Paying Indigenous Forest Stewards

Directly Paying Indigenous Forest Stewards for Their Services

Source: Reuters,

Yesterday, I ran across a paper I wrote for graduate school in 1993 called, Destined for Extinction or Showing the Way? Indigenous Peoples and Sustainable Environments. Other than the sheer passage of time, what shocked me most about the document was the relevance of the subject matter in light of the recent events in Brazil and the sometimes educated, sometimes grossly ignorant responses of world players. The lack of prevention efforts in the “developed world” given the intervening twenty-six years stuns me.

Global climate change—we didn’t call it that in those days—is a free-rider problem of The Commons. Everyone pollutes The Commons at virtually zero direct economic charge and offloads the cost to everyone else. Everyone breathes the air of The Commons at a perceived cost of $0 per breath, imposes upon the air at $0 per vehicle hour idling on the freeway.

We are perpetuating a terrible economic mistake. Land, trees, water, and wild animal species have a monetary value if harvested, not if left intact to perform the regenerative effects that life on Earth depends upon them performing. We value timber but not trees that will never be harvested.

Undervaluing negative consequences (externalities to economists and policy folks) to The Commons and undervaluing the benefits to all of us of regenerative ecosystems means that up and coming nations will do as the industrialized countries did—harvest and exploit to pay their bills, until there is no regenerative Commons left. Offering aid in exchange for forbearance of harvest is an error, and an insulting one at that. I am not defending the willful ignorance and greed currently at the helm in Brazil’s government and elsewhere. But continuing skewed international economic incentives will continue to lead to the poor outcomes we are obtaining.

My focus in the long-ago paper was on reforming property rights to support sustainable practices. But embedded sidelong in that paper was a budding concept that has haunted me in the decades since—monetizing the precious regenerative “products” of these complex ecosystems like breathable air and climate moderation and paying their indigenous and nation-state stewards accordingly. The Kayapó, roughly 7,000 people, legally control and steward around 26 million acres of rainforest. So far, they have done so for free and due to fiercely strong ethics, they have not turned to harvesting and selling off the forest to support themselves. Conservation International has raised donations to try to help these people defend their land. In market economies, consumers and producers are paid. Why is this not the case with oxygen, carbon dioxide, and climate moderation? Rather than aid, donations, or “cheap” debt, peoples who produce the benefits the rest of us consume to a greater extent than they do should receive compensation at the true value of these precious resources, offset by their own nominal use. As they become more prosperous over time and consume more, and we curb overconsumption to reduce our costs, we could bring ourselves to global balance in this manner both environmentally and economically.


Source: Reuters,


It would be unethical, in my opinion, to extend wealth disparities to having individuals pay to breathe or to exist in a survivable temperature, rather, the consumption end of these transactions should be aggregated to the macroeconomic scale of corporations and governments where we measure and manage net benefits.

The real sticking point is that it is hard to get us to start to pay for what we perceive we have been getting for free. A few scholars are valiantly trying to get us to connect the dots between paying for clean air, compensating the producers of forests, and keeping the planet breathing. I have not been able to move the idea of directly paying indigenous stewards for protecting forests beyond garnering brief interest from the Minnesota Chapter of the United Nations Association back in 1995. Entering “paying for air” into an internet search today yields conversations here and there about paying for clean air in very polluted areas in China or Mexico City.

Carbon cap and trade markets have been slow to spread and create the intended offsets “to scale.” There are better and better efforts at pricing, but more than just carbon is at stake—carbon offset is a proxy for a group of benefits and the proxy is still undervalued. I recently learned that the Amazon Basin does not necessarily provide a net surplus of oxygen due to the vast number of species it supports. That biodiversity is not valued in a carbon market. Nevertheless, the Amazon is a huge carbon storage mechanism. It produces crucial food for the oceans, rainfall across the world, and cooling for the Earth. We do not currently honor those contributions with payment.

Given minority global participation in carbon markets, there are still far more free riders than payers in the system. And an essential flaw of the carbon cap and trade schemes outside California’s proposals (International Sector-Based Offset Credits), in my opinion, is failing to provide closer-to-true value for the outputs of good stewardship to the most localized stewards—indigenous peoples in tropical areas.

When I have spoken on this idea in the past, the issue of government corruption nearly always arises as a counterpoint, since the most likely unit of organization to be considered steward of resources in The Commons is the local government that empowers the legal system or actually owns the land in parks and protected areas. But corruption thrives most where “legitimate” resources are scarce. Creating a legitimate market for actual producers helps bypass intermediary redistribution levels where grifting most often occurs. At the very local level, one no longer has to identify and pay “the chief” as a proxy for the individual forest steward, which reduces the creation of false hierarchies or tribal exclusion.

Verification used to be a problem in creating such a market. Unlike twenty-six years ago, we now have the satellite and data processing capacity in real time to monitor and verify these macro-systems and how they are affected by human activity over fairly short periods of time. We can zoom in to very small areas to see that they are protected and even expanding. Payment mechanisms used to be a major obstacle, but worldwide networks have emerged to enable direct payments to numerous individuals, even in remote areas.

Like the micro-loan programs that have been so successful in very low-income areas, directing the rewards of stewardship first to the indigenous peoples fighting for their forests would allow the most locally organized responders to thrive without selling off their rights, land, and cultural capital. In addition, these peoples could actually fund their legal campaigns, land “buy backs,” and security services, all of which they need to defend these areas from predation. Perhaps this is an emerging industry in which a form of the gig economy could produce equity and help restore environmental balance.


Elizabeth Bowling

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