La commercialisation de la nature

The COP15 is highly effective at promoting an "asset management" approach to biodiversity that actually enables capitalists to generate profit from ecological degradation, while forcing communities in the global South to provide greater access and control over their land to governments and powerful NGOs in the global North. Since the turn to models of sustainable development in the 1990s, UN agencies have strongly championed the idea that economic growth is compatible with ecological preservation. The commodification of life is one of the consequences of this economic vision that will be discussed here.

According to dominant neoclassical economists, nature is being destroyed because its real value has been overlooked by financial markets– so, to reverse biodiversity loss, they argue that we must put a price tag on rainforests, wetlands, and marine ecosystems. Under capitalism, commodifying the “services” that nature provides is the only way to render these natural systems “visible” to financial markets. This framework develops the false belief that slowing biodiversity loss is just a question of “getting the prices right.” 

What is wrong with commodifying nature in order to try to save it? Put simply, a commodity is a thing that is exchangeable for something else. The commodification of nature creates false equivalencies that completely eliminate all of the complexity essential to ecology itself. Ecologically speaking, 50 pollinators are not exchangeable for 20 saplings, are not exchangeable for 2 endangered birds. The destruction of a forest in one part of the world is not exchangeable for the protection of a similarly-sized forest somewhere else. And yet it is a testament to the thorough penetration of capitalist economics into mainstream science that communities and ecologists are increasingly forced to describe the habitats they steward in terms of exchangeable goods, services, and “natural capital” in their attempts to protect them from further degradation. 

Take, for example, the idea of “payments for ecosystem services.” In this approach, economists assign a monetary value to the services that natural ecosystems provide to human beings – climate change mitigation, watershed services, and biodiversity conservation are examples of so-called “natural services” provided by non-human entities like forests and wetlands. By framing things this way, landowners can in some cases charge people for continuing to access the “natural services” that they have long accessed for free. In many cases, producers and landowners have found a way to monetize the act of not doing harm, and distribute the costs to people and governments. 

Strategies to make nature valuable tends systematically to exclude the traditional land users. Here, the Jenn Kuruba community chased from a forest that is now used as a reserve for tigers.

Describing nature in terms of “ecosystem service units” also crucially allows for the creation of “offset” markets. Offsets allow corporations to continue destroying nature and polluting for profit, even when there are legislative regulations in place that limit habitat destruction and pollution. In fact, offset markets allow capitalists to generate wealth from a new, abstract, fictitious source: people can buy, sell, and engage in speculation over the abstract value that comes from the reduction in costs arising from corporations complying with environmental legislation. In other words, offset markets (of biodiversity and of carbon) allow capitalists to turn environmental legislation itself into a profit-making enterprise.

According to many biodiversity offset schemes, a company can buy and destroy a habitat that houses a critically endangered species so long as it also buys a certain number of “compensation credits” from a certified biodiversity bank. The credits are meant to fund the purchase of conservation land for that species elsewhere in the world, on the erroneous belief that habitat protection or reforestation in one area of the world can simply “offset” the harm wrought by habitat destruction somewhere else. Ecologically, the richness of an acre of Amazonian rainforest may never be “offset” by reforesting a patch of land elsewhere– but offset markets allow companies to smooth over that fact by reducing the complexity of a habitat to simple numbers that can be made to seem equivalent to another piece of land through creative capitalist accounting. The concept of biodiversity banking becomes even more non-sensical when applied to abstract futures. According to some offset frameworks, you can destroy an actually-existing wetlands so long as you put money in a “biodiversity bank” towards the creation of a theoretical, future wetlands– a habitat that literally does not even yet exist and that may be, in reality, impossible to bring into existence. 

The COP15 expands and normalizes the avenues by which living things are commercialized. We are moving even further away from a real understanding of the logic of ecosystems by trying to force nature to conform to our economic models. The solutions that emerge from this process will only ever be counterproductive and inefficient. We do not have the luxury of time to continue to promote false solutions for reversing biodiversity loss when we already have the ability to implement anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist alternatives that work.

Financial strategy



Payment for ecosystem services

Producers have found a way to charge people for the service of not harming the natural habitats on which everyone depends. While this rarely results in rendering visible and compensating Indigenous stewards for their labour, it just as often results in cash handouts to landowners; and even when communities are compensated for their labour, they still lose in the sense that they are forced to adopt a framework in which nature is commodified and enclosed in the first place.

Coffee producers were polluting a river shared by villagers in Jesus de Otoro, Honduras. Households of villagers downstream of the coffee farms paid a fee every month to an administrative trust in order to get coffee producers to stop polluting the river.

Direct “biodiversity fee”

Powerful environmental organizations from the global North buy land in the name of conservation– in many cases, affecting local livelihoods and dispossessing Indigenous communities of their land.

The Nature Conservancy is a powerful US-based NGO with an annual budget of over $700 million that almost exclusively engages in land purchases and easements and over 3.1 million acres of US land– it has strong business relationships with oil producers, chemicals manufacturers, and right-wing Republicans who rotate through their board; they give tax breaks to wealthy donors looking to build homes on land otherwise closed to development. They often buy land in the global South, in countries like Belize and the Seychelles.

Carbon and biodiversity offset markets

Companies are allowed to destroy rich, actually-existing habitats while claiming to offset their ecological harm by putting money in a bank towards the preservation or restoration of some theoretical habitat– often a fictional habitat that may not currently exist and that may never be able to be brought into existence.

The U.S. “Compensatory mitigation Program” enables wetlands to be destroyed so long as credits are purchased from a “mitigation bank” for some theoretical wetlands not immediately on or adjacent to the site of habitat destruction.

Bio-prospecting (Bio-piracy)

Rich countries and companies exploit thousands of years of peoples’ knowledge of plants and plant cultivation to find profitable new chemicals and organisms that can be developed into medicines or agricultural commodities, patented, and then sold back to the people at a profit. International intellectual property laws provide these companies with exclusive rights to sell “commercialized germplasm,” giving free-market actors an incentive to preserve rainforests and other biodiverse habitats only insofar as they can be privatized and enclosed to give companies exclusive access to medicinal and agricultural product development that will generate profit in the future.

Indigenous Peoples in Chiapas, Mexico successfully stopped a US government-funded bioprospecting project that sought to appropriate Mayan knowledge and medicinal plants and seek exclusive monopoly control over these resources through patents and IP.  

Debt-for-nature swaps

In an interesting twist on conventional neo-colonialism, NGOs and rich countries form a “trust fund” that buys up the debt of poor countries in the global South at a discounted rate from their debtor countries– the “debtor” country pays this trust fund and the revenue goes towards local conservation projects that are directed by wealthy organizations, individuals, and governments. Like direct “biodiversity fees,” this often serves to dispossess people of their land, while further privatizing resources previously thought to belong to the collective commons.

Seychelles is an archipelago of 115 islands with rich biodiversity. In 2016, the Nature Conservancy (TNC), a US environmental group, restructured Seychelles’ debt of $21.6 million owed to Paris Club members (eg UK, France, Belgium, Italy) at a discount. The government of Seychelles now repays loans to this new trust at a reduced interest on the agreement that it spends its debt savings on ocean conservation and protects 30% of its marine areas from fishing and drilling.