Nature: A Financial Commodity?

March 4, 2015

By Robert Van Egghen

“We use nature because she’s valuable, and we lose nature because she’s free,” comments Pavan Sukhdev in Banking Nature, which screened at the Frontline Club on Monday 2 March. Sukhdev, the CEO of Gist Advisory, is just one of the multitude of economists, analysts and activists interviewed in the film, which focuses on the commercialisation of the natural world. After the screening, director Sandrine Feydel joined the audience for an insightful discussion.

Feydel

Sandrine Feydel

In Banking Nature, Feydel and co-director Denis Delestrac document how protecting the planet has become big business. Financial companies like Merrill Lynch and JP Morgan Chase now promote environmental markets to investors who buy up areas of land, largely full of endangered species, so they can sell them for ‘nature credits’. Companies whose actions harm the environment are obliged to buy credits to offset the damage that they have caused. Banking nature poses the question of whether financial markets can succeed where politics has failed.

“I can’t trust that these same financial institutions that led us to the last financial crisis, big corporations that [caused] so much damage to the environment, could be the ones who now say ‘no problem, don’t worry, we’ve learned our lesson and are now able to protect biodiversity’,” said Feydel.

Feydel spoke of her unease with the methods used by the companies working in these new environmental markets, when so many of these same tactics – speculation, insider trading, market trading – had led to the devastation of the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis. “This is the same logic we are facing here,” said Feydel.

Members of the audience spoke of their shock at the reality of the situation, as the film at first seems largely pro-market before revealing the devastating consequences of treating nature as a financial commodity. “A lot of what is presented as green is not. This is what the film is trying to show,” said Feydel.

Feydel also spoke of how governments have facilitated the process, enabling financiers and corporations to invest heavily in nature.

“For the companies that want to mitigate the damages they are posing the environment, [they follow] the ‘mitigation hierarchy’. First, you avoid any destruction. If you can’t, you have to minimise the impact. And at the very end, if you can’t either avoid or minimise, you have to mitigate. And this is what is really shown by corporations and governments: it’s a way of pretending that they want to protect nature,” said Feydel.

Feydel also spoke in greater depth about the actual process of mitigation in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, where the first green stock exchange opened a year ago.

“Landowners had to keep 80% of the forest they own, they are just allowed to cut 20% of the forest, but the government found out that the law was not really enforced. So two years ago they decided to change the forestry code. And so now they say, ‘Oh you cut 60-70% of the forest you owned? It’s not a problem. You can go the stock exchange and you can buy credits from some other landowner who didn’t cut and still has 80% of his forest’,” said Feydel.

The session concluded with a question from an audience member about what role politics can play in this new market. Feydel said: “What was surprising when we made this film [was that] NGOs had no clue about these financing mechanisms. This is the new way of making profit for financial markets.”

For more information on Banking Nature and upcoming screenings, click here.



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