Shanusi, Biofuels, and Conservation Trade-offs


At the end of last year, I arrived with two colleagues at the village of Nueva Italia near the border of the San Martin and Loreto regions of the Peruvian Amazon. After traveling three hours from Tarapoto, then half an hour down a rough logging road past small rainforest farms, we found almost forty people, with machetes, ready to march into the nearby palm oil development to fight against what they saw as an encroachment on their land. After convincing them to abandon their plans for a fight, we walked together to the site of clearing for the new palm oil plantation. With the sound of chainsaws echoing through the trees and uncertainty about what was going to happen, we were nervous about the possibility of being shot. Arriving at the plantation, armed security forces approached us. When the head of security arrived, recognizing that we were not all local farmers, a debate began that led to accusations from both sides. In many ways, that debate is continuing today.

The contested site is a 10 thousand acre palm oil monoculture, run by  Palmas del Shanusi,  of the Romero Group. The project has generated conflicts over deforestation, insufficient compensation to the state per hectare (5.5 dollars per hectare for 7000 hectares), and conflicts between local settlers and recent migrants of the district of Barranquita. The settlers accuse the company of confiscating them of their lands, destroying their forests, and convincing the state to block their entitlement procedures. The company accuses the farmers purposly settling in the borders of the monoculture to establish land rights which can then be sold to the company. The dispute between the company and the farmers for the usage rights of the forest occurs amid the state promotion of private investments and a generalized lack of governance of the territory.

The case of the Shanusi project and the conflict in Barranquita is helpful for understanding the socio-environmental conflicts related to biofuels. These conflicts are becoming more common with the increase in the demand for biofuels and policies that promote monocultures in the Amazon region. The act of selling large tracts of land in the Amazon region is already conflictive. If they were already deforested, it implies that there are peasants on those lands with some type of right over them. If there is still primary forest, it implies an attack on nature. In this case it is a combination of the two. Earlier interventions in the primary forest had left most of the forest standing: only the most valuable trees had been taken out by illegal loggers. We are not talking then about deforested and degraded lands, nor secondary forests, but a vital forest that actively provided environmental services. This puts into question the act of cutting down the forest to plant oil palm . The root of the problem lies in the strange administrative decision to change the use of land from forest to agricultural, which led to the sale by the Ministry of Agriculture of the land at the absurdly low price of 17.90 soles per hectare.

Despite the environmental discourse from the opponents of the monoculture, all evidence points to the fact that the motivations of the farmers are distributive rather than environmental. That there is deforestation is not the central preoccupation, but rather who carries it out and who benefits from it: the local population or an outsider company. Meanwhile, the interpretation of the incident by the Manager of Palmas del Shanusi is that with farming in the area all the forests are destined to turn into grasslands, which means that the oil palm plantations of the Romero Group will be the “lesser evil” of the two, in environmental terms. This conflict is not over. This is the  kind of situation that happens when primary forests and the livelihoods of local people are traded off in Amazonia for establishing large-scale monocultures.

The Machiavellian Nature of Saudi Oil

This week, negotiators are meeting in Bonn for discussions leading up to the 16th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the UNFCCC CoP16). Faithful readers may remember that I was in Copenhagen for the 15th CoP in 2009. This year’s meeting is scheduled for late November/early December in Cancun, and already discussions are heating up. In addition to worries about what to do if no resolution is reached before the 2012 Kyoto Protocol deadline, Saudi Arabia is raising a red flag again: this time to ask for reparations for money they would lose if the world were to cut petroleum use.

The kicker here is that Saudi Arabia wants to be paid for oil they won’t–likely can’t–produce. There has been suspicion for several years that Saudi Arabia, along with other OPEC countries, has been progressively overstating the levels of their own oil reserves. Add to that that Persian Gulf states are using an increasing portion of the oil they do produce domestically (up to an additional 1.5 million barrels per day by 2030 just for electricity generation). Add to that that, by some accounts, Saudi oil production peaked in 2005 and shows no signs of rebounding.

