Carbon capital: The political ecology of carbon forestry and development in Chiapas, Mexico

by Osborne, Tracey Muttoo, Ph.D., UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, BERKELEY, 2010, 146 pages; 3444378


This dissertation explores contradictions of development within market-based carbon forestry projects that aim to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions associated with climate change. Through the mechanism of the carbon market, forestry-based offset projects are in theory intended to reduce carbon emissions in a cost-effective manner, while also generating development and livelihood co-benefits for communities that participate by growing carbon-sequestering trees. However, I have found that in the multiple dimensions of sustainable development—the economic, social, and ecological—carbon forestry has largely failed to generate sustainable development benefits. This finding largely corresponds with previous empirical studies exploring questions of development through the carbon market. This dissertation, however, takes a different approach, in an attempt to understand not only project impacts but how and why market-based efforts at sustainable development have attracted participants despite failing to meet stated social and environmental goals. Through an engagement with debates on sustainable development, neoliberalization of nature, and agrarian change in Mexico, I draw on a relational approach and political ecology analytical framework. This framework gives attention to the social relations of carbon forestry development in Chiapas, in historical and geographical perspective. And the approach allows for an analysis that goes beyond mere recognition of the failure of development through carbon markets; it also demonstrates the ways in which project contradictions are produced and integrated with earlier and ongoing processes of development and agrarian transformation. I argue that this historical perspective, combined with an understanding of the interconnected relations of power stretching from local rural communities through national and global arenas of policy making and governance, can help better guide political strategies aimed at more just and plausible alternatives for social and ecological change.

Specifically, I examine the Scolel Té carbon forestry project in Chiapas, Mexico, a region with a long history of conflicts over land and resources. I explore the local history of these resource politics to elucidate the conditions that led to the emergence and adoption of the project in the land-conflicted rainforest region of the Lacandon Jungle. I show that, for farmers involved with Scolel Té, carbon forestry emerged as a strategy to maintain land security in the wake of neoliberal agrarian reform policies that in various ways threaten to displace small landholders. In the Mayan Chol community of Frontera Corozal, however, where I carried out ethnographic fieldwork, the project has largely failed to meet the needs of participating campesinos, and in some cases, it has exacerbated tensions within households and the community. Furthermore, based on a carbon analysis of project plots, the ecological benefits of the project as conducted in the Lacandon Jungle are also substantially lacking. While carbon producers participate in the project in part as a means to secure land tenure, carbon forestry has intersected with a national land privatization process that may make peasant access and control over land tenuous in the future. I argue that this articulation of carbon forestry and land privatization constitutes an instance of what David Harvey calls accumulation by dispossession, whereby capital continues to expand through carbon trading and other markets at the expense of poor farmers’ access to land. Working through these issues substantively, this dissertation links carbon forestry not to the more recent phenomenon of the neoliberalization of nature, but to the ongoing movement of capital into agrarian spaces, demonstrating the continued salience of agrarian questions concerning the fate of the peasantry. In conclusion, I offer alternative, more effective, and more equitable strategies for development and climate change mitigation.

AdvisersDaniel Kammen; Gillian Hart
Source TypeDissertation
SubjectsGeography; Climate change; Environmental studies
Publication Number3444378

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