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Vision: Nature Needs Rights -- Why Our Human-Centric Model Will Doom Us and the Rest of the Planet

We have built our economic and development policies based on a human-centric model and assumed that nature would never fail to provide or that technology would save us.

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Another example is Payments for Ecological Services (PES), a growing movement endorsed by several major environmental groups, many governments and the private sector, that promotes conservation of natural resources through market mechanisms. "Ecological Services," such as water purification, crop pollination and carbon sequestration, are seen to have a direct dollar benefit to humans; therefore, it is reasoned, it is important to try to put an actual price tag on them. The UN Environment Program has recently done just that, and estimates that ecosystems and the biodiversity that underpins them generate services worth as much as $72 trillion a year - well over the World Gross National Income in 2008 of $58 trillion. The harvest and trade in these "natural capital" services is seen as an integral part of the global economy and so this approach seeks to pull the actual protection of nature into the market economy.

Some PES proponents cite examples that would be well suited to an Earth-centred model. For instance, the U.S. Conservation Reserve Program has for years paid participating farmers to protect their soil and water rather than use harmful chemical pesticides to grow more cash crops. This is not a pure market model, however; rather it is an example of public funds being used to promote diversity and conservation.

But others have a profit model in mind. A market model of PES is an agreement between the "holder" and the "consumer" of an ecosystem service, turning that service into an environmental property right. The consumer pays the holder or owner for protecting the biological diversity of an ecosystem property in accordance with an agreed upon price. Clearly this system privatizes Nature, be it a wetland, lake, forest or mountain, and sets the stage for private accumulation of Nature by those wealthy enough to be able to buy, hoard, sell and trade it. Already, governments and private corporations are studying Public-Private Partnerships to set up lucrative PES projects.

Similarly, there is a strong trend to turn the world's freshwater supplies into a private commodity in the name of conserving it. By turning water into a tradable market good, the case goes, the natural price of it will skyrocket, leading to its conservation. However, the model being promoted is not charging more properly for the true cost of bringing water services to the public or protecting source water, but for the private accumulation of water assets and the hoarding and trading of water. Water trading is growing around the world. Australia converted its water permits to water property rights, with the result that the government now cannot afford to buy back enough water to save the Murray-Darling water basin. Chile actually holds public water auctions and has sold most of its water rights in the South to a private Spanish company.

As well, in the name of a "blue economy," a number of governments and corporations are using their water resources to promote a water-based high tech industry as an incentive to foreign investment and wealth creation. While there is of course a place for water clean-up technology, it will be a tragedy if governments continue to allow the destruction of source water while promoting profit-making water reuse technologies. Already, utility corporations control drinking water services in many poor communities. Billions in the Global South do not have access to clean water simply because they cannot afford it, and many suffer further from water shortages when bottled water companies get long term extraction rights to local water supplies. When private interests control water sources, public oversight is lost as is the ability to manage and protect watersheds. Privatizing water puts watershed health at risk. Commodifying water renders an Earth-centred vision for watersheds and ecosystems unattainable.

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