Cecilia Cassidy
Climate Change
Spring 2024

What’s Under Foot: Land, Environment, and Climate Change

By Tim Bartley, Professor, Earth Commons Institute and Department of Sociology, Georgetown University

Illustration of a hand pushing trees to the side while the other hand sprinkles black seeds on mountains. Design by Cecilia Cassidy.

When we think about climate change, we usually think first about its impacts on the atmosphere and the air around us. We think about carbon dioxide and methane emissions that are primarily fueling climate change. We may then think of water since climate change contributes to rising sea levels, as well as storms that are increasingly more difficult to predict and control.

We rarely, however, think about land. Somehow climate change seems like a problem that floats above or sweeps up over us, rather than a problem that sits under our feet. This is a misconception, since both climate change and attempts to mitigate it are linked to land — to land use, land access and land rights around the world.  

The clearing of forested land, for instance, raises greenhouse gas concentrations because while healthy forests absorb carbon dioxide, burning forests release it. The preservation of natural forests is a crucial step in healing the climate, but attempts to avoid deforestation often run into vexing questions about who has the right to control land, with governments, companies and local people (including Indigenous communities) making competing claims.  

The extraction of fossil fuels occurs deep underground — and increasingly far offshore as well. But mining the lithium and cobalt needed for electric vehicles also involves new land excavations — often leading to severe exploitation of workers and local environmental degradation. Large solar and wind farms take up substantial tracts of land, though sizable swaths of land have also been scarred by oil and gas pipelines and coal mines. Here too, there are conflicts about who has the right to control — and profit from — the land needed for new and old forms of energy. 

In both issues concerning forested land and in energy projects, “land grabbing” comes in both profit-seeking and green forms, and sometimes it is not easy to tell the difference. Indeed, in my research, I have looked at how land control and land rights are intertwined with the world of sustainability standards — that is, rules about what counts as sustainable forestry or sustainable agriculture, and how one can trace supposedly green products back to their sources. Voluntary sustainability standards are supposed to help green the economy, but their impacts have often been thin or illusory.

In principle, voluntary sustainability standards often require clear land rights, community consultation and “free and prior informed consent” for the use of Indigenous people’s land, so that sustainable forests or farms are not developed through exploitative land grabs. In practice, though, rules pertaining to land rights have been among the most difficult to enforce, and land conflicts have sometimes been swept under the rug to clear the path for green markets to expand.

In Indonesia, where I looked at sustainable forestry projects, attempts to get forests certified to the standards of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) have often struggled with obtaining “free and prior informed consent.” Indigenous groups claim customary rights to particular areas of forest land, but the Indonesian government has historically refused to formalize those rights; this has begun to change since a 2013 Constitutional Court ruling. Companies seeking certification have often benefited from historical injustices and violence against local people, and some have had to negotiate compensation for current land uses. But only rarely do these compensation agreements and consultation procedures amount to more than small concessions — or what I called “shallow solutions to deep problems.” Similar dynamics exist in the palm oil industry, where large plantations have often been built on deforested and contested lands.

Scholars doing research in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and other countries have come to similar conclusions, although legal structures and the power of Indigenous rights advocates vary across countries in important ways. Neither are stumbles and struggles over land rights unique to voluntary standards in the private sector. The U.N.’s program on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD+) has faced similar challenges in balancing forest protection and environmental justice.

In China, where I also examined sustainable forestry efforts, the context is different, but there are nevertheless risks that land grabs can be certified as sustainable. Though the Chinese government does not recognize Indigenous peoples, village councils in rural areas (and sometimes individuals) may hold valuable but fragile land rights. As companies and local governments seek to develop large timber plantations in southern China — in part to feed global demand for furniture and paper packaging — some company and government officials have strong-armed villagers to gain access. Sustainability certifiers ignored or papered over this problem in some cases. Even when they did scrutinize it, efforts to renegotiate compensation and set up conflict resolution procedures could only go so far without unearthing past injustices or veering into “sensitive” political topics, such as land rights and protests.

As this research suggests, greening the economy does not automatically equate to caring for land or respecting the rights of marginalized groups. There is certainly a danger that large-scale carbon offsets and “avoided deforestation” projects could end up excluding local people; walling off valued resources and livelihoods; and exacerbating social inequalities, especially when highly-financed projects meet disenfranchised local populations.

But more promising scenarios are also possible. If marginalized groups gain clear and recognized land rights, they may be able to manage forests and farms more sustainably, while also tapping into redistributive climate finance mechanisms. If rural residents have meaningful chances to shape and benefit from wind and solar farms, the land required to power a low-carbon future could be expanded more equitably, taking account of other land uses and generating less resentment.

More broadly, if we remember that land and climate are intricately intertwined, we will be better equipped to deal with the changes of the coming decades — both those that occur under foot in particular places and those that flow, like air and water, through the global commons.

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