Rio+20, low-income women, and the green economy
An interview with Nidhi Tandon
2012-03-29, Issue 579
In 1992, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the United Nations held its landmark Conference on Environment and Development. Also known as the Earth Summit, the Conference set the global environmental agenda for the next two decades. Now, twenty years on, the world’s governments, development practitioners, and environmental activists are set to reconvene once again, in Brazil, in June 2012, for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development-Rio +20.
Along with the institutional framework for sustainable development, the Conference will be focusing on the theme of ‘a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication’. Given such an emphasis, what will Rio+20 mean for the many millions of poor women across the world, struggling with the effects of poverty, climate change, and environmental degradation?
Here, Gender & Development journal asks Nidhi Tandon, G&D Editorial Advisory Board member, and author of the forthcoming UN Women’s paper on Rio+20 and the Green Economy, to explain the issues as she sees them.
GENDER & DEVELOPMENT: Nidhi, before we go any further, can you tell us what exactly is meant by ‘green economy’?
NIDHI TANDON: Well, the concept of the “Green Economy” is a complex one, and the international community has yet to come to a political consensus on its meaning, its use, usefulness, and the ensuing policy implications or, for that matter, what actually constitutes a green economy. The distinctions between ‘‘Green Economy’’, ‘‘Green Growth’’ (which refers to creating jobs and income generating opportunities in new, ‘green’ sectors of the economy, and minimising environmental impact), ‘‘Global Green New Deal’’ or ‘‘Green Recovery’’ are somewhat blurred; as is the distinction between ‘‘Qualitative Growth’’ and ‘‘Sustainable Economy’’. While they may share common core objectives, they tend to emphasise different aspects of ‘greening’ the economy. The term most commonly used in the international community is the ‘‘Green Economy’’.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) believes that in order to achieve equitable and sustainable development, there needs to be a balance between the economy, society, and the environment. Looked at that way, the ‘‘Green Economy’’ embodies the concept of sustainability, while offering scope to debate the limits to growth, a debate which is taking place in both the industrialised and emerging economies.
For me, ‘‘green economy’’ suggests an environmentally-friendly economy, sensitive to the need to restore and conserve natural resources; that minimises pollution, emissions and waste that damage the environment in the production pro- cess; and produces products and services that do not harm to the environment. By extension, not harming the environment also implies that all living beings, all species, including all humans, would thrive and even perhaps, flourish. Interpreted in a holistic manner, the Green Economy concept offers hope.
Yet differing national circumstances and aspirations result in different responses to ‘greening’ the economy. The capital- and technology-intensive industrial economies, for instance, focus on the promises of future market and employment opportunities, while developing economies, by and large, are suspicious of potential environmentally-conditioned trade impositions that could compromise their own green economy agendas.
Social policies and instruments will need to be developed to ensure that the Green Economy not only alleviates poverty and improves equity as a matter of course, but that the interests of the very same people who depend on Green Economy sectors like land, water or fisheries for instance are deliberately safeguarded and protected from the very outset. This means that we have to undo and reverse a lot of the structural formulations that already prevent people from living off and with the public commons.
Right now, there is ample space for the women’s movement to take the Green Economy concept beyond the narrow concerns of today’s market economy, beyond ensuring that the ‘technicalities of a green economy’ might include wo- men and shape it instead into something that really addresses the fundamental structural issues of sustainable development for all.
GENDER & DEVELOPMENT: What are your main concerns regarding poor women and a green economy?
NIDHI TANDON: Robust green economies are not going to materialise if all that takes place is a ‘retrofitting’ of the prevailing economic system to secure the globalised, ‘‘green economy’’ interests of the powerful few, while providing the poor merely with supplemental social policies. I think that one of the Green Economy’s litmus tests will be whether it actually empowers and engages people every step of the way in its design and implementation, and whether it takes to heart the perspectives of poor communities and especially the interests, knowledge, and priorities of women in these communities. These are existential issues for poor people, for there are real perils and risks if the natural resources upon which these com- munities depend are brought into an economic value system that for all intents and purposes dismisses, negates, and displaces the value systems and priorities of the poor. The term ‘green economy’ runs the risk of polarising people. I suggest, therefore, that there are in fact a multitude of different green economies, and that we have to ensure that the interests of certain green economies do not undermine the interests of other green economies.