This yields a picture of a situation where Saudi Arabia is faced with declining production and exports in coming years due to domestic use and geological fundamentals of supply. If only there was some way to get paid for all the oil that they don’t have to export! Enter the UN climate change negotiations. If declining production can be blamed on international pressure for climate change mitigation, rather than other factors, then perhaps the Saudis can still get paid. Who would foot the bill remains an unanswered question.

Advancing Conservation in a Social Context

For the past few years, I’ve been part of an interdisciplinary, international group researching conservation and its social complications. The Advancing Conservation in a Social Context (ACSC) initiative is funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and administered through the University of Arizona, with support from UGA and members from the US, Peru, Tanzania, and Vietnam.

The ACSC research process has focused broadly on the idea of tradeoffs: the proposition that when something is gained, something else is lost and win-win scenarios are rare if they occur at all. So, when a decision is made to conserve a resource, species, or ecosystem, opportunities are lost in some other domain. I am oversimplifying here since interactions between people and their environment are vastly multifaceted. A key question is, how do we take into account the complexities and conflicts of ecology and society and still make decisions? And, in the above sentence, who is this “we”?

At a meeting of ACSC researchers this week, we are discussing the next phases of the project and one idea is to develop an ACSC blog, with individual researchers contributing posts on various issues surrounding conservation and society. I’m not sure if it will happen or not, but if it does I may try my hand at contributing–since it would tie nicely with my ongoing dissertation research and long-term interests.

A blog has the added benefit of being participatory, at least in theory. If someone blogs about current issues and others with direct interest in those issues respond, then the text changes from a one-way editorial to more of a conversation. From a social science perspective, this may be one way to increase objectivity in research by giving others the chance to “object” to what is being said about them, as Bruno Latour has suggested:

If social scientists wanted to become objective, they would have to find the very rare, costly, local, miraculous, situation where they can render their subject of study as much as possible able to object to what is said about them, to be as disobedient as possible to the protocol, and to be as capable to raise their own questions in their own terms and not in those of the scientists whose interests they do not have to share!

I’m not sure if the idea of an ongoing ACSC blog will fly in the long-term or not. Even if it does, it may be that the group is not yet ready to open the project to the decreased control that a Web 2.0 experience would bring. I’ll keep you all posted as (if) this moves ahead.

Building an Ethical Economy

Last week I attended a conference entitled “Building an Ethical Economy: Theology and the Marketplace.” The speakers were previously recorded (in January) at the Trinity Church on Wall Street, and included Rowan Williams (the Archbishop of Canterbury), Dr. Kathryn Tanner, and Dr. Partha Dasgupta. Their talks are available free online if anyone is interested in hearing them. I particularly enjoyed William’s talk, in which he stressed that market transactions are just one of many human activities and that they should be open to the same ethical critiques as any other actions.

About 60 people attended the symposium, representing local churches and community groups. 30-minute videos were followed by breakout discussion groups in four blocks over a two day period. Admittedly, this was “preaching to the choir” in some sense, but I found the discussion to be refreshing in light of the all-too-common link between conservative Christianity and the idea that markets are simply efficient means of allocating resources that ultimately benefit all people. To hear religious leaders say that markets sometimes work in ways that harm individual people, nature, and society at large was refreshing. The message that we make the economy through our actions (or lack of actions) and that we are responsible for making certain futures possible (or impossible) deserves to be more widely spread.

My friend C. said recently that most Americans want to see a free Tibet–but that very few of us are willing to avoid buying items that are made in China. Many of the people I talked to felt that ‘the system’ is too big to address. Ideas that came out of groups included living simply and focusing more on local economies and small companies. A bigger challenge that was raised was that, for some clergy, asking church members to rethink the way that they engage with the economy might be the last sermon they give.

