Corporate land exploitation and climate change: Reflections on the IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land

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A Spanish translation of the article could be downloaded below.

A week after the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) special report on climate change and land, raging forest fires began to decimate Brazil’s Amazon rainforest.

EmboIdened by its rightwing pro-business president, farmers and cattle ranchers set fire to vast swaths of the Amazon to clear land for big agro-businesses. The fires were also exacerbated by our time’s greatest existential threat: climate change.

The burning of “the lungs of the Earth” is a painful and costly demonstration of the gist of the latest IPCC report: the very land we rely on to stabilize the climate is being slammed by climate change.

The report validates civil society’s critique of the current large-scale industrialized agricultural system: that big agricultural transnational corporations (agro-TNCs) at the helm of this system must stand accountable for contributing to ecological land degradation and the current climate catastrophe.

Land has been abused and overexploited

The way humans have been using land is aggravating climate change. The IPCC report says that about 23% of global human-caused greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) from 2007 to 2016 came from agriculture, forestry, and other land-use practices. Moreover, 44% of the recent human-driven methane emissions come from agriculture, peatland destruction, and other land-based sources.

Despite increased deforestation and other land-use changes, the world’s lands are absorbing more emissions than they emit. From 2008 to 2017, land sucked around 30% of the world’s GHGs, according to the report. The absorption by land of carbon in the atmosphere occurs when trees and other kinds of vegetation undergo photosynthesis, as plants take in carbon dioxide for growth. In this way, land, specifically forests, acts as a “carbon sink”.

And yet, land serves more than this purpose. The report recognizes that “Land provides the principal basis for human livelihoods and wellbeing including the supply of food, freshwater, and multiple other ecosystem services, as well as biodiversity”.

Overexploitation of land beyond its natural capacities, however, will only accelerate irreversible losses in land ecosystem services required to produce food and medicine, and secure habitable settlements.

Intensive agriculture and monocultures for plant-based fuels such as palm oil are driving deforestation of carbon-rich tropical forests, soil erosion, and degradation. Despite their negative impacts, the world does not appear to be relenting on its dependence on biofuels. In Indonesia, the government even plans to expand the production of palm oil for local biofuel consumption.

Untamed corporate power leads to land abuse and worsens climate change

Monopoly capitalism and the conquest of territories in the global South to supply developed countries’ needs for raw materials, food, and fuel have destroyed important carbon sinks such as forests.

The trend intensified during the food and financial crises of 2008 when high commodity prices led to a surge of interest in large-scale agriculture for food and biofuel crops. The same process is what is destroying the Amazon rainforests in Brazil today, as the country’s president Jair Bolsonaro delivers on his campaign promise of opening up the areas reserved for 900,000 Amazonian indigenous communities for exploitation by corporate agricultural and mining interests.

International public financial institutions continue to bankroll land grabbing in the global South. The World Bank is embarking on a new attack on the commons by pushing for the privatization of customary and public land and its sale by auction to the highest bidder. The land indicator of the Bank’s Enabling the Business of Agriculture rankings proposes policies to facilitate access to land for agribusiness, at the expense of small farmers, pastoralists, and indigenous peoples.

Twenty-first century free trade agreements may potentially escalate land grabbing while affording agro-TNCs power to further amass land markets while clipping the power of governments to hold them to account and institute regulations, such as bans on mining and logging or the sale of toxic pesticides that harm organisms and disrupt soil balance, to protect peoples’ rights and the environment’s welfare.

Weak to non-existent regulatory mechanisms have enabled big dairy and meat companies to evade accountability despite the magnitude of their GHG footprint. According to the 2018 study done by GRAIN and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, the top 20 meat and dairy companies emit more GHGs than Germany, Canada, Australia, the UK or France. Meanwhile, the top five meat and dairy companies combined emit more GHGs than ExxonMobil, Shell, or BP.

The IPCC report acknowledges that “limited recognition of customary access to land and ownership of land can result in increased vulnerability” of people, communities, and organizations to climate change and weaken their capacity to adjust to its impacts. In fact, these limited customary rights to land are altogether ignored to give way to mega-projects such as dams and geothermal plants under the guise of promoting clean and renewable energy.

Worse, indigenous peoples and land defenders opposing such projects are harassed and, at times, killed. In 2018 alone, according to Global Witness, a total of 164 land defenders were killed for defending their homes, lands and natural resources from exploitation by mining, food, and logging firms. Among the top three countries most dangerous for environmental activists and Indigenous communities were the Philippines, Colombia, and India.

Towards system change

The IPCC report is yet another opportunity to stress the urgency for a whole systems approach to climate action that links the influencing factors on land abuse and overexploitation with the unequal distribution of power and resources between and within countries, and between men and women.

The current climate crisis and the consequences of the abuse of the land and other productive resources demand nothing less than a system change which cannot be achieved through piecemeal policy reforms that remain within the business-as-usual paradigm or through individual lifestyle and dietary changes.

The ultimate way out of the climate crisis is through building sustainable and equitable societies.

Reinstating the people’s sovereign power over the commanding heights of the economy is crucial to achieving ecological balance and climate justice.

In this regard, we need to end destructive industrial agriculture and instead promote agro-ecology and community-based agricultural production approaches. Governments must invest in smallholder farmers and recognize the rights of indigenous and traditional landholders to their lands and forests. Doing so will enable communities on the frontline of the climate emergency, utilizing local knowledge and skill, to sustainably provide for their own needs.

Ending neoliberal trade regimes and dismantling corporate power, including those of agro-TNCs, are integral to a truly transformative and ambitious climate action framework. Northern countries and national elites must include in their climate action commitments the promotion of a global economic architecture that ensures peoples’ rights, economic sovereignty, and cooperation on the basis of equality and solidarity. Foreign corporations must abide by strict environmental and community standards. Domestic and international trade policies must enable sustainable, community-based food production oriented towards achieving self-reliance and food sovereignty. We need new global governance institutions that are transparent, accountable, participatory, democratic and are not beholden to transnational corporate interest and influence.

All these profound changes demand that peoples and their movements assert their voice and rightful role in development and governance and to fight for the welfare of the environment and future generations. ###