The prevailing theory of financial markets, for example, holds that they tend towards equilibrium over time, and that, therefore, the pursuit of self-interest should be allowed free rein, and markets should be deregulated. But [US financier and philanthropist] George Soros, among others, has warned against the false premise of an unregulated financial market, saying that such a market serves the interests of the owners and managers of financial capital, and that global markets have allowed the free movement of financial capital, making it hard for individual states to tax it or regulate it. I would say, on current trends, it is safe to speculate that green finance capital would service simi- lar interests on a green label.
GENDER & DEVELOPMENT: Looking beyond the financial mar- kets, what and where would you say are the markets in a Green Economy, and how will these markets be organised and regulated and on whose behalf?
NIDHI TANDON: Preparing the Green Economy for 'the market of nature', for instance, re- quires placing a commercial metric on the 'value of nature'. While nature is invaluable, that is to say, priceless, to poor people on an everyday basis, it has mostly by-passed markets and has escaped pricing and valuation. There is a study, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) study, which has at- tempted to offer a first, comprehensive, economic rationale for its valuation, and this potential valuation could run into the billions and trillions of US dollars. In a landmark study, The Value of the World's Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital, which was published in 1997, the total value of the world's ecosystems was estimated at 33 trillion US dollars; which was twice the global GDP then. The valuation of the world's ecosystem, how- ever, is not uniformly welcomed. How do we really allocate a quantifiable measurement to the infinite value of the earth's unique biosphere? How do you put a price on a frog, a bird, a tree? Some have been attempting to do just this. A decade after the 1997 study was published, Achim Steiner, the Executive Director of the UN Environment Pro- gramme (UNEP), using data from the African Environment Outlook [published by the UN Environment Programme], something which he termed both a 'pre- investment document and a 'shareholder prospectus'-spoke about the valuation question, with Africa in mind. He argued that while Africa's wealth of natural resources had always been an asset- sustaining its people in good times and bad-its true value had always been in- visible in economic terms; for example, the value of the Zambezi River Basin, in terms of crops and agricultural potential, was worth close to USD50 million a year, and Africa's wetlands, in terms of fisheries, around USD 80 million. He went on to say that Africa, with its natural wealth, could be a leading player on such a multi-billion dollar stage. These estimations run in stark contrast to the absolute decrease in landholdings size in Malawi, and the growing rates of malnutrition in children in Zambia. Ultimately, the 'transfer of value' of this ''shareholder prospectus'' to those who are already losing their 'fair share' will be one of the key social challenges of an equitable Green Economy.
GENDER & DEVELPOMENT: What do we need to see happen for a green economy to operate in the interests of poor women, and how hopeful are you that these things will take place?
NIDHI TANDON: I have just returned from working with farming women in Dominica. They are the de- facto stewards of the land- they know that conserving crayfish through fishing permits is important, but as long as a poisonous herbicide like Gramoxone, banned in many coun- tries, is regularly used in banana cultiva- tion, and as long as that poisonous substance makes its way into the ground- water and into the crayfish habitats, conserving crayfish is a laughable, futile activity. Toxic side effects in humans have been noted in areas where paraquat the active ingredient in Gramoxone) has been used over time. Farmers are known to wash Gramoxone containers in rivers, with deadly results: dead fish bobbing on the river surface soon afterwards. Also, it is common knowledge that empty Gramoxone containers are frequently used in rural areas of Dominica to carry water to and from standpipes or rivers. The women talk about these issues, and they are moving beyond their anguish to absolute outrage and action, turning to farming systems that are not chemicalised, and practicing their versions of local organic farming and growing local for local consumption. Women farmers the world over are al- ways my source of optimism! What do we need to see happen? We need political consciousness-raising of the grassroots to stand up for what is at stake!
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