Copenhagen Presentations

I haven’t blogged in a while, so I thought I’d write a catch-up post. Back in December, I went to Copenhagen as part of my dissertation research into WWF’s Arctic programs. The actual negotiations were locked down pretty tightly, but they were not the main focus of my research so it was OK that I didn’t get in. In fact, since the only agreement that came out of Copenhagen was drafted at the last minute by a small group of international leaders, I could argue that most of the delegates should have spent their time marching in the streets or attending public meetings. One thing that I realized in Copenhagen, though, is that my research is completely tied to climate change science, activism, and policy. There are certainly other issues in the Arctic, but climate change is the 800-lb gorilla.

I also want my research to be part of a more public anthropology. That means not confining my research to theoretical minutiae in academic journals, but instead doing research that has some significance for Jane Doe on the street. And so far, Jane Doe wants to hear about climate change, based on questions from family and friends. I’ll be giving a presentation to the local Exchange Club next week and to the local Quaker group a few weeks later. So, I throw it out to my handful of blog readers: what do you think I should include in a 20-minute presentation? My inclination is to just touch on the science of climate change and focus more on the different issues debated in Copenhagen: climate debt, market mechanisms, climate refugees, localization vs. globalization. Thoughts?

On religious tolerance and anti-violence

One reason that I maintain a blog is that it helps me to clarify my own thoughts on various issues. Actually putting something into writing helps my head to process information–particularly on more complicated issues. One of those issues is what I’ll call pacifism and anti-violence. This topic has been drifting through my head for a bit now, but was brought to mind most recently by the violent forced eviction of Zen monks and nuns in Vietnam. I’ll be delivering some thoughts on violence and religious tolerance at an event tomorrow, and so thought I’d ramble a bit.

Non-Violence versus Anti-Violence

What is violence? The term ‘violence’ carries negative connotations, and labeling something as ‘violent’ is a political act. For my purposes, I’ll describe violence broadly as any coercive force, language, or institution. That definition may be too broad for many, but I’ll run with it and see where it goes. I’m using this definition rather than something like “intense, destructive action” because it gets at the human aspect of violence. This definition also removes some positive forms of violence from the discussion; a volcanic eruption may be violent, but it also provides nutrients, enriches the soil, etc.

Some people call me a pacifist. The term pacifist has a wide range of meanings, so I prefer to think of myself as anti-violent. Not non-violent. Bill Leicht describes anti-violence as having an active component that isn’t implied by non-violence. He links anti-violence to satyagraha (holding to the truth) and ahimsa (doing no harm), and I think he is on the right track. Satyagraha resembles the Quaker idea of speaking truth to power. It also calls to mind the Aikido idea of irimi or entering–moving toward an attack rather than cringing away. This doesn’t mean an aggressive move, but rather moving in with compassion to address the roots of violence.

Violence and Power

Defining violence as coersion links it explicitly to power. Steven Lukes (1974) talks about power as having three aspects: the power to act directly, the power to set agendas, and the power to shape beliefs. Violence could be said to operate in these three modes as well. The soldier driving you from your home at gunpoint or mugger on the street with a knife is one form. An elite group making decisions about what issues are open for debate is another. Constructing issues so that public debate becomes polarized, or so that people willingly participate in their own domination, is a third. All of these are coercive, and in my view all are potentially violent. In this framework, the violence against monks and nuns in Vietnam didn’t begin with their eviction–it started with limiting religious freedom and polarizing public opinion.

A former teacher of mine said that tolerance is inherently hypocritical, that we need to go beyond tolerance toward acceptance. In terms of religious tolerance, we should recognize that the third mode of power permeates culture in general, influencing personal beliefs, values, and actions. Even when monasteries are not being destroyed, people may feel tremendous social pressure to conform in order to be able to participate fully in their own communities. In our country, we tend to believe that people form their beliefs rationally on an individual basis–but we should realize that while people have free will, their opinions are strongly influenced by the larger system in which they are embedded. Religion can serve as a tool of an oppressive and divisive system, as Marx said when he described religion as “…the opium of the people.” It can also become a threat to the larger system–either by working directly in opposition to it, or even just by refusing to participate fully.

