How Bezos’ latest plan to protect forests could backfire

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Jeff Bezos’ $ 2 billion plan announced last week to plant trees and restore landscapes across Africa and the United States has already raised red flags for some conservation experts and activists. Last year, after pledging $ 10 billion to fight climate change, activists in the United States called on him not to do enough to reduce Amazon pollution or work with local communities while developing its environmental plans. This time, he faces similar criticism globally.

The Bezos Earth Fund announced its latest round of funding on November 1 at a high-profile United Nations climate summit in Glasgow. There aren’t many details yet, but the fund says it will allocate $ 1 billion to plant trees and ‘revitalize’ grasslands in Africa, as well as restore 20 different landscapes. across the United States. The other billion dollars will support sustainable agriculture initiatives.

The hope with the new conservation investment is to preserve ecosystems that naturally attract and store the carbon dioxide pollution that heats the planet. This builds on a commitment made by Bezos in September to spend $ 1 billion to create and manage so-called “protected” areas for conservation. The Bezos Earth Fund has also said it wants local communities and indigenous peoples “to be placed at the heart of conservation programs.”

But without safeguards in place, the initiative could potentially harm ecosystems and undermine the rights of local and indigenous peoples, some experts say. Instead of pumping money into these projects, they’d rather see Bezos cut pollution from the giant companies he founded.

“Organizations like the Bezos Earth Fund have tended to hire people in Seattle to fix Africa. And that doesn’t work, ”says Forrest Fleischman, who teaches natural resource policy at the University of Minnesota. “A sort of best-case scenario [with inexperienced donors] they are wasting all the money, and the worst case is that they are doing a lot of damage.

Heated debates are erupting right now over how to conserve and restore ecosystems. This is, in part, because of a flood of booming new projects to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss. Last year, for example, the World Economic Forum launched an initiative to plant a trillion trees. This was pushed back by a group of forestry and conservation experts, who warned that aggressive tree-planting campaigns have sometimes led to monocultures of a single tree species. These forest farms do not offer the same types of ecological benefits as natural forests, which are teeming with diverse species. They could even harm ecosystems by putting a lot of trees where they don’t belong, such as in savannas and grasslands.

“Many believe that nothing bad can come from planting trees, but planting trees … in grasslands and savannahs causes irreversible damage to grasslands and savannas,” wrote Susanne Vetter, environmentalist at the Rhodes University The edge. Environmental groups like the World Resources Institute have mistakenly mapped these ecosystems as degraded forests suitable for tree planting in the past, Vetter wrote in an opinion piece published in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems in 2020.

The Bezos Earth Fund said it would work with AFR100, a 31-government partnership in Africa that is advised by WRI and aims to restore 100 million hectares of land across the continent by 2030. AFR100 “is actively advocating against converting natural ecosystems, like grasslands and savannahs, into tree plantations, ”a spokesperson said in an email to The edge. Each country that is part of AFR100 ultimately makes decisions based on input from experts and local communities, says Bernadette Arakwiye, a research associate for WRI based in Rwanda. The maps Vetter refers to in his article have been updated and do not necessarily inform decisions about which land to restore, according to Arakwiye.

But spectacular climate change commitments like the Bezos Earth Fund can easily fall into the pitfalls associated with planting trees because of their focus on speed and scale, says Prakash Kashwan, associate professor of political science at the University of Connecticut. “Designing eco-friendly restoration projects requires working with each individual landscape based on what it looks like,” he says. “If our goal is to learn about Indigenous engagements with nature, a fundamental principle is to slow down. “

Taking the time to consult with local communities who use the land is also important, as projects can also ignite old wounds inflicted on indigenous peoples in the name of conservation in the past. There is a history of “greening” linked to colonization in the world. Half of the world’s ‘protected’ areas occupy land that was once the homes and territories of indigenous peoples, according to a 2016 report by former United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz . Once the land has been set aside as a protected area, tribes may be driven from their lands or may be prohibited from practicing traditions like hunting, even when practiced sustainably.

There is also a history of violent policing of protected areas. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), for example, funded forest rangers accused of killing, raping and torturing local and indigenous populations in African national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, in 2019 Buzzfeed News survey found. In 2020, the Bezos Earth Fund awarded WWF $ 100 million to protect and restore more land.

Experts The edge who I spoke with have tips on how to avoid repeating the past. “This money should be targeted everywhere, to whatever local communities are already doing and think are the best approaches to [restore landscapes]Says Ida Djenontin, whose research focuses on environmental management and governance at Michigan State University and the London School of Economics. Djenontin has also already collaborated with AFR100. Research has shown that forests fare best under the protection of indigenous peoples who depend on them for their livelihoods.

Kashwan fears that even if the Bezos Earth Fund is serious about centering indigenous peoples in its conservation programs, meaningful engagement could be hampered in developing countries that lack a strong and existing framework of legal protections for tribes. “These initiatives are fundamentally flawed because they only do [make] statements of good intentions, ”Kashwan says. There is no institutional accountability mechanism in much of the South, he says.

Even in the United States, there is still work to be done to ensure that environmental philanthropy efforts take into account vulnerable populations. The Bezos Earth Fund says 40% of funds going to the United States will go to projects that “directly engage or benefit underserved communities.” It comes after grassroots activists pushed Bezos to invest more in communities of color disproportionately laden with pollution. Some of these communities are still fighting for Amazon to clean up the air pollution with which its warehouses plague their neighborhoods.

Experts say The edge that perhaps the biggest impact Bezos could have would be to stop Amazon’s damage to the environment from its pollution. Even after making big commitments to tackle climate change, Amazon’s greenhouse gas emissions have continued to increase in recent years. As long as it does, initiatives like the Bezos Earth Fund are little more than corporate greenwashing, say experts like Fiore Longo, conservation campaign manager for Survival International, a human rights organization. which defends indigenous peoples.

Wealthy corporate figureheads, she says, “think they can just keep destroying the planet by producing emissions, then creating protected areas or planting trees somewhere, then magically, their emissions. will be compensated. At a key moment in which we find ourselves and where we need real decisions for the protection of biodiversity and to stop climate change, we cannot afford this kind of distraction.

The Bezos Earth Fund declined The edgerequest for comments.


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