Attending the conference “2nd Forum on Natural Commons”, held on 2nd June 2014 in London, the author was looking for common ground between the housing and environmental movements, to see what links could be made in the future. Having missed most of the first half, took the following notes for the second:
Carbon/ biodiversity credits/ offsets are financial instruments to provide incentives/ monetary payments for “protecting” eco-systems. However these credits have mostly led to land- & green-grabs, such that areas rich in natural diversity have been turned into private conservation reserves, fenced off for offsetting credits and used to harvest “eco” consumer products. Market-based credits have simply become a means for the commodification of the natural environment, a collusion between science, finance and government based on the flawed assumptions of “the market”; this type of conservation sees all eco-systems as a homogenous mass (so that for example irreplaceable ancient woodland is considered equivalent to any other forest) and the only value of the environment as a means to making profit.
Credits have lead to a redistribution of power in areas affected, with green-grabs, enclosure and “fortress conservation”, in which the indigenous communities are marginalised, and any deliberative process and debate closed down in favour of making money. In Europe and the UK, “independent” (private) verification contractors are paid to create offsets, these offsets then used for speculation and gaming, and areas set aside as offsets are often built on a few years later (issues of maintenance). There are often perverse outcomes from this type of environmental protection, such as the growing desirability of land around national parks, created to protect natural eco-systems, but now the favoured sites for the rich to live in wealthy enclaves. Similarly, “experts” (eg ecologists, geologists) colonise these “commons” and landscapes with rules and regulations to “protect” them, thereby stopping local communities from deriving sustenance/ recreation from them.
Carbon Trade Watch have put together a short report on the global issue of biodiversity credits and their abuse in a “A Fish for a Tree: Understanding the (il)logic behind Biodiversity Offsets”
There is still plenty of land-grabbing in the EU and UK, especially around infrastructure, agricultural and energy policy, a constant battle between large corporates vs small producers, rights of possession vs rights to produce, etc. Resource issues are treated as a technical issue (monetary value), rather than a rights-based issue, and highly centralised land ownership leads to problems of access to land for everyone else. One recent example of this green-grabbing is that of a large solar farm in Sardinia, Italy, where 64ha of prime agricultural land was taken over for a private solar farm, with small farmers forced off the land and given small, one-off compensation payments, while the EU subsidised the solar project to the tune of Euro7 million a year.
Friends of the Earth and FERN have put together an excellent selection of case studies from the UK which demonstrate how biodiversity offsets are used by property developers to defraud communities of their ancient woodlands, green belt, meadows, etc.
“Case studies of biodiversity offsetting: voices from the ground” [foe, FERN; 2 June 2014]
In seeking to draw parallels between housing struggles and environmentalism, the first similarity is their opposition to the prevalent system of rapacious capitalism. Corporates and governments alike cynically manipulate instruments and legislation to promote and protect their own vested interests, using “institutional abuse” to break down resistance to their predetermined agendas; for example in the UK, Social Services currently threaten families under eviction with having their children taken into “care” if they do not comply. Secondly, the centralised and concentrated control of land, power, resources, etc means that there is little scope for alternative models, and where alternatives do exist, they are constantly under threat from encroaching resource-grabs (eg council housing taken over by housing associations and Right-To-Buy).
Governments and corporates are short-termist in their approach, preferring quick wins for profit, tax income, votes, etc. to the detriment of long-term sustainability and human rights; for example the current engineered property bubble will have dire consequences for the economy in the future, while state-backed extreme energy-extraction like fracking is already posing serious threats to human health, potable water resources, climate change, and the industrialisation of the countryside. The collusion between state and capital is global in nature, as illustrated by two upcoming international summits that will see power brokers carving up common resources and selling them off without any public consultation; in the case of housing this will happen at MIPIM in London in October and in terms of environmental commons, is currently happening through the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), set to be codified into UK law with the Infrastructure Bill.
In housing, as in the environmental movement, there is a concerted and growing grass-roots resistance to the complete disregard for people and planet. In order to succeed, networks from both movements need to start co-ordinating strategies and tactics, share information and research, provide mutual support and find common targets from their respective angles. This unity of purpose created one of the defining moments of the ‘90’s anti-globalisation movement; in Seattle in 1999, during the WTO summit, separate marches of environmentalists, trade unionists, human rights activists, etc converged, united and took action to close down the summit just as state and corporate leaders were unilaterally agreeing the privatisation of national resources. With the latest summits on global privatisation, we are once again called upon to defend what we still have, and actively implement what could be.