Structural Violence

Utah Phillips quotes the Christian anarchist Ammon Hennacy, on pacifism:

“You were born a white man in mid-twentieth century industrial America. You came into the world armed to the teeth with an arsenal of weapons. The weapons of privilege, racial privilege, sexual privilege, economic privilege. You wanna be a pacifist, it’s not just giving up guns and knives and clubs and fists and angry words, but giving up the weapons of privilege, and going into the world completely disarmed. Try that.”

That old man has been gone now twenty years, and I’m still at it. But I figure if there’s a worthwhile struggle in my own life, that, that’s probably the one. Think about it.

I think what Hennacy is talking about here is structural violence. Just the fact that I am a white male may be an advantage for me–and coercive to others–in some situations, even if I don’t intentionally take advantage of that fact. Of course, giving up these ‘weapons’ is easier said than done–but it is possible to cultivate an awareness of them. And, giving up these weapons is part of what the monks and nuns at the Bat Nha monastery were trying to accomplish.  But, when the continuation of the political system depends on people retaining their weaponry–believing that it is necessary to fight between a small number of politically-imposed choices–disarming becomes a threat.

Recently, I heard someone talk about shifting attitudes in the US away from the Myth of Redemptive Violence toward the Myth of Redemptive Suffering. A myth here is a story or set of stories with a message; it doesn’t matter if the stories are truth or fiction. Redemptive violence describes a situation where oppression, injustice, or violence is used as justification for other violence. Redemptive suffering describes forgiveness or merit gained for oneself or others by passively accepting ones fate. I’d propose a third direction: the Myth of  Redemptive Action. Unfortunately, this path involves both overcoming our fight-or-flight instinct and a good deal of introspection. That requires courage, focus, and compassion–something the monks and nuns of Bat Nha continue to demonstrate. It also requires looking deeper into violence to address its systemic roots.

#WWF24 Wordle

Today, WWF has been using Twitter to track environmentalism around the world–both projects of WWF and individual actions of random Twitterers. I downloaded the last 20 hours of Tweets, removed some common words and Twitter jargon, and used to create the following graphic display showing some of the trends in WWF-related Tweets for the day. Click for larger version.

Healthcare in the US: solved!

OK–just kidding. Earlier today, I took one of those silly Facebook polls asking “Are you in favor of a Government run healthcare system.” My yes vote apparently struck a chord since it has been generating a bunch of replies, so I thought I’d expound a bit on the blog.

I am completely in favor of the discussion of a single-payer, publicly funded healthcare system. Unfortunately, such a discussion is impossible in the current US congress. The arguments I’ve seen against a single-payer system boil down to two points, both of which I reject. The first is that the government can’t run anything well. People site examples of the Veteran’s Administration, Social Security, etc, but this is a red herring: the point isn’t that the government is great at running programs, but that the private sector has in general failed miserably in providing healthcare–at least if you happen to be poor, or not white, or living in the wrong sort or neighborhood. This is an ethical question: if you believe that everyone deserves some basic level of healthcare (as I do), the private sector will never deliver. We could pass regulations to force companies to comply, but doing so might create more bureaucracy than just offering a public option.

The second point I see made is that a public system would destroy the market for private healthcare. If this turned out to be true, it would mean that the public alternative was out competing private companies–which should be impossible if everything the government does is overpriced and inefficient. Moreover, the whole argument here relies on the idea that companies–insurance companies in particular–have a right to make money off healthcare and that the private market for healthcare is a good thing.

What we think of as the “insurance industry” is nothing of the sort, at least if “industry” is thought of as a productive enterprise. Insurance, particularly at large scales, is nothing but a source of friction. Insurance companies operate by creating massive bureaucracies and then hiring people (who we pay) to help navigate those bureaucracies ineffectively. But that is fine, because at every step of the journey the insurance company makes money. Put another way: insurance companies are required as for-profit corporations to look out for the interests of their shareholders, and the best way to make a profit is by being as inefficient as possible at delivering healthcare while still taking in as much money as possible.

Ultimately, I reject the basis for the survey that started this whole discussion. I see no reason that there has to be a choice between a for-profit market-based system and a government-run system when both can be avoided. Some places to start: convert all insurance companies into small non-profit organizations funded by membership dollars with some additional public funding. The public funding part could work like the FDIC, so if the small non-profit happens to have a train wreck, cancer hot-spot, or tornado nearby they are covered. Another possibility would be developing more local healthcare cooperatives. Options like these are not part of the national debate, because they don’t fit into the existing either/or framework. In the meantime, why not have a public healthcare option?

mmmmm… cookies.

Last night I made chocolate chip cookies. This may not sound like a huge acheivement (except that having a 9-month old in the house makes everything an acheivement), but these were special: I made them with homemade butter. A couple of weeks ago a colleague mentioned something about making butter. I knew the process, but had never tried it before–and I have to say, this will probably become a regular occurance. I made it while sitting on the couch, using a 1-quart glass jar and a pint of heavy cream. Less than five minutes after starting, I had a large clump of fresh butter. The result was delicious, creamy, and fairly light-colored. The cost of homemade versus storebought is about the same, so I’m putting this activity in the “repeat” column; now if I can just get homemade cheese to turn out as well.

Instructions for Homemade Butter:

1 pint heavy cream

1 clean quart jar, with lid

2 large bowls, one with lid

Let the cream come to room temperature. Better yet, let it sit on the counter overnight or use leftover cream that would otherwise go to waste.

Pour the cream into the jar and seal it tightly. Shake the jar strongly but slowly–using the same arm motion as if you were using a hammer. the cream will coat the inside of the glass, making the whole jar look white. Continue shaking for 2-3 minutes until the butterfat forms a large mass and the buttermilk washes the glass clear near the top.

Pour off the buttermilk (save it for baking!) into one waiting bowl. Add a cup of water to the jar and shake it for another minute to wash the butter. Pour off the water, then empty the butter into the other bowl. Cover and refrigerate.

Here is an interesting YouTube video of the process, and the science behind butter.

Hooray for… millenialism?

Friends may know that I occasionally spend time thinking about peak oil, global climate change, and the like. I feel the change a-comin’–but I do try to avoid saying that doomsday is right around the corner. My personal thought is that the the current system will fade away rather than burning out (sorry Neil). Occasionally, I also listen to conservative talk radio–not because I agree with the hosts, but because I feel like I should be aware of the message that the Right is broadcasting to the faithful hordes. The conservative and American libertarian hosts have been playing to the doomsday scenario crowd by invoking fears of socialism, higher taxes, and general mayhem related to the current administration–and that is a topic for another post.

So, the other day my wife E. got into the car and found the radio set to one of those AM stations, and after a few seconds of the usual screed they cut to a commercial for a Survival Seed Vault. Here is my bind: I’m all in favor of people growing their own food from non-hybrid seed. Seed saving is a wonderful practice: it promotes local genetic diversity, and those seeds don’t just make plants–they carry stories and meaning through time and space. Growing food is educational, may cut carbon emissions from transport, and can take business away from the super mega marts. So far so good.

At the same time, I don’t know how I feel about seed saving and food growing being packaged with a neoliberal politics of deregulation and general fear of ‘those people.’  Ultimately, it looks like a lot of messages about serious near-term change are being conflated into one big ball of uncertainty. My friend P. in Maine has what he calls the “horseshoe theory” of American politics–that the left and the right come together if you go far enough toward the ends. I guess my question is, if people are saving seeds, to what extent does the “why” matter?