Radical views of how to care for the land, and let it care for us, break through at COP

| 22nd November 2017
A farmer inspects his organic crop

A farmer in Jakarta, Indonesia, inspects his organic crop. 

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Agroecology, plant-based diets and scathing critiques of REDD+  have reached the mainstream at this year’s climate talks, argues NATALIE BENNETT

We need to both cut emissions, and protect nature. There is no alternative.

Promotion of agroecology and organic agriculture, and questioning of grain-fed animal agriculture, are taking an increasingly large place at international climate discussions.

Forestry has always had a prominent position, but the discussion of how to protect these precious resources is moving in the same positive direction as the farming and food discussion, driven by the failures of “business-as-usual” approaches such as REDD+.

In Bonn, there was a high-level panel discussion (this is terminology that does mean something in the status-conscious world of COP) of agroecology, an approach that aims to work with nature, rather than flattening it.

Animal agriculture

It was led by the Minister of Agriculture from Hungary, Sandor Fazekas, who sang the praises of the recent major symposium on agroecology for Europe and Central Asia held in his country.

His compatriots from France, Tunisia, Brazil, Burkina-Faso and the Assistant Director-General of the FAO also spoke at the event, which was concluded by the Polish minister of the environment, representing that state as the president of COP24.

On animal agriculture, there was what was claimed to be the first official fringe discussing the damage intensive livestock farming is doing.

Food security

That ranged from the destruction of forest in Paraguay for soy (less well-known than that of the Argentinian Amazon but certainly important in environmental and human rights terms) and the challenges of promoting reduced meat consumption in China, where excitement over a call for halving the practice has yet to be followed by action.

Lying behind this push at COP was an entirely different model of thinking about humans’ interaction with the natural world, what it can do for us and what we should do for it.

At its heart is the understanding that soil is the foundation of our survival on this planet, and a valuing a nature of a force, a subject, not just an object. And an understanding this is the only way we can tackle the acute approaching issue of food security – crucial to the realisation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Forest life

The philosophy of this approach has been most developed by the Bolivians, also the strongest critics of the REDD+ scheme (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), which allows polluters, generally in the Global North, to “buy” protection for forests in poorer states.

They have developed their own alternative forest protection plan, known as the Joint Mechanism. They were far from alone in their criticism. An Indonesian rep drew the blunt conclusion that REDD+ and other market-based solutions “could not be recommended”. Aviation’s offsetting schemes came in for particular criticism.

The Bolivians say that REDD+ restricts what local people can do with forests, while their approaches wants the opposite – to enhance their rights and regard them as crucial parts of the forest life. With REDD+, ecosystems functions get misconstrued as a commodity or a price is put on the priceless.

Natural savannah

They stress what the forest can do – its power, but also its need not for money but for care, resources and information. It is in their view an economic subject, not an economic object. And that they can get more sustainable food from a healthy forest than from a degraded one, let alone one utterly destroyed.

That reflects the agroecological and organic approaches to farming. It’s also in tune with the approach of permaculture.  IFOAM, the international organisation for organic agriculture, said it meant “the intensification of biological processes and a major reduction in the intensity of external inputs”. We heard at the high-level meeting from a French organic farmer said: “ I can replace my mechanical work with the work of plants.”

And nature can teach us. So an academic noted that in the Sahel, the natural savannah produces five to 10 times the amount of biomass as farmers do, principally because its layered and dense nature helps reduce water loss. “That’s something we have to learn from and copy.”

Another planet

Dr Martin Frick from the UNFCCC at another session acknowledged the need for change: “We have been talking about sustainability since 1986. We need to move on to restoration – of soils, forests and corals. This is not about high-tech solutions, not about geo-engineering nonsense, it is about rolling up our sleeves and doing things.”

He also stressed this was not about nature as distinct from people, but people as part of nature, needing care. “People working on the land are stewards. We need to restore their dignity and livelihood.”

There was, in the more conventional parts of the COP, much discussion of land use – agriculture and forestry – as ways to create carbon stores, offsets for the continued planned growth of aviation and shipping, or other polluting, largely developed world, practices. I heard one dry aside that summed it up neatly: “if you added up all the offsets people are hoping to use you'd need another planet to put them on.”

Protect nature

reliance on “compensation”, in the terminology of the Paris Accord, is something that’s increasingly, rightly being challenged. As a rep from the brilliant Via Campesina said: “Don't view farmers as plumbers draining away the wastes of multinational companies polluting the planet.

And that’s good news, for the business-as-usual approach, a Cartesian view of animals, and nature more broadly, as chequers on a board that we can move to our will, is clearly one of our fundamental problems, not a route to solutions. As is the idea that we can keep polluting, and find some trade off. 

We need to both cut emissions, and protect nature. There is no alternative.

This Author

Natalie Bennett is the former co-leader of the Green party. She has been in Bonn with the Green Economics Institute. She tweets at @natalieben.