Bangkok Post » Post Blogs
Monday, February 08, 2010
Land security comes first, not money
This economic reasoning is behind the Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES), an incentive measure which is being adopted in various parts of the world to convince farmers to adopt ecology-friendly land use, or to help those communities already active in environmental conservation to continue doing so.
The potential payers can range from the government itself, the business sector as part of their social responsibility programmes, to local bodies, citizen groups, or any individual who wants to support grassroots conservation efforts.
The assistance is based on the realisation that each and every person in society benefits from the local struggle to keep the forests, rivers, coastal seas, soil and air healthy. That it is unfair to expect people in ecologically sensitive areas, mostly the poor, to shoulder the conservation burden alone.
The fact that the world is now being swamped by increasingly frequent natural disasters caused by environmental destruction also has made the public more willing to dig deep into their pockets for nature, and for their own survival.
But is it only money that matters?
Indeed, the PES approach can provide much-needed funding sources for struggling communities. It can educate the city people about the value of nature and the locals' contribution by translating intangible values into the language of money.
Yet, the money concept contains certain risks.
For example, the local community may be treated as a subordinate party, not an equal partner. Respect for the locals' holistic knowledge about nature, respect for their way of life, and an understanding of the root causes of environmental destruction are important for a successful partnership.
These elements may not be present when the locals are seen as the ones being paid while the city payers just go on mindlessly with environmentally destructive lifestyles.
This is not to say that this compensation idea does not work. But it takes more than money transactions for it to work.
In Thailand, two things come to mind. The myth that the poor are destroyers of the commons. And land security.
When the Policy Research Centre and the Thailand Research Fund gave PES a policy push earlier this week, they made it clear that this economic incentive, though supportive of proper land use, still comes after land security.
Their research confirms the long assertion by the grassroots land reform movement that there are numerous forest settlements across the country that are protectors of the commons, often against big development projects and business interests.
Although they have constitutional community rights to co-manage their natural resources, they constantly face eviction threats from forest authorities, leading to nationwide land rights conflicts and violence.
The research centres also endorse the movement's proposal that community land deeds are the way to go to support conservation-minded communities.Communal ownership under strict and transparent communal monitoring will also ensure that scarce farmland will serve the landless in the community instead of ending up in the hands of land speculators.
In what could be the government's landmark policy achievement, PM's Office Minister Sathit Wongnongtoey has promised to issue a ministerial regulation to support communal land ownership for ecological conservation.
This political will is cause for jubilation. Which is probably why the PES incentive measures came up as a way to ensure proper land use and raise funds for local conservation.
But can a weak government prevail over a strong bureaucracy?
In an outright challenge, the forest authorities have stepped up the crackdown on forest communities under the communal land ownership plan, and have arrested their leaders in droves.
No matter how much research is carried out to prove that the users-managed approach works better than top-down policies to preserve pooled resources, the forest bosses will keep reciting the mantra that the poor are forest destroyers - because it keeps them in power.
Until we break free of this mantra, the forest authorities will keep winning.
The commons lose. The communities lose. And we all lose.