Seeds of the post-capitalist forest?

Could innovative local organisations working with forests, together with the Paris climate agreement, the Sustainable Development Goals and global financial crisis help deliver us into a post-capitalist era?

James Mayers's picture
Insight by 
James Mayers
James Mayers is director of IIED's Natural Resources Group
11 February 2016
Meceburi Forest, Mozambique: a young woman harvests casava (Photo: Mike  Goldwater/IIED)

Meceburi Forest, Mozambique: a young woman harvests casava (Photo: Mike  Goldwater/IIED)

Trees are good, generally, I am sure you will agree. What if they were also helping to grow us a post-capitalist future? Give me a minute before you conclude for sure that these are the ravings of a lefty tree-hugger.  

I recently attended an unusually lively conference on tropical forests and sustainable development at Yale University exploring how different local initiatives to grow and look after forests, and improve the lives of those connected them, might be boosted by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris climate agreement.

SDGs for the trees

Local forestry initiatives really are exciting these days – a wide range of vibrant local organisations are generating values not based solely on the market.

Initiatives like these speak to SDG 15 (Life on Land) – the one SDG that explicitly covers forests, and as such should gain policy relevance. But some of the other SDGs offer even greater potential to optimise what forests could do for sustainable development. Here are three examples:

  • Achieving 'Affordable and clean energy' (Goal 7) means extracting ourselves from fossil fuel use – decarbonising power systems at massive scale. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) says the world spends an estimated US$5.3 trillion per year on subsidising the fossil fuel industry and the market valuation of the top 200 carbon burners totals $4 trillion – with some 60-80 per cent of coal, oil and gas reserves of these listed firms being unburnable – in the sense that if we burn them, global temperatures will rise to a catastrophic degree.

    Huge shifts in public policy are required, away from corporate petro-capitalism and towards recognising that one in three households worldwide currently rely on fuelwood for their energy. Given some attention, safer, technologically cutting-edge fuelwood energy derived from well-managed wood sources could become the norm for many more.
  • 'Reduced inequalities' (Goal 10) will remain a pipedream as long as forest-based resources are ransacked by elites. In Myanmar military elites, drug lords and crony companies control mining and trade in jade worth $31 billion a year – equivalent to half of the country's spending on health – but this industry is devastating forests.

    Meanwhile lax legal frameworks and investment treaties are being used to bolster unsustainable and inequitable investments. Yet we know that tactics for working on governance frameworks can be effective, and investment treaties can foster sustainability and secure local rights.
  • Secure land and resource rights are key to 'Peace, justice and strong institutions' (Goal 16), but far from the norm. It is estimated that tenure of about half of rural forest and dryland areas in the developing world is insecure – affecting some 2 billion men and women. 

And while small forest enterprises account for over half of forest sector employment in many developing countries – often with profits recycled in the local economy and strong incentives to operate sustainably – all too often policy frameworks see these as a problem to eliminate rather than as an opportunity.

Yet evidence suggests that well-organised communities and producer groups are the best managers of forests in the tropics.

Forests in the Paris Agreement

If the SDGs give us some useful levers, the Paris climate agreement gives us a boost to do something with them and scale up local action.

Forests are all over the Paris Agreement – in national emissions reduction plans, in Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) and in non-market mechanisms now known as 'joint mitigation and adaptation'.

True, there are no actual binding targets for limiting greenhouse gas emissions in the agreement, but when it comes into force in 2020, all countries are legally-bound to have a plan, to regularly update it to make it stronger, and to communicate with citizens about progress.   

Meanwhile, as Paul Mason points out in PostCapitalism, climate-change deniers are perhaps less worrying than the fantasists who believe that existing market mechanisms can stop climate change, that the market alone must set the limits to climate action and that the market can be structured to deliver the biggest re-engineering project humanity has ever tried.

Instead, this project needs social action, policy action and accountability. For this, I would add, it needs reputational incentives, peer pressure, policy advocacy and activist litigation.

See Mayer's presentation at Yale University above or on IIED's SlideShare site.

A resurgent public will for non-market values?

Could we be at one of those moments in history when the rules by which markets work are reshaped by public will? We certainly need to be thinking and acting differently. The gambling rife in the global finance system is bringing entire states close to bankruptcy.

Unlike previous boom and bust cycles over the last 200 years, the recent financial crisis could herald capitalism's terminal decline. The seeds of its replacement can be seen in forms of value not based entirely on the market. Goods and services that no longer respond to the dictates of neoliberalism are appearing, from parallel currencies (not just Bitcoin) and time banks, to self-managed online spaces (not just Wikipedia) and a wide range of cooperative organisations, credit unions, and peer-networks. Have a read of Mason's book.

Seeds for a post-capitalist forest

People are valuing new forms of ownership, lending and doing business that are distinct from the current system of state-backed corporate capitalism. We could stop seeing these alternatives as mad experiments, and promote them with public policy just as vigorously as that which enabled capitalism to drive the peasants off the land in the 18th century.

For forests to contribute effectively to sustainable development we need such policy change and action to focus on:

  • Rights to be installed in investment frameworks and practices – REDD+ included
  • A major shift in favour of small forest enterprises in jobs and economies, and
  • Organisation and partnership to integrate actions in different sectors and govern investment.

In seizing this chance to create a more socially just and sustainable global economy – the myriad forms of local organisation nurturing forest goods and services can teach us a great deal about how this 'post-capitalist forest' might be grown.

James Mayers ([email protected]) is director of IIED's Natural Resources Group.

Further resources

Watch the keynote speeches from the 22nd Annual International Society of Tropical Foresters Conference at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies