From possession to property: how the commodification of land affects youth participation in farming in Ghana

From possession to property: how the commodification of land affects youth participation in farming in Ghana

With the gradual transition from the customary possession of land to property ownership based on a capitalistic logic, customary lands in the Techiman area in Ghana have been commercialised and ...

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Low-hanging fruits are sometimes the sweetest: how tree-sourced foods can help transform the global food system

The global food system is dominated by a limited number of actors and mainly focusses on the production of only a handful of relatively innutritious foods. The system in its ...

Human development and responsible guardianship of our planet must go hand in hand

The recently published UNDP Human Development Report shows that we’ve come a long way in recognising the damage we’re doing to the planet and how intricately connected natural resource use and poverty are. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated inequalities and poor living conditions, making it clear that we don’t have time to waste in addressing the double challenge of environmental and social injustice. We now have an opportunity to change things for the better – if only we seize this opportunity together, writes Kitty van der Heijden, Director-General for International Cooperation at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

United Nations Development Programme (2020) ‘Human Development Report 2020. The next frontier. Human Development and the Anthropocene’. United Nations Development Programme. Available at: http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/hdr_2020_overview_english.pdf.

We are ruining the planet. This is the simple, yet scary message that the latest edition of the Human Development Report conveys. The 2020 UNDP Human Development Report titled ‘‘The Next Frontier” was launched in the Netherlands on 12 February 2021 through an online event organised by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and SDG Nederland.

During this event, in my keynote speech I stressed that we are in fact destroying the natural resources on which we depend – be it water, soil or a stable climate. We are entering the sixth mass extinction of species. We are using the atmosphere of this planet as the global sewer for greenhouse gases. And in a period of about 150 years, without intending to do so, we as humankind managed to change the properties of an entire planet’s atmosphere. That is quite an accomplishment for a bunch of fur-free apes.

In so doing, we are not only ruining our own future here in the Netherlands, but more importantly, we are losing the prospect of a life in dignity for the many poor and vulnerable communities worldwide that we have promised a better future. They are least responsible, and least capable of dealing with the impact, and yet this is where we are.

Over the past year, the COVID-19 crisis exacerbated multidimensional inequalities within and between countries that existed prior to the pandemic. But what the report truly shows is that inequalities and environmental degradation are not separate issues. We cannot eradicate poverty if we do not at the same time address the accelerating degradation of natural resources on which we all depend, but poor people even more so. Natural resources like forests, freshwater and fertile soils are often called ‘the only wealth poor people have’. They are essential for their survival.

Yet it is in no small part our production and consumption patterns, particularly from developed economies, that degrade and destroy such resources. Protecting the environment and combatting climate change is not a luxury. It’s not icing on the human development cake. Environmental degradation and poverty are inextricably linked. They are two sides of the same coin and they exacerbate each other. Together they are a truly toxic combination. If we do not change the way we use our planet, we will never be able to reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). And meeting these is essential for just, equitable and sustainable development that leaves no-one behind.

When you look at climate statistics, you might feel like pulling a duvet over your head and going back to sleep. Nevertheless, I am still optimistic. There is hope, and I will tell you why:

  1. What is evident now was not so evident ten years ago

In 2012, I was involved in the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. Around that time, the link between environmental degradation and poverty eradication was not recognised. Development experts considered the environment a separate realm. ‘Real’ development – to them – was working on health, education and malnutrition. Countries from the Global South thought that anything ‘green’ was an aid conditionality or a luxury – something you would do after development projects were completed. The environment was seen as a Western agenda.

In less than ten years, a broader understanding has developed that you cannot achieve human development without looking at durable usage of a country’s natural resources. This paradigm shift in thinking happened in a very short time span, which gives me hope for the future.

  1. We are starting to take universality seriously

Development used to be seen as a foreign policy objective, as something you ‘do and deliver elsewhere’. We have come to realise that with global challenges such as water shortages, climate change or soil erosion, none of these challenges can be dealt with through development cooperation alone. In a globally connected world, we are linked through supply chains and terrorism, through climate change and communicable diseases, through the Internet and information systems and through migration and global media. We thus need a whole-of-government approach, because our global environmental footprint impacts people well beyond our borders, our trade policies may impede or enhance people’s ability to achieve a life of dignity, etcetera. And even more so, we need a whole-of-society approach. This means including the private sector, science communities, civil society organisations, and so on, in a holistic effort to bring about global sustainable development.

