Environmental justice is a common theme in climate change discussions. Most often it emerges in the form of fears about the future’s adverse environmental effects disproportionately affecting the poor. As reported by CNN’s Rachel Oliver, “it's the world's poorest who are often put forward as the ones who are likely to feel the affects of climate change the most and are likely to be able to deal with them the least.”
But we don’t need to wait for the tenuous predictions about the long-term effects of climate change to be fulfilled before we see environmental injustice. Today’s world offers plenty of examples. And sea level rise is not the only phenomenon that will displace large numbers of people. Climate mitigation, too, appears to pose a formidable threat.
Josh Kron describes one such example in a recent article in the New York Times. In Uganda, a British forestry company has evicted or (to euphemize) otherwise eliminated 20,000 people from their homes to make room for a new tenant on the land: a carbon credit forest that will collect a tidy $1.8 million annually for its carbon sequestration. I find it hard to rationalize such action for the sake of negligible carbon storage.
The term “reforestation” boasts an almost universally positive connotation today because it can mitigate countless buzz-word-laden environmental issues, including climate change and biodiversity. But the effects are not so rosy for the people living on the land slated for such purported improvements.
Unfortunately the situation in Uganda, which Kron describes as “emblematic of a global scramble for arable land,” is not an isolated occurrence. A Mother Jones article entitled “GM’s Money Trees” described a similar event in Brazil, where “people with some of the world's smallest carbon footprints are being displaced—so their forests can become offsets for SUVs.”
The Nature Conservancy partnered with the carbon-emitting corporations to set aside the aforementioned Brazilian forest reserves. In their description of the project, the Nature Conservancy admits that it “isn’t just about climate change — it’s also about preserving one of the last viable remnants of the world’s most endangered tropical forest…[which have been] subjected to deforestation for urban development, farming, and ranching over hundreds of years.” For the sake of the environment, the traditional forest users are portrayed as the bad guys here, not the victims.
I see it like this: The metaphorical white picket fences that surround sequestration forest reserves give them an air of good works. But these fences stand between local peoples and the forests on which they, for generations, have relied for survival. And when negative publicity starts to make the fences’ picture-perfect paint peel, forestry companies simply greenwash these fences to regain public support from the international community.
I do not doubt the good intentions of The Nature Conservancy’s mission. And climate mitigation is not inherently bad. But what place do people have in the nature that TNC aims to conserve? And when it comes to environmental justice, who should be prioritized—the world’s poor of today or the nebulous future generations of CO2-gushing Americans?