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Are Green Investment Products Endangering Indigenous Communities?

October 17, 2012
tags:#charity, #development, #ecology, #environment, #green industry, #sustainability
by:Jack Bicker
The world's largest and richest ecology action-group's new financial offering results in questionable ends when funds are destined overseas.

American ecology charity, The Nature Conservancy, has created a green investment package for high-end investors keen to see their money entrusted to sustainable projects. The ecology charity then uses the funds to purchase environmentally sensitive land in 33 countries around the world, in areas that are often deemed under threat from commercial agriculture, forestry, and development.

Nature Conservancy’s investment product, named The Conservation Note, offers maximum yields of 1 – 2% on investments ranging from $25,000 to $25,000,000 USD, held over a 1 – 5 year period.  The total fund is then consolidated into a war-chest used by the charity to purchase environmentally significant land that often becomes available on the open market at short notice, thereby allowing the charity to move quickly to outpace commercial competitors.

How are the funds put to work?

Over time, the charity then has a number of options, one of which is to sell actual possession of the land on to acceptable buyers while retaining control of certain legal rights to determine how subsequent owners use it - known as “easements”.  By creating legally binding prescriptions for future owners and/or tenants, Nature Conservancy therefore ensures that the methods of such tenants’ farming, agro-forestry, or commercial activities, remain within the bounds of ecological responsibility, preservation and sustainability for as long as Nature Conservancy owns the easement.

Such a “possession only” sale of the land  - stripping future owners of their right to determine usage – diminishes the land’s market value, however Nature Conservancy have found ways to turn this to their advantage. One example has seen the charity buy an indebted family run Colarado ranch, only to sell it back to the same family at a later date at the lower price caused by the new conditions of usage, thereby preventing the land from being sold to developers, and ensuring that traditional methods of sustainable farming continue. Nature Conservancy has currently successfully protected over two million acres of US land through the use of such conservation easements.

How might the project damage local communities?

“They started to send the guards to my house… They would bang on the door and say they had a court order, they didn’t care about anything, they would just come right in... They came along, pushed the door, banged on it until the latch came open".

So reported an indiginous land-dweller, prevented from engaging in centuries-old sustainable farming methods by conservation agents who handcuff and interrogate at gunpoint, and whose harrassment has resulted in large numbers of families moving away from both the land and their traditional way of life.

A redd-monitor report published last year shed light on the negative consequences of a Nature Conservancy led project to protectively purchase land in Brazil. In the late 1990s, Nature Conservancy joined forces with the Brazilian ecology group Society for Wildlilfe Research and Environmental Education (SPVS) to purchase land from loggers in the Paraná costal region. The forests had historically been inhabited by various indigenous communities who had “developed a relationship of harmonious coexistence with it”, farming it responsibly to support their subsistence needs. However, in the 1960s, illegal ranchers began to move in and make claims to much of the land through a variety of means, including false documents, bribery, and intimidation. This resulted in the indigenous farmers being pushed into tiny pockets of forest – small areas that 30 years later remain some of most well preserved,  as compared to those farmed irresponsibly by the loggers.

When SPVS and the Nature Conservancy finally purchased the land with funding from General Motors, American Electric Power and Chevron, they successfully used a conservation easement arrangement to ensure that any future owner or tenant would not be legally permitted to engage in logging or any other environmentally questionable activity, thereby saving the forest from any further destruction. However, the mass swathes of land that SPVS and Nature Conservancy purchased included those pockets inhabited by indigenous communities, who had never thought of fencing it or making any legal claim, considering it to be for shared usage. The result is that these communities, and their way of life, now fall under the restrictions contained within the easement, meaning that the indigenous peoples are often prevented from foresting the limited, yet sustainable number of trees that they traditionally have done for farming, boat making or house building.

Big Business and Conservation.

Any investors interested in committing their money to one of Nature Conservancy’s new Conservation Notes should of course be reassured that they are contributing to an ecology fund making a real difference in the fight to preserve areas of great environmental significance. However, it is also important that investors realise that as the fund increases in its size and activity, there is a real danger that universal land purchases and the blanket implementation of policy can result in the destruction of the very kind of sustainable farming that the project is intending to protect. This becomes all the more a vital concern in a financial climate where big companies are keen to invest large sums of money to off-set their corporate consciences, and in which Nature Conservancy continues to expand its activities to countries in Africa and Asia where many such small and sustainable communities exist.

Fairplanet will follow the progress of the Conservation Note, and report on developments as the charity interacts with global communities.

For more information on Nature Conservancy's Conservation Note product click here...

Image: The Rainforest Alliance Guatemala

Article written by:
jack bicker
Jack Bicker