Solving these issues will require looking at our policies through the lens of policy coherence for sustainable development. Our actions here in the Netherlands as part of the Global North have an impact elsewhere. This realisation will hopefully speed up and accelerate an integrated pathway towards global sustainable development.

All proposals for law in the Netherlands are subject to an SDG test. But research shows that all developed countries can still do (much) better in achieving policy coherence.

  1. The COVID-19 crisis offers an opportunity for change

The COVID-19 pandemic has set back human development tremendously. Decades of progress have been undone by the lockdowns globally, but especially in developing economies where shock resilience is low. Job losses, especially in the informal sector, have led to a steep increase in (extreme) poverty and malnutrition. Children are unable to go to school, and digital education is still a dream for too many. Too many girls will lose the opportunity to proper schooling – as they are married off early or fall in the hands of sex traffickers. Gender-based violence is on the increase. And it’s important to realise that this crisis in fact originated in environmental degradation, zoonotic diseases and rapid biodiversity loss.

Still … it may also be the best opportunity we ever had to address the planetary (or climate/environmental) crisis. Never before in the history of mankind has the public sector globally poured in this much money in relief and recovery programs to combat the impact of COVID-19. Never ‘waste a good crisis’, the old adage goes. If we use these resources well, we can keep global warming within the 1.5˚C limit (compared to pre-industrial levels), as well as the SDGs within reach.

The alternative is simply too horrifying to contemplate. If we do it wrong – if we return to the old, wasteful and polluting economy – the planet and mankind will suffer the consequences. Not just for the next 10 years, but possibly for the next 10,000 years.

Thus, the message of the Human Development Report that we must act now to combat both poverty and environmental degradation is crucial to keep the dream of a life in dignity for all humankind alive. The realisation of that dream depends on all of us.

Opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the ISS or members of the Bliss team.

About the authors:

Ms. Kitty van der Heijden is Director General for International Cooperation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Her responsibilities include development cooperation policy, implementation and funding. Central themes are gender, sustainable economic development, and climate policies.

Between 2014 and 2019, Ms. Van der Heijden has served as Vice President and Director Africa and Europe at the World Resources Institute in Washington. She served as the Dutch Ambassador for Sustainable Development from 2010 until 2013 and as Ambassador for the Millennium Development Goals in 2009. Before that she held several other policy and managerial positions at both the United Nations and Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Other positions Ms. van der Heijden has served in include a position as non-executive member of the board at Unilever NL (2014-2019), and Advisory Board positions at ‘Pathways to Sustainability’ at Utrecht University (2018-2019), the Global Commission on Business and SDGS (2016-2017), SIM4NEXUS (2015-2019) and Global ‘Planetary Security’ Conference (2015-2018). She was awarded the Viet Nam Presidential Medal of Friendship in 2009 and the Dutch National ‘Green Ribbon’ of Honor in 2013.

Ms. Van der Heijden (56) holds an MSc degree in Economics from the Erasmus University Rotterdam. She enjoys family time, nature walks and kick-boxing.

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COVID-19 | The COVID-19 pandemic and oil spills in the Ecuadorian Amazon: the confluence of two crises

How can we reframe the current planetary crisis to find ways for decisive and life-changing collective action? The Amazon region of Ecuador, at the center of two crises—COVID-19 and a major oil spill—but also home to a long history of indigenous resistance, offers some answers.

Oil Spill Amazon

Navigating two crises

In Ecuador, the intensification of resource extraction and pollution, floods and weather disturbances have hit marginalized populations hardest. Indigenous peoples and people living in the Amazon have continuously suffered an enormous political and economic disadvantage when confronting extractive industries and allied state bodies. The vulnerability of the peoples and territory of the Ecuadorian Amazon region has been even more severely exposed during the COVID-19 lockdown period starting 16 March 2020.

