Land and the environment: pollution, deforestation, climate change, conservation zoning

Overview:

Land governance has become attached to environmental agendas in a number of ways.  The best recognised of these is the cordoning off of forest land for conservation in national parks and other protected areas.  In many parts of the Mekong Region, this has become an issue where conservation zones have been declared in areas previously settled, criminalising the largely ethnic minority farmers who find themselves living in such areas.  More recently, "green grabbing" has become an issue as environmentally-inspired programs such as REDD+ assign recoverable value in forest carbon and hence give investors new incentives to acquire rights to forest land that is part of the livelihood domain of smallholders.  Other environment-related issues include the pressures places on lowlands - especially delta areas - by climate change, the damage done to soils by industrial agriculture, and the environmental externalities of modern practices that impact on nearby smallholders.

Key reform issues:

  • Co-management arrangements that recognise sustainable agricultural practices within protected areas
  • Benefit sharing through payment for environmental services
  • Progressive tenure reforms to ensure that returns to REDD+ go to the rural poor rather than wealthy investors
  • Adaptation programs in areas vulnerable to sea level rise and other climate change impacts
  • Setting and enforcement of environmental legislation to control agricultural practices with environmental externalities for surrounding farms

Current critique and debate:

Debate over the continued settlement, resource extraction and farming in protected areas continues to pit different civil society groups against one another, depending on their orientation toward livelihoods or more "dark green" objectives.  Governments continue to employ protected area demarcation as means of territorial control, while often allowing large scale commercial activity within such areas.  Critiques of payment for environmental services are in part based on the institutional and property rights challenges in implementing them, and in part on their neo-liberal basis that marketises "nature" and other values that have previously been off-limits to commercial reasoning.  The near-universal under-regulation and under-enforcement of environmentally damaging practices by industrial agriculture in the Mekong Region receives media attention but little government attention to date.

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