Friday, February 15, 2008

Who knew Ted Turner was a closet Libertarian--and the largest landowner in Argentina?

Just kidding, I suppose, about the Libertarian part--but then again....

Libertarians have always generally held that private rather than public ownership could be a more effective vehicle for conservation and ecological protection, arguing in the abstract that something everybody owns, nobody owns, and therefore nobody is ultimately responsible to conserve.

In the United States this has generally not been an accepted argument. It's usually seen (and with some justification) by our Liberal and Progressive brethren and cistern as a blind for corporate greed and commercial development at the expense of old growth forests, spotted owls, and Old Faithful.

But in the Third World, reports The Guardian, the practice of individuals and private foundations from the industrialized West buying up large tracts of land for conservation purposes (often over the objections of the local government and its citizens) has become a major dynamic in land use and politics.

And thus Ted:

The biggest buyers of Patagonia's pristine lakes, rivers and snow-capped peaks are billionaires such as the US couple Douglas and Kris Tompkins, who set up the North Face and Patagonia clothing empires. They started with one sheep ranch and now have several million acres. Their aim, says Kris Tomkins, was to create the first new coastal national park in Argentina.

"I realised that the seemingly perfect wild nature in which we had been climbing, skiing and hiking for years was actually in big trouble ... Private wildlands philanthropy, mixed with political will, can create wildlands preservation on a grand scale and swing the pendulum of extinction back on wavering species."

Their near neighbours, with only slightly less eco-ambition, are the founder of CNN, Ted Turner, the financier George Soros, the fashion tycoons Luciano and Carlo Benetton, and the actors Sharon Stone and Christopher Lambert. Together, they have created vast new private wetland, coastal and mountain parks, some of which they say they plan to give to the state. Indeed, last year Turner became the largest landowner in Argentina, now owning 2m acres of Patagonia, which, he says, will be farmed "ecologically". However, some of the land sits on top of one of the world's greatest underground stores of water and he has been accused in the Argentinian press of trying to seize control of water supplies and putting Argentine farmers out of business, both of which he denies.

Ironically, this new, privatized (could one whisper "Libertarian") form of conservation has become equated in the developing world with absentee landlordism and eco-colonialism:

"Conservation has immeasurably worsened the lives of indigenous peoples throughout Africa," says Simon Colchester, director of the Forest Peoples Programme, which works throughout the tropics. His researchers have documented forced expulsions, human rights violations and the progressive destruction of livelihoods as a direct result of conservation in the region....

"It is estimated that some 1m sq km of forests, savannah, pasture and farmland in Africa have been redefined since 1970 as protected or conservation areas, yet in the great majority of these areas, the rights of indigenous peoples to own, control and manage these areas have been denied," says Colchester. "No one knows how many people have been displaced by these protected areas."

Now that there is an explosion of individuals, charities, trusts and conservation groups buying up farms, fields, hills and forests, many are worried that a new wave of eco-colonialism is being unleashed.

Dan Reevely, from whose blog The Eco-Libertarian I first accessed this story, provides some additional analysis:

What’s missing is an answer to the question of who is selling the land the rich people are buying. John Vidal talks about the reasonable concerns about traditional land uses being displaced, but it’s not at all clear from the story whose land it is the locals are currently using.

I'll let you read the rest there; it's an interesting take.

I can add a more personal take, which raises all sorts of issues. I grew up in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, and spent much of my youth in the Blue Ridge Mountains along the Appalachian Trail--one of the great national parks systems in the country.

My Dad is an artist, whose watercolors specialize in old buildings, archaic tools, drooping trees, etc.

When I was in my teens, he discovered that during the Great Depression, when the CCC had been literally constructing the Blue Ridge Parkway, they had forced out thousands of small landowners in those mountains with little or no compensation--one of the largest exercises in eminent domain in American history. What interested him as an artist was that someone in the WPA had at least had the foresight to take photos of those old cabins (many which showed absolutely unique architectural adaptations to their environment) before they were destroyed; so he had the opportunity to preserve them at least through his art.

But what I wondered about was what happened to the people themselves. Where had they gone?

Census records for the very few names that I could track down revealed that many of them eventually ended up--impoverished--in Virginia's larger cities: Richmond or Roanoke.

So, as I read about the new Libertarian-style conservation in the developing world, I thought about how you balance the dynamic of the interests of indigenous peoples against the perceived interests of the entire world in saving the planet, and who gets to make the decision between them on a case by case basis.

I don't have the answers, and I'm not sure there are any easy--or completely right--answers.

And like the Eco-Libertarian I'm wondering who's profiting from selling all the land that Ted Turner and George Soros are buying.

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