On 7 April 2020, the Trans-Ecuadorian Oil Pipeline System and the Heavy Crude Oil Pipeline, which transport Ecuador’s oil, collapsed. The pipelines were built along the banks of the Coca River and the collapse resulted in the spillage of an enormous quantity of crude oil into its waters. The Coca river is a key artery in the regional Amazon system. It runs through three national parks that form one of the richest biodiverse areas on Earth, which has been historically preserved by the ways of life of the indigenous peoples who inhabit it.

The breakage of the pipelines impacted kilometers of rainforest riverways and tens of thousands of people. Indigenous populations living in surrounding areas are more at risk than non-indigenous populations because they rely on locally harvested food and water, which can become contaminated. Indigenous peoples find it difficult to comply with lockdown mobility restrictions since their subsistence depends on agriculture, hunting and fishing, which in turn have been severely impacted by the oil spills. The exposure to the virus due to the entry of technicians to repair the pipelines is another threat. These conditions have led the Confederation of indigenous nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE) warning of an impending genocide.

The Coca river valley before the erosion. Photo credit: Luisa Andrade

Despite the constitutional mandate to provide free and high-quality public healthcare for all citizens, the Ecuadorian national health system is fraught with problems. Health coverage in the Amazon region is precarious with a lack of medical facilities, doctors, and not enough COVID-19 tests and ventilators required to treat an outbreak. While elderly and people with comorbidities have been identified globally as most vulnerable to infection, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights identifies indigenous people as a risk group. Indeed, historically, pathogens have been one of the most powerful factors in decimating indigenous peoples in South America.

Depending on how an issue is framed, different responses can be expected, including why something is considered or not a problem, who is responsible, and what needs to be done about it. Environmental problems derived from the extraction of natural resources such as oil are mainly framed as localized problems. Thus, the burden is placed onto affected communities and local and national governments, while their global and systematic character is disowned. What we aim to say with this is that while there are companies and governmental entities that are directly responsible, their actions respond to a global system that is based and sustained on extractivism.

As the COVID-19 pandemic shows, it is only when a crisis is understood as part of a global web of relations derived from complex power dynamics that we can imagine possibilities of globally coordinated and integrated efforts required for effective resolution. We are now living under global restrictions, which were once unimaginable, politically and economically.  The rapid adaptation of quarantine and travel restrictions reveals that when the message of ‘human life is in danger’ is embraced, societies as a whole are able to perform the collective drastic changes required in a short period of time.

For Ecuadorian grassroots organizations and scholars, the COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder of our interconnectedness, our collective vulnerability, and therefore our mutual obligations to our planet. The pandemic is just one aspect of the human-made planetary crisis along with biodiversity loss and climate change. We are interested in how to reframe the current planetary crisis that encompasses increasingly visible global diseases in order to find ways for decisive and life-changing collective action. We ask these questions by looking at the Amazon region of Ecuador, which is bearing the brunt of two crises: COVID-19 and environmental destruction through a major oil spill.

“In the name of development”

To understand the complexity of this human and ecological disaster, it is necessary to retrace some historical steps. On February 2, 2020, the San Rafael waterfall, the highest in Ecuador, collapsed. At that time, hydrologists warned that a phenomenon known as ‘regressive erosion’ could affect upstream infrastructure. On April 7, 2020 the Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources announced that the pipelines broke due to landslides that occurred in the San Rafael sector. Hydrologists associate the landslides with the construction and operation of the Coca-Codo Sinclair hydroelectric dam (CCSHD).

Location of the most relevant events generated by the regressive erosion phenomenon of the Coca River. Infographic credit: Luisa Andrade

According to Carolina Bernal, PhD in Geomorphology and Hydrosedimentology, the CCSHD caused a serious imbalance in the transport of sediments and water through the river flow which produced a  regressive erosion phenomenon which was responsible for causing sinkholes along the banks of the river. One of these sinkholes broke the oil pipelines. This risk had been mentioned in the earlier preliminary environmental impact study of the hydroelectric project.

