When we talk about resource extraction, we think so much about fossil fuels, but we’re actually talking about all resource extraction, right?
We’re talking about fossil fuels, yes, but also mining more generally. We might also be talking about timber and forest resources. Additionally, while we might not use the framing of resource extraction for, say, the expansion of oil palm plantations, this can often involve the clearing of primary forest or the burning of peatlands. The heavy promotion of biofuels as part of the transition narrative often understates the implications of their expanding production for forest cover. So, in the context of this talk, I’m looking at resource extraction across these different domains. It's most obviously about fossil fuels and minerals, but also the extraction of forest resources and the clearance of forest for large scale agro-industrial investments.
You’ve talked about environmental defenders, and how they're often on the front lines in between the environments that they're protecting and the capital, the corporate interests that want access to that place. What are some of the challenges they were facing before COVID, and how did COVID exacerbate things?
The Global Witness reports that document the killings of environmental defenders show that these killings were already intense pre-COVID, averaging about four defenders murdered every week. But this is just the most extreme violence against defenders. In addition are intimidation, threats, or the use of litigation to try and silence or otherwise distract environmental defenders from the defense work because of the necessary time and resources spent defending themselves or in a courtroom. This intimidation is directly related to the desire of interests to gain access to land and natural resources: not just multinationals or corporates, but also national and sub-national elites involved in land acquisition, land trafficking and land displacement who then pass on those lands to interests that aggregate them, making them available for large scale investment. The context of COVID will put more pressure on those lands, and thus increasing pressures on environmental defenders as well. We’re seeing this in our work.
I want to talk about data and its impact. You worked in academia for a long time, and you did a lot of research. Were there instances where you feel like this kind of data collection, this research has actually led to policy change or significant shifts in feeling on the ground?
There are many examples that one can point to in which data collection and its analysis has been a central component of shifting narratives. The climate change discussion is a case in point. Take the IPCC process: while the political gains in terms of changing policies have not been nearly what the scientists involved would have hoped for, there's no question that it's changed narratives around climate change. And that is a change grounded entirely, I think, in the rigorous analysis of not just climate scientists, but all the scientists contributing work to the IPCC reports.
So yes, there is a direct relationship between careful analytical work and change in policies and narratives. These initiatives aggregate existing academic work from universities and specialized research centers, and then craft the narrative or scientific synthesis. That's the basis of a public narrative that changes public debate.
Let me give a particular example of research contributing to change that has been important for our work at the Ford Foundation, and which I’ll be talking about more. This example involves a combination of research that shows 1) the importance of standing forest (and peatlands) for climate change mitigation and the role they play as carbon sinks and sources of carbon storage and 2) other work that shows that forests are much more likely to stay standing when Indigenous and traditional communities, who have historically exercised rights over occupation of those forests, have their formal rights to territory recognized. When these rights are recognized and protected, the likelihood of those forests remaining standing increases significantly. So there you have different parts of research - some on tenure and forests, some on forest, peat, carbon and greenhouse gas emissions – and the stitching of those bits of research together helps build the narrative, but one that is firmly grounded in rigorous analysis. This narrative shows clearly that the large-scale titling of indigenous, traditional and local communities’ territories is a central component to any climate change mitigation strategy. This will be a theme present in the COP discussions, for instance, and that would not have happened had not the analytical basis been built for that argument.
Thank you so much. I think everything you said – and will talk about in your lecture - just shows how closely linked the energy transition is with governance, land ownership, human rights and the environment. We look forward to hearing this in more details on 10 September.
For more info, visit https://bit.ly/Bebbington. The lecture will be hosted by the University of Utrecht and streamed live online. Register here.
The Kapuscinski Development Lectures are jointly organized by UNDP, the European Commission and partner universities, bringing top global thinkers to discuss development topics with university students and the public.