, the elite expropriation and enclosure of land or resources for ostensibly environmental purposes (Corson et al. 2013; Fairhead et al. 2012), has become increasingly associated with changing governance and technical management of local landscapes to produce conservation areas comprising “nature[s] that capital can see” (Robertson 2006). To these ends, political ecologists have emphasised the salience of ecotourism (Kelly 2011), bioprospecting (Neimark 2012) and the direct or indirect valuation of nature to correct “market failures” and produce carbon credits (Bumpus and Liverman 2008, 2011), biodiversity offsets (Sullivan and Hannis 2015) and other “non-extractive” nature-based commodities and financial instruments (Büscher 2014).
LDN is symptomatic of a new approach to making money from conservation through a “restoration economy” or “economy of repair” (Fairhead et al. 2012). This new mode of accumulation involves new technologies of value creation and new markets for conservation products, and it is driven by new alliances between governments, actors in the finance sector, and environmental NGOs. Such alliances represent a Faustian bargain of sorts in that these actors seem committed to their primary goals – investment-driven development, generating financial returns, and conservation through formal protection, respectively – at all costs, leading to a precarious and crisis-laden set of compromises.
The repair mode of conservation that facilitates accumulation by restoration relies on the availability of conservation-ready land for investment. This mandates the assumption of past degradation or current unsustainable land use, and the promise of accumulation through restoration (including activities aimed at [re]creation and [re]cultivation) to create new or better disciplined, legible and substitutable natures that can be put to multiple productive ends. An area marked as “degraded” can be transformed into a “conservation” landscape that will generate returns to investors in three distinct ways. First, this can be done through revenue generating activities like ecotourism or production and marketing of conventional goods branded as “sustainable”.
Second, they can be used to produce dividends. International financial actors including insurance companies, pension funds, investment banks, the World Bank and the IMF have become key players and trusted actors in environmental governance as conservation finance has emerged as an asset class (cf. Credit Suisse et al. 2014). This allows conservation finance to generate profits for investors through the exploitation of price differentials between market prices for industrial lands (e.g. those used for agriculture or forestry) and for ostensibly degraded, conservation-ready lands, in part through restoration (such as establishing tree plantations) and rezoning tricks (Kay 2017). In the USA alone, the $25 billion per year “restoration industry” employs more people than coal mining, logging, or steel production (Barrett 2015).
Third, they can be used to produce and market compensatory offsets and credits that are used to “mitigate”, green wash, or legitimize environmental harm in other places. What is new about LDN and similar offsetting schemes is the specific instrumentalization of “neutrality” as the goal (UNCCD 2016). In this respect, the UNCCD’s new Land Degradation Neutrality Fund launched at the COP 13 last September resembles other big environmental initiatives such as the EU’s “No Net Loss” initiative and the “Climate Neutrality” advocated in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Paris Agreement. “Neutrality” in this instance does not simply refer to reducing the magnitude of impacts of particular types of land use in particular localities, but rather embodies the dangerous idea that we can meaningfully compensate for assumed or actually existing degradation in one place through restoration and even “avoided degradation” in another place.
Achieving neutrality requires the development of metrological standards of economic valuation and commensuration. Their application to “actually existing landscapes” is essential for baseline setting, the establishment of equivalence, and monitoring of land cover change, net productivity, carbon storage, and other indicators for “successful conservation”. It contributes to the institutionalisation of the technical language of “neutrality” or “net gain” of land, biodiversity, and other characteristics and functions of nature. Offsetting reduces complex landscapes into abstract, quantified, and exchangeable units that can be tallied on global balance sheets of environmental harm or health. It offers a means – as if by magic – to “neutralize” multiple dimensions of harm across different real-world contexts and ecologies, and across vast spatial and social distances.
High-profile conservation events, celebrity testimonials, media messaging, corporate social responsibility reports, and marketing campaigns with engaging websites and glossy brochures package and deliver compelling imagery and just-so stories of crisis, stewardship, and salvation, not to mention the promise of “win-win-wins” for all. Through spectacle, they facilitate the elite performance of sustainability whilst simultaneously obscuring and alienating restoration schemes, financial instruments, and investment platforms from the violent relations that produce and sustain them. These include exclusions on multiple levels that entrench social and economic inequalities, transform property relations, and disrupt and displace people and livelihoods. Through imagery and narrative, they blur the lines between extraction, mitigation, and preservation, and justify increasing securitisation and militarisation of conservation landscapes and practice that amplify local insecurities (Brock and Dunlap 2018; Büscher and Davidov 2013; Cavanagh and Benjaminsen 2014; Dunlap and Fairhead 2014; Marijnen and Verweijen 2016).
Building on these insights, we argue that the emerging paradigm of large-scale land restoration, premised on the instrumentalisation of “neutrality” and the logic of offsetting points to a new dynamic in conservation finance. It reflects a fundamental shift from protection and conservation of ecosystems to an “economy of repair”, feeding a new regime of accumulation by restoration. Rather than addressing the drivers of economic and ecological crises, accumulation by restoration further ingrains the dominant “exploit-deplete-mitigate” green growth paradigm, facilitating socially and ecologically destructive development through a spectacular high-stakes “shell game” involving the spatial, temporal, and social displacement of both destruction and culpability.
Accumulation by restoration creates a demand for degradation, and this opens political space to legitimise exclusions based on the necessary mobilisation of persistent essentialist notions of backwardness and environmental predation by direct land users. These revitalised degradation myths construct agrarian populations as threats to land, forests, and biodiversity, and rich foreign investors as saviours working for the greater global good and saving poor people from themselves. In doing so, accumulation by restoration amplifies the exclusionary, racist, and violent trajectory of neoliberal conservation, exacerbating socio-economic inequalities and power hierarchies via both material and discursive pathways. By engaging with its manifestations in schemes such as the LDN we can use the tools of critical geography to unmask the hidden dynamics and politics of the “green economy” as a terrain of struggle. In doing so, we can work to enact a “politics of refusal” (Springer 2016) in the face of uneven globalisation, exclusion, racism, and violence, and intervene in these struggles, not only over rights to exist, value, and benefit from nature, but also to articulate alternative and emancipatory visions of and approaches to development and sustainability.
 Land degradation-neutrality is formalised in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDG 15 relates to the sustainable management of forests, combatting desertification, halting and reversing land degradation, and halting biodiversity loss. SDG target 15.3 is specifically dedicated to achieving a land degradation-neutral world by 2030 (see http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/).
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