CCSHD was inaugurated as part of Ecuador’s hydraulic mission during the presidency of Rafael Correa. The dam, like other hydroelectric projects carried out during his mandate, was politically legitimatized as “provider of clean energy and ‘good living’ for Ecuadorians and the world”. The rhetoric concerning the sustainable energy transition to renewable sources in the national energy matrix has been notably inconsistent with the dam’s high impacts on people and the environment.

The socio-environmental impacts associated with CCSHD and the oil spill were foreseen by the scientific community and civil society who were dismissed as “antidevelopmentalists” by Correa’s government. Some anticipated that the dam would a be major disruption of downstream sediment for the Napo River and would require extensive road-building and line construction in the primary forest. Others have questioned the true purpose of the dam, arguing that it was not about sustainable development for local people, but rather to provide electricity to the oil fields.

One of several sinkholes caused by the regressive erosion of the Coca River. The sinkhole captured in this picture is close to the town of San Luis. Photo credit: Carlos Sanchez (August 2020)

Going beyond business as usual

Even if the world is still embroiled in the COVID-19 pandemic, the responses to this crisis have revealed stark unequal, racial, and geopolitical differences. The indigenous populations affected by the spill and the pandemic have denounced the failure of the state to attend to these two emergencies. The many commentators on the current changes in the social and economic constellation of the world are urging for the re-evaluation of our way of life and the possibility of a radical change. For Ecuadorian indigenous organizations and the environmental justice movement, the pandemic and the environmental crises call for a radical rethinking of economic growth and our current model of development.

Scholars like Maurie Cohen see COVID-19 as “a public health emergency and a real-time experiment in downsizing the consumer economy”. Accordingly, the outbreak could potentially contribute to a sustainable consumption transition. For Phoebe Everingham and Natasha Chassagne the crisis is an opportunity to challenge the atomized individualism that underlies overconsumption. For them, Buen Vivir, a central concept to Ecuador’s development planning, drawn from the historical experience of indigenous communities that have lived in harmony with nature, is a post-pandemic alternative for moving away from capitalist growth and re-imagining a new form of traveling and tourism.

We cannot return to ‘a normal’ that ignores the global environmental crisis which led to the inequitable and polluted societies that enabled the spread of COVID-19. The extractive vision of the living world is endangering humanity’s very existence. Is there space for a greater appreciation of the complexity of these intertwined crises? When will we see, as Bayo Akomalafe states, “Earth’s interconnected geological and political processes”?.

The extractive environmental activities that underpin capitalist development and a planetary-mass consumption culture are jeopardizing the very existence of humanity. Though environmental disasters have decimated and violated the rights of indigenous peoples in the Ecuadorian Amazon for years, they continue to resist. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, groups of Amazonian indigenous organizations promoted a model of autonomous governance of the Amazon region of Ecuador and Peru through the “Sacred Basins Territories of Life” initiative.

The proposal has been developed by an alliance of indigenous peoples and nationalities of Ecuador and Peru to forge a new post-carbon, post-extractive model by leaving fossil fuels and mineral resources underground, retaining around 3.8 billion metric tons of carbon, to protect our planet and the well-being of future generations. The proposal would cover around 30 million hectares of land between Ecuador and Peru, home to almost 500,000 indigenous people of 20 different nationalities. Can these counter-hegemonic proposals which claim the interconnectivity of all species in this world be critically revisited in the times of the pandemic?

COVID-19 brought the world to a halt. This ‘portal to a new era’, as Arundhati Roy proclaimed, offers us a chance to question deeply our social and economic relations. Perhaps this could be the moment in history where we also can finally reframe localized environmental disasters as global concerns and act accordingly. This is the opportunity to politically and socially rethink how to transition to a different kind of development that acknowledges and changes the damaging way global lifestyles directly impact the indigenous peoples and natures of the world.

This blog article was first published on Undisciplined Environments.

About the authors:

Jacqueline Gaybor is a Research Associate at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University, in The Hague and lecturer at Erasmus University College in Rotterdam. Email: gaybortobar@iss.nl.

Wendy HarcourtWendy Harcourt is a Professor of Gender, Diversity and Sustainable Development at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University, in The Hague. She is a member of the Editorial Collective of Undisciplined Environments. Email: harcourt@iss.nl.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.